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THE WORLD

U.S. Officials Hope Detainee Is Key Suspect

Investigation: Authorities begin interrogating man captured in Pakistan to determine if he is anAl Qaeda commander.

April 01, 2002|JOSH MEYER and BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials scrambled Sunday for conclusive evidence that they have captured one of Osama bin Laden's top commanders, and began the process of interrogating the man for information about Al Qaeda terrorist plots that may already be underway.

If the suspect shot and wounded during a raid in Pakistan on Thursday is indeed the shadowy military commander known as Abu Zubeida, authorities have in their custody the man apparently entrusted with overseeing Al Qaeda's global network of terror cells for the higher-profile Bin Laden.

Zubeida would be, by far, the most senior Bin Laden associate captured since President Bush declared war on international terrorism following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

U.S. authorities believe that Zubeida, whose real name is thought to be Zain al-Abidin Mohammed Husain, may have helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks. They also have information indicating that he played a role in the so-called millennium plots to bomb Los Angeles International Airport and tourist sites in Jordan, as well as in other major Al Qaeda terrorist attacks of recent years. He has been tried in absentia in Jordan, and sentenced to death, for his role in the plot there.

Zubeida's capture would be a devastating blow to Al Qaeda's efforts to regroup and redeploy its operatives in the face of military and law enforcement crackdowns around the world, law enforcement and intelligence officials said Sunday.

"We can't say it with 100% certainty," said one U.S. official. "But it sure looks like him.

"This is a major setback for the Al Qaeda organization," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Several U.S. officials said that the man believed to be Zubeida was apprehended with about 30 other suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban members Thursday during a joint raid by FBI officials, a few CIA operatives and Pakistani authorities in Faisalabad, Pakistan. One U.S. official said that the man, who bears a striking resemblance to photographs of Zubeida, was shot several times as he attempted to escape.

"He is undergoing medical treatment and will be interrogated about his knowledge of ongoing terrorist activities," said the official.

Global Cooperation

The raid was one of several recent anti-terrorist actions in which the FBI and the CIA have actively participated with law enforcement personnel in other countries, instead of just providing intelligence information and support, according to U.S. officials. They described those actions as a significant advance in the effort to eradicate terrorism around the world and, in particular, to smash Al Qaeda.

"It signifies that there is a new set of rules post-9/11, with greater cooperation between us and other countries," said one Bush administration official. "This is the new meat and potatoes of counterterrorism, with the U.S. and host governments working together to arrest these people. We have seen it in the Philippines, we have seen it in Yemen, and now we are seeing it in Pakistan."

The raid was also significant in that it resulted in the apprehension of dozens of possible terrorist suspects from a variety of countries. The men captured appeared to be actively involved in "an important Al Qaeda cell, from the nature of the communications and the substance of what they were talking about," according to one counterterrorism authority.

The raid was based, at least in part, on communications intercepts and other intelligence information provided by the CIA, said one U.S. official.

U.S. authorities, citing security concerns, said Sunday that they had not conclusively determined if Zubeida was among those captured. They declined to say where--or in whose custody--the suspect is being held.

"They are trying to figure out for sure if it is him," said the Bush administration official. "It's not like Bin Laden, where you can grab a lock of hair from one of his brothers and do a DNA match. Unless he decides to talk, it may take a while to figure out if it is really him."

Seeking Identity Clues

Authorities are using several techniques to determine whether the man is Zubeida, they said, from interrogating him to running forensic tests. They are also showing the man's photograph to individuals who know Zubeida.

If Zubeida has indeed been apprehended, the Bush official said, U.S. authorities will have hit what he described as "the Al Qaeda jackpot."

"If it is him, this is obviously huge," the official said, noting that U.S. authorities have been tracking Zubeida for years.

Zubeida, a relatively young member of Al Qaeda's leadership, is known as a charismatic and elusive militant who rose quickly from jihad soldier to commander to gatekeeper of Al Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan.

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