WASHINGTON — Pakistan has captured one of the United States' 21 most-wanted terrorists, an alleged Al Qaeda operative who may have been involved in plotting new attacks in the United States, authorities said Thursday.
The capture of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the target of an intensive dragnet by U.S. authorities who placed a $25-million bounty on his head, was announced by Pakistani Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat.
Ghailani, who is believed to be in his 30s, was wanted by U.S. authorities on charges related to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed at least 224 people, including 12 Americans. Ghailani, a Tanzanian, may have been involved in other Al Qaeda operations in Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere and may have been organizing new attacks, several U.S. counter-terrorism officials said.
One U.S. official who confirmed Ghailani's capture said Thursday that the CIA and Justice and State departments still were sorting out the details of the raid, which occurred several days ago in Gujrat, about 100 miles southeast of the capital, Islamabad.
"It's very good news," said the U.S. official, who said he could speak only on condition of anonymity. "This is a significant event in the war on terrorism. He's a very bad guy."
According to Hayat and other Pakistani authorities, Ghailani was among a dozen militants arrested as early as Sunday after a gunfight during a raid on a suspected terrorist hide-out.
A second U.S. official said American and Pakistani authorities have been working closely, sharing information and intelligence, but added, "to say U.S. troops took part in this would be wrong."
The suspects, including several Africans, appear to have been trying to evacuate their families from Pakistan in the face of an escalating crackdown against the Al Qaeda terrorist network, Pakistani officials said.
Since his capture, Ghailani has given Pakistani authorities "some very valuable and useful leads," Hayat said in media interviews in Pakistan. He said it would be premature to speculate about whether the Tanzanian was planning attacks in the U.S. or overseas.
A top U.S. counter-terrorism official said publicizing Ghailani's capture could have alerted his affiliates, causing them to go into hiding.
"He's been on the run since 1998 so you have five years of critical intelligence that can be mined: where he has been, who he has been with, how his operations worked," the official said.
"Now, anything that he was involved in is being shredded, burned and, thrown in a river," the official said. "We have to assume anyone affiliated with this guy is on the run ... when usually, we can get great stuff as long as we can keep it quiet."
Several U.S. officials said it was unclear why Pakistan publicized the arrest. A spokeswoman at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington said she had no information on such details.
A recent article in New Republic magazine said the U.S. had been increasing pressure on Pakistan to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda fugitives before the November presidential election.
The New Republic reported that a White House aide told Pakistani intelligence chief Ehsan ul-Haq that the best days to announce the killing or capture of any target would be July 26, 27 or 28, coinciding with the first three days of the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The magazine cited an unidentified subordinate of Ehsan as a source.
The Bush administration has rejected the report as false.
"There is no truth to that statement," National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday. In the New Republic article, McCormack said the U.S. policy on such fugitives was unchanged by the election.
Ghailani was being held in Pakistan, and U.S. and Pakistani authorities were still determining whether -- and how quickly -- to take him into U.S. custody.
"It depends on what the Pakistanis want to do, and what the United States wants to do," said one senior Justice Department official, when asked whether Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft would push for extradition so Ghailani could stand trial in the embassy bombing case. Ghailani could face the death penalty if convicted.
Ghailani most likely will be kept out of the U.S. criminal justice system for some time, and be interrogated about Al Qaeda operations.
In May, Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III appealed to the public for help in locating Ghailani and six others, saying they may be preparing a large-scale attack in the United States or against U.S. interests overseas.
Ghailani, born on the island of Zanzibar, is believed to have thrown his lot in with Al Qaeda early on, working on the twin plots to bomb U.S. embassies several years before the attacks occurred.
"He was a major player in both the Tanzanian and Kenyan bombings. He loaded the bomb ingredients in the Tanzanian bomb onto the truck," said Mary Jo White, who as U.S. attorney for New York in 1998 led efforts to indict Ghailani, Bin Laden and more than a dozen others.
The indictment also said Ghailani was suspected of buying the truck used in the attack in Tanzania.
Officials said Ghailani used a host of aliases, including Ahmad al Tanzani, or "Ahmed the Tanzanian," as well as "Foopie" or "Fupi."
"We have no idea where that name came from," said one former counter-terrorism official who has spent years investigating Ghailani.
Times staff writers Maura Reynolds in Washington and Greg Krikorian in Los Angeles contributed to this report.