Pakistan and the United States declared a major victory against al-Qaida yesterday with the capture of its purported No. 3 official, a Libyan...
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistan and the United States declared a major victory against al-Qaida yesterday with the capture of its purported No. 3 official, a Libyan named Abu Faraj al-Libbi. The arrest was “a critical victory in the war on terror,” President Bush said.
Pakistan’s government has said al-Libbi organized two bomb attacks against President Pervez Musharraf, and U.S. officials described him as al-Qaida’s operations chief. Officials of both governments said Pakistani forces seized al-Libbi in recent days with the help of U.S. intelligence, but Pakistani authorities gave scant and partly conflicting accounts of the capture.
Bush said in Washington that “al-Libbi was a top general for [Osama] bin Laden … a major facilitator and a chief planner for the al-Qaida network. His arrest removes a dangerous enemy who is a direct threat to America.”
Intelligence officials said al-Libbi had assumed the role of operations chief after the arrest in Pakistan of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in March 2003.
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“This is the most significant takedown of a senior al-Qaida leader since” Mohammed, a U.S. counterterrorism official said. Still, al-Libbi and his role in al-Qaida are little-known. His name emerged publicly as an al-Qaida leader only eight months ago.
Officials in Peshawar and Mohammed Sadiq, Pakistan’s deputy ambassador in Washington, said al-Libbi was arrested in Mardan, a city 30 miles northeast of Peshawar. But other officials said he was seized in South Waziristan, a district on the border with Afghanistan about 170 miles southwest of Peshawar. Several accounts said he was arrested after a heavy gunbattle, a detail denied by the information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed.
By various reports, the arrest happened as late as yesterday or as early as two weeks ago. The counterterrorism official said the seizure came a few days ago, after the CIA and Pakistan had worked on the case for “several months.”
Human intelligence — meaning information from people with knowledge about al-Libbi, rather than from electronic eavesdropping — “played a critical role” in al-Libbi’s capture, the official said.
Ahmed and the interior minister, Aftab Sherpao, separately met reporters to announce the arrest. At his news conference, Sherpao held up a color mug shot of al-Libbi backed up against a tiled wall, looking dour, his beard shaggy and his face mottled by a skin-pigmentation disorder.
The photo was a contrast with the one on a Pakistani “wanted” poster issued in August that first made al-Libbi a known figure. Then he wore a crisp suit and tie; his beard and hair were neatly trimmed.
In August, Ahmed said al-Libbi was one of two al-Qaida “masterminds” behind two assassination attempts against Musharraf in December 2003. The government offered a 20 million rupee ($330,000) reward for information leading to his arrest.
The other man named as a mastermind of the attacks, Amjad Hussein Farooqi, died in a shootout with police in September. Farooqi also was involved in the kidnapping and murder of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.
Yesterday, Ahmed described al-Libbi as “the planner, as far as al-Qaida was concerned” of the bombings that narrowly missed Musharraf’s motorcades. The second bombing shredded other vehicles and killed at least 15 people.
Pakistani officials voiced hope that al-Libbi’s arrest would yield information to let them quickly arrest other al-Qaida activists.
In Peshawar, terrorism analysts said security forces had conducted a large raid yesterday in the Bajaur tribal district nearby, arresting several suspected militants, Pakistanis and foreigners alike.
Pakistan gave no clear sign of what will happen to al-Libbi. He faces charges arising from the assassination attempts against Musharraf. Sherpao, the interior minister, said it was too early to say whether he might be handed over to the United States for its pursuit of al-Qaida internationally.
The announcement of the arrests followed the visit in Islamabad on Monday of Gen. John Abizaid, the chief of the U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Mike Jackson, the British chief of general staff. Both were briefed on the arrest.
Newsday reporter Knut Royce contributed to this story. Information on Daniel Pearl from Reuters and on Gen. Abizaid from The Washington Post.