May 29, 2008— -- Senior U.S. officials tell ABC News that in recent months there have been secret contacts between the Iranian government and the leadership of al Qaeda. It's a development that has caught the attention of top officials in the White House, the Pentagon and the intelligence community.
According to U.S. officials familiar with highly sensitive intelligence on this issue, the contacts are on the status of high-level al Qaeda operatives, including two of Osama Bin Laden's sons, who have been under house arrest in Iran since 2003. The officials don't believe Iran will allow these operatives to go free, but said they don't know Iran's motivation for initiating the talks.
"The Iranians know there would be hell to pay if these guys were set free," a U.S. official told ABC News.
"Iran likely sees these individuals, as major bargaining chips," says another official. "How and when they're going to use those chips or whether they are going to keep them in the bank is part of an ongoing strategic discussion they are having internally."
The fate of these al Qaeda operatives has been one of the most intriguing mysteries in the war on terror. Shortly after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, al Qaeda's central leadership broke into two groups. U.S. intelligence believes that one group, headed by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, fled to the east to find safe haven in Pakistan's tribal areas. The second group, headed by an Egyptian named Saif al Adel, went west to Iran. This second group, which intelligence analysts say includes al Qaeda's management council, or "shura," includes about two dozen militants, including Adel, al Qaeda spokesman Suliman abu Ghaith and some of bin Laden's relatives, including two of his sons, Saad and Hamza.