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Narrow escapes lead to suspect

Officials fear one of al-Qaida's top leaders was actively planning new attacks in the United States.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2003


RAWALPINDI, Pakistan -- The arrest of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed by Pakistani intelligence and CIA agents began with a near miss last month in a dusty border town and became a feverish chase fueled by communications intercepts and suspects' interrogations, security officials said Sunday.

Mohammed, an unidentified man of Middle Eastern origin and Pakistani Ahmed Abdul Qadoos were arrested early Saturday in Rawalpindi, a bustling city adjacent to the capital. Mohammed and the unidentified man were handed over to U.S. authorities and spirited to an undisclosed location out of the country, a senior government official told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The unidentified man may be Saif al Adel, a leading al-Qaida operative wanted for the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, Knight Ridder reported.

A series of arrests and interrogations in recent months, notably the capture of Mohammed cohort Ramzi Binalshibh, has pierced some of the secrecy surrounding al-Qaida, throwing the organization into disarray and forcing its leaders to go on the run, Pakistani police and intelligence officials told the Washington Post.

Mohammed narrowly escaped arrest on three occasions over the past five months, the newspaper reported.

Security officials said the trail for Mohammed heated up after authorities arrested an Egyptian man during a raid in the frontier city of Quetta on Feb. 14. Authorities had hoped to find Mohammed -- a top al-Qaida figure with links to a decade of deadly plots -- but he was not there.

A Pakistani intelligence official told AP that American communications experts helped Pakistani authorities trace an e-mail the arrested Quetta suspect sent to Qadoos. They immediately put him under surveillance, which led authorities to Mohammed, the official said.

The broken door of the spacious, two-story villa in an upper-middle class district of Rawalpindi is the only outward sign that it was a hideout for suspected terrorists.

Mohammed was pulled from his sleep to be photographed by the police, beardless, seemingly dazed, wearing a loose-fitting white T-shirt against the backdrop of an apartment with paint peeling from the walls.

Mohammed had been hiding in the Rawalpindi house "for quite some time," Pakistan's interior minister, Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat, said in a telephone interview with the New York Times Sunday afternoon.

U.S. authorities said they expect a trove of leads from the search of Mohammed's living quarters in Rawalpindi and from interrogations he is undergoing at an undisclosed location outside Pakistan.

Congressional intelligence committee leaders said they are hopeful Mohammed's capture will quickly lead authorities to other al-Qaida figures, including perhaps Osama bin Laden.

Everything found in Mohammed's living quarters will be analyzed by the FBI for leads on other al-Qaida operatives or clues to planned attacks on U.S. interests.

Although U.S. officials had been frustrated in earlier attempts to seize the operations chieftain of al-Qaida, intelligence and law enforcement officials said they continued to receive solid leads about his whereabouts after Sept. 11, in large part because Mohammed continued to be in active communication with al-Qaida's members around the world. He continued to be the terror network's operational commander, using couriers, e-mail and coded telephone messages to maintain communications.

In the past year, Mohammed still gave instructions and provided funding to al-Qaida lieutenants, the New York Times reported, citing interviews with officials and intelligence reports. Sunday, counterterrorism officials said Mohammed was in part responsible for the government's decision last month to raise the terror alert level from yellow to orange -- a heightened alert that has since been rescinded. Intelligence officials said they had penetrated his circle deeply enough in recent weeks to conclude that Mohammed was actively planning terror operations inside the United States in the near term, according to the New York Times.

One target was again New York City, officials said, possibly involving the revival of a discarded plan that was first discussed in the months before the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001. Before that, Mohammed had considered attacks on the city's gas stations, bridges, hotels and power plants, the officials said, confirming a report in this week's Newsweek.

But Mohammed and his associates had abandoned that plot when Mohammed concluded it might compromise or lessen the impact of the then unfolding hijacking plot.

In recent months, as analysts pieced together more information about the aborted attack on New York, some of it from detainees, they concluded that Mohammed might revive the idea.

A renewed effort by Mohammed set off alarms because of another intelligence finding about him. He had grown increasingly interested in radiological devices and expressed keen interest in obtaining poisons and toxins and urged other al-Qaida extremists to launch a more intensive effort to develop weapons of mass destruction, intelligence officials told the New York Times.

Pakistani authorities were alerted to the possibility that Mohammed was in Pakistan last summer, Pakistani officials said. That was when terror suspects began to identify him in connection with other acts of violence such as the January 2002 kidnapping and subsequent murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. When one low-level al-Qaida follower was arrested in Karachi, police found what they said was evidence that the apartment had been used by Mohammed.

Officials were not releasing details of Mohammed's detention. Previous high-level al-Qaida captives have not been brought to U.S. soil; they would have rights not afforded on foreign soil, U.S. officials say. Where they are, however, has not been disclosed.

Another secret is how officials will attempt to get information from Mohammed.

U.S. officials insist they eschew physical, violent torture, although it is unclear if all of America's allies live by a similar code.

Also less clear is to what extent interrogators use certain methods that human rights groups also regard as torture: sleep deprivation, threats of torture and other techniques intended to confuse, frighten or wear down a captive.

"We don't sanction torture but there are psychological and other ways that we can get most of what we need," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Whatever the method, the goal is to get inside a prisoner's head and get him talking, experts say. An interrogator may try to appeal to Mohammed's vanity, his fears, or whatever lever seems to offer the best avenue to getting information that will stop terrorist attacks.

As his interrogation moves away from the immediate, Mohammed can provide counterterrorism officials with a deeper understanding of al-Qaida and its history.

Officials believe he can detail how Sept. 11 was put together, answering long-standing questions about the plot's origins: Who chose the World Trade Center and Pentagon as targets? Who picked Sept. 11 as the date?

His information can be crosschecked with Binalshibh's, his former aide who was captured in September. Binalshibh was a part of the cell that included Mohamed Atta, chief among the Sept. 11 hijackers.

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