Washington The capture of Abu Zubaydah, al-Qaida's top surviving operational commander, is one of the most significant accomplishments in the U.S. war on terrorism, officials and experts said Monday.
In Zubaydah's head, U.S. officials believe, are the names, faces and locations of numerous al-Qaida operatives the world over.
He may also know the hiding place of Osama bin Laden.
"It's a major, major victory, if not the biggest victory so far," said Stan Bedlington, a former senior terrorism analyst with the CIA. "He's the biggest fish that we've caught."
Pakistani authorities, in concert with the CIA and FBI, captured Zubaydah in a raid last Thursday at a compound in Faisalabad, far from the Afghan border, U.S. officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Zubaydah was shot three times trying to escape in the stomach, groin and leg but was expected to survive, said one official.
He is in U.S. custody, but it's unclear whether he remains in Pakistan.
Zubaydah acknowledged his identity, said Pakistani officials and others familiar with his capture. Other past associates have also identified the captured man as Zubaydah, U.S. officials said.
Only bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri and Mohammed Atef ranked higher, and Atef was killed by U.S. airstrikes in November.
Zubaydah has been linked by intelligence and police officials to at least five al-Qaida terrorist plots, including the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The extent of his role, however, has not been fully determined.
Since the United States attacked Afghanistan, Zubaydah has led an effort to reorganize al-Qaida in Pakistan. Financial transfers and intercepted communications suggested he was directing attempts to conduct new terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, U.S. officials have said.
Officials cautioned that Zubaydah's arrest, while a major blow to al-Qaida, does not end the group's threat. Cells are still operating, and the group has several other leaders capable of organizing them.
Zubaydah has been sentenced to death by a military court in Jordan for his role in an abortive plot to bomb the Radisson hotel in Amman, the Jordanian capital, and Christian holy sites in Jordan, during millennium celebrations.
In that case, the Jordanian prosecutor said Abu Zubaydah served as the link between an al-Qaida cell in Jordan and the group's leadership in Afghanistan.