Bin Laden confidant surrenders under Saudi amnesty offer
Associated Press Writer
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) – A confidant of Osama bin Laden surrendered to Saudi diplomats in Iran and was flown to the kingdom Tuesday, a potentially valuable asset in the war on terror because of his closeness to the fugitive al-Qaida chief.
Khaled bin Ouda bin Mohammed al-Harby, a crippled sheik, was shown on Saudi TV being pushed in a wheelchair through the Riyadh airport. He is the most important figure to surface under a Saudi amnesty promising to spare the lives of militants who turn themselves in.
“Thank God, thank God … I called the embassy and we were very well-received,” al-Harby told Saudi TV in the airport terminal. “I have come obeying God, and obeying the (kingdom’s) rulers.”
Al-Harby – also known as Abu Suleiman al-Makky – is considered a sounding board for the al-Qaida chief rather than an operational planner for his terror network, a U.S. counterterrorism official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another U.S. official said al-Harby was not a senior member of al-Qaida. The official, who declined to be identified, called him “an aging mujahideen.”
Decades ago, al-Harby fought the Soviets in Afghanistan – reportedly alongside bin Laden – and it is believed he lost his legs there. Al-Harby was seen in a videotape that emerged about two months after Sept. 11, seated with bin Laden at a dinner where the al-Qaida leader talked about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
At the gathering, bin Laden praised the Sept. 11 attacks and credited them with inspiring conversions to Islam.
“We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed, based on the position of the tower. We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors,” bin Laden said on the tape.
“I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only. This is all that we had hoped for.”
In a statement, the Interior Ministry said al-Harby contacted the Saudi Embassy in Tehran from the Iranian-Afghan border, where he was stranded. It was not disclosed what al-Harby was wanted for, and his name does not appear on the kingdom’s list of 26 most-wanted militants.
Some al-Qaida operatives close to bin Laden – notably Khalid Shaikh Mohammed – have provided vital intelligence to U.S. officials seeking top terror suspects and clues to attack plots. However, he is in American custody, and it was not immediately clear how much access U.S. authorities would have to al-Harby or his interrogation.
Wearing traditional white robes and Arab headdress, al-Harby was carried off the plane before being put in a wheelchair. He was accompanied by his wife, dressed all in black, and their son, a Saudi security official said.
The Interior Ministry said al-Harby will be taken to a hospital for medical care. It did not elaborate on his condition.
Al-Harby is the third man to take advantage of the monthlong amnesty that King Fahd offered militants on June 23. One of the other militants who surrendered under the amnesty is Othman Hadi Al Maqboul al-Amri, No. 21 on Saudi Arabia’s most-wanted list.
Al-Harby described the amnesty as a “generous offer” and urged other militants to take advantage of it.
Separately, Interior Minister Prince Nayef acknowledged for the first time Tuesday that Saudis had infiltrated neighboring Iraq to join the insurgency against U.S.-led forces.
“Surely, there are Saudis,” Prince Nayef told reporters late Monday of the foreign fighters detained in Iraq. “But the number, and how (they got in to Iraq) is not available to us now.”
His statement came after repeated denials of Iraqi reports that that Saudis are fighting in the insurgency.
Iraq’s Human Rights Minister Bakhtiyar Amin said Monday there were 14 Saudis among 99 foreign fighters in detention. Also, Saudi newspapers have published obituaries and funeral reports for at least four Saudis said to have died fighting in Iraq.
Prince Nayef said hundreds of other militants have been detained and some have already been convicted in court. He did not provide exact numbers, but he said more trials were coming.
Nayef warned there would be no extension to the amnesty that expires July 23, and declared that the kingdom’s fight against terror is not over.
Since May 2003, the country has suffered a series of suicide bombings, gunbattles and kidnappings that tended to target foreign workers. The attacks have been blamed on al-Qaida and its sympathizers.
“There are still things we have to deal with, and we should not be surprised if anything happens,” Nayef said. “We are totally prepared to face any emergency.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Bush administration has been pressing for better border control. “We’ve worked for a long time with all the neighbors of Iraq to try to get better control at the borders,” he said.
Iraq is expected to raise the subject of infiltration at a gathering of foreign ministers of neighboring states that will be held July 21 in Cairo, Egypt. Besides the Saudis, Iraq has said it has in custody 26 Syrians, 14 Iranians, 12 Egyptians, nine Sudanese, five Palestinians, five Yemenis, five Jordanians, five Tunisians, a Lebanese, a Moroccan, a Turk and an Afghan.