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Was Sa’ad Bin Laden Managing Al-Qaeda from Iran?

Osama bin Laden's son may be more than just a "low-level" target, as U.S. counterterrorism official once described him.

by
Annie Jacobsen

Bio

July 29, 2009 - 12:52 am
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When Osama bin Laden was banished from Sudan in 1996, he left the country in a rented Soviet jet — an aged and antique Tupolev flown by a Russian pilot he did not trust. With him were a few bodyguards, his military commander, Saif al-Adel, and two sons named Sa’ad and Omar — both young men in their late teens.

Although it was the corrupt Islamic government of Sudan that had robbed Osama bin Laden of much of his vast personal wealth, he blamed America for his misfortunes, according to Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright. “He held America responsible for the crushing reversal that had led him to this state,” Wright explains.

At least one of those sons, Sa’ad, was deeply influenced by the angry sentiments of the father. He would soon become a player in his father’s al-Qaeda terrorist network, which Bin Laden would build inside Afghanistan — the only country that would take him after Sudan gave him the boot.

Sa’ad’s rising prominence in the organization would become clear on April 11, 2002, when an explosive-laden vehicle disguised as a natural gas delivery truck made its way past security at the El Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia — the oldest synagogue in Africa — and exploded into a fireball, vaporizing several of its 21 victims. Fourteen German tourists, five Tunisians, and two French nationals were killed in what was al-Qaeda’s first successful terrorist attack after 9/11.

Sa’ad bin Laden played a prominent role in that synagogue bombing by acting as a facilitator between the suicide bomber, a Tunisian national named Nizar Ben Muhammad Nawar, and a European co-plotter named Christian Ganczarski, a German citizen of Polish descent and a convert to Islam (Ganczarski was ultimately captured and, in 2009, sentenced to 18 years in prison by a French court).

The “Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Sites” claimed responsibility for the attack in Tunisia, the same al-Qaeda arm that told the London-based Arab daily Al-Quds al-Arabi that it blew up two U.S. embassies — in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania — in 1998.

After seven years on the run, according to an unnamed “senior U.S. counterterrorism official,” Sa’ad bin Laden is now dead. Maybe. On July 21, National Public Radio reported the source as saying he was “80 to 85 percent” certain that Sa’ad bin Laden had been killed in a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan.

And then, in a bizarre downplaying of the terrorist’s death, this senior counterterrorism official told NPR that Sa’ad was allegedly not the target, that he was just a low-level al-Qaeda who was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” The official added: “We make a big deal out of him because of his last name.”

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