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A Key Al Qaeda Suspect Captured

Afghanistan: Son of cleric convicted in N.Y. bomb plot allegedly is a top operative in the network.


WASHINGTON — Anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan have apparently captured their biggest known trophy to date, a top Al Qaeda operative who is the son of an extremist Muslim cleric convicted in 1995 of conspiring to blow up New York landmarks, U.S. intelligence officials said Wednesday.

Ahmed Omar Abdel Rahman, 35, was a high-profile figure in Osama bin Laden's terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, U.S. terrorism officials said. The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency told the CIA on Wednesday that the Northern Alliance had seized Rahman and was holding him at an undisclosed location. The CIA said it could not independently confirm the report.

Rahman has been an important and popular figure in Al Qaeda, intelligence sources said. He has been widely used in recruiting for the network, they said, because he was believed to be carrying on the work of his father, Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called Blind Sheik who is being held in one of the highest-security federal prisons in the United States. The father remains an enormously influential figure in the jihad, or holy war, movement even as he languishes behind bars.

There were unconfirmed reports that the younger Rahman and as many as a dozen other captured Al Qaeda operatives would be flown to the Pacific region to be held at a U.S. military facility, perhaps on Guam or Wake Island. This has fueled speculation that such facilities could be the site for military trials of captured terrorism suspects.

A Bush administration official with extensive knowledge of terrorist organizations said: "This is a significant catch. He is a known terrorist, a member of the top Al Qaeda hierarchy."

The younger Rahman "shows up in [promotional] pictures, and they have been showcasing him, promoting the ties between Al Qaeda and the Blind Sheik," said Daniel Benjamin, a member of the National Security Council in the Clinton White House and now a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"He is the new model of the jihad and is important symbolically," Benjamin said. "His connection confers legitimacy on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda."

Administration officials said the younger Rahman spent many years in Afghanistan in the Al Qaeda training camps, where he played a leadership role among Bin Laden's inner circle.

Rahman spent several years "trying to cook up ideas on how to get his father released from prison, including kidnapping, but nothing came of it. The Blind Sheik is not going anywhere," Benjamin said.

Rahman could become an early test of the Bush administration's plan to prosecute terrorists before a military tribunal rather than in U.S. civilian courts, a proposal that has triggered substantial controversy.

"This is exactly the type of individual that the military tribunal was created for," the administration official said, describing Rahman as "an out-and-out terrorist who should not be afforded the rights and privileges of an American citizen who should be tried in a civilian court of law."

As of late Wednesday, however, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency report cited by CIA sources, Rahman remained in custody of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which has been in control of all prisoners taken in the Afghan campaign.

And Robert A. Underwood, Guam's delegate in Congress, said Wednesday that military and White House officials he had contacted said they had no knowledge of any plans to fly Al Qaeda prisoners to the Pacific region or to try them there.

U.S. officials said the Pentagon has been closely considering the legal implications of potential sites for a tribunal. Deputy Atty. Gen. Michael Chertoff said Wednesday that the makeup of the military tribunals are a work in progress and that some basic elements remain in flux--including whether authorities would require a two-thirds majority for conviction or some "higher level of unanimity," particularly in death penalty cases.

In congressional testimony, Chertoff noted that military tribunals have been abused by some foreign governments but that the ones being considered by the White House would have checks and balances and might even be held in public to ensure adequate oversight.

Reports of Rahman's capture, following a recent strike on an alleged Al Qaeda leadership site near the southern Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, emerged on a day in which the Pentagon reported that the U.S. military campaign was raising the pressure on the increasingly isolated Taliban.

But it was also a day in which the first U.S. combat death, that of a CIA undercover operative, was disclosed, and Pentagon leaders warned of a dangerous phase for U.S. and allied soldiers and for civilians.

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