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THE HUNT FOR AL QAEDA

Arrest Exposes Terrorist Network

Mohammed could give the U.S. key knowledge of Al Qaeda operations, locations and finances.

March 02, 2003|Greg Miller, Bob Drogin and Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's darkly imaginative mind has long been one of Al Qaeda's deadliest assets. Now that he is in custody, his extensive knowledge of Al Qaeda plots and tactics could pose a serious threat to the terrorist network.

Mohammed is likely to know the identities and locations of Al Qaeda operatives around the world, including members of any so-called sleeper cells hiding in the United States, intelligence officials and terrorism experts said.

His interrogation -- which already has begun at an undisclosed location -- thus might lead to an intelligence bonanza detailing Al Qaeda plots, finances, communications, safe houses and other operations that have helped sustain Al Qaeda since the loss of its sanctuary in Afghanistan.

Experts said Mohammed was so crucial to the network and his knowledge of its secrets so extensive that his arrest is certain to send ripples of panic to every corner of the organization, including Osama bin Laden's hiding place.

"Nobody's safe now," said Bob Baer, a former CIA officer who spent much of his career tracking terrorism. "They're going to have to move. Everything they considered reliable is gone -- safe houses, sources of money and the rest. They have to assume the worst."

Combined with previous arrests and strikes, Mohammed's capture all but eliminates an entire tier of the Al Qaeda hierarchy, stripping the network of its best minds for organizing and executing terrorist plots.

"It's the crown jewels of the organization's operational capacity," said Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorists who is Washington director of the Rand Corp. "The repercussions radiate in both directions. It cuts the senior leaders off from their conduit for orders to foot soldiers, and foot soldiers from guidance and planning and implementation of operations."

Experts cautioned that Al Qaeda is still an unparalleled threat because of its remarkable ability to replenish its ranks and its decentralized structure, which allows cells and plots to survive even decapitating blows.

"You weaken the body by cutting off the head, but you don't eliminate the danger. The problem is that the organization is not hierarchical," said Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France's top anti-terrorism magistrate.

But many in the intelligence community said that the arrest is arguably the most significant in the history of counter-terrorism, and that capturing Bin Laden would be more important only in a symbolic sense.

"Beyond [Mohammed's] knowledge of current Al Qaeda plots, he's likely to know the identity and whereabouts of other top terror leaders around the world," said a U.S. official familiar with the capture. "His capture could lead to an information windfall that will lead to further successes against Al Qaeda."

Reports from Pakistan indicate that authorities confiscated a computer, computer discs and other evidence during the predawn raid in Rawalpindi. Such material in the past has provided the outlines of terrorist plots as well as phone numbers, addresses, phony IDs and other clues that have led to further arrests.

Mohammed is believed to have reported directly to Osama bin Laden in the past. The two were said to be together when Bin Laden first heard reports of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Mohammed might know Bin Laden's current -- or recent -- whereabouts. The CIA believes that Bin Laden is hiding in the rugged mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but repeated raids in the area have failed to find him.

While Bin Laden is considered the inspirational leader and public face of Al Qaeda, captives and detainees have described Mohammed as a charismatic figure who operates in the shadows as a recruiter, coordinator and "field general."

Mohammed has overseen plots in Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Even though he was on the run in Pakistan, French investigators say Mohammed organized and commanded last year's truck-bomb attack on a historic synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba that killed 21 people, coordinating a network that included a presence in France, Germany and Spain. Mohammed spoke to the suicide bomber by satellite phone shortly before the attack, according to investigators.

He has played a role in Al Qaeda's efforts to obtain chemical and biological weapons, as well as a so-called dirty bomb that uses conventional explosives to spread radioactive material.

Mohammed is also believed to be the direct commander of terrorist cells around the world.

"He's the guy who keeps the keys to the sleeper cells," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counter-terrorism official, referring to groups of militants who live ostensibly normal lives until called into action. "He knows where the sleeper cells are in the United States."

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