Saad bin Laden: The Key to Iranian-al-Qaeda Detente?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 31

On July 28, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard reportedly released Osama bin Laden’s 27 year-old son, Saad bin Laden, according to the German newspaper Die Welt. Saad had been held under house arrest in Iran, along with other al-Qaeda figures who were arrested in round-ups by Iranian intelligence services during the past two years. Iran did not previously confirm that they were holding top al-Qaeda figures—allegedly also including al-Qaeda strategist Sayf al-Adil—but it was widely speculated that they sought to exchange these prisoners with the United States for guarantees of U.S. non-aggression, which Washington rejected.

The UAE-based al-Elaph reports that Iran has dispatched Saad bin Laden to the Syrian-Lebanese border to build cells for Hezbollah from among the refugees in camps in the region. The al-Elaph article, “From al-Zarqawi’s Islamic Emirate to Saad bin Laden,” also reported that that the move may signify a step toward realizing al-Qaeda’s longer-term strategy of establishing an Islamic state, or emirate (a principality), which was under the supervision of former al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killed by U.S. air strikes in June. Despite this, there is no reliable confirmation of Iranian cooperation with al-Qaeda. Rather, the consensus among analysts and officials is that this move could represent a temporary alliance between two enemies—Shiite Iran and the Salafi-Jihadist groups of the al-Qaeda network—to confront U.S.-Israeli forces in the region.

As has been witnessed by the outbreak of war between Israel and Hezbollah, Muslim public opinion has largely looked past the Sunni-Shiite divide during times of crisis. In this case, Sunni groups have rallied behind Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as a champion for Muslims against Israeli aggression. Al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri’s most recent video statement also supports this trend, in which he urged Muslims everywhere to “fight and become martyrs” and for “all oppressed and wronged people in the world, the victims of Western oppressive civilization led by America: stand by Muslims in the face of this injustice which humanity has never witnessed before in response to the conflict in Lebanon” (Terrorism Focus, August 1).

Yet, the meaning and intention of al-Zawahiri’s words is the subject of much debate among the mujahideen and their sympathizers. In a posting entitled “Who are the ‘Oppressed and wronged of the world’ that Sheikh al-Zawahiri spoke about?” on the Tajdeed Islamic forums, the author first addresses the Western media’s interpretation of al-Zawahiri’s speech (http://tajdeed.org.uk/forums/). He states: “As soon as the speech of Sheikh Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri—God preserve him—about the events in Palestine and Lebanon had been spread around the American and Safavid (Iranian) media, they rushed to say that al-Zawahiri praised the treacherous Shiites in general and Hezb al-Lat (the party of gods) in particular!” Clearly, the Salafi-Jihadist audience does not recognize a major shift in al-Qaeda policy toward the Shiites resulting from al-Zawahiri’s statement, but rather a method of reaching out to the oppressed in the third world to join in their ranks. Such a reconciliation with the Shiites would indeed be a significant about-face in the fundamental doctrine of the Salafi movement, which has, since its beginnings more than two centuries ago, regarded Shiites as outside the fold of Islam. The reference to “party of gods” reflects their view of the Shiites as polytheists, the most serious offense in Islam.

An informal poll on the Lahdud forums sought to clarify which camp the mujahideen were in, and to clarify the Shiite position, asking, “Are the Shiites fighting in one united front, and fighting for whom and against whom?” (http://www.la7odood.com/vb). The post also attempted to poll readers as to which group they belonged regarding the best strategy for the Muslim nation: Group A, where Iranian/Hezbollah cooperates with Sunni groups; or Group B, where al-Qaeda is at the forefront of establishing an Islamic state and Hezbollah is purely the agent of furthering Shiite-Persian designs on the Middle East. The results of the poll were mixed; some chose to respond with statements like “I am with anyone fighting the Americans and Israelis and against anyone fighting Muslims,” reflecting the complexity of the situation and the lack of consensus among the Sunni ulema in this particular case of cooperation with the Shiites.

Beyond this confusion and speculation about Iranian/Shiite motives, however, lies a deep-seeded suspicion of the Shiites among many Sunnis, particularly those of the Salafi movement. Al-Zawahiri’s statement, consistent with the pan-Islamic rhetoric of al-Qaeda’s top leaders in the past, is clearly intended to de-prioritize doctrinal differences in favor of a unified defense of the Muslim umma. Moreover, the release of Saad bin Laden, effectively under the condition that he act as an agent for Iran, may warm relations between al-Qaeda and Iran in the short-term. Yet, it is unclear how long this temporary alliance will last or exactly what shape it will take as violence continues in the Levant. It is widely anticipated that if Saad was indeed released and is now commanding groups on the Syrian border, it will be the subject of his father’s next communiqué.