IRAN: Bin Laden family said to be held captive in Tehran
Since the U.S. invasion and subsequent toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan eight years ago, the whereabouts of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s family has been shrouded in mystery. Some reports claimed several of his children died in bomb raids; others said they joined Al Qaeda to fight alongside their father.
But recent reports describe a quite different scenario. Members of the Bin Laden family now say several of their close relatives, some of whom were thought to be dead, are being held in house arrest in Iran.
Details of the Bin Ladens' Iranian saga started to surface in November when Omar bin Laden, the fourth-eldest son of Osama bin Laden, was called up by his siblings out of the blue.
They told him that six of his brothers and sisters had been living in a secret compound on the outskirts of Tehran for the last eight years, news reports said Wednesday. Up until then, Omar had no idea what happened to his siblings after they disappeared all those years ago.
The group allegedly held in the Islamic Republic also includes one of Bin Laden’s wives and 11 of his grandchildren. They left Bin Laden’s Afghan camp and subsequently walked to the Iranian border shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, according to a report by the Times of London.
Upon their arrival in Iran, the group was allegedly taken to a high-security compound near the Iranian capital where they were instructed by guards to not leave the premises “for their own safety.”
Omar Bin Laden said his family members have tried to lead as "normal of a life" as possible in what appears to be a peculiar type of house arrest, watching TV shows, cooking and reading. They were, however, not allowed to roam around freely and permitted to take shopping trips only every six months.
It was on one of those rare excursions outside the compound that one of the children, Iman, reportedly managed to escape accompanying guards and flee to the Saudi Arabian Embassy. She’s been staying at the embassy for the last 25 days while trying to get permission to travel back to Saudi Arabia.
Omar bin Laden, meanwhile, is urging the Iranian authorities to release his family members. Abdel Rahman bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader's second son, has joined chorus with his brother, telling the Arab news network Al Jazeera that Iran is holding his siblings as "captives."
Iran has dismissed allegations made by the Bin Laden brothers that it’s holding members of their family.
That relatives of the Bin Laden family have been leading a secret life in Iran comes perhaps as no real surprise.
Since 9/11, U.S. intelligence officials have accused Iran of harboring Al Qaeda figures, and believed that Bin Laden relatives were held in Tehran.
Last year, the ABC News supposedly intercepted secret talks between Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and Iran about setting free “Al Qaeda figures” held in house arrest in Iran, including Saad bin Laden.
He is one of Bin Laden’s sons and one of the alleged Al Qaeda members believed to have fled to Iran after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
News reports surfaced this year that Saad was killed in an U.S. air raid in Pakistan after being permitted to go back to Afghanistan by Iran last year.
But the Bin Laden relatives deny those theories and insist Saad is alive, saying he ran away from the compound a year ago to find his mother.
Another son of the Al Qaeda leader still said be in house arrest in Iran is Muhammed bin Laden, once believed to be second in command of Al Qaeda. He is said to have been 15 years old when he arrived at the compound in 2001.
Abdel Rahman bin Laden believes bad relations between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are the underlying reasons that no deal had been made to set the captives free. It is likely that the discovery of the Bin Laden family members in Tehran will create further tensions between the two arch-foes, which seek to dominate much of the politics in this region.
As for Omar bin Laden, he hopes he will soon be reunited with his long-lost relatives.
“We just want to be together as a family. I have now got 11 nieces and nephews born either in Afghanistan or Iran that I have never seen,” he was quoted as saying by the Times of London.
-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut
Photo: A TV image from Oct. 7, 2001, shows Osama bin Laden at an undisclosed location. Credit: Associated Press