A group of high-ranking Egyptian intelligence officers has been kept hanging about in Tehran, victims of the Iranian Islamic Republic regime’s ingrained habit of procrastination on disputed issues. The Egyptian officers, counter-terror experts specializing in al Qaeda and its main operational arm, Egypt’s Jihad Islami, and their mode of operations in the Middle East, the Balkans and Chechnya, were brought to Iran by a hint. The ayatollahs indicated to Cairo, Washington and Riyadh that they are holding key al Qaeda operations officers, whom they refused to name, and whom they might be amenable to extraditing to their own countries, provided, of course, that none reached American hands.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources names the al Qaeda leaders presumed to be in Iran as Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian and one of the organizers of the May 12 triple suicide bombings at compounds housing Westerners in Riyadh. The official death toll of the attacks was 34; the real figure is around 60. Iran is also thought to be holding Suleiman Abou Ghaith, officially termed al Qaeda spokesman who, according to the information in American hands, is in fact the Islamic network’s money manager who distributes the funds for terrorist attacks. The third senior terror operative is Abu Musab Zarqawi, who though regarded as al Qaeda’s bio-chemical warfare expert, is not a full member but more a freelance operator who works for a fee.
Tehran has cunningly circulated leaks and rumors in Persian Gulf Internet sites and media to the effect that Dr. Ayman Zuwahiri, Osama bin Laden’s Number Two and head of the Egyptian Jihad Islami, is also in Iran as well as bin Laden’s son Saad and Muhammad Showqi al-Istambuli, the brother of Khalid al-Istambuli, President Anwar Sadat’s murderer.
Zuwahiri and al-Istambuli were both sentenced to death in absentia for taking part in an attempt to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak in 1995 when he was on his way to an African summit conference in Addis Ababa. Mubarak was saved by a fluke from a barrage of explosives and grenades fired from ambush at his convoy as it drove from the airport to the city.
Considering the information in American hands and the rumors the Iranians have been pumping out, the Egyptian officers kept waiting in Tehran should be able to go home with three high-ranking al Qaeda prisoners in their charge. However, the Iranians are playing hard to get. They claim not to know the exact identities of the terrorists they are holding, accusing their captives of producing different passports each time they are questioned. They argue they must be absolutely sure of the terrorists’ nationalities lest they hand them over to the wrong government.
The Egyptian officers offered to inspect the terrorists to help identify them, but the Iranians stalled. Strongly suspecting they were being toyed with, the Egyptian terrorist-catchers asked Cairo for permission to return home.
For their own reasons, they are not over-eager to take charge of the Egyptian terrorists if they are indeed handed over because they would have to execute them as soon as they arrived home. In the current inflammable climate in Egypt and most parts of the Arab world, Egypt’s security chiefs fear a backlash would follow if prominent Islamic terrorists were put to death. However, the final decision rests with President Mubarak and he told the Egyptian delegation to continue their wait in Tehran.