Khalid al-Harbi, an aide to Osama bin Laden held by Iran, had been aware of the Islamic government’s decision to hand him over to Saudi Arabia for two weeks, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps's intelligence unit stalled the handover, despite pressure from President Khatami and intelligence minister Yunesi, according to a source in President Khatami’s office, quoted by London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq-al-Awsat. July 15, 2004 - A source in President Khatami’s office told the London Arabic daily Asharq-al-Awsat that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)’s intelligence unit, which handles al-Qaeda cases, resisted pressure from the office of President Mohammad Khatami and intelligence minister Ali Yunesi to extradict to Saudi Arabia Muhammad Khalid al-Harbi, an aid to al-Qaeda leader, to Saudi Arabia.
"The Islamic government authorities asked Harbi to choose between surrendering voluntarily or facing deportation to Riyadh," the source said.
However, after a meeting in Tehran between Saudi justice minister Abdullah al-Sheikh and judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahroudi the situation changed, the souce added. The talks "resulted in signing a memorandum of cooperation between the two judicial authorities... Hashemi then joined Khatami in calling for handing Saudi members of al-Qaeda to the kingdom", the source said.
Harbi entered Iran illegally "from a neighbouring country" and was "handed over to his country at his own request," foreign ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi said on Tuesday. "Under the security accords between the two countries and at the request of the concerned person, measures were adopted for this person, who had no identity document, to return to his country," Asefi said.
Al-Harbi, who has lost the use of both his legs in fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, submitted himself to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, using the one-month amnesty window offered by Saudi government.
In a statement, the Saudi interior ministry said al-Harbi contacted the Saudi Embassy in Tehran from the Iranian-Afghan border, where he was stranded. It was not disclosed what al-Harbi was wanted for, and his name does not appear on the Saudi's list of 26 most-wanted militants.
Khaled bin Ouda bin Mohammed al-Harbi, a potentially valuable asset in the war on terror because of his closeness to bin Laden, was shown on Saudi TV being pushed in a wheelchair through the Riyadh airport. Harbi was last seen in a November 2001 video listening to Osama's boasting about the "success" of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Some al-Qaida operatives close to bin Laden - notably Khalid Shaikh Mohammed - have provided vital intelligence to US officials seeking top terror suspects and clues to attack plots. However, he is in American custody, and it was not immediately clear how much access US authorities would have to al-Harbi or his interrogation.
The US is "very interested in learning any information they might get from this man turning himself in, very interested in any information that they can acquire about terrorist actions and possible terrorist actions," US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on Wednesday.
"We think the Saudis have been very resolute in their pursuit of terrorists," he said. "They've had a number of successes. They've also suffered a number of attacks and suffered some deaths among their security people who've been going after the terrorists," he added.
Al-Harbi - also known as Abu Suleiman al-Makki - is considered a sounding board for the al-Qaida chief rather than an operational planner for his terror network, an unnamed US counterterrorism official told AP. AP quoted another US official who said al-Harbi was not a senior member of al-Qaida.