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Al Qaeda Suspect in U.S. Hands

Terrorism: Man alleged to have helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks is taken from Pakistan to an undisclosed location.

September 17, 2002|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KARACHI, Pakistan — Capitalizing on the capture of the man who may know more than anyone about the planning and origins of the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. authorities whisked Ramzi Binalshibh out of Pakistan on Monday for interrogation at a secret location.

Binalshibh and four other Al Qaeda suspects captured in raids in Karachi last week were turned over to the United States despite earlier statements by a Pakistani official that they first would have to be brought before a magistrate.

Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, a spokesman for President Pervez Musharraf, said Binalshibh was now in U.S. custody. But neither he nor other sources would say where the Americans had taken him.

"We have handed over a total of five suspects to the U.S. authorities, including Ramzi. They have been handed over to the United States, and they must have been flown out of Pakistan," Qureshi said.

Police sources in Karachi said the suspects were taken out of the country, most likely through Jacobabad, a Sindh province city where U.S. forces have quietly been allowed to set up flight operations on an air base. The sources said they did not know where the suspects were taken from there.

The relative haste with which Pakistan surrendered the suspects to the Americans reflected Musharraf's continuing eagerness to be seen as acting as a strong ally to the United States.

In Washington, officials on Monday refused to say where Binalshibh is, or even who has custody of him. "I don't want to get into that," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a Pentagon briefing.

U.S. intelligence officials, however, said Binalshibh would not be taken to the United States or to the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Rather, a likely first stop is a U.S. military facility in Afghanistan, they said.

Asked at the briefing whether Binalshibh might be a logical candidate to face a military tribunal, Rumsfeld said that will be decided by President Bush. "And to my knowledge, he's not addressed this," Rumsfeld said. "And I think I would know."

Campaigning for Republican congressional candidates in Davenport, Iowa, Bush exulted at the capture of Binalshibh but made no reference to his now being in U.S. custody.

"He thought he could hide. He thought he could still threaten America. But he forgot the greatest nation on the face of the Earth is after them--one person at a time," Bush said.

Identified by German investigators as a former roommate of lead Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta in the northern city of Hamburg, Binalshibh boasted in an interview with the Al Jazeera television network broadcast last week that he had been the "coordinator" of the terrorist attacks. The FBI says he also was to have been the 20th hijacker in the attacks but was turned down four times for a U.S. visa.

Binalshibh's audacity in granting the interview on the much-watched pan-Arab channel seemed to confirm that Al Qaeda was regrouping in this overcrowded southern port city, and may have spurred Pakistan to act quickly to find and arrest him and his colleagues.

In addition to the five suspects taken away by U.S. authorities, Pakistan was still holding five lower-level individuals captured in last week's raids, which provoked a three-hour gun battle that left two Al Qaeda suspects dead and six members of Pakistan's security forces wounded. The shootout took place on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Associated Press quoted Pakistani sources as saying police were investigating whether some of those arrested with Binalshibh were involved in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was abducted in Karachi in January.

Qureshi announced that the Americans had taken Binalshibh and the others while the spokesman was accompanying Musharraf on a tour of a military exhibition here. Security in Karachi was heavy, in part because of the many militant Islamic groups in the city who have declared their enmity for Musharraf since he aligned Pakistan with the U.S. fight against terrorism.

Binalshibh's Al Jazeera interview had been an embarrassment to the Pakistani government, which has been sensitive to criticism that operatives of the Al Qaeda terrorist network and the former Afghan Taliban regime have been able to find sanctuary in Pakistan with ease. Qureshi was eager to dispel the idea that Pakistan is a haven for such people.

"We are progressively and smoothly moving ahead with the international war on terrorism," he said. "The recent arrests show that the backbone of the terrorist network seems to have broken."

But he acknowledged that some Al Qaeda elements "on the run" might still be hiding in Karachi and other big Pakistani cities.

Until Qureshi's announcement that the prisoners were in U.S. hands, officials here had been saying that the suspects would be given normal extradition hearings.

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