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Iran holds Al Qaeda's top leaders

Tehran's custody of bin Laden's son and others is a blow to the terrorist organization.

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While much of the world is focused on US soldiers closing in on Saddam Hussein in Iraq, a much less-noticed but possibly even more important roundup is taking place in Iraq's neighbor to the east, Iran.

The Tehran government is holding several top-level Al Qaeda operatives that, experts say, could lead to the biggest breakthrough in curtailing the organization since the fall of Afghanistan.

Though the Iranians haven't mentioned any names, intelligence officials and press reports indicate they've captured Saad bin Laden, Osama bin Laden's son, who has assumed a leadership role; Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the Al Qaeda spokesman; and Saif al-Adel, the latest No. 3 who is believed to be in charge of military operations.

Even more significant, according to one Western intelligence official, Tehran is also holding Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is known as an Islamic fundamentalist intellectual and eloquent speaker for the organization. While some US intelligence sources have expressed doubt that Iran really has Dr. Zawahiri, the European official says Tehran "absolutely" has him.

If so, his capture, along with that of the other top members, would deal a major blow to the terrorist network. "Zawahiri would be an incredible blow," says Stanley Bedlington, a former senior analyst in the CIA's counterterrorism center. "All four of them would be a tremendous blow.... Al Qaeda will continue to rebuild, but it will take a lot of time to get new leadership with those sorts of skills and experience."

Whether Iran will hand them over is another question. The senior Western intelligence official says a European country is involved in negotiating some kind of turnover now. It would be difficult for Iran to directly turn them over to the US for the obvious political considerations: It is an Islamic country named as both a sponsor of terrorism and a member of the "axis of evil" by the US.

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