By Bill Gertz
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
U.S. intelligence agencies say Osama bin Laden’s oldest son, Sad, is in Iran along with other senior al Qaeda terrorists, as Iranian military forces have been placed on their highest state of alert in anticipation of a U.S. attack on Iraq, according to intelligence officials.
Sad bin Laden was spotted in Iran last month, according to officials familiar with intelligence reports. Sad is believed to be a key leader of the al Qaeda terrorist network since U.S. and allied forces ousted the ruling Taliban militia in Afghanistan.
Officials said it is not clear what relationship Sad has with the Tehran government, which on Thursday denied congressional testimony by CIA Director George J. Tenet that al Qaeda terrorists are in Iran.
The new reports are the first time senior al Qaeda terrorists have been identified in Iran. Earlier reports have indicated other al Qaeda fighters have been granted refuge in Iran from neighboring Afghanistan.
The intelligence on bin Laden’s son comes as the Bush administration has released intelligence indicating Iraq is working with al Qaeda terrorists, including a senior associate of Osama bin Laden who has been in Baghdad since May.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment when asked about the intelligence reports about Sad’s whereabouts.
London’s Arabic-language newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat, quoting a diplomatic source, reported from Rome on Thursday that Sad was seen in Iran. The newspaper said it is not clear whether other senior al Qaeda are in Iran.
U.S. officials confirmed that Sad is among the senior al Qaeda believed to be in Iran after the newspaper report appeared.
Sad, 23, is the oldest of Osama bin Laden’s 27 children from several wives. He lived with his father in Sudan and Afghanistan, and fled Afghanistan in December 2001.
Meanwhile, Iranian military forces are on heightened alert and Tehran leaders fear U.S. military forces will use operations against Iraq as a steppingstone for invading Iran.
The Iranian military activities appear similar to Iran’s response to the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when Iranian military forces built up in large numbers along the border with Iraq.
So far, the Iranian forces have not massed near the Iraqi border, but are expected to do so if U.S. military operations against Iraq occur.
Mr. Tenet said at a Senate hearing Tuesday that “we see disturbing signs that al Qaeda has established a presence in both Iran and Iraq.”
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said yesterday that Mr. Tenet’s claim was “baseless,” state-run Tehran radio reported. “The seriousness of Iran’s fight against terrorism, and its expelling those suspected of links to al Qaeda, has always been clear, sincere and transparent,” he said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also said in a Senate hearing in September that the Iranian government is “currently harboring reasonably large numbers of al Qaeda,” while keeping the support for the terrorist group from its people.
“The al Qaeda are functioning in that country, both transiting and located, and operating,” Mr. Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Iran’s government has denied repeatedly it has any links to al Qaeda. The chief of Iran’s armed forces, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Salimi, said in Tehran on Monday that the Iranian army is “on full alert,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
Gen. Salimi said the armed forces are “on guard against any aggressive move by enemies that would threaten the territorial integrity of Islamic Iran.”
Bush administration officials met privately last month in Europe with Iranian officials to discuss Iraq and seek Tehran’s help in supporting Sunni Muslims in a post-Saddam Iraq. The meeting was first reported by The Washington Post Feb. 8.
Officials said the initiative was put forth by Richard Haas, the State Department’s director of policy planning. Intelligence officials said Iran’s support for terrorists, including al Qaeda, in the past was carried out by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Qods Force.
The Defense Intelligence Agency in 2000 uncovered information linking al Qaeda to Iran’s government.
Intelligence from Malaysia showed that two of the September 11 hijackers, Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, attended a key meeting of al Qaeda terrorists in Malaysia that year. The two men were the suicide hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77 that hit the Pentagon.
The 2000 intelligence showed they stayed at the Kuala Lumpur residence of Iran’s ambassador to Malaysia.The disclosure about the Iran-al Qaeda ties comes as the United States released intelligence indicating links between Baghdad and al Qaeda, and the release of an audiotape purportedly from Osama bin Laden calling on Muslims to defend Iraq.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the United Nations last week that Baghdad was harboring a network of more than two dozen al Qaeda terrorists headed by Abu Musaab Zarqawi.
The White House said that Tuesday’s audiotape broadcast of Osama bin Laden, who called on al Qaeda to defend Iraq, shows Baghdad’s link to the group.
“If that is not an unholy partnership, I’ve not heard of one,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. “This is the nightmare that people have warned about, the linking up of Iraq with al Qaeda.” Iran’s connection to al Qaeda was identified by Italian government authorities in October.
A Tunisian national, Nassim Saadi, was among six suspected al Qaeda terrorists who were arrested at that time and he had been found to have flown from Milan, Italy, to Tehran in January 2002.
Iran also backed Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who recently returned to Afghanistan from Iran and has joined forces with the remnants of the ousted Taliban militia and al Qaeda in opposing the government of Hamid Karzai and U.S. troops.