Ayman Zuwahiri, Osama bin Laden’s Number 2 and the most senior of the eight top Al Qaeda figures known to have been harbored in Iran, is no longer there. Nothing is known for certain about Saad bin Laden, Osama’s son. The jury is also still out over whether Saad took part in the planning or execution of terrorist offensives.
Military commander Saif al-Adel is number three on the roster. He has orchestrated all of Al Qaeda’s attacks and controls the networks operating in Saudi Arabia since mid-May.
Suleiman Abu Ghaith can claim fourth place on the most wanted list. Popularly known as Al Qaeda’s “spokesman”, he serves as its chief financial officer and, more importantly, he knows where all its operational networks are located.
Meet number five: Mohammed Showqi al-Istambuli, a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and one of its most daring and bloodthirsty operations officers. He led a failed attempt to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak in 1995.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi comes in at number six. As we have reported before, it is unclear whether he is a full member of Al Qaeda or just a terrorist-for-hire. Nonetheless, Zarqawi packs a lot of bang for the buck. He is the group’s top expert on chemical, biological and radioactive weapons systems – its “dirty bomb” expert. He is also the only top Al Qaeda operations officer with close personal ties to the Iraqi intelligence officers running the guerrilla war in Iraq against US occupation forces on behalf of the deposed Iraqi ruler, Saddam Hussein.
Numbers 7 and 8 on the list have no name tags as yet. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources have discovered their nationality; both are Syrians and serve as Zarqawi’s operations deputies.
After an Iranian intelligence officer disclosed this in discussions with Saudi and Egyptian representatives on Al Qaeda extraditions, the Americans got down to work to uncover their identities. What they turned up was an interesting piece of related diplomacy. The Syrian president Bashar Assad had been badgering Iran’s spiritual leader, Ali KHamenei, with three requests: Do not hand the two Syrians over to anyone except Syria; stop any third party, such as the Saudis or Egyptians, from interrogating them; and send the pair as quickly as possible to Damascus.
This was no routine diplomatic appeal. Assad, clearly under intense stress, appealed personally to Khamenei for guarantees for the two Syrian terrorists’ non-extradition. The Iranian leader gave no promises, as far as our sources can discover. So the current whereabouts of the two Syrians on the list of eight al Qaeda operatives in Iranian custody are unknown. They may have been turned over to Damascus, still be in Tehran, or playing parts in a more disturbing scenario. Taking into account Zarqawi’s hand in Al Qaeda’s terrorist campaign in Iraq (as we reported in our last issue), he may have assigned the pair to liaison duties between the Islamic terrorists and the Syrian fighters infiltrating the country to fight alongside Saddam loyalist guerrillas.
This affair leads to troubling questions about Assad’s association with the fundamentalist network:
How did the two Syrians come to be admitted to the al Qaeda elite group of eight? How was Syria able to keep them under wraps, secret from Americans through all their undercover dealings?
Serving under Zarqawi, they would have known of his comings and goings through Damascus international airport since the fall of 2002. That information must have reached Syrian intelligence whose eyes and ears are everywhere and therefore the president. In that case, why did Assad neglect to tip off the United States or Saudi Arabia about every imminent Al Qaeda attack? Is Assad so desperate to keep the two Syrian terrorists out of foreign hands because he is afraid they might blow the whistle on his own involvement with Al Qaeda?
A possible answer is the one DEBKA-Net-Weekly has offered before: The Syrian president is making a pretty penny out of the safe and clandestine corridor his country offers terrorist operatives and fugitives, be they al Qaeda, Iraqis, Saudis or Hizballah.
President George W. Bush claimed in a speech in St. Louis on Tuesday, August 26, that two-thirds of Al Qaeda’s leadership has been captured or killed. Little on the ground – at least in the Middle East, Gulf and Horn of Africa – supports this claim. No diminution of terrorist activity has been registered. This may be partly accounted for by the free rein and base of operations Iran has provided the Al Qaeda Eight Team. These conveniences no doubt explain some of disappointments suffered this summer by US terrorist hunters.
According to our information, intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies in Washington were certain Saif al-Adel would be in American – or at least Saudi or Egyptian – hands by mid-August. Alternatively, they had hoped the Iranians would at least place him in detention and isolate him from his links with Al Qaeda terrorist networks in the field. Iranian hardliners made sure this did not happen.
On another continent, another senior al Qaeda terror-master slipped through the net. In mid-July, willing counter-terrorist hands awaited Mohammed Fazoul, Al Qaeda’s commander in eastern Africa and the Horn of Africa, who is long and badly wanted for plotting and organizing the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and many strikes since. He was expected in Mombasa for the launch of a wave of mega-attacks on US, British and Israeli targets. On August 10, he was actually surrounded at a cafe in the Kenyan Indian Ocean resort. Just before he was nabbed, some of his underlings blew themselves up to block pursuit as he made a wild dash for safety.
For the present, therefore, these two dangerous terrorist plotters, al Adel and Fazoul remain at large, free to plan their next attacks and available for their organization’s all-out campaign in Iraq.