Jul 24, 2003

Iran and Al Qaeda on NPR’s Talk of the Nation

Peter Bergen, the author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden," is also here with us in Studio 3. And there was news today from Tehran, an announcement from the country's intelligence minister, Ali Yunesi, that Tehran is holding many members of al-Qaeda. Peter, good to have you with us, as always. Do we know who is being held? And he said 'many members.' Mr. PETER BERGEN (Author, "Holy War, Inc."): Well, the interesting this is you've got the intelligence ministry saying this, the Iranian intelligence ministry. The people that we know, that US officials have told me that are being held, one of them is called Saif al-Adil. He's an Egyptian, number three in al-Qaeda, probably the military commander now. He's been held for some time. Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who is a spokesman of the group, a Kuwaiti. He appeared seemingly out of nowhere post-9/11. And two others, one called Mohamed al-Masri, which just means Mohamed the Egyptian, who is supposedly a trainer, and another guy who's an aide to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two. Now these are the people we know. There have been suggestions that Saad bin Laden, who's bin Laden's 23-year-old son, may be in custody in Iran. Also of Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's number two. It seems to me that both those reports are essentially erroneous. Now what the Iranians are doing with these people is a very interesting question. I've heard from Afghan officials that al-Qaeda members in custody in Iran have been handed back to them in the past. Some governments don't want these people, by the way, like apparently the Kuwaitis don't want Sulaiman Abu Ghaith back. They've revoked his citizenship. They don't want him back. He would cause a problem. You know, the other people I've mentioned so far are all Egyptians. Have the Egyptians and the Iranians talked about repatriating these people to Egypt? I'm not sure. You know, would the Iranians contemplate, you know, using them as a bargaining chip with the United States? Perhaps. After all, Saif al-Adil would be somebody who would be incredibly interesting to American authorities to speak to. This is a guy, he's a former Egyptian police officer. He is somebody who was intimately involved in the planning for the US Embassy bombing attacks. He would know a great deal of things that American authorities would be interested in hearing from him. CONAN: So the other big question is: Why now? This comes two days after President Bush accused both Iran and Syria of continuing to harbor terrorists. Mr. BERGEN: Well, I mean, I think you just supplied the answer. I mean, yeah, we're harboring them, but we're harboring them in custody. We're not giving them succor, we've imprisoned them. And I think these people, by the way, Neal, have been in prison for some time. I don't think that they, you know, magically have been in prison in the last week or so. I think they've been in custody for some months now. CONAN: So they were not in Iran operating cells and then the Iranians said, 'Hey, we've got to shut this down.' Mr. BERGEN: I'm not clear, but, I mean, I think that they have been in custody for some period of time. Clearly, you know, if you're in Afghanistan, Iran is a pretty good place to go to when you're disappearing after 9/11. And we know that people have been traveling back and forth. As I mentioned earlier, the Iranian government has turned members of al-Qaeda back to the Afghanistan government. So this is--you know, it makes sense that some of these people would be in Iran. Now were they planning terrorist attacks against the United States? I don't know the answer to that. The fact is that they've been in custody for some time. And let's look on the bright side here for a second. Between all the arrests in Pakistan this year and these arrests, which--the Iranian ministry, by the way, hasn't confirmed these names, but I'm telling you what US officials are saying, at least privately--you know, that means that the upper echelon of this group is largely, with the exception of bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, are in custody one way or another, which is, you know, basically a net good thing. CONAN: Yet we continue to hear reports of in eastern Pakistan--excuse me, western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, southeastern Afghanistan in particular, of a resurgence of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Mr. BERGEN: Well, Neal, I was just in Afghanistan relatively recently and went out on one of those operations. I think the resurgence--I think it's more Taliban than al-Qaeda, and I'll tell you why. If you're an Arab member of al-Qaeda, you stick out like a sore thumb in Afghanistan. I mean, there's no way that you could--it's very hard to hide. Even in Pakistan you stick out. I mean, one of the interesting things to me is how in Iraq, Iraq has become a real magnet for al-Qaeda, which, you know, is enormously ironic given the fact that one of the putative reasons we went to war was a supposed link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Well, that seems to be happening now, which makes a lot of sense because you blend in with the population. You've got a lot of fixed American targets. It would make sense that Iraq is, you know, a new important theater of operations for this group. CONAN: So, you know, given that, there are people in Iraq now, do you think? Mr. BERGEN: Oh, I would--yes is the answer to that. And, I mean, I hear that from a lot of different American officials. And that's a recent phenomenon. They're basically coming over the northern border from Syria. Some of them are Saudis. But, you know, it's common sense. I mean, if you're interested in killing Americans in a place that's right in the middle of the Middle East, Iraq is that place. CONAN: Peter Bergen, as always, thanks very much for coming in. Peter Bergen is the author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden." He was with us here in Studio 3A.