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Archive for Sunday, March 31, 2002

Bin Laden lieutenant may be among captured al-Qaida

March 31, 2002

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— U.S. and Pakistani authorities are trying to determine whether an Arab arrested in raids here this week is a key lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, a senior police official said Saturday.

The man bears a strong resemblance to Abu Zubaydah, bin Laden's senior field commander, who is believed to be trying to reorganize al-Qaida after the collapse of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

"We are trying to confirm the identity of one Arab who is believed to be Abu Zubaydah," Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, a senior Interior Ministry official, told The Associated Press.

The man is among 60 people, including 25 Arabs and four Afghans, who were arrested Thursday in raids by Pakistani and American agents in Faisalabad and Lahore.

A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities were waiting for information from the United States before determining the man's identity. He did not elaborate.

U.S. officials have declined to discuss Zubaydah's potential capture.

But they acknowledged his detention would be one of the most significant breakthroughs yet in the U.S. war against al-Qaida. A top recruiter and operational planner, Zubaydah served as the critical link between bin Laden's inner circle and al-Qaida cells worldwide. Bin Laden would order attacks; Zubaydah would frequently put together those operations.

U.S. officials believe he has the Rolodex of al-Qaida's operatives in his head.

"He had the personal contacts with most of the cell members who received the training in Afghanistan," Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorist chief, said on Saturday.

U.S. authorities also believe Zubaydah has played a role in numerous al-Qaida operations, including the Sept. 11 attacks and the "millennium plot" to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in late 1999.

Zubaydah, 30, is believed to have been born in Saudi Arabia but has strong ties in the West Bank and Jordan. He's been sentenced to death in Jordan and is believed connected to many of al-Qaida's operations against U.S. interests.

Sources in Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that Zubaydah had fled to Pakistan and had effectively taken control of al-Qaida because it was too dangerous for bin Laden and his second-in-command, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, to communicate from their Afghan hide-outs.

Zubaydah was believed to be behind recent moves to reorganize and revive al-Qaida after its Taliban allies collapsed last year under relentless U.S. airstrikes and ground attacks by Afghans allied with the American-led coalition.

Three other senior al-Qaida members are already in custody. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the prisoners include Abdul Rahim al-Sharqawi, also known as "Riyadh the facilitator." Considered a "top 25" al-Qaida leader, al-Sharqawi coordinated logistics and finances for al-Qaida operations, the official said.

Al-Sharqawi is not in U.S. custody, but American officials have access to him, the official said. The official declined to say where he was, but said he was detained some time ago.

His capture was first disclosed in Saturday's Washington Post. He joins Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi and Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, two al-Qaida training camp commanders, as the most senior al-Qaida leaders known to be in custody.

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