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Detainee Is Bin Laden Aide; 'He Knows Where People Are'

Terror: U.S. hopes man taken in Pakistan will divulge details on cells and plots around the world.

April 02, 2002|BOB DROGIN and JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — U.S. forces in Pakistan have taken custody of a Saudi-born militant believed to be so critical to Osama bin Laden's international terrorism network that he could help them identify Al Qaeda cells and operatives around the globe.

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials confirmed Monday that they have netted Abu Zubeida, one of Bin Laden's top deputies and a potential suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Over the years, officials said,Zubeida helped link Bin Laden's inner circle with scores of terrorist groups in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. After the Taliban regime collapsed in Afghanistan last fall, officials said, Zubeida also was entrusted with rebuilding Al Qaeda--and plotting future terrorist attacks.

"He knows where [Al Qaeda] people are around the world," said a U.S. intelligence official who confirmed the captive's identity. "Plus, we have unambiguous information that he has been planning future terrorist attacks against U.S. interests and allies worldwide. So he is a person well worth catching."

The capture, especially if Zubeida cooperates during questioning, marks a rare success in the hunt for terrorists that forms the backdrop to the war in Afghanistan. Despite huge cash rewards and a massive U.S. military and intelligence effort, only a handful of top terrorist leaders are known to have been captured or killed since last fall.

Officials say Zubeida may have acted as an intermediary between Bin Laden and the hijackers who seized four jets and crashed them in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, killing more than 3,000 people. However, he has not yet been charged or indicted.

U.S. officials have had little success in persuading captured Al Qaeda operatives to disclose significant details in interrogations.

A senior law enforcement official, who also confirmed Zubeida's capture, said counter-terrorism agents are angling to interrogate him. "There is a fair amount of excitement about this," he said.

"This guy will be put through the ringer for days and weeks," said a former senior Clinton administration counter-terrorism official.

"It will take at least 96 hours . . . to get him to spill everything," said the former official. "If they don't crack him by then, he is a very tough nut. If not, they will keep going. He is probably having the worst time in his entire life right now."

William H. Webster, a former FBI and CIA director, said interrogation efforts will "go beyond name, rank and serial number" because Zubeida is considered an unlawful combatant and not a prisoner of war.

"Traditional third-degree would be inappropriate, such as using physical force," Webster said. "I don't want to spell out how late they can keep him up before letting him go to bed, but they have a right to aggressively try to gain information from him."

Webster said interrogators will operate on the assumption that Zubeida knows about terrorist plots that may be in the planning stages.

"This area is very murky. We are feeling our way," he said. In the current situation, he added, "some will want to go by the book, others will want to throw out the book."

Zubeida, whose real name is thought to be Zain al-Abidin Mohammed Husain, was captured Thursday in a raid in central Pakistan. Pakistani troops shot him three times in the legs and groin when he tried to escape, U.S. officials said.

He was handed over to U.S. authorities Sunday and was receiving medical care Monday at an undisclosed location, the officials said. He was reported in serious but stable condition.

U.S. officials said they used various forms of visual and technical methods to identify him. One U.S. official said proof of Zubeida's identity, which he declined to explain, was found Monday.

Zubeida, 31, was a key recruiter for Al Qaeda, officials say. He screened potential candidates, helped arrange their travel to and from training camps in Afghanistan and helped new graduates join or create cells, they allege.

Zubeida communicated with cell members to coordinate specific attacks, U.S. officials say. They say he has been implicated in the August 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, which killed 224 people, and the October 2000 bombing of the destroyer Cole in Yemen, which killed 17. He also allegedly played a role in the failed plot to bomb a Los Angeles International Airport terminal during the millennium celebrations.

U.S. officials say Zubeida succeeded Mohammed Atef, the Al Qaeda military commander who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in November. "After Atef was killed, he took on an increased operational role," the intelligence official said.

Zubeida and his aides have been trying to reconstitute Al Qaeda's command and control center in Pakistan since December, when they apparently fled across the border from Afghanistan during fighting at the Tora Bora cave complex, the officials said.

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