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Several members of Osama bin Laden’s family cross into Iran on foot shortly before the 9/11 attacks. The exact number of family members that cross at this time is unknown, although 19 of bin Laden’s relatives will soon be present in Iran: one wife, seven children, and 11 grandchildren. The children are Saad, who is 20; Ossman, 17; Mohammed, 15; Fatma, 14; Hamza, 12; Iman, 9; and Bakr, 7. They are placed under virtual house arrest in a high-security compound near Tehran, “for their own safety.” The Iranian authorities will publicly deny their presence in the country, and will attempt to cut off their communications with the outside world. Al-Qaeda operatives will also be held in Iran after 9/11 (see Spring 2002). The whereabouts of the detained family members will remain unknown until November 2009, when they will contact another son of bin Laden, Omar Ossama, who is currently living in Qatar with his wife. The family will tell Omar they live as normal a life as possible, cooking meals, watching television, and reading. They will be allowed out only rarely for shopping trips. As a number of families are being held in the compound, some of the older siblings will be able to marry and have their own children. “The Iranian government did not know what to do with this large group of people that nobody else wanted, so they just kept them safe,” Omar Ossama will later say. (Brown 12/23/2009)
In the spring on 2002, as the Taliban is collapsing in Afghanistan, many al-Qaeda operatives flee into neighboring Iran. About 20 to 25 operatives composing much of al-Qaeda’s management council are said to wind up in the custody of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Prior to this point, the Iranian government has been turning over most al-Qaeda captives to other countries, but after President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech criticizing Iran (see January 29, 2002), Iran decides to keep this group. (Ignatius 7/9/2004) Iran does not officially admit to holding them, and their status is unclear, but they all seem to be living in a village near the Caspian Sea. One senior US intelligence official says, “They are under virtual house arrest,” and not able to do much. Those said to be in Iranian custody include:
Saif al-Adel, one of al-Qaeda’s top military commanders.
Suliman abu Ghaith, al-Qaeda spokesman.
Saad and Hamza bin Laden, two of Osama bin Laden’s young sons.
Abu Dahak, who served as al-Qaeda’s liaison to the rebels in Chechnya.
Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, a financial expert.
Two unnamed top aides to Ayman al-Zawahiri. (Windrem 6/24/205)
Thirwat Salah Shehata, a member of Islamic Jihad’s ruling council, who is probably one of the al-Zawahiri aides mentioned above. (Windrem 5/2005)
Mustafa Hamza, head of Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, an Egyptian militant group, and an al-Qaeda leader as well (see June 26, 1995). In late 2004, he will be extradited from Iran to stand trial in Egypt. (Reuters 1/9/2005)
At first, these operatives appear to be capable of communicating with operatives outside of Iran. Saad bin Laden is said to play a major role planning the attack of a synagogue in Tunisia in April 2002 (see April 11, 2002). But the Saudi government will suspect that some of the operatives in Iran are involved in a 2003 attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (see May 12, 2003), and they will successfully press Iran to tighten the house arrest of the operatives in Iran. Iran will propose an exchange of these prisoners around the time of the Riyadh bombing, but the US will reject the offer (see Mid-May 2003). Since that time, these leaders apparently remain in a state of limbo. CIA Director Porter Goss will say in 2005, “I think [the] understanding that there is a group of leadership of al-Qaeda under some type of detention—I don’t know exactly what type, necessarily—in Iran is probably accurate.” (Windrem 6/24/205) Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, will later ask, “The question is, what does house arrest mean in the Iranian context?” He suggests that Iran could release the group or loosen their restrictions depending on how relations evolve between the US and Iran. “They’re a guarantee against bad behavior.” (Whitlock and Ladaa 9/9/2007) In 2006, it will be reported that Saad bin Laden has been freed. (Reuters 8/2/2006) Also in 2006, al-Yazid will emerge as a leader of al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and may never have been in Iran. (Whitlock 9/9/2007) In 2007, the still teenaged Hamza bin Laden will reportedly appear in Afghanistan. (Associated Press 9/11/2007) In 2008, it will be reported that the US still knows little about the al-Qaeda figures detained in Iran, but US officials say they believe Iran has largely kept them under control since 2003, limiting their ability to travel and communicate. One US official will say, “It’s been a status quo that leaves these people, some of whom are quite important, essentially on ice.” (Karl 5/29/2008)
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto gives an interview to David Frost of Al Jazeera in which she makes a number of noteworthy statements:
She says that Saeed Sheikh is “the man who murdered Osama bin Laden.” Saeed helped kidnap Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was later murdered (see January 23, 2002), is said to have provided money for the 9/11 hijackings (see Early August 2001), and is thought to have been in prison in Pakistan since 2002 (see February 12, 2002). Although bin Laden is thought to be alive at this time (see October 22, 2007), Frost does not ask a follow-up question about bin Laden’s alleged demise. (Al Jazeera 11/2/2007) When a video of the interview is posted at the BBC’s website, this section is initially edited out, as the editor thinks Bhutto must simply have misspoken. However, the BBC accepts this was an error and later posts a full version of the interview. (Herrmann 4/1/2008) This is the only known occasion that Bhutto makes this claim.
Based on information from a “friendly country,” she names four people and/or organizations that might attack her: al-Qaeda linked warlord Baitullah Mahsud; Hamza bin Laden, son of Osama; the “Pakistan Taliban in Islamabad”; and an unnamed group in Karachi.
While she thinks that such groups may be used for an attack on her, they are not pulling the strings, she says. She suggests three people may be behind an attack by one of the groups. The reason these three are said to want her dead is because she could stop the rise of terrorism in Pakistan. One of the three is former ISI officer Ijaz Shah, a “very key figure in security,” who she thinks has turned a blind eye or even colluded with militants, and who is an associate of Saeed Sheikh (see February 5, 2002). (Al Jazeera 11/2/2007) Shah, a government official, will actually be in charge of protecting Bhutto from assassination when she is assassinated. The names of the other two said to be “pulling the strings” are not certain, but they are a prominent Pakistani figure, one of whose family members was allegedly murdered by a militant group run by Bhutto’s brother, and a well-known chief minister in Pakistan who is a longstanding opponent of Bhutto. (Walters 12/30/2007)
Osama bin Laden’s daughter Iman escapes from house arrest in Iran. Iman had been held there since mid-2001 along with other family members (see Shortly Before September 11, 2001) and some al-Qaeda operatives (Spring 2002). After escaping during a rare shopping trip, the 17-year-old Iman reaches the Saudi Arabian embassy, where she remains for at least a month while authorities negotiate her departure from Iran. The escape comes just a week after detained family members managed to communicate with her brother Omar Ossama bin Laden, a resident of Qatar who had previously thought these relatives of his dead. Their detention will remain secret for another month, until Omar Ossama publicizes it in the international media. He will appeal for his relatives to be released, so they can join him in Qatar, or other relatives in Syria. (Brown 12/23/2009)
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