Sa'ad bin Laden, one of the al-Qa'ida leader's 23 children, has emerged as a senior figure within the terror network and has directed a number of recent attacks from inside Iran where he has been given refuge by religious hardliners, according to US intelligence. Among those attacks was the bombing in Saudi Arabia last May in which 35 people were killed.
Within the last year, Sa'ad - English-speaking and computer literate - has increasingly become a focus of the CIA, FBI and others trying to harry and disrupt the network. Some experts believe the young man - aged in his mid 20s and one Osama bin Laden's eldest sons - is being groomed to take over from his father.
"Sa'ad is touted as his father's stand-in," said Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism analyst with the Washington-based Congressional Research Service.
"Because his father is incommunicado, a lot of people are looking to Sa'ad to give instructions." US and Saudi authorities believe that for close to a year Sa'ad has been operating from inside Iran, where he has been given refuge by an elite security force loyal to the nation's conservative clerics and known as the Jerusalem Force. The force is also said to be giving refuge to a number of other senior al-Qa'ida figures, including Saif al-Adel, accused of being al-Qa'ida chief of military operations, and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, the chief financial operative.
Iran has issued various, conflicting reports, saying that it is "holding" certain suspected al-Qa'ida figures, without giving details. But earlier this year the Saudi ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, accused of Iran of refusing to cooperate with those hunting al-Qa'ida.
"My government has been requesting that they hand over any members of al-Qa'ida that we have information are terrorists or are Saudi citizens," he said. "The Iranian government has told us that they are not supporting al-Qa'ida and not cooperating with them. But those people are there [in Iran], and somebody must be helping them. The question is 'who?'. And this is the problem with Iran. The people who we can deal with can't deliver - they can't lead eight ducks across the street." Given suspicions about Iran's nuclear ambitions and America's inclusion of the country in the "axis of evil", there are those who have expressed suspicions about the timing of the latest claim linking Tehran and Mr bin Laden's son, which was reported prominently yesterday by the Washington Post . Others say Iran is using the al-Qa'ida operatives as leverage in its efforts to force the US to close the Iraqi training camps of the Mujahedeen Khalq, an Iranian guerrilla force that was armed by Saddam Hussein and is seeking to undermine the Iranian authorities.
Dr John Calabrese, an analyst with the Middle East Institute, said the issue highlighted the problem of dealing with Iran's multi-layered authorities and how President Mohammad Khatami held only limited power. "If these people are in Iran they are likely being given refuge by people Khatami does not really have any hold over." Stories about Sa'ad and his rising prominence in al Qa'ida have been circulated by the Americans for more than a year. His mother is the first of bin Laden's five wives, Najwa Ghanem, a Syrian who was also Osama's cousin. He appears to be unusually close to his father and according to reports, he spent part of his boyhood with him in Afghanistan during the mujahadin's CIA-backed war against the Soviet occupation.
When Osama bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia in 1989, but left in 1991 to settle in Sudan, Sa'ad is believed to have accompanied him. And they also reportedly returned together to Afghanistan in 1996.
Yesterday's claims are not the first to tie Sa'ad to the May bombing in Riyadh. Two months ago, the Washington Times, quoting a "western diplomat", reported that two days before the bombing Sa'ad made a call by satellite telephone from Iran to a member of the cell that carried out the attack.
The recipient of the call, said to be a Saudi, was later arrested, it said.
Other reports claimed Pentagon sources said they believed that Sa'ad made the telephone call. Other reports have linked him to the bomb attack in Casablanca, Morocco, last May in which 45 people were killed.
Bruce Hoffman, an analyst with the Rand Corporation, said: "It is precisely in the mid-level that al-Qa'ida has taken so many hits. Because of his competence and his tribal and familial ties he is going to be very attractive [as a successor to Mr bin Laden]." Last November, Iran said that one of bin Laden's sons was among 20 people whom it arrested and deported for entering the country illegally two months earlier - although it did not say which son. There were reports that Sa'ad was among them and had been dispatched to Pakistan.Reuse content