A close associate of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was flown to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday after surrendering at the Saudi Embassy in Iran, a Saudi Interior Ministry official said.
“He was a big fish,” one Saudi official said of Khaled al-Harbi, who was believed to have been living near the Afghan-Iranian border.
The Saudi government offered leniency to al Qaeda suspects who turn themselves in during a one-month period.
The June 23 offer would exempt them from the death penalty in Saudi Arabia but not from lawsuits by their victims’ families.
One Saudi security official said al-Harbi’s status is “a tricky situation” because technically he is not eligible for the offer.
It was made to suspects in attacks inside Saudi Arabia, the official said, and does not apply to those wanted for attacks in other countries.
Al-Harbi has never been charged with any attacks inside Saudi Arabia, he said.
The official said it is unlikely al-Harbi would be allowed to go free.
After arriving in Saudi Arabia, al-Harbi made a statement broadcast on Saudi TV.
“I called the embassy, and we felt that we were welcomed, they were among family. Thank God for this blessing,” he said.
“I came because I abide by the word of God and that of the caretaker of the holy sites. This initiative from the caretaker of the holy sites and the king is an opportunity. And our country is the country of Islam.
“Undoubtedly, it is an opportunity any logical man would thank God — every logical man should take advantage of this opportunity.”
Video aired Tuesday by the Arabic television network Al-Arabiya showed al-Harbi being carried from a plane and placed in a wheelchair.
Al-Harbi is believed to have fought with bin Laden against Russian forces in Afghanistan about 20 years ago. Saudi officials said they believe al-Harbi returned to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, joining up with al Qaeda.
In late 2001, he was identified on a videotape conversing with bin Laden about the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“Hundreds of people used to doubt you and few only would follow you until this huge event happened,” al-Harbi tells bin Laden on the videotape. “Now hundreds of people are coming out to join you.”
On the tape, bin Laden implies responsibility for the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center. “We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors,” he said. “I was the most optimistic of them all. … Due to my experience in this field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only. This is all that we had hoped for.”