YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Al Qaeda Operative May Help Lead to Bin Laden, Pakistan Says

Accused 9/11 organizer admits meeting three months ago with terror chief, who probably is now in Afghanistan, spy agency officials report.

March 11, 2003|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Disclosures by terrorist mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed will bring authorities closer to finding Osama bin Laden, the Pakistani intelligence service said Monday in its first news conference releasing details of his capture.

The Inter-Services Intelligence agency also held the briefing to congratulate itself on Mohammed's arrest March 1 in Rawalpindi and to rebut criticism it has received in recent months for not moving aggressively enough against Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants in Pakistan, especially in the rugged border areas near Afghanistan.

The briefing came amid speculation that information gleaned from Mohammed by interrogators would lead to Bin Laden's imminent capture. Officials said Mohammed admitted meeting the terrorist leader in December but did not disclose the location of the encounter or the names of others present.

The seizure of Mohammed, suspected of being Al Qaeda's operations chief, was carried out in a nighttime raid by 18 special police units with the help of satellite-based electronic surveillance technology from the United States. It is perhaps the most significant arrest in the war on terrorism President Bush declared after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mohammed is believed to have organized the attacks and to have been involved in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000. He had narrowly escaped capture on several occasions before being caught in Rawalpindi.

Intelligence officials confirmed that one of the Pakistani agents involved in the raid in Rawalpindi was wounded in the foot by Mohammed's AK-47 rifle, which went off when he resisted arrest. Agents making the arrest initially did not recognize Mohammed from the photos they had. Much of the evidence gathered at the house, including computers, was handed over to the Americans, officials said.

Although Pakistan held Mohammed for three days before turning him over to U.S. custody, American interrogators began grilling Mohammed immediately after he was caught. U.S. agents did not participate in the raid.

After disclosing only his name during the first two days after his capture, Mohammed began providing information "on his associates in Afghanistan," Pakistani intelligence officials said.

The CIA in Washington said Mohammed is in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location and is talking "to some extent." The agency confirmed that there was some gunfire in the raid but would not discuss other details.

Bin Laden is alive, Pakistani officials said, but his whereabouts are unknown. Despite speculation that he is hiding in Pakistan's western and southwestern border areas, Pakistani officials said Monday that he is more likely in Afghanistan.

Declaring Bin Laden alive reverses Pakistan's official stance. Last year, President Pervez Musharraf said publicly that Bin Laden was probably dead.

Officials gave no information to support rumors reported by news organizations last weekend that two of Bin Laden's sons had been wounded and captured in a U.S. military operation in remote Nimruz province in southwestern Afghanistan.

Sardar Sanaullah Zehri, the home minister of Pakistan's Baluchistan province, which borders Afghanistan, is cited as a source in many of those reports. He said in a statement published Monday that he had been misquoted.

A U.S. Army spokesman said that the military had no knowledge of such a capture and that American soldiers had not been active in the region said to be the site of the arrests.

Pakistani intelligence officials would not comment on reports that Mohammed is being held and interrogated at the U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan.

The officials said they had arrested 442 foreign nationals since the Sept. 11 attacks, 346 of whom had been turned over to the United States. About 4,025 "action requests" had been made of Pakistan, of which 3,729 had been carried out, officials said.

"We thought [the briefing] was necessary because this organization is making tremendous efforts but not getting our real due, especially from Western media," said a Pakistani intelligence official who asked not to be identified.

Asked whether Bin Laden had been caught, a top official laughed and said "no." Another official said Bin Laden's pursuers were getting closer to the "big fish." But he added that Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network was so badly fragmented, he did not believe it capable of mounting a major offensive.

"That we arrested Mohammed shows we are moving in the right direction. This is all a logical progression," the official said. "Al Qaeda is on the run."

Contrary to some published accounts, there is no evidence supporting reports that Mohammed was involved in the slaying in Karachi of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, officials said Monday.

Los Angeles Times Articles