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Top alqaeda member captured { May 1 2003 }

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May 1, 2003
A Top Qaeda Member, Tied to 9/11, Is Captured

WASHINGTON, April 30 A top operative of Al Qaeda suspected of playing crucial roles in both the bombing of the American destroyer Cole in 2000 and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was captured in Pakistan on Tuesday along with five other terrorist suspects, American officials said today.

Walid Ba'Attash, a Saudi citizen of Yemeni descent who was captured in Karachi by the Pakistani authorities, is the highest-ranking Qaeda leader to be taken into custody since Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the terrorist network's chief of operations, was captured on March 2, American officials said.

Mr. Ba'Attash has been identified by American intelligence officials as an important lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, and deeply involved in many of Al Qaeda's most deadly plots. He is thought to have used many different aliases in recent years, including Tawfiq al-Atash and Tawfiq bin Atash.

American officials believe that Mr. Ba'Attash was the mastermind behind the Cole attack, and was also a leading participant in a critical meeting of Qaeda operatives in Malaysia in January 2000 that may have been called to plan the Sept. 11 attacks. Two of the 19 hijackers involved in the attacks on New York and Washington also attended the Malaysia meeting.

Mr. Ba'Attash has been on the C.I.A.'s list of top Qaeda leaders. Once he is turned over to the United States for questioning, as American officials expect, Mr. Ba'Attash will be the only person in American custody who attended that planning session, and he may be able to provide the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. fresh insight into the inner workings of the Sept. 11 plot.

President Bush praised the capture of Mr. Ba'Attash today, telling reporters at the White House that "it was a major, significant find" in the war on terrorism.

The five other captured suspects have said they are Pakistanis, but American officials said they had not verified their identities. Last month, 10 other suspects in the Cole bombing escaped from jail in Yemen. Their escape raised questions about whether they had received help from inside the Yemeni government, which has faced allegations that it knew more about the Cole plot than it had acknowledged. American officials said today that they knew of no connection between the jail break in Yemen and the capture of Mr. Ba'Attash in Pakistan.

Mr. Ba'Attash is believed to have risen rapidly through the ranks of Al Qaeda throughout the late 1990's. He gained the trust of Mr. bin Laden after serving as one of his bodyguards, American intelligence officials believe. He lost a foot in combat in Afghanistan, although it is unclear when this happened.

The capture of the Qaeda figures was announced on the same day that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell declared that the United States and other nations had made "unprecedented progress" over the last year in combating global terrorism.

Releasing the State Department's annual report on "Patterns of Global Terrorism 2002," Mr. Powell said the number of terrorist attacks went down to 199 in 2002, from 355 in 2001, although the year was marred by major attacks in Bali and a theater in Moscow.

Cofer Black, the department's coordinator for counterterrorism, said the decline resulted from several factors, including increased government security worldwide, the imprisonment of terrorist suspects, including more than 3,000 from Al Qaeda, and the effort to stop oil pipeline bombings in Colombia.

Mr. Ba'Attash first came to the attention of the United States in late 1999, when American intelligence overheard a telephone conversation out of Yemen and learned that a man named "Khallad" would be attending a meeting of suspected terrorists in Malaysia the following January. The C.I.A. eventually determined that Khallad was an alias used by Mr. Ba'Attash.

The agency conducted surveillance of the meeting and was able to identify two others, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who later entered the United States. Both men were part of the hijacking team on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the C.I.A. came under criticism for failing to promptly notify the F.B.I. and other agencies that the two suspected terrorists were trying to enter the United States.

The C.I.A. waited until August 2001 to ask that Mr. Midhar and Mr. Hazmi be placed on government watch lists to prevent their entry into the country, but by that time they were already in the United States, and the F.B.I. was unable to track them down. The delay in placing the two on the watch list was one of several missed signals that were the focus of last year's congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks, and helped prompt the Bush administration to reorganize the government's counterterrorism efforts.

Yet even though the C.I.A.'s handling of information about the Malaysia meeting has come under intense public scrutiny, analysts have never been certain about what was discussed by the participants. The January 2000 meeting occurred at about the same time as a failed plot to bomb the the Sullivans while it was in port in Yemen, and some investigators believe the Malaysia meeting may have been related to that operation.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Ba'Attash is believed to have been behind several subsequent plots that failed, including attempts to attack shipping off the coast of Yemen.

Mr. Ba'Attash's suspected involvement in the Cole bombing is the plot for which the United States has the most concrete evidence against him. Suspects arrested in Yemen after the Cole bombing identified him as the leader of the operation, and he is also believed to have been in charge of the earlier, abortive attack on the Sullivans.

After the attack on the Cole, Mr. Ba'Attash is believed by American officials to have gone to Afghanistan. After the collapse of the Taliban government, the officials said he fled to Pakistan, where he was captured in Karachi.

After the Cole bombing Yemeni officials said they found a letter they suspected was written by Mr. bin Laden. The letter, written in late 1997, is not addressed to anyone, but includes general instructions for an attack on American ships cruising off Yemen.

The letter is believed by investigators to have been brought back from Afghanistan by Mr. Ba'Attash. In addition, the investigators have seen other connections between Mr. Ba'Attash and the Cole plot and other terrorist operations.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | Help | Back to Top

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