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Pakistan Sets Sights on Libyan Fugitive

Suspect, believed to be an Al Qaeda leader who may be key to finding Bin Laden, allegedly ordered attempts on Musharraf's life.

August 20, 2004|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Security forces here are hunting a Libyan Al Qaeda leader whom senior Pakistani intelligence officials see as a possible key to finding Osama bin Laden and others in the terrorist network's inner circle.

Captured Al Qaeda suspects have consistently named a Libyan, Abu Faraj Farj, as the man who gave them instructions for attacks, including two attempts to assassinate Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf late last year, two senior intelligence officials said Thursday.

The suspects also say they believe the Libyan is in direct contact with Bin Laden and his chief lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, said the intelligence sources, who spoke on condition that they not be named.

Suspecting Farj's hand in numerous terrorist plots, Pakistani investigators think that if they can capture the Libyan, he may lead them to Bin Laden, the sources said.

"We will know much more about the inner workings [of Al Qaeda] and have better information on the latest position of Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri and others in the hierarchy," one of the intelligence officials said.

Pakistani officials see Farj as a key player in a second string of Al Qaeda leaders who are stepping in to replace captured and slain commanders. The Libyan has planned operations in Pakistan and abroad and ranks among Al Qaeda's top 10 leaders, the official added.

"The length and breadth of terrorist planning and contacts go to, and stop with, him," said the second source.

A U.S. counter-terrorism official Thursday confirmed Farj's stature in Al Qaeda but refused to comment further.

Like other Pakistani security officials interviewed recently, the senior intelligence sources said that they had no fresh leads on the whereabouts of Bin Laden or Zawahiri and that the last credible reports were "almost a year or so old."

In local newspapers Wednesday, the government published a picture of Farj, wearing a jacket, tie and a neatly trimmed beard, and offered nearly $350,000 for information leading to his arrest.

Five Pakistanis were also identified in the notice, which bore the headline, "Most Wanted Terrorists." Rewards for their capture start at about $85,000.

Pakistani suspect Amjad Hussain, alias Amjad Farooqi, also has a nearly $350,000 bounty on his head.

He is thought to have played a lead role in the 2002 slaying of kidnapped American journalist Daniel Pearl, a source said.

In the last month, Pakistani security forces have arrested more than a dozen foreigners who are believed to be members of Al Qaeda.

The army has been carrying out raids in tribal areas, which were once out of bounds to the military, and officials believe that the pressure is scattering Al Qaeda members to towns and cities farther south.

Police have intensified their crackdown in recent days by raiding mosques and madrasas, or Islamic religious schools, which militant groups have long used as recruitment centers.

On Tuesday, two clerics escaped a police raid on Islamabad's Red Mosque. The men are accused of issuing a fatwa, or religious decree, calling on people to fight Pakistani troops in the tribal areas.

An Algerian Al Qaeda suspect was captured Thursday in Peshawar, capital of the Northwest Frontier Province, after police shot him when he tried to run a roadblock near his house. A second man escaped, police said.

Farj, also known as Abu Faraj Libbi and Dr. Taufeeq, also has been based in the Pushtun tribal areas of South Waziristan, on Pakistan's northwestern border with Afghanistan, the intelligence sources said.

"According to our information, he's the person in charge of operations in the tribal areas," one of the intelligence officials said.

"We feel he has been a mastermind, and a direct link between Al Qaeda and Pakistani elements, which are an extension of Al Qaeda, and which are responsible for the assassination attempts on President Musharraf," he said.

It is possible that Farj "may have slipped out of this region altogether, or he may have gone deep underground," one of the officials added.

Suspected Al Qaeda computer coordinator Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, captured July 13, also named Farj as one of his contacts. Khan's laptop computers and disks contained what investigators believe are reconnaissance reports on financial buildings in the United States.

The information led to raids in Britain, where police have charged eight men under the country's anti-terrorism laws. Evidence against the suspects include seized records and documents on the Prudential Financial Inc. building in Newark, N.J., as well as plans of the New York Stock Exchange and the Citigroup building in New York and the International Monetary Fund offices in Washington.

The senior Pakistani intelligence sources denied earlier reports that Khan had contacted as many as six people in the United States.

Although Khan is believed to have "had no specific contacts in the U.S.," investigators will be poring over a large volume of information for a long time, so U.S. links may appear later, the officials said.

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