Arrest of Bin Laden’s Son-in-Law Could Shed More Light on Iran’s Collaboration With al-Qaeda

By Patrick Goodenough | March 8, 2013 | 5:08am EST

This image made available by Al-Jazeera shows Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden's son-in-law and spokesman. Abu Ghaith has been captured by the United States, officials said Thursday, March 7, 2013, in what a senior congressman called a "very significant victory" in the fight against al-Qaida. (AP Photo/Al-Jazeera)

( – The capture of the Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, who served as his spokesman, may in time provide fresh insight into allegations of Iranian collaboration with al-Qaeda over the years since 9/11.

Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, an Islamic preacher of Kuwaiti origin, is due to be arraigned in a New York court on Friday. The indictment charges him with participating in a conspiracy to kill United States nationals, an offense carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Announcing his indictment on Thursday, federal law enforcement officials gave no information about how Abu Ghaith came to be in U.S. custody, but unsealed court papers did state that, in 2002, he had been “smuggled successfully from Afghanistan into Iran.”

The documents were silent on his whereabouts since, but Turkey’s Today’s Zaman newspaper reported Thursday that Abu Ghaith had entered Turkey from Iran illegally early last month.

It said Turkish authorities held him for having used a false passport and a court ordered his deportation. He could not be deported to Kuwait – which stripped him of his citizenship after 9/11 – and Turkey would not transfer him to the U.S. because of the death penalty. Turkey had instead deported him to Jordan, the paper said.

According to Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) Abu Ghaith was taken into custody in Jordan.

In a statement welcoming his arrest, King commended the CIA, FBI, President Obama and “our allies in Jordan” for his capture, adding, “I trust he received a vigorous interrogation and will face swift and certain justice.”

If Abu Ghaith turns out to have been in Iran for all or much of the period since he was “smuggled” in from Afghanistan in 2012, his trial could offer new information into Tehran’s collaboration with al-Qaeda.

Some have dismissed the notion of such a partnership because of the sectarian differences between the Sunni terrorist group and the Shi’ite regime in Tehran, but in March 2010 then-U.S. Central Command head Gen. David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “al-Qaeda continues to use Iran as a key facilitation hub, where facilitators connect al-Qaeda’s senior leadership to regional affiliates.”

“And although Iranian authorities do periodically disrupt this network by detaining select al-Qaeda facilitators and operational planners, Tehran’s policy in this regard is often unpredictable,” Petraeus told the panel.

Sixteen months later the U.S. Treasury Department accused Iran of collaborating with an al-Qaeda network that sends money and recruits through Iranian territory, in support of its activities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“By exposing Iran’s secret deal with al-Qaeda allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory, we are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran’s unmatched support for terrorism,” the department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, David Cohen, said at the time.

The Treasury designated six members of the al-Qaeda network, identifying one, Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, as network leader and “al-Qaeda’s representative in Iran.”

“Khalil has collected funding from various donors and fundraisers throughout the Gulf and is responsible for moving significant amounts of money via Iran for onward passage to al-Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Iraq,” it said. “He has also facilitated the travel of extremist recruits for al-Qaeda from the Gulf to Pakistan and Afghanistan via Iran.”

According to a September 2010 article by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, citing Kuwaiti media, Abu Ghaith was in Iran from 2002 to 2010, when Iran allowed him to return to Afghanistan. The report said while in Iran he had reportedly been kept “under a loose form of house arrest,” although it also quoted a U.S. official as saying that was really a form of safe haven.

Since 2003, annual State Department reports on terrorism have referred repeatedly to members of al-Qaeda being in Iranian “custody,” and saying that Iran has refused to identify, bring to justice, or transfer them to their countries of origin or to third countries for interrogation or trial.

From 2006-2008, the annual reports stated additionally that “Iran also continued to fail to control the activities of some al-Qaeda members who fled to Iran following the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.” The 2009 report said that Iran “is reportedly holding Osama bin Laden’s family members under house arrest.”

The most recent State Department report, covering 2011, said Iran had “allowed AQ [al-Qaeda] members to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iranian territory, enabling AQ to carry funds and move facilitators and operatives to South Asia and elsewhere.”

“Propaganda minister’

The federal court document unsealed Thursday say Abu Ghaith served alongside bin Laden from at least May 2011 until 2002, facilitating individuals’ swearing of allegiance to the terrorist leader and speaking on behalf of al-Qaeda.

On September 12, 2001, it said, he had appeared with Laden and then al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri, and had “warned the United States and its allies that ‘[a] great army is gathering against you’ and called upon ‘the nation of Islam’ to do battle against ‘the Jews, the Christians and the Americans.’”

In a subsequent speech, Abu Ghaith had “warned that ‘the storms shall not stop, especially the airplanes storm’ and advised Muslims, children, and opponents of the United States ‘not to board any aircraft and not to live in high rises,’” the document added.

FBI New York field office assistant director in charge George Venizelos compared Abu Ghaith’s position in al-Qaeda to that of a “propaganda minister in a totalitarian regime.”

“He used his position to persuade others to swear loyalty to al-Qaeda’s murderous cause. He used his position to threaten the United States and incite its enemies. His apprehension is another important step in the campaign to limit the reach of al Qaeda and enhance our national and international security.”

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