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Top Al-Qaida Officials, Fighters Harbored in Iran Border Cities

By Peter Finn
THE WASHINGTON POST -- jiddah, Saudi arabia

Two figures who have assumed critical roles in the al-Qaida hierarchy in recent months, including one reported dead by the Pentagon, are being sheltered in Iran along with dozens of other al-Qaida fighters in hotels and guesthouses in the border cities of Mashhad and Zabol, according to Arab intelligence sources.

The two -- Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian on the FBI’s most-wanted list, and Mahfouz Ould Walid, also known as Abu Hafs the Mauritanian, whom U.S. officials reported had been killed near the eastern Afghan city of Khost in January -- are directly involved in planning al-Qaida terrorist operations, according to the intelligence sources, who are outside Saudi Arabia and didn’t want their names or countries disclosed.

With Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman Zawahiri, in hiding, the sources said, and with the death of the former military chief, Muhammad Atef, the two have assumed operational control of al-Qaida’s military committee, which directs attacks, and its ideological or religious committee, which issues fatwas, or statements, to justify those attacks.

The idea of the transfer of power arose after the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, when it became apparent to al-Qaida that the United States might attack Afghanistan and capture or kill some of its senior leaders, the sources said. The need to put the transfer into practice became even more apparent in March with the capture in Pakistan of Abu Zubaida, a Palestinian and senior al-Qaida planner.

The sources also said that one of bin Laden’s sons, Saad, who’s in his early twenties, is being groomed as his father’s successor because of the symbolism offered by the idea of a dynasty. And while the sources said that Saad hasn’t assumed a formal position, he has increasingly been communicating with operatives worldwide in order to burnish his standing with them.

Dozens of other al-Qaida fighters, and possibly more, are also staying in a cluster of hotels in Mashhad, in northeastern Iran near the borders with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, and in guesthouses in Zabol, about 400 miles farther south on the Iranian-Afghan border, the sources said.

The report from these sources supported the Bush administration’s long-standing assertion that Iran -- or at least hard-liners in the conservative clerical line of authority that controls the army and intelligence services -- is harboring al-Qaida fighters.