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Abu Ghaith trial may illuminate Iran's treatment of al-Qaida leaders it detained

Jane Rosenberg

Courtroom sketch of Suleiman Abu Ghaith in New York federal court on Friday.

The arrest and trial of alleged al-Qaida spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith may resolve a long-standing debate inside the U.S. intelligence community on what Iranian officials did with members of the terrorist group who snuck into the country shortly after 9-11, hoping they would be treated, if not warmly, then as "the enemy of my enemy," as one U.S official put it.

Abu Ghaith, who was arraigned on Friday in federal court in New York on charges he plotted to kill Americans, described the conditions under which al-Qaida officials' were confined in Iran in a 22-page statement signed after his arrest last week in Jordan.

The statement, which was referenced in his court appearance, is expected to shed light on the accuracy of intelligence gathered by the U.S. in months after 9-11 indicating that the so-called al-Qaida “management council” detained in Iran was still conducting business, even discussing procurement of nuclear weapons.

The debate among U.S. intelligence officers and agencies centers on how Iran treated the al-Qaida leaders and bin Laden relatives following their capture in Iran in early 2002, and how much it they were allowed to communicate with other members of the terrorist group. The faction in Iran, which with family and bodyguards numbered in the hundreds, bribed their way into the country but was rounded up not long afterward. As one U.S. official told NBC News Thursday, what happened next occurred inside the "blackest of the black boxes" of Iran's intelligence apparatus.

Some analysts believe that members of the group were more or less placed under house arrest. Iranian officials denied that, saying they were "in jail."

Another question is whether the group had significant operational communications with other al-Qaida leaders. One high-ranking former U.S. official told NBC News this week that he was unaware of any contact regarding al-Qaida operations.

NBC's Pete Williams talks to Andrea Mitchell about the alleged 9/11 spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith,  tried Friday in an NYC court, and the pushback from some lawmakers regarding the case being tried outside of Guantanamo Bay.

But George Tenet, director of the CIA following the 9-11 attacks, painted a different picture in his memoirs, "At the Center of the Storm," written with William Harlow.

In the book, Tenet described incidents in which he learned that the group was not only communicating with Saudi-based al-Qaida leaders on operational matters, but also trying to obtain nuclear weapons. 

"From the end of 2002 to the spring of 2003, we received a stream of reliable reporting that the senior al-Qaida leadership in Saudi Arabia was negotiating for the purchase of three Russian nuclear devices,” Tenet wrote. “Saudi al-Qaida chief Abu Bakr relayed the offer directly to the al-Qaida leadership in Iran, where Sayf al-Adl and (Mohammed) Abdel al-Aziz al-Masri (described as al-Qaida’s “nuclear chief” by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) were reportedly being held under a loose form of house arrest by the Iranian regime.

Tenet wrote that the al-Qaida leaders had learned lessons from previous attempts to procure nuclear devices in the nuclear black market in the early 1990s.

“Saif al-Adel told Abu Bakr that no price was too high to pay if they could get their hands on such weapons,” he wrote. “However, he cautioned Abu Bakr that al-Qaida had been stung by scams in the past and that Pakistani specialists should be brought to Saudi Arabia to inspect the merchandise prior to purchase.

"As soon as I got wind of al-Qaida negotiations to purchase nuclear components in Saudi Arabia, I contacted the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, and gave him all the details we had," Tenet said.

The CIA also communicated its intelligence to the Iranians, being uncertain of what the Islamic Republic knew of the communications, according to the former CIA director’s account.

"One senior al-Qaida operative told us that Mohammed Abdel al-Aziz al-Masri, who had been detained in Iran, managed al-Qaida’s nuclear program and had conducted experiments with explosives to test the effects of producing a nuclear yield. We passed this information to the Iranians in the hope that they would recognize our common interest in preventing any attack against U.S. interests."

Another U.S. security official told NBC News that Tenet's message did get attention in Tehran and that, in 2003, the group in Iran’s communications with other al-Qaida leaders were down.

Beyond the historical debate, U.S. officials want to know what happened to the other leaders in the management council. Apart from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is awaiting trial before a U.S. military court, the whereabouts of the others are unknown. There have been  intermittent reports over the years that Saif al-Adel, the Egyptian-born military director of al-Qaida, was permitted to leave Iran, but they have not been confirmed.  


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