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THE HUNT FOR AL QAEDA

Sept. 11 Suspect Still in Pakistan

Probe: U.S. agents reportedly helped officials locate alleged plotter Ramzi Binalshibh before Karachi raid.

September 15, 2002|PAUL WATSON and SHAMIM UR-REHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

KARACHI, Pakistan — U.S. agents tracked a call on a portable satellite phone to find alleged Al Qaeda member Ramzi Binalshibh, a lead suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, official Pakistani sources said Saturday.

FBI agents and officers of Pakistan's military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, were interrogating Binalshibh on Saturday at a secret location in Pakistan, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Pakistani Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider denied that FBI agents had assisted in Binalshibh's arrest Wednesday, the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., before an hours-long battle with assault rifles and hand grenades erupted in an upscale Karachi apartment building.

The fierce firefight left two suspects dead and four members of Pakistan's security forces seriously wounded.

But Haider confirmed that Binalshibh and other Al Qaeda suspects arrested during Wednesday's raid were still in Pakistan on Saturday.

"So far, they are still with us," he said in brief comments to reporters. "They are not with police but the intelligence agency" -- a common reference to the ISI, a powerful and shadowy organization.

In a statement issued Saturday, Pakistani authorities said they had arrested about a dozen foreigners in separate raids, adding: "Two out of those arrested are suspected to be high-level Al Qaeda men, and their identity is being confirmed."

Although the latest arrests are a significant breakthrough in the battle against Al Qaeda terrorists operating in Pakistan, the ISI's many critics have accused elements of the agency of secretly protecting members of Osama bin Laden's network and its allies who were part of Afghanistan's deposed Taliban regime.

The raid to capture Binalshibh came just a few days after a journalist with the Middle East satellite TV station Al Jazeera reported that the Yemeni man had boasted about his role in the Sept. 11 attacks during a June interview at a secret location in Karachi.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry reacted to that by dismissing suggestions that Al Qaeda leaders were regrouping in Karachi as "a fabrication."

Pakistani police and intelligence agencies are coordinating their anti-terrorism efforts with the U.S. "to bring peace globally," Haider said Saturday.

"The world should help us in capability-building," he said, apparently referring to technology enabling authorities here to monitor cyber-crime and calls made from portable satellite phones.

Haider hinted that Washington was moving quickly to have Binalshibh extradited to stand trial. Germany had issued an international warrant for his arrest less than two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. He was a roommate of lead hijacker Mohamed Atta in Hamburg, Germany.

German Interior Minister Otto Schily said Saturday that he would ask for Binalshibh's extradition, Associated Press reported.

German Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin said German authorities would cooperate with other countries that might want custody of Binalshibh, the AP report added.

Haider appeared to say that his government would be willing to send the terrorist suspects to the U.S.

In the case of "many of these people, if they are wanted by the U.S., we are obliged to share information, and if any of them is wanted, according to U.N. convention, we are bound to hand them over," Pakistan's interior minister said. "They [the U.S. government] may have asked for [that]."

Extradition is a sensitive political issue in Pakistan, where President Pervez Musharraf's close cooperation with the U.S. in the war on terrorism continues to make him many enemies.

Musharraf has so far refused to extradite British-born Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, a militant with Al Qaeda links who was sentenced to hang in July for masterminding the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl. Sheikh and three accomplices are appealing their convictions.

When Ramzi Yousef, the chief suspect in the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center, was arrested in Pakistan two years later, then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto quickly sent him to the U.S. for trial.

Yousef, a master bomb-maker who is serving time in a federal prison, had plotted to kill Bhutto even as the FBI was on his trail. His uncle, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, is another suspected Sept. 11 conspirator and was with Binalshibh during the Al Jazeera television interview. Investigators are trying to determine whether Mohammed is still in Pakistan.

Yosri Fouda, the host of a monthly investigative journalism program on Al Jazeera, said he got the interviews after Binalshibh contacted him by fax and phone and told him to fly to Karachi, where the reporter spent two days with Binalshibh and Mohammed.

In an account of his time with the fugitive terrorists, published Sept. 8 in Britain's Sunday Times newspaper, Fouda called Binalshibh and Mohammed "the two master planners of 9/11."

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