Istanbul, Turkey – Seven members of Osama bin Laden’s immediate family have been under house arrest in Iran and living in a high security compound outside Tehran since 2001, news outlets reported on Wednesday.
The group includes six children of the Al Qaeda leader and one of his wives, all of whom reportedly fled Afghanistan and walked to the Iran border just prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, according to The Times in London.
One 17-year-old daughter, Iman, escaped from from the Tehran compound and has been holed up in the Saudi Arabia Embassy for 25 days, according to the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.
The asylum request – and public revelations about the continuing Bin Laden family presence in Iran – are sure to complicate relations between the two traditional rivals for power in the Middle East: Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
During his first term, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went on a charm offensive to woo Saudi and other Arab leaders. But Iran’s rising influence and that of its “Axis of Resistance” – with Hezbullah, Hamas, and Syria – raised concern in Riyadh and other Arab capitals.
The disputed June election was final proof for many in the Arab world that Iran’s regional power was on the wane again. For Saudi Arabia, evidence of that came just last week when it was able to precipitate an unlikely meeting between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Iran ally, and Lebanon’s pro-West Prime Minister Saad Hariri – who for five years has accused Syria of killing his father.
US turned down Iranian offer for Al Qaeda operativesOne of Bin Laden’s oldest sons, Saad, was known for years to be among some 35 Al Qaeda operatives that fled to Iran after the US toppling of the Taliban government and expulsion of Al Qaeda from Afghanistan in late 2001.
The government of President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) eventually offered to indirectly exchange those Al Qaeda figures with the US, if Washington would rein in, or hand over, leaders of the anti-Iran Mujahideen-e Khalq. Known as the MEK or MKO, the anti-Iran group considered a terrorist group by the US State Department was based in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s wing. But the members there fell under the jurisdiction of American forces after a US-led coalition toppled the Hussein regime in 2003.
Iran’s offer was rejected, according to reports at the time, because the Pentagon wanted to keep hold of the MEK as a possible force to be used against Iran in any Washington-orchestrated bid for regime change.
Bin Ladens’ presence off the radarStill, it was never made public that so many Bin Laden family members were in Iran. The Washington Post reported in October 2003 that Saad bin Laden had “emerged in recent months as part of the upper echelon of the Al Qaeda network … that is managing the terrorist organization from Iran,” quoting US, European and Arab officials.
The story held that Saad bin Laden was “protected by an elite, radical Iranian security force loyal to the nation’s clerics and beyond the control of the central government” – the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guard.
Reports emerged earlier this year that Iran had quietly released Saad bin Laden in late 2008, and let him go to Afghanistan.Then it was reported in July that he had been killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan.
But the presence of so many Bin Laden relatives in Iran was a surprise. The Times of London has reported that 11 Bin Laden grandchildren also lived on the compound.
“Until a month ago, we did not know where the siblings were,” Omar bin Laden, the fourth son who lives in Qatar, told Asharq al-Awsat. “The Iranian government did not know what to do with this large group of people whom nobody else wanted, so they just kept them safe…. For that we owe them much gratitude.”