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Suspected Mastermind of Cole Bombing Held

Pakistan arrests alleged Al Qaeda leader Tawfiq Attash Khallad. U.S. officials hope he will yield details on the 2000 attack on a U.S. warship.

May 01, 2003|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A longtime Al Qaeda leader who U.S. officials believe is the terrorist network's top operations commander and the mastermind of the bombing of the U.S. warship Cole has been arrested in Pakistan.

Tawfiq Attash Khallad was one of six suspected Al Qaeda operatives captured during raids in the southern port city of Karachi in recent days, officials said Wednesday. Pakistani authorities said "a large quantity of arms, ammunitions and explosives intended to be used for terrorist attacks have been recovered from the suspects."

U.S. and Pakistani officials hailed the arrest of Khallad, a one-legged Yemeni native, as significant, saying it will deprive Al Qaeda of the man who recently became the organization's chief operations officer just as it is trying to regroup and survive the arrest of other top leaders.

In the last two months, Khallad had replaced his friend and supervisor, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, as chief of Al Qaeda's military committee after Mohammed's arrest in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on March 1, U.S. authorities said.

"He's a killer," President Bush said of Khallad during an Oval Office appearance with the president of Colombia. "He was one of the top Al Qaeda operatives. And he was right below Khalid Shaikh Mohammed on the organizational chart of Al Qaeda."

U.S. intelligence officials, in fact, recently concluded that Khallad was perhaps the one man capable of taking over operational command of Al Qaeda after Mohammed's arrest. Officials have said he is believed to be the only commander with the experience, charisma and intelligence to coordinate and execute the kind of large-scale attacks that U.S. officials fear have been in the works since before Sept. 11, 2001.

But while U.S. authorities rejoiced at Khallad's capture, they said Pakistan's seizure of 330 pounds of high-grade explosives during the raids also showed that Al Qaeda remains a potent threat, and an organization intent on launching more attacks.

Pakistani authorities said they had evidence that Khallad was active in plotting new terrorist attacks. Along with U.S. officials, they said they had already begun interrogating Khallad and others to determine whether any of their plans are close to fruition.

"With these arrests a major terrorist attack has been averted in Pakistan," said Pakistan's interior minister, Faisal Saleh Hayyat.

U.S. officials said they have long sought to capture Khallad because of his lead role in the Cole bombing, which killed 17 American sailors in Yemen in 2000, and his lesser but still important role in attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Several U.S. officials said they believe Khallad may have played an even more important role in the Sept. 11 attacks than has previously been known, citing his close relationship with Osama bin Laden, Mohammed, other key Al Qaeda players and a Southeast Asian terrorist named Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali.

"This is a hugely significant arrest," said a senior FBI official. "This guy was involved in some of Al Qaeda's most successful terrorist operations, as well as its continuing activities."

Richard Clarke, the White House counter-terrorism czar for most of the last 11 years, said the arrest of Khallad could provide authorities with a wealth of information about Al Qaeda's most devastating attacks against U.S. interests.

"He is part of the Al Qaeda leadership, the inner circle," said Clarke, who left the Bush administration several months ago. "We are going to find out a lot about them and what they are planning to do."

U.S. officials also said they hope Khallad will reveal details about the Cole bombing. According to U.S. officials, he was a liaison between Bin Laden and foot soldiers who carried out the bombings of the Cole and the U.S. embassies in Africa, as well as the attacks on World Trade Center and Pentagon.

In the Cole bombing, two Al Qaeda operatives in an inflatable Zodiac boat approached the $1-billion destroyer as it refueled in the port of Aden, saluted the sailors, and then detonated enough plastic explosives to nearly sink the vessel.

The FBI sent hundreds of agents to Yemen to investigate the case, but the probe has yet to lead to any criminal indictments, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Another suspected leader of the Cole attack, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, said to be Al Qaeda's Persian Gulf operations chief, was captured in November in the United Arab Emirates, while another was killed recently by a remote-controlled CIA drone in Yemen.

But the investigation was dealt a setback earlier this month, when at least two other alleged lower-ranking suspects in the Cole bombing escaped from a Yemeni prison along with eight other men.

Khallad, U.S. officials believe, planned an attack on another Navy destroyer in the port of Aden almost a year before the Cole bombing, but their dinghy sank under the weight of the explosives.

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