Mystery Surrounds Iran's al-Qaeda Captives
August 23, 2003
The Financial Times
Iranian officials describe them as "big fish". Western governments think they are of "high intelligence value". But the case of the senior al-Qaeda members detained in Iran - even how many they number - has been shrouded in mystery.
The US has been pressing for access to the captured operatives. But Tehran has been in no rush to deliver or to reveal details about the detainees.
The controversy erupted in May after suicide bombings of westerners' residential compounds in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. A telephone conversation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, intercepted by western intelligence, suggested that Seif al-Adel, said to be al-Qaeda's chief military planner, was in Iran.
Tehran eventually responded to renewed US pressure by saying that it had arrested 500 suspected al-Qaeda members by March and sent most of them back to their respective countries, as it had done in the past.
Since then, however, western speculation has intensified over the continued detention of top figures from the terrorist organisation. Names that have been mentioned in the region include: one of Osama bin Laden's sons; Egyptian-born Ayman Zawahiri, the second in command; Suleiman Abu Gaith, the Kuwait-born al-Qaeda spokesman; and Abu Musab Zarqawi, a key Jordanian member.
Iranian sources say Saad bin Laden, who is in his early 20s, has been sent to Pakistan and that Mr Zawahiri is too big a fish to keep in Iran. But they hint that those Iran is holding could know the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden himself.
Officials in Tehran say that while US access to the detainees has been ruled out, discussions are under way to send them to their countries of origin. But they also acknowledge resistance from powerful forces in the regime. "Internal decision-making is very difficult on this issue," says one.
Western diplomats in Tehran also say technical hurdles could explain Iranian delays in a few cases. Mr Abu Gaith, for example, has been stripped of his Kuwaiti nationality. But diplomats and analysts think the al-Qaeda file in Iran is closely guarded by hardliners who consider the captured operatives an important bargaining chip - particularly at a time when Iran faces enormous US pressure on several fronts, including its nuclear programme.
Following the ousting of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the US accused Iran of harbouring al-Qaeda terrorists. But Tehran has repeatedly complained that its subsequent co-operation in the war on terror had not been appreciated.
The reformist government of President Mohamed Khatami has signalled that it wants to put the al-Qaeda issue behind it. Last week Mr Khatami pledged that Saudi detainees would be sent back to Riyadh.
It remains unclear, however, whether any of the top captured al-Qaeda members are Saudi. Nor is it clear whether Mr Khatami will overcome resistance from the powerful hardliners. "There are people who say that because [the detainees] are Islamist we should at least not hurt them," says an official.
Fundamentalist Shia Iran and the Sunni radicals of the Taliban who harboured al-Qaeda had long been bitter enemies. Tehran celebrated the ousting of the militias from Afghanistan.
But some of the Islamist groups that joined al-Qaeda in the 1990s had past relations with Iran, which had been a magnet and source of support for Islamist opposition in the Middle East.
A key Iranian concern, say diplomats, is that US access to detainees if ever delivered to Arab countries may reveal how the al-Qaeda operatives entered Iran and who might have facilitated their arrival.
"A most sensitive issue for Iran is what happens when it hands them over," says a western diplomat.
Some analysts say the controversy has been further complicated by reports of recent al-Qaeda threats against Iran. "In the past we tried to hand people over to respective countries and it is still our policy, but al-Qaeda threats should be taken into account," says one insider.
"Iran will keep them as a lever. It is waiting to see positive steps from the US."
This week Tehran welcomed a US decision to close the Washington offices of the political wing of Mujahedeen Khalq, the Iranian opposition group listed by Washington as a terrorist organisation.
Iran is said to want more action on the Iranian dissidents in neighbouring Iraq and is hoping for a more general easing of US pressure on the regime.
But diplomats warn that Iran is playing a dangerous game. The longer it takes Tehran to deliver the suspects anywhere outside Iran, the more it will antagonise the Bush administration, now battling a rising tide of violence in Iraq. The value of the intelligence the operatives might reveal, meanwhile, diminishes with time.
Most perilous for Iran is that it could pay a heavy price if any of the detainees are suspected of having helped plan new terrorist attacks. "There seems to be this idea of having an ace to use vis-à-vis the US. But it's a bizarre logic. It leads to more US pressure," says a diplomat. http://news.ft.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=FT.com/StoryFT/FullStory&c=StoryFT&cid=1059479260149&p=1012571727172