Osama bin Laden’s passion for falcon hunting may have come close to doing him in two years ago, when an American falconer working with a Tajik smuggler and a team of former special forces operators planned to kidnap the fugitive terrorist during a hunt in northeastern Iran, according to one of the people involved in the scheme.
The plan was scuttled when FBI officials in Boston threatened to arrest members of the snatch team for violating the Neutrality Act — even though the State Department has been running a “Rewards for Justice” program offering private citizens up to $25 million for information leading to bin Laden’s capture or arrest, says Alan Parrot, who was in on the plot.
“Several FBI agents provided our information about Osama bin Laden’s activities and whereabouts in Iran to their hierarchy,” says Parrot, the CEO of the Union for the Conservation of Raptors, a U.S.-based conservation group that works to combat falcon smuggling.
“But when they received no response, they turned around and threatened to arrest us if we continued to plot to kidnap bin Laden on U.S. territory,” Parrot told Newsmax.
Parrot initially contacted the FBI after an informant in the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan identified a local smuggler who told him he had met bin Laden by accident during a smuggling foray into Iran in November 2004.
As Parrot and his associates grilled the informant, they learned that he was a personal friend of the smuggler, and could lead them to him so they could evaluate his information.
Parrot initially took that information to the FBI, the CIA, and to other U.S. government agencies, but got no response. He shared information with then-Congressman Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania and Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, an old family friend.
He provided Newsmax with a detailed chronology off these contacts, which included efforts on his behalf by a retired three-star general and other former U.S. government officials to get his information into the U.S. intelligence system.
Parrot’s informants in Central Asia refused to work with the U.S. government directly, fearful that they would be killed if they handed the terrorist who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks over to U.S. officials.
“They were convinced the United States government had no interest in capturing Osama bin Laden alive, and judging from my experience, they are right,” Parrot said.
The plot to kidnap bin Laden gelled in late 2006, when Parrot and his associates learned that the al-Qaida leader would be leaving his safe house north of Tehran for the falcon hunting season in the rolling steppes of northern Iran, along the border with Turkmenistan.
“The hunts followed the migratory patterns of the Houbara bustard, the favorite prey bin Laden and the Gulf Arabs hunted with their falcons,” Parrot said.
At the same time, a U.S. intelligence agency picked up “chatter” from inside Iran about preparations being made to move a very important person from Tehran to Zahedan, a center of the falcon-hunting grounds.
There was enough chatter to compile an intelligence report, which was sent up the hierarchy at the Defense Intelligence Agency, U.S. Central Command, Defense Humint, and the FBI.
The report indicated that the “individual” would be in a particular place at a particular time, and noted that several hundreds of thousands of acres of the falcon-hunting region had been set aside and closed off in preparation for his arrival.
“There was no doubt in my mind that they were expecting a big shot, and it makes sense to think it was bin Laden,” one analyst told Newsmax.
“Later, we found out that the Iranian government closed its territories to the rich Arab sheikhs who normally came to hunt there at that time of year, probably so there would be no extra eyes on their special guest,” he said.
The analyst said he took this information up through his chain of command but was told it contained “no actionable intelligence.”
Iran has a long history of reaching across the sectarian divide to work with Sunni and Wahhabi extremists who otherwise would be enemies. Iran’s support for Hamas, a Sunni Palestinian group, made headlines recently when Israeli bombed an Iranian convoy in Sudan bringing missile components to Hamas in Gaza.
Iran’s support for al-Qaida is also notorious in intelligence circles, if less widely known to the general public.
The 9/11 Commission staff discovered 75 highly classified U.S. intelligence documents detailing Iran’s support for al-Qaida before the 9/11 attacks and revealed that “8 to 10 of the Saudi ‘muscle’ hijackers traveled into or out of Iran” in the months leading up to the attacks. Iranian intelligence officers handled them in that country.
Iran’s cooperation with al-Qaida began in 1993, when Tehran sent a Revolutionary Guards general and a top terrorist, Imad Mugniyeh, to meet with Osama bin Laden in the Sudan. Information about the meeting was made public during an October 2000 court hearing in New York.
Following the meetings in Sudan, bin Laden started sending al-Qaida terrorists to Hezbollah camps in Lebanon and to Revolutionary Guards training camps in Iran, according to trial testimony by bin Laden’s former bodyguard, Ali Mohammad.
Bin Laden’s eldest son, Saad, traveled to Iran in May 2001 to coordinate details of the 9/11 attacks with top Iranian leaders, according to a former Iranian intelligence officer tasked with his personal protection at the time.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the younger bin Laden sought refuge in Iran and is believed to have remained there ever since. The United States believes that Saad "has been in some form of custody for years in Iran," a senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters this January.
Not long after the late 2006 intelligence intercept seemed to confirm bin Laden’s movement into the falcon-hunting fields in eastern Iran, an FBI team operating out of Boston approached Parrot and warned him he would face arrest if he continued to plan the snatch operation on U.S. territory, Parrot said.
John Loftus, an attorney based in St. Petersburg, Fla., who has extensive intelligence community contacts, offered his services as an intermediary with the U.S. government.
On Parrot’s behalf, he delivered a four-page, single-spaced letter to CIA Director Michael Hayden on July 13, 2007, laying out what Parrot and his informants had learned about bin Laden and asking for CIA cooperation — or at least, acquiescence — in capturing him.
The letter discussed in detail the means of tracking bin Laden during the falcon hunts, and offered to provide the U.S. government, at no expense, with videotaped surveillance footage taken from an unmanned aerial vehicle the group would charter privately in the region.
When he heard nothing back from Hayden, despite follow-up phone calls from Snow, a Maine Republican who sat on the Senate Select Intelligence committee, Loftus contacted eight current and former intelligence community executives to flag the information to them.
All eight said they were aware of Osama bin Laden’s presence in Iran and instructed Loftus to tell Parrot and his group to drop their plans to render him to the United States.
“Two of the eight agency of?cials added the ominous caveat that, if we entered Iran to kidnap or kill bin Laden when he is out in the desert falconry hunting, they would leak all the details about our activities so that an Iranian Revolutionary Guards helicopter would appear on the horizon and take all of our guys to an Iranian prison,” Parrot told Newsmax.
Parrot believes that the United States government has no interest in capturing bin Laden, since he would reveal the fact that he has been sheltered by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran since at least 2004, complicating efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations to reach a diplomatic compromise with Tehran.
In March 2008, after raising money to make a movie on falcon smuggling through his nonprofit foundation, Parrot ventured into Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union with an Icelandic film crew and a retired Canadian intelligence officer to interview the smuggler who had met bin Laden in Iran.
For lack of a better name, they called him “T-2.”
That meeting in a wild mountain village “was one of the most stressful moments of my life,” filmmaker Keli Markell told Newsmax. “Here we were, in a room in the middle of nowhere with a man who had met the world’s most wanted terrorist six times.”
Their host was wearing black from top to toe, including a balaclava, so they couldn’t see his face. “He was suspicious of the cameras — probably because he had seen too many movies about the CIA and was afraid we might be able to identify him,” said Markell, of Markell Productions.
Their informant was not afraid for himself, Markell and Parrot believe, but for the safety of his family.
Asked how he first met bin Laden in Iran, T-2 told them that he frequently crossed the border into Iran on business from the former Soviet republic where he lives.
“I was going through Iran and that's where I met him, in Eastern Iran near Baluchistan,” he said.
After that first meeting, which took place by chance in November 2004, the Tajik smuggler became friends with the Saudi terrorist, and the two met at least once a year after that.
“I met him five times after 2004,” he says in the taped interview, which Newsmax earlier screened this year. “The last time we met was in October 2007.”
The smuggler insisted that all six of his meetings with bin Laden took place inside Iran.
During the 55-minute taped interview, a ringing cell phone frequently interrupted their masked host. Again and again, he let it ring a few times, then silenced the phone, whose ringtone was an eerie rendering of the Muslim call to prayer.
“Later, we asked the man who had set up the interview whether the cell phone calls were some kind of security procedure,” Markell recalled.
“He said, yes, and told us that dozens of armed men were waiting at entrance and exit to the building and that they would have stormed in like a SWAT team if T-2 hadn’t responded as arranged to the regular cell phone calls.”
Whenever bin Laden goes falcon hunting, the Iranian regime places one of his sons under house arrest at bin Laden’s residence north of Tehran to make sure he will return, Parrot said.
The movement of bin Laden’s son was to have been the signal that would set the kidnap plan into motion.
In January, the U.S. Treasury Department placed Saad bin Laden on its international terrorism list, and officials said they believed the Iranian regime was sheltering him.
Read “US. Treasury: Al-Qaida Worked Closely With Iran,” http://www.newsmax.com/timmerman/Al_Qaida_Iran_/2009/01/19/173042.html
But outgoing National Intelligence Director Adm. Mike McConnell said during his final news conference before leaving office in January, Saad bin Laden had left Iran, probably in September — the beginning of the falconry season — after living there since shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
For the past eight months, Parrot has had extensive discussions with the Iranian embassy in Brazil, after other Iranian embassies around the world cut off contact with him.
At times, they spoke three times a day. Parrot was trying to persuade the Iranians to allow him to come to Iran to discuss a plan for expelling Osama bin Laden without killing him or turning him over directly to the United States.
In a letter he sent to Ambassador Mohsen Shaterzadeh on March 26, which Parrot made available to Newsmax, Parrot suggested that Iran render Bin Laden to Prince Saud al -Faisal, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, who would “personally fly to Tehran to receive UBL.”
Parrot said he was in contact with Prince Saud and has met with him in his office in Djeddah to discuss the al Qaeda presence at the royal falconry camps.
“I’ve spoken to ambassador Shaterzadeh many times about this,” Parrot said. “My strategy is to make them realize there is no way they can plausibly deny that they are sheltering bin Laden in Iran, but also to show them a way out of this dilemma.”
After Parrot reiterated two weeks ago that Iran would pay a high diplomatic price if it failed to “surrender” bin Laden, an aide to ambassador Shaterzadeh thanked him for “bringing a peaceful solution for a difficult matter.”
Parrot became a Sikh at the age of 22, after a Christian upbringing on the coast of Maine. Even before attending Cornell University from 1979-1981, he had started working for the Shah of Iran and for wealthy sheikhs in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
In 1981, he accepted an offer from Sheikh Zahed bin Sultan al-Nahayyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates, and went to the Arctic to trap falcons with Inuit Eskimos and fly them to Dubai for the royal hunts.
“One day I was in minus-50-degree weather standing on ice 8 feet deep, and two days later, I was in the desert where it was 100 degrees,” Parrot recalled.
Part of his job was to train Sheikh Zayed’s children in the arts of falconry. Among his students was the current ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.
But along the way, Parrot earned the ire of many royals because of his determination to protect the falcons they used for hunting, as well as the bald eagles and Housbara bustard they decimated during massive, mechanized hunts in the wilds of Balouchestan, straddling the border between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.
During these royal hunts in the 1990s, Parrot first learned that a wealthy Saudi named Osama bin Laden was a frequent guest of Sheikh Zayed and other UAE royals at their camps in Pakistan and Iran.
Thus began an odyssey to find the renegade Saudi that has lasted nearly a decade.
Bin laden’s presence at a royal hunting camp in the desert south of Kandahar, Afghanistan, during a royal hunt in February 1999 also attracted the attention of the Central intelligence Agency, which had been authorized to assassinate bin Laden under an executive order President Clinton signed after bin Laden bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa in July 1998.
According to the 9/11 commission, the CIA was all set to call in airstrikes against the royal hunting camp on Feb. 8 , 1999, when satellite imagery revealed the presence of a military aircraft belonging to the UAE foreign minister, Sheikh Hamdan.
Former National Security Council counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke told the commission he canceled the airstrike because the intelligence was “dubious.”
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