ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s intelligence community believes that the operational base of al Qaeda has shifted to Iran from Pakistan after the arrest of the network’s military operations chief, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
Mohammed was arrested by Pakistan’s powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in Rawalpindi on Feb. 28.
Pakistani intelligence officials said they since received cogent information that several key al Qaeda fugitives who were hiding in Pakistan had moved to Iran.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said in an interview during his Washington trip late last month that some al Qaeda operatives “certainly” had relocated to Iran in the wake of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, although he could not say for certain who the fugitives were.
“Al Qaeda is on the run, and they are transiting to all the neighboring countries,” Gen. Musharraf told editors and reporters at a luncheon June 26 at The Washington Times. “Certainly, they are transiting to Iran as well, although we can’t say for sure how senior these people are.”
Saif Al-Adel, an Egyptian national who has been appointed the military chief of al Qaeda after the arrest of Mohammed, is hiding in the Iranian city of Zahedan, which borders with Pakistan, Pakistani intelligence officials say.
Other leaders include Osama bin Laden’s eldest son, Saad bin Laden; Yaaz bin Sifat, a top ranking al Qaeda planner; Abu Mohammad al-Masri; and various former ministers of Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban government.
A former mayor of Kabul during the Taliban regime, Mohammed Islam Haani, was arrested recently by Afghan troops while trying to cross into Iran.
Intelligence officials believe that some 250 al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives are hiding in Iran.
Pakistan’s intelligence agencies recently arrested two officials of the country’s passport agency from the border city of Peshawar on charges of providing fake passports to hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban.
Gen. Musharraf called the passport incident “very disturbing to us,” saying Pakistan was attempting to develop more sophisticated systems to prevent such forgeries.
He said an internal investigation found that the officials involved were motivated by money, not by sympathy for al Qaeda or the Taliban.
“There was nothing here tied to the support of extremism. There was no attachment or link to al Qaeda,” he said. “From what we have uncovered, it was a case of simple corruption.”
During initial investigations, the passport officials confessed to helping many al Qaeda and Taliban leaders flee Pakistan. Intelligence officials believe that the majority of those fugitives are hiding in Iran.
“We have received concrete information that Saif Al-Adel and some other al Qaeda leaders have trickled into Iran during the last few months following an intense operation against the network in Pakistan,” one intelligence officer said on the condition of anonymity.
The officer refused to comment on whether the al Qaeda fugitives were hiding under Iranian state protection.
“I cannot say anything with authenticity in this connection,” the official said. “We only know that several al Qaeda leaders have trickled into Iran on fake documents or without documents as no other country is able to bear the American pressure except Iran.”
After a detailed investigation from passport officials, he said, it would be clear which al Qaeda operatives had crossed the Iranian border and how they did it.
Other intelligence sources said that Al-Adel had crossed the Iranian border via the Pakistani town of Taftan.
Taftan is situated some 325 miles off Pakistan’s southeastern city of Quetta. Until the arrest of Mohammed, Al-Adel had been in Pakistan’s tribal belt, near Quetta, where he was busy recruiting fighters.
Intelligence officials believe the departure of Al-Adel and others is partly a result of Pakistan’s massive hunt for them in a remote area of Baluchistan province, which abuts both Afghanistan and Iran.
Another key suspect, Yaaz bin Sifat, who is wanted in connection with the September 11 attacks, has fled to Iran from Pakistan, intelligence officials say.
Intelligence officials have received reports that other fugitives in Pakistan also will attempt to flee to Iran.