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Saudis: Bin Laden associate surrenders

Video showed al-Harbi talking to al Qaeda leader about 9/11

Khaled al-Harbi arrives Tuesday in Saudi Arabia.
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Bin Laden aide Khaled al-Harbi surrenders to the Saudis.
Saudi Arabia
Acts of terror
Osama Bin Laden

(CNN) -- A longtime associate of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden surrendered to Saudi Arabian officials Tuesday, a Saudi Interior Ministry official said.

But it is unclear what role, if any, Khaled al-Harbi may have had in any terror attacks because no public charges have been filed against him.

And though a Saudi security official called al-Harbi "a big fish," a U.S. intelligence official told CNN he was "not particularly significant."

Al-Harbi fought with bin Laden against the Soviets in Afghanistan more than 20 years ago. Saudi officials said they believe al-Harbi returned to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and joined up with al Qaeda.

He was believed to be living near the Iran-Afghanistan border when he contacted the Saudi Embassy in Tehran to surrender

The Saudi government -- in a statement released by its embassy in Washington -- called al-Harbi's surrender "the latest direct result" of its limited, one-month offer of leniency to terror suspects.

A Saudi security official, however, told CNN that al-Harbi's case is a "tricky situation" because he is not charged with any attacks covered by the offer, and therefore is likely not eligible.

The offer was made June 23 and applied specifically to suspects in attacks inside Saudi Arabia, an official said, not to those wanted for attacks in other countries.

Sympathizer or terrorist?

Al-Harbi has never been charged with any attacks inside Saudi Arabia, he said. The Saudi official said it is unlikely he would be allowed to go free.

Nonetheless, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador to the United States, said the arrest was evidence that his government's strategy against terrorism is working.

"The latest surrender of another suspect proves that our offer is having its desired effect," Bandar said. "These suspects are surrendering peacefully, and we hope that this trend continues for the final 10 days."

The leniency offer would exempt terror suspects from the death penalty in Saudi Arabia but not from civil suits by victims' families.

A U.S. intelligence official described al-Harbi as "an extremist, yes, but an operational terrorist, no." The official said he is a "sympathizer" and "spiritual adviser," but that he is "not particularly significant."

Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal called him "the standby cleric of bin Laden to whom bin Laden turned for advice and religious fatwas when he needed them."

"He could not walk and that probably prevented him from any actual terrorist attacks, although being with bin Laden and being in the cult of bin Laden, he probably participated in providing religious fatwas that condoned the crimes that bin Laden committed." Turki said.

'Felt that we were welcomed'

On a videotape shot in late 2001, al-Harbi was shown speaking with bin Laden about the attacks of September 11, 2001.

"Hundreds of people used to doubt you and few only would follow you until this huge event happened," al-Harbi tells bin Laden on the videotape. "Now hundreds of people are coming out to join you."

On that tape, bin Laden implies responsibility for the attacks on New York's World Trade Center.

"We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors," he said.

"I was the most optimistic of them all," bin Laden said.

"I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only. This is all that we had hoped for."

Al-Harbi was flown Tuesday from Tehran to Saudi Arabia, where he made a statement broadcast on Saudi television.

"I called the embassy and we felt that we were welcomed, they were among family. Thank God for this blessing," he said.

"I came because I abide by the word of God and that of the caretaker of the holy sites. This initiative from the caretaker of the holy sites and the king is an opportunity. And our country is the country of Islam.

"Undoubtedly, it is an opportunity any logical man would thank God -- every logical man should take advantage of this opportunity," he said.

Video broadcast Tuesday by Al-Arabiya showed al-Harbi, who is paralyzed below the waist, being carried from the plane and placed in a wheelchair.

The Saudi Embassy's statement noted two other surrenders since the offer was made to terror suspects.

"Sa'aban bin Mohammed bin Abdullah Al-Lailahi Al-Shihri, who had been wanted in a security-related case for two years, became the first militant to accept the offer and surrender to authorities," the Saudi statement said.

"On June 28, Osman Hadi Al Maqboul Almery Alomary, also suspected of involvement in terrorist activity and one of the men on a list of Saudi Arabia's 26 most-wanted, became the second militant to surrender under the terms of the government's offer."

CNN's Caroline Faraj in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Nic Robertson, Henry Schuster and David Ensor contributed to this report.

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