July 23, 2003 -- The CIA has determined that al Qaeda's No. 3 leader and top military commander, Saif Al-Adel, has been in custody in Iran for several weeks, U.S. officials told ABCNEWS.
The detention of Al-Adel, an Egyptian national who is also thought to be affiliated with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, is considered to be another major blow to Osama bin Laden's terror organization.
Officials say he fled to Iran last year to avoid U.S. forces searching for him in neighboring Afghanistan, but continued to operate.
"He is the person that would be in charge of operations for al Qaeda at this particular moment," said Jack Cloonan, a former FBI agent who is now an ABCNEWS consultant. "He is very close to bin Laden. … He would know where bin Laden is at this moment."
Blamed in Somali, Saudi Attacks
The United States has been looking for Al-Adel since 1993, following his role in the ambush of U.S. forces and helicopters in Mogadishu, Somalia — the famed "Black Hawk Down" incident in which 18 Americans died.
"There was a four- or five-man team inside Mogadishu, operating for bin Laden," said Cloonan. "Saif Al-Adel was the commander."
Al-Adel is believed to have been behind the deadly bombing attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May. It was pressure from Saudi Arabia that led Iran to detain Al-Adel, U.S. officials also told ABCNEWS. Officials believe Al-Adel, who is on the FBI's list of most-wanted terrorists, directed the Saudi attacks from Iran.
According to the FBI Web site, Al-Adel also is wanted in connection with the Aug. 7, 1998, bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the official al Qaeda spokesman who threatened more attacks in the weeks just after Sept. 11, 2001, has also been confirmed to be in Iranian custody. The United States is now pressing the Iranians to turn the two men over to their home countries, Egypt and Kuwait.
The CIA had no comment, but from the point of view of U.S. law enforcement, as long as Al-Adel is out of action, it's another major victory against bin Laden.