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Alqaeda hobbled by arrest { March 3 2003 }

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March 3, 2003
Al Qaeda Hobbled by Latest Arrest, U.S. Officials Say

LONDON, March 2 Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda's chief of operations, appeared to be in constant motion, communicating round- the-clock, law enforcement officials said, with dozens of his foot soldiers and lieutenants. He was often seen talking on one mobile phone while simultaneously sending a text message on a second mobile phone, detainees have told interrogators.

Among Al Qaeda's remaining leaders, Mr. Mohammed's reach and continuing communications abilities extended deepest throughout the far-flung terror network, American and foreign intelligence officials said. Hundreds of captured Qaeda operatives acknowledged during debriefings that they had had a recent conversation with Mr. Mohammed, a 37-year-old born in Kuwait, who was turned over to American officials today after his predawn capture on Saturday at a house in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Often the captured suspects had no knowledge of each other, intelligence and law enforcement officials said, but they had all been in contact with Mr. Mohammed.

Mr. Mohammed's arrest has therefore severely damaged although not wholly impaired Al Qaeda's ability to organize and execute spectacular attacks, and leaves a vacuum in the network's hierarchy, intelligence and law enforcement officials said.

"He was at the center of everything," a senior American law enforcement official said today. Many Qaeda operatives "will be lost without him."

Of the top Qaeda triumvirate of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, no one played a more active role in the recruitment efforts, day-to-day operations and long-term planning than Mr. Mohammed, officials said. Mr. bin Laden is a symbolic and inspirational leader, while Mr. Mohammed, one official said, was Al Qaeda's "details man."

Indeed, it was Mr. Mohammed who recognized that it would be much more difficult to stage large-scale attacks while the network's leaders and lieutenants were scattered. Mr. Mohammed told one Qaeda foot soldier that the terror network would bide its time by launching less coordinated attacks against "softer" targets, like the nightclub bombed in Bali on Oct. 12, an attack that killed 202 people, law enforcement and intelligence officials said.

Officials concede they do not know how many new attacks he had planned or how advanced those plans were at the time of his arrest. They also said they feared new attacks as reprisals for his arrest.

Until his arrest, the officials say, Mr. Mohammed was still supplying money and funds to Qaeda members. Last year, a captured Qaeda lieutenant, Muhammad Mansur Jabarah, said he was given money and instructions by Mr. Mohammed for attacks in Southeast Asia against "soft" targets frequented by Americans, according to a Canadian Secret Intelligence Service interrogation report on Mr. Jabarah obtained for a documentary on Al Qaeda by The New York Times and the Discovery Civilization channel, soon to be renamed DiscoveryTimes. The documentary will be shown later this month.

United States and foreign intelligence officials predicted that without Mr. Mohammed at the helm, the network would struggle to organize a well-coordinated operation that could kill thousands of people. The Sept. 11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were based on a plan devised by Mr. Mohammed, who took credit during an interview last year with an Al Jazeera correspondent, saying that he both imagined an attack using planes as weapons and then made sure the plan was carried out.

"His arrest will hit Qaeda like a body blow and send shock waves throughout the organization," another American law enforcement official said. "This is not something they will be able to overcome easily."

Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, described Mr. Mohammed as "a big fish."

"He's the operation manager," he added. "If there was one person that we wanted to get, it was this man." In an interview with Fox News Sunday, Mr. Roberts said Mr. Mohammed's arrest would almost certainly put an end to an offensive against the Afghanistan government that American officials had believed Al Qaeda was planning to launch this spring.

Bush administration officials are jubilant over the capture of Mr. Mohammed. President Bush, who declared it "fantastic," keeps a list of Qaeda leaders still at large, and he now has another name to cross off that list.

After being routed from Afghanistan in December 2001, Al Qaeda tried to rebuild itself despite limited operational leadership. Officials estimated that about 300 to 500 men had sworn allegiance to Al Qaeda, but an estimated 20,000 men had attended training camps in Afghanistan.

As early as December 2001, intelligence officials detected evidence that Al Qaeda was reinventing itself, solidifying alliances with other terror groups and permitting midlevel agents to plan and execute attacks.

By the end of the rout of the Taliban, approximately one-third of Al Qaeda's estimated membership had either been captured or killed, Bush administration officials have estimated. The most senior member of Al Qaeda to die on the battlefield was Muhammad Atef, who was Mr. bin Laden's chief of military operations.

Mr. Mohammed was the last senior operational leader in Al Qaeda. Two others, Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, were captured last year. Mr. bin al-Shibh was involved in the recruitment and financing of the suicide pilots from a cell in Hamburg, Germany, including Mohamed Atta. Mr. Zubaydah, the network's field operations commander, was arrested almost a year ago, also in Pakistan.

Officials and terror experts said it was believed that other lieutenants had assumed a larger operational role. One of those men, they said, is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a poisons expert who Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in his Feb. 5 speech at the United Nations had established a Qaeda cell of 20 men in Baghdad, Iraq.

The remaining Qaeda leaders are Saif al-Adel, the network's security chief who some officials believe is hiding in Iran, and Tawfiq al-Atash, who American officials believe was one of the leading planners of the attack on the destroyer Cole in Yemen in October 2000.

Mr. Mohammed is believed to have played a role in the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Mohammed's terror network is deeply entrenched in Britain, Spain, Italy and France. Officials say he supervised the attack on a Tunisian synagogue in April 2002 that killed 21 people, many of them German tourists. Three hours before the attack, the driver of the truck called Mr. Mohammed, who was then in Karachi, to tell him that the attack would soon be carried out.

Several law enforcement and intelligence officials said that because of his continued operational abilities, Mr. Mohammed was in some ways as prized a catch as Mr. bin Laden. "Bin Laden was always the chairman of the board of Al Qaeda and he remains its inspirational and symbolic leader," one official said. "But Khalid Mohammed was always the C.E.O., the guy who made sure things got done."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company | Privacy Policy

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