Tehran Plays Hide and Seek over al Qaeda Fugitives

Since the May 12 al Qaeda triple attacks on Riyadh compounds housing Westerners, Tehran has been leaking teasers about the presence of high-profile Islamic terrorists purportedly in the custody of Iranian authorities. None of these terrorist leaders have ever been shown in public. Each leak raises temperatures in Washington, Riyadh and Cairo. But whenever pressed to hand the terrorists over, the Iranians run for cover behind a curtain of obfuscation.
The latest such leak appeared in the London-based Saudi newspaper Sharq al-Awsat on Wednesday, July 16. The report, typically terse, claimed that a senior al Qaeda operative, Kuwait-born Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, was under arrest in Iran. No details were provided.
According to one unconfirmed source Kuwait refused to accept its former citizen. Officially termed al Qaeda spokesman, Abu Ghaith is rather more important. According to the information in American hands, he is in fact the Islamic network’s money manager who distributes the funds for terrorist attacks.
While dangling the ex-Kuwaiti, the Iranians are much more cagy about the hectic bargaining over two far more substantial groups of al Qaeda terrorists wanted by their governments: Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
debkafile‘s counter-terrorism sources reveal that Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, head of Iran’s judiciary, spent a very difficult week in Riyadh haggling over terms for the extradition of all the al Qaeda men figuring in Saudi intelligence reports as implicated in the Riyadh bombings.
According to debkafile‘s counter-terrorism sources, the Saudis presented a list of around 60 wanted terrorists sheltering in Iranian Revolutionary Guards training facilities around the province of Sistan Va Baluchestan near the Afghanistan border, Zahedan, Zabol, Khash, Pishin, Ghassr-e Ghand and Doust Mohammad. They are “detained” very comfortably in palatial houses with state-of-the-art security systems and provided with automobiles for convenient travel.
Shahroudi, who is revealed by our sources as an Iraqi Shiite of Iranian descent and former leader of the Iranian-backed SCIRI, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, came to the Saudis with a bitter complaint. He claimed Iran’s no-holds barred campaign against al Qaeda for blackening the name of Islam was being maliciously misrepresented. The Saudis must understand that handing the network’s leaders to American infidels would be the worst kind of blasphemy against the Prophet’s teachings.
The Saudis were not convinced and demanded that Iran first hand the terrorists over. Their fate would be decided later. The demand was accompanied by a threat that could get the Iranians in very hot water over a nine-year old act of terror in which they were directly involved: the truck bomb attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia housing US air personnel in which 19 US servicemen died and more than 500 were injured. In Riyadh’s hands is the evidence that the 1996 bombers received logistical backup from al Qaeda personnel based in Iran. That evidence was never shared with Washington. The Saudi authorities refrained from fingering the bombers and their accomplices after procuring a guarantee from Iran never again to stage or sponsor terrorist operations on Saudi soil.
The Saudis consider Iran to have violated this pledge on May 12. Shahroudi was told in no uncertain terms that if the al Qaeda operatives were not handed over promptly, Riyadh would let Washington have the evidence of Iran’s involvement in the Khobar Towers attack. They had no doubt that Iran played a role in the May 12 attacks. Armed with US intelligence findings, the Riyadh authorities had tracked the al Qaeda bombers’ support teams all the way to Iran. One of the Islamic network’s top operations officers, Egyptian-born Saif al-Adel, was allowed to travel back and forth repeatedly between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March and April 2003 to set up the Riyadh bombing series. Just before the suicides struck, Adel returned to Iran and has been there since.
But unlike in the Khobar Towers episode in 1996 when Iran was anxious for Saudi silence on its evidence, the Iranians now make no secret of their role in the Riyadh attacks. Indeed, debkafile‘s counter-terrorism sources report they appear keen for the Saudis to pass the word to Washington. This is interpreted by some intelligence sources as a signal from Tehran warning the Bush administration to let up on its pressure for regime change and a halt on nuclear weapons development or else risk serious serious damage to US interests in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The Iranian regime is being even more devious and circuitous with Egypt.
A group of high-ranking Egyptian intelligence officers has been kept hanging about in Tehran for weeks. These counter-terror experts, who specializes 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 another Iranian press leak.
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.
The main Egyptian quarry is Saif al-Adel. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘scounter-terror sources reported on July 11 that Cairo is also seeking the extradition of 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 in Cairo for taking part in an attempt to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak in 1995 while on his way to an African summit conference in Addis Ababa. Mubarak barely escaped the barrage of explosives and grenades hurled from ambush at his cavalcade as it drove from the airport to the city.
The Egyptian officers started out with high hopes they would 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 give up and go home. Anyway, some Egyptian security chiefs are not over-eager to take delivery of the Egyptian terrorists because they would have to execute them without delay. In the current inflammable climate in Egypt and most parts of the Arab world, Egypt’s security chiefs fear a backlash from the public.
However, President Mubarak has instructed the Egyptian delegation to continue waiting in Tehran.

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