Osama's Family Troubles Aired on 'Al Qaeda' Web Site

Terrorist leaders have families too—some times large and troubled ones, as an unusual communiqué published this past weekend on a well-known pro-Qaeda Web site appears to confirm. The message, from a little-known son of fugitive Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden named Khalid, moans loudly about how shabbily members of bin Laden's family are being treated as guests—unfriendly guests—of the government of Iran.

Khalid bin Laden's message, posted on a site called the Global Islamic Media Front and apparently dated Jan. 1, 2010, was initially called to Declassified's attention by Evan Kohlmann, a private expert who monitors Islamic-extremist Web postings and other propaganda. Kohlmann says the site is about as close as it comes to an "official" Qaeda one, in that it has been a vehicle for the publication of "official" communiqués issued by Qaeda affiliates like the Al-Shabab movement in Somalia. Kohlmann says this is the first time he can recall an official jihadist Web site ever publishing a message from one of bin Laden's sons. A U.S. national-security official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said U.S. government experts had no reason to question the message's authenticity.

Khalid bin Laden's message, whose full text can be read in translation at Kohlmann's site here, is couched in the form of plea to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader. At the top of the message, Khalid suggests that two of his brothers, Abdur-Rahman and Umar bin Laden, had previously complained to Khamenei about the imprisonment of members of their family by authorities in Iran. Khalid says he is confirming that members of Osama's family are being held against their will by Iranian authorities and that he is demanding their release. (Osama reportedly has fathered 23 children by several wives).

Khalid says members of Osama's family, most of them women and children, had been forced into Iran in the wake of a "Crusader attack" on Afghanistan. One year after the Osama family members arrived in Iran, Khalid says, they were "rounded up" by Iranian intelligence. He adds that pleas for the family members' release were transmitted to Iranian authorities through various intermediaries, but that these fell on deaf ears.

Last year, Khalid says, one of his sisters, Iman, succeeded in fleeing from official Iranian detention and took refuge in the Saudi Embassy in Iran. Khalid chastises Iran's foreign minister for denying any knowledge of the presence in Iran of Iman bin Laden or other members of her family, "despite the fact that they had been in custody there for several years." He noted that earlier, one of his brothers, Saad bin Laden, also reportedly escaped from Iranian custody, later informing his family that other relatives held in Iran had asked to leave on a number of occasions, "only to be beaten and silenced." (Saad bin Laden was reported last year to have been killed in Pakistan in an attack by a missile fired by a CIA-operated drone aircraft.)

Khalid says that if Iranian authorities had paid enough attention to complaints from the bin Laden family about family members' mistreatment, they would have learned of the "tragedies and hardships experienced by our families in the prisons and detention centers, which in turn has led to the spread of emotional and psychological disorders among the women and children." His message adds: "We are waiting for the release of our weak and oppressed families in your custody and to the destination of their choice."

U.S. counterterrorism officials have said for years that they believed some members of Osama's family who fled Afghanistan after 9/11 had been picked up in Iran and were being held by authorities there under some form of "house arrest," along with other non-family Qaeda operatives, including a senior lieutenant to Osama known as Saif al-Adel. The conditions of their confinement have long been a subject of speculation; U.S. officials believe that while the Iranians have limited their Qaeda guests' ability to communicate with the outside world and to conduct jihadist agitation, control over them has sometimes been loose enough to allow them to smuggle out messages and to escape their captors. During the Bush administration there was speculation that Washington and Tehran might, via Saudi intermediaries, try to arrange a deal whereby bin Laden family members and Qaeda operatives held by Iran would be sent to Saudi Arabia by the ayatollahs if the U.S. would ship back to Iran members of the MEK, a cultlike paramilitary organization that wants to depose the Iranian regime, who were being held in U.S.-occupied Iraq. (No such deal was ever finalized.) U.S. experts now believe the Iranians see the bin Laden family members and other Qaeda operatives they are still holding as possible bargaining chips who can be used as leverage in dealings both with Al Qaeda and the West.

Iran, according to the Times of London, has repeatedly denied that any of bin Laden's relatives are living in the country.