Where is Osama Bin Laden? Conventional wisdom holds that the world’s most-wanted terrorist is hiding in Pakistan. While this may be true, several eyewitness reports and unverified intelligence point to a different location: the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite its Shiite radicalism, Iran has harbored the Sunni Bin Laden in the past and may even harbor him today.
The idea that Bin Laden could have taken refuge in Iran is controversial, but al-Qaeda’s presence inside the country is well-documented. On January 16, the Treasury Department placed sanctions on several high-level al-Qaeda operatives in Iran. The Department indictment clearly states that some of these operatives helped bring members of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s and Bin Laden’s families to Iran. Bin Laden’s oldest son, for example, was in Iran until September 2008 when he left for Pakistan. If the family of Bin Laden feels safe on Iranian soil, then there is the possibility that Bin Laden himself would also turn to Afghanistan’s western neighbor as a hideout. If the intelligence sources of John Loftus are correct, this is precisely the case, with Bin Laden spending four to six months per year in Iran.
Two former Iranian intelligence officers provided the first eyewitness report of Bin Laden in Iran available to the public when they were interviewed by Richard Miniter for his 2004 book, Shadow War. The one officer even gave his name, Malak Reza, and the other went by the name of “Choopan,” who claimed he was responsible for coordinating Ayatollah Khamenei’s personal intelligence office. Miniter believes they are credible, as they provided the names of two covert Iranian operatives in Europe that had never been publicly identified, and “Choopan” showed photos of him with Iranian-backed terrorists in the 1980s. Miniter also reported on Pentagon documents confirming that Choopan’s intelligence was used to stop an attack on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Neither officer asked for money in return for their information.
Bin Laden left Afghanistan in December, a fact that is now commonly accepted. From that point, however, Bin Laden’s travel becomes unclear. According to the Iranians, Bin Laden then went to Pakistani Kashmir in January 2002, a claim supported by a Telegraph report from February 23, 2002 that British special forces had begun hunting for him there after Indian intelligence told the CIA that Bin Laden was in the Himalayan Mountains in Kashmir under the protection of the Harkat-ul-Mujhaideen terrorist group.
According to this account, by June of 2002 Bin Laden had traveled again and was in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan and Iran. Mullah Omar, the former head of the Taliban, has been accused by Afghanistan of hiding in Quetta, the capital of this mostly lawless region, a claim substantiated by a captured Taliban spokesperson. This location seems likely, as many members of al-Qaeda have an ethnic Baluch background.
In July 2002, the Pakistani military launched an offensive into the tribal areas where the remnants of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their allies had taken refuge. Afraid of being cornered, Bin Laden dispatched a messenger to Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, with an audio tape requesting safe harbor and funding. In return, Bin Laden offered to allow his networks to be used by the Iranian regime and even promised to tell his followers to follow Khamenei in the event of his demise.
If the story is indeed true, the audiotape seems to have worked. Bin Laden’s four wives and his oldest son, Saad, went to Iran, followed by Bin Laden himself, who crossed on July 26, 2002, near Zabol, a city that sits on the border between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bin Laden then traveled north to Mashhad, a location originally identified a transit point for al-Qaeda members traveling via Iran as far back as October 2001, which is still reportedly being used today. After arriving, Bin Laden went west, where he was shuffled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards between Qazvin and Karaj. The Iranian intelligence officers said that Bin Laden traveled with Ayman al-Zawahiri, who required medical treatment from wounds. Their stay in Iran was not permanent, as they were permitted to cross into Afghanistan through Zabol, their original path of arrival.
This shocking claim that Bin Laden went to Iran in the summer of 2002 is corroborated by Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s top journalists, and the only man to interview Bin Laden after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Mir is currently writing a biography of Bin Laden using his vast contacts among al-Qaeda, Taliban and other terrorist operatives. Mir has said that in July 2002, members of al-Qaeda approached him offering to arrange another interview with Bin Laden. “They said that if you are ready to go to Iran without [a] passport we can arrange your meeting,” Mir says.
Bin Laden’s personal chef, Haji Mohamad Akram, has likewise claimed, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, that Bin Laden was offered safe haven by Iran. Akram believes that Bin Laden went to Iran after finding refuge in Iran because other al-Qaeda leaders he spoke to said that was where they were headed. According to the Monitor, the “detailed picture he offers of bin Laden’s last days in Tora Bora, and his possible escape to Iran, correspond with accounts from previous Monitor interviews with other bin Laden associates.” Michael Ledeen in his book The Iranian Time Bomb says that in December 2001, he was told “by usually well-informed Iranians that Bin Laden would go to Iran and “˜be disappeared,’” ending his frequent public appearances.
In 2003, another Iranian source began providing information on Bin Laden’s location in Iran that substantiates the timeline provided by the two Iranian intelligence officers and the other sources. Congressman Curt Weldon, then-vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and House Homeland Security Committee, had been receiving intelligence from “Ali,” an Iranian exile who was a former minister in the government of the Shah and had contacts deep inside Iran. This information provided advance warning of Iranian operations and even of terrorist attacks that ultimately proved accurate.
According to “Ali,” in 2003 Bin Laden and Zawahiri were in a “five-building settlement, a few miles from Ladiz in Baluchistan” in Iran, 80 kilometers southeast of Zahedan, where he was receiving medical treatment. It should be noted that on January 16, 2009, the Treasury Department blacklisted an al-Qaeda operative who they claim ran a network in Zahedan. On March 21, “Ali” received information that the two had moved from Ladiz to Kerman to Saltanabad, a northern suburb of Tehran. Ali also said that Iran agreed to harbor Bin Laden in return for his assistance in “on-going projects.”
In May 2003, Ali informed Weldon that Ayatollah Khamenei had again met with Bin Laden and that they were discussing moving Bin Laden out of Tehran. On August 25, 2003, Ali confirmed to Weldon that Bin Laden had left Tehran but he did not know where he currently was. Then, on September 4, 2003, Ali said there was a 50 percent chance that Bin Laden had left Iran. This constant moving around in Iran and Afghanistan is similar to the description of Bin Laden’s travel provided by the two officers who talked to Miniter.
In June 2003, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty supplied additional evidence for Bin Laden being in Iran at this precise time. “A confidential Italian intelligence report submitted in early June asserts the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was in Iran in May, Milan’s Corriere della Serra reported on June. In early May, bin Laden and seven Arab extremists met in Tehran to plan attacks in Italy, Pakistan, and Turkey,” RFE/RL reported.
The two Iranian intelligence officers told Miniter that on October 23, 2003, they personally saw Bin Laden, which Miniter described as “the first recent eyewitness account of Bin Laden ever reported” when his book was published in 2004. The two officers were in Najmabad, less than an hour from Tehran. The two officers provided a detailed description of the briefing room where they were with officers from the Revolutionary Guards. Suddenly, an officer entered and ordered the occupants on the room to leave to make room for “foreign visitors.” The two officers looked outside and claimed that they saw Osama Bin Laden, Zawahiri, their bodyguards and other al-Qaeda operatives step out of a three-car convoy. They reported that Bin Laden had trimmed his beard and was wearing a black turban to look like an Iranian cleric. If true, this may explain why Bin Laden has decided to stick to releasing audiotapes instead of videotapes.
On December 23, 2003, WorldNetDaily.com reported that a “respected Islamic leader,” who wished to remain anonymous, said that Bin Laden was in Iran. The leader said that “a group of Arabs who recently spent time in the desert area shared by Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, are claiming the most wanted man in the world is “˜definitely in Iran.’”
On May 3, 2004, Ali told Weldon that “the last information we have about Bin Laden is that four months ago [January 2004] he was in a villa near Karadj. We don’t know where he has moved.” According to Kenneth Timmerman’s 2005 book, Countdown to Crisis, Ali sent Weldon information on Bin Laden’s location in June 2004 so specific that he even planned to travel alongside a former CIA contractor into Iran to get him until CIA Director Tenet told him not to upon learning of Weldon’s plan.
In late 2004, Zawahiri, again dressed like an Iranian cleric, held meetings with Iranian government officials including a top aide to Ayatollah Khamenei and two Revolutionary Guards generals. Citing “sources with direct knowledge of these meetings,” Timmerman writes that Bin Laden arrived during the second day, again dressed like an Iranian cleric and with an IV inserted into his hand, looking “frail and old.” The meeting concluded with plans for Bin Laden to meet with former President Rafsanjani in the spring of 2005.
The last pieces of information publicly available about Bin Laden’s possible presence in Iran came in 2006. Michael Ledeen, well-known friend of the Iranian democracy movement, wrote in National Review Online on January 9, “according to Iranians I trust, Osama bin Laden finally departed this world in mid-December. The al Qaeda leader died of kidney failure and was buried in Iran, where he had spent most of his time since the destruction of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Iranians who reported this note that this year’s message in conjunction with the Muslim Haj came from his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for the first time.” Two months later, Rep. Weldon said that “Ali” told him that Bin Laden had died in Iran, indicating this may have been a case of circular reporting. When Bin Laden released audiotapes soon after this claim, Rep. Weldon admitted that Ali may have been deliberately misled.
This error, though, should not discredit all of Ali’s past information, especially considering the corroboration described here and the accuracy of his past reports. The fact that none of the timeframes for Bin Laden’s location in the above information is contradictory, despite being from various sources, lends credence to these reports.
However, the U.S. intelligence community seems certain that Bin Laden is in Pakistan, and they have reasons for believing so. There is no recent public confirmation of Bin Laden’s presence in Iran. In addition, scientists from the UCLA recently made headlines when they finished a groundbreaking study, billed as “the first scientific approach to establishing his [Bin Laden] current location,” which concluded that Bin Laden was in one of three walled compounds in Parachinar, the capital of Pakistan’s Kurram Agency in the lawless tribal areas. They have good reason to believe he is there today, and indeed he may be. Gary Berntsen, the commander of the CIA unit hunting Bin Laden in Afghanistan after 9/11, says that on December 16, 2001, Bin Laden is believed to have fled to this location. It is quite possible that they are right, and Bin Laden has moved out of Iran to this area or that he frequently moves between Iran and Pakistan.
“We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority,” President Obama said during his presidential debate with Senator John McCain on October 7, 2009. Whether Bin Laden is in Iran, or Parachinar, or some other area of Pakistan, the Obama Administration must follow every lead to locate him.