The Saudis have just experienced two miracles.
First, Saudi general intelligence chief Prince Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, described last month by doctors at King Faisal Hospital, Riyadh, as being near death, has made an incredible recovery. He was well enough to accompany deputy interior minister Ahmed Nayef bin Abdulaziz, brother of the powerful interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, on a trip to Iran one week before al Qaeda’s assault on the US consulate in Jeddah.
The second miracle was the tidings they received in Tehran: a long overdue Iranian promise to hand over some 20 Saudi members of al Qaeda wanted by Riyadh for complicity in attacks in the kingdom in the last two years. Vague promises have been made before, but never kept. This time, Iranian president Mohammed Khatami, anxious to show the Islamic Republic was in earnest, put the pledge in writing. This step is extreme given that Iran has never officially admitted holding al Qaeda operatives in detention. And indeed, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources, the first “deportees” reached Saudi Arabia secretly this week.
Saudi Arabia is not alone in being so favored.
The first members of al Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad have been extradited to Cairo – among them, in the last ten days, Moustafa Hamaz, leader of the radical al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, who has three death sentences hanging over his head passed by Egyptian courts since 1992.
Charges against him include training al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and dispatching them to Egypt for terrorist attacks, plotting and participating in murders of Egyptian politicians,and the 1995 attempted assassination of president Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa.
Since mid-2003, Hamaz, 48, had been under house arrest in Tehran. Egypt and Iran have not publicized his extradition. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources have learned the handover was carefully synchronized – not just two ways but three: another of the conspirators to slay Mubarak was turned over by Syria. He is Rifai Taha, the Gamaa al-Islamiyya ringleader of the assassination attempt.
Tehran and Damascus appear to have acted in conjunction on the two handovers.
Shortly after Taha’s delivery to Egypt, the Cairo authorities allowed his wife and children to return home from the Syrian capital. She was also surprisingly permitted to visit him in prison; their sons and daughters to enroll at Cairo universities.
Recantations as counter-terror weapon
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, Egyptian intelligence minister Omar Suleiman ordered Taha to be handled with kid glove in the hope of persuading him to recant some of the seditious sentiments he voiced in his book, “Removing the Veil Covering the Face of Idolatrous Muslim Leaders”. In this work, Taha justifies Islamic fundamentalist terror operations, such as the 1997 attacks on tourist buses in Luxor and bank robberies executed to bankroll such operations. Suleiman sent Taha a message offering him, in return for a letter disavowing these views, to arrange for his three death sentences to be commuted to life imprisonment and a possible presidential pardon.
A Taha disavowal would be one in the eye for al Qaeda. Our counter-terrorism experts rank him as second only to Osama bin Laden in the al Qaeda hierarchy and the equal of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor widely seen in the West as the organization’s Number 2.
Suleiman’s people are conducting similar negotiations with another secret detainee, Zawahiri’s brother, Mohammed Zawahiri, an engineer recently handed over by Abu Dhabi where he was captured. Suleiman believes written recantations by these two leading fundamentalist lights would be a leap forward in the war against terrorism.
Alongside the two miracles stands the unsolved Iranian mystery of why, all of a sudden, Tehran decided to extradite high-value al Qaeda operatives to Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the first place. Opinion among counter-terrorism experts is divided. Some hold that Iran’s hardliners sought to relieve some of the international pressure bearing on them over their nuclear program by improving their score with Arab governments. Another view is that the deportees had been cut off for too long from al Qaeda sources to be abreast of its plans, operations and revamped structure. On the other hand, Tehran may have calculated coolly that turning them over would no longer affect the continuation of Islamic terror. Al Qaeda has moved on.