WASHINGTON — U.S. authorities said Thursday that they have captured a top Al Qaeda leader who allegedly masterminded the 2000 attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole and is a suspect in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Abd al Rahim al Nashiri was identified as one of a dozen key terrorist leaders about whom the FBI had been seeking information. Federal law enforcement officials called his recent arrest a major setback to Osama bin Laden's continuing plans to strike again.
"This is a serious blow to Al Qaeda and a significant success in the fight against terrorism to catch a guy like this," said one high-placed official.
Word of the capture surfaced last week. At that time, congressional Democrats were questioning the wisdom of starting a war with Iraq when many senior Al Qaeda leaders were still on the loose and a fresh audiotape from Bin Laden threatened more strikes against the U.S. and its allies.
Responding to their critics, Bush administration officials insisted that they had made progress in combating Al Qaeda. Unnamed officials were quoted in press reports as saying a senior Al Qaeda member had been captured, but they refused to name him. On Sunday, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge confirmed that a top Al Qaeda member had been apprehended but again declined to give details. Ridge said the detainee was providing U.S. interrogators with insight into Al Qaeda's operations.
U.S. officials continued to provide few details of the capture or of Nashiri's status Thursday. They said he was arrested this month at an undisclosed location abroad and is in U.S. custody, although officials refused to say where he was being held, or why they were confirming his identity now.
An official with the Justice Department said that Nashiri, who is close to Bin Laden, is not in its custody but that the matter was being handled by other federal agencies abroad.
"He's one of the most top wanted guys. He's on the list," the Justice official said. "We don't have him in our custody, but he could be in military custody or in the custody of some foreign government with our guys getting access to him."
Nashiri is considered the most senior Al Qaeda operative arrested since the capture of Abu Zubeida, Bin Laden's operations chief, in Pakistan last March. Top U.S. officials on Thursday described Nashiri as the terrorist network's chief operative in the Persian Gulf region.
News of the capture follows a CIA attack earlier this month that killed six suspected Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. One of the dead has been identified as Qaed Sinan Harithi, who was a suspect in the Cole attack.
Harithi was in the car hit by a missile fired by an unmanned surveillance plane. He was believed to be chief of Al Qaeda operations in Yemen.
U.S. intelligence considers the Saudi-born Nashiri to be the brains behind the attack on the Cole off Yemen, when two suicide bombers detonated an explosive against the ship's hull and killed 17 U.S. sailors. He also is believed to have had a hand in the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which claimed 224 lives.
Authorities said Nashiri also planned the failed plot to bomb the The Sullivans -- another U.S. destroyer docked in Yemen -- nine months before the Cole attack. Nashiri, reportedly an expert in explosives and weapons training, has been involved in plotting other attacks against American military targets in the Gulf region and "possibly elsewhere," sources added.
A law enforcement "watch list," distributed to police agencies around the U.S. in the wake of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, identifies him as a "known Al Qaeda operative."
The watch list said he attended an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in 1997, after meeting Al Qaeda operatives four years earlier in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Nashiri, the watch list also states, gave false Yemeni identification documents to one of the embassy bombers and "instructed him to [go to] Pakistan where he was to receive further instruction." It adds that he is a cousin of Jihad Ali, another suicide bomber "who carried out the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya."
If reports Nashiri is cooperating with interrogators are true, he would join Bin Laden deputy Zubeida in providing information. Officials have said Zubeida helped lead them to Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen picked up in Chicago for allegedly planning to reconnoiter targets for a radioactive "dirty bomb."
Nashiri "has a lengthy track record in terrorism and long-term ties to other senior Al Qaeda leaders," said a senior U.S. official who requested anonymity. "He is a ruthless operator."
Before his capture, he was widely considered to be one of Bin Laden's top operatives still at large, and he enjoyed a "close relationship" with the terror mastermind, sources said.
Nashiri was born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest site in Islam and the place to which all Muslims are supposed to make a pilgrimage at least once. But U.S. officials said he spent a great deal of his time in Yemen.
Bin Laden, who had Saudi citizenship until it was revoked in the mid-1990s, was of Yemeni heritage. And Yemen has been a key base of operations for Al Qaeda before and after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"This guy has a track record," said one defense official at the Pentagon. "... What he knows would be all current terrorist plans in that part of the world. He would know how the money moves in, how the money moves out. He's going to know the operators who are going to carry out the attacks. He's going to know the location of safe houses throughout the region, and he's going to know how explosives get in and where they come from.
"He's going to have a lot of knowledge. And who knows, maybe he knows where Osama bin Laden is."
Staff writer Esther Schrader contributed to this report.