Sunday, June 26, 2005

MSNBC: Al-Qaida finds safe haven in Iran

A Daily Briefing on Iran:

"Somewhere north of Tehran, living perhaps in villas near the town of Chalous on the Caspian Sea coast, are between 20 and 25 of al-Qaida’s former leaders, along with two of Osama bin Laden’s sons.

Men such as Saif al-Adel, the former military commander of al-Qaida, and Suleiman Abu Ghaith, the bespectacled bin Laden spokesman, are not in hiding but rather in the care — or custody — of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

“They are under virtual house arrest,” not able to do much of anything, said one senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

How they got there and what will happen to them is one of the more intriguing stories of the war on terror, one that is filled with secret movements, stolen communications and a failed attempt at a prisoner exchange involving Iranian dissidents.

“We believe that they're holding members of al-Qaida's management council,” Fran Townsend, President Bush’s counterterrorism czar, said of Iran.

In an interview with Tom Brokaw two weeks ago, she added: “And we have encouraged and suggested that they ought to try them, they ought to admit freely that they're there — which they have not done — that they're holding them. Or they ought to return them to their countries of origin, which they've also been unwilling to do.”

As a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official told NBC News: “The U.S. government believed that the Saudis made a deal with the Iranians in 1996 after the Khobar Towers bombing. The deal was structured this way: The Saudis would not cooperate with the U.S. on the investigation, knowing that if they did cooperate, the U.S. would have the justification for bombing Iran.”

In return, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Iranians agreed not to support any terrorist attacks in the kingdom. (Ultimately, the United States charged Saudi Hezbollah members with the Khobar Towers attack and named as unindicted co-conspirators two officers of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence.)

“Then, in 2003, we are told, the Saudis — with U.S. and British help — discovered that al-Qaida's management council in Iran was communicating with the al-Qaida cell in Saudi that had carried out the attacks on Western compounds in Riyadh," the official said.

House arrest
“The Saudis let the Iranians know and, citing the earlier agreement, demanded that the Iranians put a halt to the operations of the management council, leading to the Iranians putting the 20 to 25 al-Qaida officials in Iran under virtual house arrest,” the official said.

And that’s just what happened, say current U.S. officials. According to reports in the Arab media, they were rounded up and taken to two locations guarded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards: one in villas in the Namak Abrud region, near the town of Chalous on the Caspian coast, 60 miles north of Tehran, and the other in Lavizan, a region northwest of the capital that also houses a large military complex.

Publicly, all CIA Director Porter Goss will say is that Iran has “detained” al-Qaida elements.

In fact, he said, Iran first proposed the exchange of al-Qaida operatives for leaders of the group Mujahedeen E. Khalk who are under U.S. control in Iraq. The MEK has been on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations since 1998, when the Clinton administration was trying to open up lines of communications with Iran. The State Department blames the group for the killings of five Americans in the run-up to the Iranian revolution in 1979 and various murders and attacks on Iranian diplomats and civilians both inside and outside Iran.

In addition, Saddam Hussein had financed, trained and armed the MEK, even building the group a 5,000-man training facility in Fallujah (now being used by the U.S. Marines) and used them in the Iran-Iraq War and in cross-border attacks after the war.

“The exchange was never formally proposed, but several general offers were made through third parties, not all of them diplomatic,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“One reason nothing came of it was because we knew that there were parts of the U.S. government who didn't want to give them the MEK because they had other plans for them … like overthrowing the Iranian government.”

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