Bin Laden's Son Seen Stepping Up

Al-Qaida fighter, terrorist, Iran, map
U.S., European and Arab intelligence agencies believe an elite security force controlled by Iran's hard-line clerics is protecting key al Qaeda figures who are directing operations from inside Iran, a newspaper reports.

And a son of Osama bin Laden is believed to be a leader of that al Qaeda Iranian branch, says The Washington Post.

Saad bin Laden, believed to be 24, may have had a role plotting the May 12 suicide attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and possibly the May 16 bombings in Casablanca, Morocco.

He is one of what Saudi Arabian spy agencies believe are some 400 al Qaeda operatives in Iran, brought and protected there by the hard-line Jerusalem Force, which is not controlled by Iran's central government, according to the newspaper.

U.S. and Saudi efforts to end Iranian sponsorship of terrorism are complicated by the fact that Tehran's elected government, headed by the reform-minded President Mohammed Khatami, does not appear to control the group sponsoring al Qaeda.

"This is the problem with Iran. The people who we can deal with can't deliver, they can't lead eight ducks across the street. And the guys who can deliver, they're not interested," Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, said in an interview last month to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Computer savvy and fluent in English, the younger bin Laden — one of Osama bin Laden's roughly two dozen children — appears to have been groomed for a leadership role.

According to The Post, he accompanied his father during the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, then to Sudan in 1991, and back to Afghanistan in 1996 at the invitation of the Taliban.

Now, with Osama bin Laden forced to lie low because of the U.S. manhunt for him, the son appears geared to take the reins from his father.

However, he is not the actual leader of al Qaeda in Iran. That designation apparently falls to Saif al-Adel or Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, two lieutenants who appear to pass on messages from Osama bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, because they must maintain a low profile.

Last year, Saad bin Laden was believed to have provided support for al Qaeda's April 11 bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia that left 19 dead, most of them German tourists. This marked al Qaeda's first successful terrorist operation outside of the Afghanistan region since the Sept. 11 attacks.

If Iran and al Qaeda are cooperating, it would mark something of a strategic shift. During the 1990s, when Pakistan and Saudi Arabia backed the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran supported the opposition Northern Alliance. In 2001, when the United States invaded Afghanistan to drive out al Qaeda and the Taliban, Iran for the most part acquiesced.

In the State Department's most recent report on terrorism, Iran was dubbed "the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2002," but its focus was on anti-Israeli activity, like allegedly supporting Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.

On al Qaeda, the State Department report said, Iran's record "has been mixed."

"While it has detained and turned over to foreign governments a number of al-Qaida members, other al Qaeda members have found virtual safehaven there and may even be receiving protection from elements of the Iranian Government," the U.S. report concluded.

"Iran's long, rugged borders are difficult to monitor, and the large number of Afghan refugees in Iran complicates efforts to locate and apprehend extremists. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that al Qaeda elements could escape the attention of Iran's formidable security services."

President Bush named Iran along with Iraq and North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address, and tensions have risen since the war in Iraq.

The U.S. accused Iran of working to destabilize its neighbor and sent troops to the border to block alleged infiltration by Iranian agents. For its part, Iran was angered by a temporary ceasefire between U.S. troops and a terrorist group, the Mujahadeen al-Khalq, which aims to overthrow the government in Tehran.