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Key Al Qaeda Suspect Is Held

Terrorism: U.S. officials say the man captured in a shootout this week in Pakistan played a major role in the Sept. 11 hijacking plot. Separately, near Buffalo, N.Y., federal agents arrest five suspects.

September 14, 2002|JOSH MEYER and BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — U.S. and Pakistani officials said Friday that authorities had captured Ramzi Binalshibh, a suspected organizer of the Sept. 11 attacks who may also have been planning to be the 20th hijacker.

U.S. officials confirmed that Pakistan had identified Binalshibh as one of eight Al Qaeda operatives captured by Pakistani authorities during a prolonged shootout in the bustling port city of Karachi on Wednesday. U.S. officials confirmed that the CIA and other U.S. agencies helped in the raid and the arrest of Binalshibh.

The arrest ended an intense manhunt and came amid criticism that the U.S.-led war on terrorism has been largely unsuccessful because so many leaders of the Al Qaeda network remain fugitives.

German authorities issued an international arrest warrant for Binalshibh, a former Hamburg roommate of hijack plot leader Mohamed Atta, less than two weeks after Sept. 11. Authorities had been hunting for him since.

"This is a significant blow to Al Qaeda," one U.S. official said.

In a separate development, authorities said five men of Yemeni descent, at least some of them American citizens, were arrested near Buffalo, N.Y., on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activity. The officials said more details would be provided today.

In Binalshibh's case, Pakistani officials said that they captured eight Al Qaeda operatives--six of Yemeni origin, as well as an Egyptian and a Saudi--and that one of them was a "very senior" member of the terrorist organization who had been the subject of an intensive international manhunt.

Several U.S. officials confirmed that the suspected senior operative was Binalshibh, a 30-year-old Yemeni who authorities believe played a central role in the terrorist plot.

U.S. and Pakistani officials would not comment on where Binalshibh was being held.

U.S. officials say that besides being in on the Sept. 11 plot from the beginning, Binalshibh tried at least four times to gain entry into the United States but was denied a visa each time. They believe that he intended to be the fifth hijacker on one of the four commandeered planes and that he later tried to help get accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui onto the plane in his place by wiring him money and providing other logistical help.

Binalshibh also wired money to several of the hijackers in the United States and to a Florida flight school at which one of the hijackers was training, according to the indictment of Moussaoui.

Moussaoui, the only surviving suspect to be charged in U.S. courts, is set to stand trial in the United States early next year.

Binalshibh "was the 20th hijacker, and he was the money man. The question is, what is he going to reveal and what records can they find?" said Steven Emerson, an expert on Al Qaeda who consults for Congress on terrorism issues.

"He clearly could answer a lot of questions. He has it in his head. It depends on if he talks. But this is very significant. If he flips, he could provide information on cells here, and in Europe, and could help with the prosecution of Moussaoui, which isn't going well."

U.S. officials discussed the case on condition of anonymity, citing the extraordinary sensitivity of taking a top Al Qaeda operative into custody in Pakistan, particularly in Karachi, where anti-American fervor is strong.

They also said Pakistani and U.S. officials had tried to keep the arrest confidential in order not to tip off more Al Qaeda operatives believed to be hiding in the Karachi area.

Chief among them may be Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a shadowy figure who is thought to have come up with the idea for the Sept. 11 attacks. A journalist for the Arab satellite TV station Al Jazeera reported last week that he had met recently with Binalshibh and Mohammed in or near Karachi. In their interviews with Al Jazeera, the two men seemed to taunt the United States.

News of Binalshibh's arrest, first reported by ABC News, circulated in the United Nations on Friday, where Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, President Bush and other world leaders met this week. Musharraf's position "has been that we have gotten some people in custody and that one of them is a very important person who you [the United States] have been looking for," a Pakistani official said in an interview with The Times.

"It is a near certainty that it is him," the official said, referring to Binalshibh. "From all indications from all sources, it is quite probable that it is him."

U.S. and Pakistani officials said all that remained was a final, conclusive identification of Binalshibh, who has apparently eluded capture for the past year by using a number of aliases.

The Pakistani official said Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence unit, was responsible for the capture of the Al Qaeda members in the shootout, which lasted four hours.

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