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Terror Arrest Reported

U.S. authorities say a man who helped coordinate the Sept. 11 attacks and others is captured, but Pakistan says the report is 'all speculation.'

November 04, 2005|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Authorities in Pakistan have captured a suspected Al Qaeda operative believed to have played a role in plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States as well as subsequent bombings in Madrid and London, U.S. officials said Thursday.

Several U.S. counter-terrorism officials said that one of the men arrested in a recent raid in Quetta is Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, 47, a Syrian also known as Abu Musab al-Suri or Abu Musab the Syrian.

Nasar is also wanted in Spain. Authorities there and in Washington believe he has been a leading figure in Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network in Europe before and after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Three U.S. officials confirmed Nasar's arrest. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to publicly discuss the operation in the capital of Pakistan's southwestern province of Baluchistan.

Late Thursday, however, Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed denied that Nasar had been captured. "This is all speculation," Rashid said. "The man they have is definitely not Nasar." The conflicting accounts could not be reconciled.

The U.S. officials earlier said only that Nasar had been captured within the last several weeks, and that details of his arrest were being withheld because names and other information found at the time of his capture could prove useful to Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agents.

The U.S. officials quoted Pakistani authorities as saying another suspect, believed to be a member of the Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad, had also been apprehended. A second suspected Al Qaeda operative was killed in the raid, the officials said.

U.S. authorities last year established a $5-million reward for Nasar's capture, but they have not obtained an arrest warrant or indictment for him.

Several U.S. officials said Thursday that they would move quickly to try and participate in interrogations of Nasar.

"We'd like to get our hands on him," said one U.S. counter-terrorism official who was involved in the post-Sept. 11 investigation of an Al Qaeda cell in Spain that allegedly included Nasar.

He described Nasar as an important but mysterious link for the 19 suicide hijackers, alleged plot coordinator Ramzi Binalshibh and others known and unknown who in July 2001 attended a meeting near Tarragona, Spain. It was there that lead hijacker Mohamed Atta is believed to have finalized his plans for the Sept. 11 attacks.

"He clearly knew the players in 9/11; he knew about or even set up the meeting with Atta and helped facilitate that," the U.S. official said.

A U.S. Justice Department website describes Nasar as a former trainer at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan who taught recruits how to use poisons and chemicals.

U.S. and European authorities suspect that he played an organizational role in the mass-transit bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004, that killed 191 people and the July 7 bus and subway bombings in London that killed 52 commuters.

Several U.S. authorities said Thursday that they were also interested in learning more about Nasar's connections to Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, the accused Syrian-born Spanish boss of an Al Qaeda cell in Madrid that was dismantled by Spanish authorities in 2001.

Barakat was the key defendant in Spain's recent "mega-trial" of several dozen alleged Al Qaeda operatives, and one of only three accused of being accomplices to the Sept. 11 attacks. On Sept. 26, he was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder for his contacts with Sept. 11 ringleader Atta.

Barakat was formally charged with arranging the July 2001 meeting with Atta, and with speaking in code to a militant in London about the attacks 15 days before they were carried out. The Spanish court ultimately ruled that Barakat "was aware of the sinister plans of imminent execution."

Nasar's role in the meeting is less clear, but U.S. officials believe he was connected not only to it but also to Al Qaeda efforts to promote a worldwide jihad, or holy war, and recruit young European Muslims for the cause. Both Nasar and Barakat have maintained their innocence.

But in his statement of innocence posted on an extremist website in late 2004, Nasar said that if he had been consulted, the Sept. 11 attacks would have been far more devastating. "I would have advised them to select aircraft on international flights and to have put weapons of mass destruction aboard them," he said, according to a translation by GlobalTerrorAlert.com, an independent clearinghouse on terrorism-related issues.

Nasar also urged Muslims to adopt the slogan "Dirty Bombs for a Dirty Nation" and attack the United States and its citizens with any kind of nuclear materials they could get their hands on.

"This is practically equal treatment" in light of the U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, he asserted.

The U.S. counter-terrorism official said Nasar was most wanted by authorities not for playing a particular role in any one plot but for his encyclopedic knowledge of Al Qaeda-affiliated militants operating in Europe and elsewhere.

"He is not a suicide bomber. He is a planner ... a mastermind who coordinates the money, the cells, the people," the official said. "He tells them where to live and where to go and what to do."

A second U.S. official cautioned that some claims about Nasar might have been inflated. But he agreed that the Syrian, who traveled widely and is married to a Spanish convert to Islam, was an important catch for Pakistani and U.S. authorities.

"Bear in mind, this guy is more of an ideologue than a real operations guy," the second official said. "You'd certainly want his Rolodex. He's got a lot of contacts."

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