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Raids on Al Qaeda Yield Data Cache

Terror: Analysts are sifting through material seized in Pakistan. White House hails the capture of a Bin Laden aide.

April 03, 2002|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — CIA and FBI agents have recovered a trove of computer hard drives, telephone books, documents and other potentially valuable material used by Abu Zubeida and other Al Qaeda members captured last week in Pakistan, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

The material was seized when teams of U.S. and Pakistani intelligence and law enforcement operatives searching for Zubeida, a top deputy to Osama bin Laden, raided as many as a dozen safe houses and compounds in central Pakistan early Thursday.

Analysts are studying the material for clues to Al Qaeda members, terrorist cells and plots around the world, as well as for any information that could lead authorities to Bin Laden, the fugitive Saudi accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks.

After several days of declining to comment, the White House and the Pentagon hailed the capture of Zubeida, who is the highest-ranking Al Qaeda leader taken into custody since the Bush administration launched a war on terrorism more than six months ago.

Most of Al Qaeda's top commanders are still missing. Some may have been killed by U.S. airstrikes or fighting in Afghanistan, while others are believed to have escaped into neighboring Pakistan, Iran or elsewhere.

Officials said the Saudi-born Zubeida, who is believed to have played a key role in recruiting terrorists and overseeing Al Qaeda operations outside Afghanistan, would be interrogated about any knowledge he might have of plans to conduct new attacks.

"This represents a very significant blow to Al Qaeda," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer.

He called Zubeida "a key terrorist recruiter, an operational planner and a member of Osama bin Laden's inner circle."

Another official said Zubeida, 31, probably was not Bin Laden's official second in command, "but if you talk about operational importance, the people we'd most like to see rolled up after Bin Laden, he'd be No. 1 or No. 2."

In addition to Zubeida, more than 60 people were arrested last week, including about two dozen suspected Al Qaeda members from the Middle East and North Africa. The rest were mostly Pakistanis.

Zubeida was shot three times in the legs and groin during the raid and has been in U.S. custody since Sunday. U.S. officials, citing security precautions, refused to say precisely where he was being held and treated for his wounds.

"He's being given exactly the excellent medical care one would want if they wanted to make sure he was around a good long time to visit with us," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a news conference Tuesday.

A U.S. official denied published reports that Zubeida would be transferred to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where about 300 suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban members are being held. "There's been no decision," the official said.

The official, who requested anonymity, called Zubeida's capture a "big deal." But he added a note of caution.

"It's hard to know how severely it will disrupt their operations," he said. "We've got to believe that it will have some significant impact, because he was so central to their operations, particularly post-Sept. 11."

The official would not say whether Zubeida had provided any valuable information so far. One reason for his refusal to comment on that, he said, was to keep other terrorists guessing.

"They can't know what, if anything, we've gotten out of him, or what we may have recovered from the various places that were raided," he said. "We hope they're a little bit thrown off their feet by this and may be concerned about what's next for them."

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