Iran said yesterday it is holding senior al Qaeda terrorists, and the White House told Tehran to turn them over to the United States.
Iranian Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi told reporters in Tehran that senior members of the terrorist group are in custody. He did not identify them by name.
“A large number of small- and big-time elements of al Qaeda are in our custody,” Mr. Yunesi told the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).
Iranian Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mussavi Lari, also quoted by the IRNA, said yesterday that Iran would soon extradite some al Qaeda members to their native countries. Others will be tried in Iran, he said.
The comments by the Iranian government officials about the al Qaeda network followed statements by President Bush on Monday that Iran and Syria are backing terrorists.
“Today, Syria and Iran continue to harbor and assist terrorists,” Mr. Bush said. “This behavior is completely unacceptable, and states that support terror will be held accountable.”
At the White House, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday the statements bolster recent assertions by senior U.S. officials that Iran had become a safe haven for the terrorist group, which has been blamed for the September 11 attacks on America.
Mr. McClellan said he could not confirm the accuracy of the Iranian officials’ statements or what is meant by custody of the al Qaeda terrorists.
“The statements would appear to confirm what we and others believe to be a significant al Qaeda presence in Iran, to include members of its senior leadership,” he said.
“These terrorists, we’ve made very clear, must be brought to justice,” he noted. “We, along with a number of our allies, have called on Iran to turn these terrorists over to the United States or to their countries of origin so that they will face justice for their terrorist activities.”
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters yesterday that the Iranian officials’ comments were significant and an interesting development because the Iranians “have now acknowledged rather publicly the presence and detention of al Qaeda members.”
“And how they dispose of these individuals and what jurisdictions they turn them over to is something that remains to be seen,” Mr. Powell said after meeting Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. “But I think it is an interesting development, that’s how I would characterize it.”
A senior U.S. official said yesterday that the United States has believed for some time that senior al Qaeda terrorists have been hiding in Iran.
The Iranian government has given conflicting and misleading explanations for the terrorists’ presence in that country, the official said on the condition of anonymity.
“Initially they said they didn’t have any,” the official said. “Then they said they didn’t know who they were or they were low-level members. Then they said there might be more senior members.”
The official also said that the statements about the custody of al Qaeda members in Iran could be used to provide protection from arrest by U.S. or other governments that want the terrorists.
A Middle Eastern diplomat said Iran is believed to have between 20 and 40 al Qaeda members who took refuge in the country after fleeing U.S. forces in Afghanistan. A small number of the terrorists are senior leaders in the group.
Iran is expected in the future to turn over some al Qaeda members to Saudi Arabia, the diplomat said on the condition of anonymity.
U.S. intelligence officials said in interviews that Iran is holding a number of top al Qaeda leaders, including Saad bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s oldest son who is believed to be an emerging leader of the group.
Another key al Qaeda operative believed to be in Iran is Saif al-Adil, the network’s military operations leader who has been linked to the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.
U.S. officials said al-Adil has been in Iran since 2002. He is on the FBI’s list of most-wanted international terrorists.
Al Qaeda associate Abu Musab Zarqawi, an explosives expert who ran a terrorist training camp in northern Iraq, also was in Iran within the past several months, U.S. intelligence officials said.
Zarqawi and his Islamic terrorist group are suspected of carrying out the terrorist attack in Jordan last year that killed U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley.
Another senior al Qaeda member in Iran is Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who was the terrorist group’s chief spokesman, the U.S. official said.
Ghaith, a Kuwaiti national, had his citizenship revoked by Kuwait after the September 11 attacks.
Al Qaeda’s No. 2 official, Ayman al-Zawahri, is not believed to be in Iran. Al-Zawahri, an Egyptian terrorist, is believed to be in hiding somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where Osama bin Laden also is believed to be hiding.
Saad bin Laden was reported to be in Iran in January. Saad, 23, is the oldest of bin Laden’s 27 children from several wives. He lived with his father in Sudan and Afghanistan. Saad fled Afghanistan in December 2001.
Intelligence officials said Iran remains a major supporter of international terrorists, including the al Qaeda network.
The Defense Intelligence Agency has information linking Tehran to two of the September 11 hijackers, Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, according to intelligence officials.
Almidhar and Alhazmi stayed at the Kuala Lumpur residence of Iran’s ambassador to Malaysia during a January 2000 meeting of al Qaeda operatives, the officials said.
Both men ended up as suicide hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77 that was flown into the Pentagon.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has stated several times in recent weeks that Iran is harboring senior al Qaeda terrorists.
Mr. Rumsfeld said the Iranians have allowed the terrorists “to operate in their country.”
“And that is something that creates a danger to the world because we know what al Qaeda can do in terms of killing innocent men, women and children,” said Mr. Rumsfeld.
Tehran is also working to subvert U.S. activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to defense officials.
Iranian agents have been supporting opponents of Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, including Islamist Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the officials said.
In Iraq, Iranian agents are working among Iraqi Shi’ite Muslims to oppose U.S. efforts to stabilize the country and set up a democratic government.
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, said Iranian meddling is “not playing a helpful role in Iraq.”
“They are active there. They appear to be working against the interests of the Iraqi people, which is also against our interests.”