Al-Qaida operations chief caught
WASHINGTON — U.S. counterterrorism officials are interrogating a newly captured top operative of Osama bin Laden in hopes of gaining information that might thwart terrorist attacks.
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, al-Qaida’s chief of operations for the Persian Gulf and a suspected mastermind of the USS Cole bombing in October 2000, was taken in an undisclosed foreign country during the last several weeks. The Saudi is now in U.S. custody, U.S. government officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Officials declined to comment on the circumstances of his capture.
He is probably the highest-ranking lieutenant of bin Laden seized since the March capture of Abu Zubaydah, al-Qaida’s chief coordinator of terrorist cells around the globe. However, the capture of al-Nashiri did little to quell fears of a resurgent al-Qaida that is plotting new terrorist attacks.
Since last week, U.S. officials had said a senior al-Qaida leader had been caught, but they had declined to identify him. On Sunday, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the prisoner was providing information to his interrogators.
The questioning of other senior figures, such as Abu Zubaydah and Omar al-Farouq, bin Laden’s Southeast Asia operations chief, have provided a wealth of information — often of unknown reliability — of planned terrorist operations. Their words have led to several public alerts in the last year.
In the Cole attack, U.S. officials have said al-Nashiri gave telephone orders to the bombers from the United Arab Emirates and may have provided money to the plotters. He went to Afghanistan after the bombing, which killed 17 sailors.
Born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, al-Nashiri is believed to be in his mid-30s, officials said.
“He has a reputation as a ruthless operator,” said one U.S. official. “He is a very committed follower of Osama bin Laden.”
Al-Nashiri oversaw the purchase and transport of explosives, the leasing of safe houses and the planning and financing of attacks, officials said.
He has also traveled under a number of other names, including Umar Mohammed al-Harazi and Abu Bilal al-Makki.
U.S. officials believe he was in Ghazni, Afghanistan, around the time the war began there in October 2001. He is thought to have moved to Pakistan when the Taliban fell, and he may have gone to Yemen in recent months. Some tribesmen in Yemen, however, said he had gone to Malaysia.
In addition to the Cole attack, al-Nashiri is suspected of helping direct the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He recruited his cousin, Azzam, to train in Afghanistan and serve as one of the suicide bombers in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, officials said.
In addition, he is thought to be behind the attempt to bomb another destroyer, the USS The Sullivans, nine months before the Cole attack, at the Aden port. That attack failed when the suicide boat, overloaded with explosives, sank.
He is also suspected of organizing a plot to bomb the U.S. 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain, a plot revealed in January by another top al-Qaida operative, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who was captured by Pakistan after fleeing Afghanistan.
The 5th Fleet has responsibility for the Persian Gulf and provides ships for the operations of U.S. Central Command, which is running the war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
U.S. intelligence also is investigating whether he was behind the Oct. 6 suicide boat bombing of a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, officials said. One crewman was killed.
Al-Nashiri also is suspected of playing a role in a failed al-Qaida plot to use suicide boats to bomb U.S. and British warships crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, U.S. officials said. In June, three Saudis were arrested in Morocco in connection with that plot.
His precise role in either the tanker or Gibraltar plot has not been verified, officials said.
The capture of al-Nashiri is the latest reported success in the worldwide effort being led by the CIA, FBI and U.S. military to capture or kill top al-Qaida chiefs.
On Nov. 3, a CIA Predator drone fired a missile at a car in Yemen that was carrying several suspected al-Qaida operatives, killing Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, al-Qaida’s top operative in that country. Al-Harethi is also suspected of involvement in the Cole plot.
In September, U.S. and Pakistani authorities captured Ramzi Binalshibh, an alleged planner of the Sept. 11 attacks. While not considered a member of al-Qaida’s uppermost echelon, Binalshibh is seen as an aide to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, who remains at large.
In June, Indonesian authorities captured al-Farouq, al-Qaida’s operations chief for Southeast Asia, and turned him over to U.S. custody.
Other al-Qaida leaders still at large include bin Laden, his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, security chief Saif al-Adil and financier Shaikh Saiid al-Sharif. Bin Laden’s son, Saad, and Tawfiq Attash Khallad, another alleged planner of the Cole attack, also remain on the loose.
Because many remain at large, fears of new al-Qaida terrorism are high.
A new audio message from bin Laden, which aired last week on an Arabic television network, marked the first confirmation in almost a year that he survived the war in Afghanistan.
It raised concern of a resurgent al-Qaida, leading to several domestic and international warnings of new terrorism, including a worldwide caution issued by the State Department on Wednesday.