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Arrests expose terror's reach

Sweeps in Pakistan and later in Britain - the products of international cooperation - are a blow to al-Qaida.

By Associated Press
Published August 8, 2004

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The torrent of intelligence that led to dozens of arrests in Pakistan and Britain and a terror warning in the United States began with a hunt for those behind an audacious ambush in June on a Pakistani commander as his motorcade tried to cross Karachi's Clifton Bridge.

The trail has led from the teeming streets of that southern port city to the dusty tribal village of Shakai along the Pakistan-Afghan border, to seemingly placid suburban London, to the world's financial headquarters in New York and Washington.

The arrests of several senior al-Qaida figures in Pakistan and Britain in the weeks that followed - including a key operative in London and a man on the FBI's most-wanted list for the U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa - are a striking example of intrepid police and intelligence work, international cooperation and simple good luck.

The breaks have dealt a significant blow to Osama bin Laden's network, eliminated a tribal transit point for his men and drawn the strongest link between al-Qaida's international plans and attacks on senior politicians here, including President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and the prime minister-designate, more than half a dozen Pakistani police and intelligence officials told the Associated Press.

What they haven't done, officials warn, is eliminate the al-Qaida threat or prevent leaders like bin Laden from organizing attacks.

"This is a network that we are trying to break. It is in the process of being dismantled," Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayyat said. "But the network is still not finished."

The gunmen escaped after the June 10 attack on Ahsan Saleem Hayat, Karachi's top general, but police traced them through a stolen van found abandoned and bloodstained later that day. The general escaped unharmed; 10 people died in the attack.

The van's owner gave police a description of the men who had stolen it, and that led them to a militant hideout in Karachi, where on June 12 they arrested nine people, including alleged ringleader Atta-ur Rahman and a young Pakistani man, Shahzad Bajwa.

The men, part of a previously unknown group called Jundallah, or Allah's Brigade, are believed to have been involved in recent attacks on Shiite Muslim mosques in Karachi.

Rahman and Bajwa received training in October and November 2003 in South Waziristan at an alleged al-Qaida facility and shooting range on the property of tribal leader Eda Khan.

The camp near Shakai, a town of mud-brick compounds surrounded by mountains and forests, was overrun by the army in June after the arrests in Karachi. Eda Khan surrendered and is in custody.

On June 12, police and intelligence agents in Karachi also arrested Masrab Arochi, a nephew of al-Qaida's former No. 3, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and a suspected terror operative himself, Hayyat said.

Hayyat said Arochi, Rahman and Bajwa had been to Shakai, which he described as "a major transit point" for al-Qaida figures.

"They received their training in Shakai," the interior minister said. "Shakai is an area where - when we finally overpowered these elements and flushed them out - we found that it was being used as a training ground by al-Qaida."

Pakistani intelligence officials say the CIA cooperated in the Arochi arrest and those that followed.

Arochi's family has long ties to terrorism. He is a cousin of Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings and is serving a life sentence in the United States.

The government has failed to produce Arochi in court. Hayyat was circumspect about his connection to other al-Qaida figures, but three intelligence officials told the Associated Press that he led police to a network of other operatives, including Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, a 25-year-old computer expert nabbed July 13.

The arrest of Khan was a breakthrough - revealing a terrorist web that stretched far beyond Pakistan's borders, officials say.

His computer had coded e-mails to many other al-Qaida operatives and photographs of Heathrow airport and other potential terrorist targets in Britain and the United States, according to a Lahore-based intelligence official involved in the investigation.

Khan used to frequently visit Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, the intelligence official said, and he was married there to the sister of a "top-ranking" Taliban leader.

The official said Khan had been to Britain four times, always on reduced-price tickets he got through his father, a flight attendant with Pakistan International Airlines.

Khan helped lead authorities to Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian with a $25-million U.S. bounty on his head for his role in the deadly 1998 embassy bombings.

Ghailani was arrested July 25 after a fierce gun battle in the eastern city of Gujrat. Two South Africans, identified as Feroz Ibrahim and Zubair Ismail, were arrested with him, and authorities said they were believed to be plotting attacks in their homeland.

Hayyat said at least three other senior al-Qaida operatives have been arrested, including two Africans and a man he claimed is on the FBI's list of 22 most-wanted terrorists. He has refused to name them, but confirmed that one of the Africans is known as Ibrahim and was arrested at Lahore airport Monday night.

Ghailani, who fled to Pakistan the day before the 1998 embassy bombings, also was believed to have spent time in Shakai and other parts of South Waziristan, Hayyat said.

The region has long been a suspected hideout for al-Qaida terrorists, possibly including bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. Pakistan's army has moved 70,000 troops there and has launched at least three major attacks on foreign militants and their local supporters that have killed more than 200 people.

A senior intelligence official told the Associated Press that Ghailani might also have met his Uzbek wife while living in the border area. He said al-Qaida "facilitators" arranged for Ghailani to hide in several houses in Waziristan.

Information taken from Khan and Ghailani's computers was shared with British authorities, who on Tuesday conducted a sweep in and around London that netted 13 suspects, including a man known as Abu Eisa al-Hindi or Abu Musa al-Hindi. One man was later released.

Al-Hindi is suspected of having written terrorist surveillance reports detailing security, construction and other features of five U.S. financial buildings that were the center of a terror warning issued by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Sunday.

An official called al-Hindi "a key al-Qaida operative." A counterterrorism official told the Associated Press that much of the documentary evidence for the alerts, including surveillance reports, was in fluent English, indicating the author spent significant time in the West.

Hayyat pointed to a link between the al-Qaida figures arrested since the Waziristan crackdown and several high-profile attacks in Pakistan, including two attempts in December to assassinate Musharraf and the failed suicide attack last month on prime minister-designate Shaukat Aziz.

"We have every reason to believe that there is a very strong connection between elements connected to the al-Qaida network and the al-Qaida hierarchy" and the attacks on senior politicians, Hayyat said.

The interior minister said he hoped the arrests would lead authorities to bin Laden, but cautioned against too much optimism.

"Whenever we get hold of high profile al-Qaida activists, there is a great deal of euphoria and excitement, and it leads to a lot of optimism . . . that it will lead us to the eventual prize - the apprehension of Osama and al-Zawahri," Hayyat said. "But we have to be very cautious. This network . . . remains a potent threat to Pakistan, and to civilized humanity."

[Last modified August 7, 2004, 23:20:22]

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