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.”
In attempting to marginalize Sa’ad bin Laden’s role in the terrorist network, it becomes transparent that the Bin Laden heir was much more than low-level. Just six months ago, the State Department designated Sa’ad Bin Laden as an al-Qaeda operative in Iran. Charging him under Executive Order 13224, the State Department wrote:
Sa’ad bin Laden, one of Usama bin Laden’s sons, has been involved in al-Qaeda activities. For example, in late 2001, Sa’ad facilitated the travel of Usama bin Laden’s family members from Afghanistan to Iran. Sa’ad made key decisions for al-Qaeda and was part of a small group of al-Qaeda members that was involved in managing the terrorist organization from Iran. He was arrested by Iranian authorities in early 2003.
Summing up the reason for the designation, Stuart Levey, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, added, “It is important that Iran give a public accounting of how it is meeting its international obligations to constrain al-Qaeda.”
If the purpose of the designation was to point the figure at Iran, which it was, the designation was also asking why senior al-Qaeda figures get to go to Iran and enjoy the safety of “house arrest” there. Further, why are they let go?
In January, when asked about Sa’ad bin Laden, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told reporters that “he’s probably in Pakistan” now. With American’s top spy chief keeping tabs on him, it seems absurd for an intelligence agency subordinate to try and disguise Sa’ad bin Laden as a small fish.
For as long as the CIA refuses to comment on the senior al-Qaeda operatives that it kills, the FBI will remain unwilling to confirm or deny these deaths and the public will remain at the mercy of anonymous unnamed officials who provide misinformation. Until then, every unnamed intelligence official in the field will get to have their opinions published — like the one who told me: “Sa’ad bin Laden was a major player who helped manage his father’s terrorist organization from the safe haven of Iran.”
Al-Qaeda’s murky and highly problematic relationship with Iran certainly needs clarification, something America’s intelligence agencies and its State Department seem unable able to provide.