WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden’s third eldest son, an al Qaeda operative, is no longer under arrest in Iran and is likely in Pakistan, the top U.S. spymaster said Friday.
The release or escape of Mr. bin Laden’s son, Saad bin Laden, suggests possible collaboration between Iran and al Qaeda and the potential that Saad bin Laden is a go-between. Al Qaeda has been regrouping in Pakistan after the U.S. forced the group out of its base in Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding there.
Saad bin Laden “has left Iran,” said Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell at a farewell press briefing. “He’s probably in Pakistan.”
He suggested that Saad bin Laden’s likely new location would make it easier for the United States to catch him because U.S. intelligence officials have better relations with Pakistani leaders. Postings on a jihadi Web site have also suggested Saad bin Laden has returned to Pakistan.
Also Friday, the Treasury Department froze the assets of four key al Qaeda operatives, including Saad bin Laden. The younger bin Laden fled to Iran after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and is believed to be rising through al Qaeda’s ranks.
The Treasury Department also prohibited Americans from having financial transactions with the men.
Saad bin Laden reportedly facilitated communications between al Qaeda’s No. 2 official and the Iranian extremist Quds Force after al Qaeda’s attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen last year. He was part of a small collection of al Qaeda operatives who helped manage the terrorist organization from Iran, where he was arrested in 2003, according to the Treasury Department.
Earlier alleged activities include a prominent role in a 2002 suicide bombing of a Tunisian synagogue and facilitating travel for bin Laden family members from Afghanistan to Iran.
Some terrorism experts believe that in its formative years, al Qaeda received training from the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah in truck bombing and other techniques. They believe al Qaeda and Hezbollah have maintained a loose alliance based on their shared enmity to the U.S. and Israel.
The other three men targeted by Treasury are Mustafa Hamid, whom Treasury says is a key intermediary between al Qaeda and the Iranian government; Muhammad Raba al-Sayid al-Bahtiyti, an Egyptian thought to be a trusted aide to al Qaeda’s second in command; and Ali Saleh Husain, a logistics operative for al Qaeda.
“It is important that Iran give a public accounting of how it is meeting its international obligations to constrain al Qaeda,” said Stuart Levey, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
Mr. McConnell, who will leave his post after President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee, Dennis Blair, is confirmed, said his greatest worry is that Iran will obtain nuclear weapons. “What’s going to be the response of their neighbors?” he said, suggesting that it could prompt a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Iran is also developing long-range ballistic missiles that could reach as far as Europe. Mr. McConnell said Iran’s long-range missiles have “minimal capability” today and are on track, if successful, to reach full capability in two or three years.
Separately, Mr. McConnell said he plans to sign a new information-sharing policy in the coming days that should give intelligence analysts far greater access to data held by the 16 intelligence agencies under his department’s purview.