(CNSNews.com) – Unless Iran hands over the al Qaeda members it claims to have in custody, the options open to the United States to bring the men to trial for complicity in the 9/11 attacks are severely limited, analysts said Tuesday. The Tehran government said it is holding a “large number of small- and big-time” al Qaeda members but refused to identify them. However, intelligence sources and press reports indicate those in custody include none other than Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man; and Saad bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s son.
If true, these arrests, along with the capture of other top members, would deal a major blow to the terrorist network, analysts said.
U.S. officials declined to comment on the reports. “We’ve been aware for some time that al Qaeda members have been in Iran. However, their exact status is unclear,” an official told CNSNews.com.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher acknowledged last week, however, the United States has known for some time that senior members of al Qaeda were operating from Iran.
The United States has made clear that the Iranians – if they are holding rather than harboring the captives – should deport them to where “they’re wanted for crimes,” Boucher said.
Analysts noted that the United States’ options to get custody of the terrorists are limited, primarily because Washington doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Tehran.
Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies with the Cato Institute, said if the Iranians have terrorists in custody, it would behoove them to hand them over. Otherwise, they’re almost begging the United States to do something about it, he said.
“Unless the Iranians invite us in, roll out the red carpet and say, ‘come view our prisoners,’ it seems to me the only option would be to use Special Forces in some sort of forced entry to apprehend al-Zawahiri or whoever we think the Iranians have.
“Given everything that’s happening in Iraq, I don’t know that we have the ability to mount an operation like that and sustain the fallout that would result from it,” Pena said.
David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the British American Security Information Council in Washington, said the level of distrust between both governments is making cooperation virtually impossible.
“My sense is there probably have been some back channels between Iran’s people and the defense or intelligence [community] here in the United States, and they probably gave up in disgust,” he said.
US should not take no for an answer
In addition to al-Zawahiri and Saad bin Laden, Iran also is believed to be holding Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the al Qaeda spokesman; and Saif al-Adel, the latest al Qaeda No. 3 who is believed to be in charge of military operations.
Saad bin Laden is believed to be a rising star in al Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who served a three-year prison sentence for his part in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, has been Osama bin Laden’s No. 2 for several years and his personal physician.
Patrick Garrett, an analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, called al-Zawahiri “a huge philosophical center within al Qaeda, directing the war on terrorism.”
Al-Zawahiri’s capture “might not be an operational coup in that he might not know exactly what’s going on, but it would certainly be a morale crusher for al Qaeda,” Garrett said.
Since 9/11, the United States and its allies have detained 3,000 al Qaeda members, including many leadership figures. Despite setbacks, the terror group has demonstrated the ability to reconstitute and continue to wage attacks. In May, al Qaeda coordinated strikes in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, where a total of 79 people were killed, including eight Americans.
By handing over some of bin Laden’s closest associates, Tehran is in a position to blunt some of the Bush administration’s criticism of Iran’s nuclear facilities and its support of Palestinian militant groups, analysts said.
Iran is likely keen to cooperate, both to help ease tensions with Washington and because Tehran at least until recently has regarded al Qaeda as an enemy. In 1998, the Iranians were on the verge of going to war against Afghanistan and the Taliban, analysts point out.
The fact that al Qaeda is showing up in Iran could be determined as much by geography as by political and cultural factors, analysts said. Iran shares borders with Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, where U.S. forces are actively hunting the terror group. Iran also is a Muslim country.
“If al Qaeda is within Iran, it may not necessarily be because there are any political connections between the group and the government of Iran, but it may just be that that’s an area that the United States doesn’t have easy access to and would be loath to conduct a Tomahawk cruise missile strike on,” Garrett said.
But the United States should not take no for an answer if it is convinced Tehran has senior al Qaeda members, analysts said.
“I think we have to try to work with the Iranians and convince them that if they’re telling us the truth, these al Qaeda operatives need to be handed over to the United States or some other coalition or friendly country, and that we won’t stand for Iran harboring them, even if they’re harboring them in a jail,” Pena said.