The average commentator thinks that Osama bin Laden’s trail has gone cold and that there is no credible eyewitness testimony as to where he is located. The only available public testimony is that a member of the Taliban arrested in Pakistan claims his colleague met bin Laden in Afghanistan in the first two months of 2009 — important information, but second-hand and unverifiable. The truth is that there have been credible leads, and these leads point to Iran.
Ken Timmerman, the best reporter covering Iran, provided an update on a story he broke last year. The last credible person to say they’ve met bin Laden is a smuggler who last saw him in October 2007. The smuggler, who said he met him a total of six times in Iran beginning in November 2004, provided Alan Parrot, leader of the Union for the Conservation of Raptors, with the “specific frequencies of small transmitters bin Laden had strapped to the backs of his hunting falcons so he could find them if they failed to return to base.”
When the smuggler claimed that bin Laden was moving from his safe haven in Tehran to the northern part of the country near the border with Turkmenistan in late 2006 for some falconry, Timmerman turned to his intelligence sources for verification. He found out that an intelligence report had been written based on “chatter” that a person of high importance was indeed moving from Tehran to Zahedan, and the hunting fields were shut off to all other guests. Zahedan was identified by the government as the location of an al-Qaeda network last January. The smuggler also said that he met with bin Laden at a safe house north of Tehran, which is similar to reporting from Iranian defectors, and in Mashhad, another location known to be used as a transit by al-Qaeda.
Parrot says that Iran is holding bin Laden’s family hostage in Tehran to stop the terrorist leader from ever revealing their collaboration with al-Qaeda. This also enables the Iranians to exercise greater control over the terrorist group and its leader, giving them a deniable proxy with which to wage asymmetrical warfare against the West, something further enabled by the staunch belief that such an alliance is impossible.
This story may sound unbelievable, but Omar bin Laden, one of Osama’s sons, has said that up to 40 members of the bin Laden family are living under house arrest in Tehran and are refusing to let them leave without being accompanied by the regime’s personnel. They live a lavish lifestyle with videogames, computers, “a swimming pool, tennis court, shopping trips, and horseback riding along the coast” — the same coast that the smuggler identified Osama himself as traveling to for entertainment.
Bin Laden’s 18-year-old daughter escaped to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and after major resistance from the Iranians was allowed to leave last month. Another son, Bakr, left Iran in December. The Treasury Department has blacklisted a member of al-Qaeda living in Iran who they say arranged for Ayman al-Zawahiri’s family to live there. The scenario painted by Parrot suddenly seems very realistic.
My good friend John Loftus, who is very well-connected in the intelligence community, brought the information including the short-wave frequencies of bin Laden’s radios to the CIA director, the State Department, and other intelligence agency leaders but got no response. Either loyalists of the false “radical Shiites and radical Sunnis will never work together” mantra convinced their superiors that it was an impossibility, or the government’s hands are tied as getting bin Laden would mean a violent operation on Iranian soil.
But this isn’t the only eyewitness testimony placing bin Laden in Iran. Last year, I put together a report compiling all of the reports about his presence in Iran in an attempt to develop a timeline. I found that the testimonies were not contradictory, came from unrelated sources, and were supportive of one another.
Two former Iranian intelligence officers, including one who has provided credible information that saved American lives in Afghanistan, told journalist Richard Miniter that bin Laden entered Iran on July 26, 2002, to escape a Pakistani offensive. They detailed his travels inside Iran, and claim to have personally met him on October 23, 2003, near Tehran. He and Ayman al-Zawahiri were dressed like Iranian clerics and were escorted by the Revolutionary Guards.
In his book, Timmerman talks about a credible Iranian source he developed that had “direct knowledge” of a late 2004 meeting between Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden, and top Iranian officials. The source, like the others, said bin Laden was dressed as an Iranian cleric, appeared unhealthy, and had an IV in his hand. Timmerman says he saw a photo of the meeting and was able to confirm its age by dating a cell phone that was placed on the table.
These eyewitness accounts are supported by various pieces of evidence and provide much more detail about bin Laden’s changing locations. My comprehensive report can be read here. When the totality of the information is considered, it is undeniable that there is more personal testimony putting him in Iran than in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
Last February, a UCLA team pinpointed three buildings in Parachinar in northwestern Pakistan as his likely hiding spots, but that town is a Shiite majority and not a very secure spot to hide in — and the report did not mention Iran once. All of this information does not seem to have been included in their analysis. Other reports focus on Chitral, Northwest Frontier Province, North Waziristan, or Baluchistan in Pakistan, but countless drones and spies are scouring these areas for him. Al-Qaeda’s support in Pakistan has plummeted, and the military’s offensives in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan and constant CIA drone air strikes make hiding out there a dangerous gamble.
John Loftus tells me that his intelligence sources say that bin Laden splits his time between Iran and Pakistan, spending about half a year in each. The two Iranian intelligence defectors interviewed by Richard Miniter confirmed that bin Laden is allowed to leave Iran, but it is very risky for the Iranians to allow this to happen for the reasons cited above. It is also telling that the capture of Mullah Baradar, the second-in-command of the Taliban, and other al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, does not appear to have yielded any major intelligence about his alleged safe haven in the area.
If it is true that bin Laden is being harbored in Iran, the aforementioned conditions make it less and less likely that he’ll travel outside the country and afford us an attempt to nab him. Parrot put together an operation in 2006 with former special forces members to snatch bin Laden at a specific location, but when he told the FBI, they responded with threatening to arrest him and his team. Unfortunately, it seems that the government is only willing to aggressively pursue bin Laden if he isn’t in Iran.