WASHINGTON – U.S. officials say they believe Iran recently gave new freedoms to as many as five top Al Qaeda operatives who have been under house arrest, including the option to leave the country, and may have provided some material aid to the terrorist group.
The men, who were detained in Iran in 2003, make up Al Qaeda's so-called management council, a group that includes members of the inner circle that advised Usama bin Laden and an explosives expert widely considered a candidate for a top post in the organization.
The assertions are likely to amplify tensions between Washington and Tehran. A U.S. Senate committee on Thursday moved to intensify sanctions to force Iran into negotiations on its nuclear program, while Tehran has largely defied pressure. This week, Iran prevented UN nuclear inspectors from gaining access to sites and scientists, according to diplomats.
Skeptics caution that intelligence on Iran's activities is limited and worry that some policy makers might use provocative reports to justify military action against Tehran. Iran has denied any connection with Al Qaeda.
U.S. officials believe there have been recent indications that officials in the Iranian government have provided Al Qaeda operatives in Iran limited assistance, including logistical help, money and cars, according to a person briefed on the developments.