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The conviction is gaining ground in some Western intelligence agencies that Osama bin Laden, his family, Ayman al-Zawahiri and thousands of al-Qaida fighters made good their escape from Afghanistan through the illicit sea route created by Lebanese-Iranian super terrorist Imad Mughniyeh for smuggling operations in the service of terrorist organizations.
They are believed to have made their getaway from Afghanistan in the first week of December, crossing secretly into Iran and heading out through the Persian Gulf – only to disappear again.
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According to the latest findings, the two top al-Qaida executives have most probably gone to ground somewhere in Saudi Arabia, one of the Gulf emirates or East Africa. The discovery that al-Qaeda was being allowed to escape through Iran prompted President Bush’s blunt warning to Iran last Thursday against harboring "al-Qaida murderers." It also explains why, following the discovery of the Karine-A smuggling vessel with a cargo of Iranian arms, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the first time defined Iran as a dire menace to Israel, even more than the Palestinians.
On Dec. 8, WorldNetDaily reported, based on Debka sources, that, in late November, bin Laden had packed his family out of Afghanistan to Pakistan. According to accumulating intelligence, he moved his family so as to draw his American searchers' attention away from his real escape route, which a week later took him and al-Zawahiri from Afghanistan directly into Iran.
Bin Laden and his top lieutenants had been gone from Afghanistan two weeks when the U.S. Special Forces-Pashtun Tora Bora search-and-kill operation was at its peak. The fugitives left through southwest Afghanistan. On Dec. 1, they were sighted at Gandalak south of Herat, where they rendezvoused with Mughniyeh’s men who guided them across the border between the Afghan towns of Ghurian and Kenar e-Kopeh a few days later.
Moving under the protection of and with logistical assistance, vehicles and guidance from Iranian intelligence officers, bin Laden and party reached Sanjan in northeast Iran Dec. 7, from whence they headed south to the Iranian military airfield of Bir Jand. The last lap of their journey through Iran brought al-Qaida leaders to Bandar Abbas, Iran's big naval and air base on the Persian Gulf.
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Intelligence sources believe that the ferry which carried the Iranian arms freight from Bandar Abbas to the Iranian island of Kish, for loading aboard the Karine-A, also brought bin Laden and his men to the vessel that took them to their onward destinations: a Persian Gulf port, one of the Yemeni or Saudi Red Sea ports, the Horn of Africa or East Africa.
Mughniyeh’s arms-smuggling fleet is believed to consist of six to eight cargo vessels. One was the Karine-A captured by the Israeli navy ten days ago with its contraband arms freight. The containers aboard the other ships are thought to have carried al-Qaida and Egyptian Jihad Islami fugitives.
These discoveries make it clear that Iran was up to its neck in the al-Qaida escape conspiracy. Imad Mughniyeh, top terrorist operations chief for Iran’s radical spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, organized the logistics; the escapees were led overland through Iran to its main Gulf outlet, under the protection of Iranian intelligence officers. Bin Laden and company sailed from an Iranian port to their new hideouts aboard vessels of the same smuggling fleet that delivered Iranian arms to the Palestinian Authority.