WASHINGTON – Osama bin Laden’s son and heir apparent is no longer under house arrest in Iran and is believed to have joined his father in Pakistan, Director of National Intelligence Michael J. McConnell said Friday.
U.S. counterterrorism officials said it is unclear whether Sa’ad bin Laden had escaped custody in Iran or was released by the Islamic government. His arrival in Pakistan – apparently accompanied by other al-Qaida operatives – could help replenish the leadership ranks of a terrorist network that has seen at least eight of its senior members killed by CIA missile strikes in recent months.
The younger bin Laden’s departure from Iran comes at a delicate time in relations between Iran and the United States, with President-elect Barack Obama pledging a new diplomatic approach aimed at defusing long-standing tensions between the two countries.
Sa’ad bin Laden, believed to be in his late 20s, was among as many as 30 senior al-Qaida figures who were held in custody in Iran over the past six years after fleeing the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in November 2001.
Bin Laden’s departure from Iran was reported on Web sites linked to al-Qaida in September but was confirmed for the first time Friday by senior U.S. intelligence officials.
In a session with reporters, McConnell, the outgoing U.S. intelligence chief, said that Sa’ad bin Laden “has left Iran. He’s not there anymore. He’s probably in Pakistan.”
In a separate interview, a U.S. counterterrorism official said that Sa’ad bin Laden was among “several” al-Qaida figures who are believed to have moved from Iran to Pakistan sometime last summer.
“It’s unclear whether he had Iranian assistance or not,” said the U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter. The official said it was also not known whether the younger bin Laden had reunited with his father or had stepped into an operational role in the organization.
“He’s obviously there, but what he’s doing there remains a little unclear,” the official said, adding that the younger bin Laden is not yet seen as a high-ranking figure in the organization. “He is more of an apprentice. But a dangerous apprentice.”
Counterterrorism experts described Sa’ad bin Laden’s departure from Iran as a disturbing development because of his potential as a successor to his father.
“He is the son closest and most involved in his father’s activities,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. “He is as extreme as bin Laden, and he is being groomed as a senior member.”
Hoffman said an influx of operatives from Iran “could reverse the recent depletion of al-Qaida’s ranks.” He also said that their ability to enter Pakistan raises troubling questions about the security of that border.
In 2003, there were informal negotiations between the United States and Iran over a possible swap of the al-Qaida prisoners in exchange for members of an Iranian opposition group, the Mujehedeen al Kalk, who had been captured by U.S. forces in Iraq. But the talks never produced a deal.
In another sign the U.S. government is beginning to take action, the Treasury Department named Sa’ad bin Laden and three other al-Qaida operatives in new financial sanctions on Friday. The department said that it would seize any assets held by the operatives in U.S. jurisdictions, and described Sa’ad bin Laden as someone who had “made key decisions for al-Qaida.”