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Major Al Qaeda Operative Captured in Pakistani Raid

The man believed to be behind 9/11 and other attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, is taken to an undisclosed site for interrogation.

March 02, 2003|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A joint team of Pakistani and U.S. agents arrested Al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed near Pakistan's capital on Saturday and began interrogating the terrorist who claims to have masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks, officials said.

Pakistani intelligence agents led the early morning raid on a safe house in Rawalpindi, southwest of Islamabad, arresting Mohammed and an unidentified Middle Eastern man. In another raid, they apprehended a local man believed to have been trying to hide Mohammed from the U.S.-led global dragnet that had been searching for him and had put a $25-million bounty on his head.

Mohammed, who was believed to be 37, was whisked out of Pakistan immediately under extremely tight security and was taken by American military transport to an undisclosed location outside the United States, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.

From the moment of his capture at 3 a.m. local time, the CIA and other U.S. counter-terrorism authorities began an urgent effort to disorient and "break" Mohammed, they said. They were attempting to get information from him about planned attacks that could already be in motion in the U.S. and abroad, as well as the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders.

There was no immediate indication that those efforts had been successful. But top U.S. and Pakistani officials said they believe Mohammed has encyclopedic knowledge of current Al Qaeda operations, making his arrest perhaps the most significant detention in the war on terrorism.

"Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the chief operating officer of Al Qaeda. The effect that his capture will have on Al Qaeda as an organization is devastating. And the effect that it has on the safety of the American people and our allies cannot be overstated," said one U.S. counter-terrorism official. "This is the guy who planned their operations. This is the guy who catalogs and keeps track of their operations."

U.S. officials portrayed Mohammed as the Al Qaeda member posing the gravest threat to Americans. They believe him to be not only the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon but also a co-conspirator in other devastating Al Qaeda terrorist strikes dating to 1993, when he played a role in the bombing of the World Trade Center.

The officials said Mohammed was also the key leader of Al Qaeda's current attempts to regroup, reestablish itself on the world stage and launch new attacks -- including, they fear, the use of weapons of mass destruction. Those plots were one reason U.S. authorities last month raised the nation's terrorism alert level to orange. It was lowered to yellow last week.

Officials in both countries hailed Mohammed's arrest as a huge victory, particularly if he talks. But it is also one that could trigger repercussions, they warned, including retaliatory attacks by Al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers.

President Bush was notified of Mohammed's capture at 7 a.m. EST Saturday at Camp David in a telephone call from national security advisor Condoleezza Rice. She had been told seven hours earlier, in a midnight call from CIA Director George J. Tenet, that one of the individuals captured had been tentatively identified as Mohammed.

By morning, after Mohammed was conclusively identified and in U.S. custody, Rice called Bush with the news.

"The president's reaction was, 'That's fantastic,' " a White House official said.

Successful Operation

In recent months, U.S. officials have been critical of Pakistan, saying privately that the Muslim nation was dragging its feet in the war on terrorism. They said Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf was walking a political tightrope, trying to satisfy both the Bush administration and the increasingly powerful militant constituencies in his country.

On Saturday, however, in a statement that confirmed Mohammed's arrest, the White House pointedly praised both U.S. and Pakistani counter-terrorism officials for their "successful joint operation."

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said: "It's hard to overstate how significant this is. It's a wonderful blow to inflict on Al Qaeda."

Although U.S. authorities would not comment on the details of the raid, a Pakistani official said it was conducted by heavily armed members of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Pakistan's top-secret spy organization. The ISI members went in "like a SWAT team, heavily armed, expecting everything and anything," but the men were arrested without incident, the official said.

The raid was prompted by U.S. intelligence provided by the CIA and FBI, the Pakistani official said.

"It's your brains, your intercepts and remote-sensing capability, and our brawn," the official said.

Some of that intelligence came as a result of a raid conducted last week in the southwestern city of Quetta, apparently one of the places Mohammed had been hiding in recent months as U.S. and Pakistani officials scoured the country looking for him.

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