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Alleged No. 2 al Qaeda man in US custody in Pakistan
( 2002-04-02 15:10 ) (7 )

The capture of Abu Zubaydah, Al Qaeda's top surviving operational commander, is one of the most significant accomplishments in the US war on terrorism, officials and experts said Monday.

In Zubaydah's head, US officials believe, are the names, faces and locations of numerous Al Qaeda operatives the world over.

He may also know the hiding place of Usama 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, US 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 US custody, but it's unclear if 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, US officials said.

Only bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri and Mohammed Atef ranked higher, and Atef was killed by US airstrikes in November.

Zubaydah has been linked by intelligence and police officials to at least five Al Qaeda 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.

Captured Al Qaeda operatives said he organized the millennium plots to blow up Los Angeles International Airport and the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman, Jordan, which is frequented by American tourists. Both were thwarted.

In 2000, a Jordanian military court found him guilty in absentia of conspiracy to carry out terrorist attacks and he was sentenced to death in absentia.

Zubaydah, a 31-year-old Palestinian who was born in Saudi Arabia, was also tied to thwarted plots to blow up the US embassies in Paris and Sarajevo after Sept. 11. US officials say they are investigating his links to the attacks on the USS Cole and the East Africa embassy bombings.

Despite his prominence, the FBI never named him as a "most wanted" terrorist. He is also known as Zain al-Abidin Muhahhad Husain.

"We've followed him for a very long time, a very dangerous character," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

Since the United States attacked Afghanistan, Zubaydah has led an effort to reorganize Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Financial transfers and intercepted communications suggested he was directing attempts to conduct new terrorist attacks against US interests, US officials have said.

Officials cautioned that Zubaydah's arrest, while a major blow to Al Qaeda, does not end the group's threat. Cells are still operating, and the group has several other leaders capable of organizing them.

Bedlington suggested Zubaydah's high position in Al Qaeda may have given him access to bin Laden's post-Sept. 11 plans, including his hideouts and how to contact him. That's information US intelligence can exploit, if Zubaydah talks, Bedlington said.

Think of him as a "choke point" between bin Laden's will and actual terrorist attacks, said Vince Cannistraro, a former senior CIA counterterrorism chief. Where bin Laden and al-Zawahri would set policy, Zubaydah would implement it. US officials said when the inner circle would call for a bombing of an embassy, Zubaydah would select the embassy, cell and method of attack.

"He was the guy that had the direct contact with prominent Al Qaeda cell leaders abroad, and he knew where they all were," he said. "He would have been the guy coordinating new attacks."

His contacts with cells came through his role as a recruiter in the group. Prospective recruits would meet Zubaydah in Pakistan, who would assign them to camps. When they finished training, he put them in cells overseas.

Ahmed Ressam, convicted April 2001 of smuggling, terrorist conspiracy and other charges in connection with the Los Angeles plot, described Zubaydah's role during court testimony.

"He is the person in charge of the camps. He receives young men from all countries. He accepts you or rejects you. And he takes care of the expenses for the camps. He makes arrangements for you when you travel coming in or leaving," Ressam said.



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