Pakistan Reports Arrest of a Senior Qaeda Leader
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
Published: May 5, 2005
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This article was reported by Salman Masood, Mohammed Khan and Somini
Sengupta and written by Ms. Sengupta.
Pakistani authorities announced yesterday the arrest of a senior operative
for Al Qaeda who is suspected of directing two failed assassination attempts
against the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Both Pakistani and American officials described the man, a Libyan named Abu
Faraj al-Libbi, as the third most senior leader in Al Qaeda's terrorist
network, and President Bush called the arrest a "critical victory in the war
on terror." But counterterrorism experts in Europe immediately raised
questions about Mr. Libbi's importance.
Pakistani officials said virtually nothing about either the circumstances of
Mr. Libbi's arrest or the extent of American aid in the operation. The
Central Intelligence Agency has worked extensively with Pakistani agents to
search for Osama bin Laden and other Qaeda leaders in the tribal regions of
the restive North-West Frontier Province.
Pakistani officials said the arrest came early Monday in Mardan, a town 30
miles north of Peshawar.
Both Pakistani and American officials seized on the arrest as a success in
their joint efforts. "This is a big catch," Pakistan's information minister,
Sheik Rashid Ahmed, said in a telephone interview. "We were looking for him
for a very long time."
White House officials described the arrest as the most important blow to Al
Qaeda since the seizure more than two years ago of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,
who is said to have organized the 9/11 attacks.
Pakistani officials said Mr. Libbi had succeeded Mr. Mohammed as head of Al
Qaeda's operations in Pakistan, and American officials said he was involved
in planning attacks in the United States.
But some intelligence officials in Europe expressed surprise at hearing Mr.
Libbi described as Al Qaeda's third-highest leader, pointing out that he
does not figure on the F.B.I.'s most-wanted list.
There is another Qaeda operative on the list with a similar name, Abu al-Liby,
also a Libyan, who was indicted for an "operational role" in the bombings of
two American embassies in East Africa in August 1998. (The surname, in its
various transliterations, means simply the Libyan.)
American officials, when asked about the doubts, dismissed the idea that
they had confused the Libyans, saying they know Mr. Liby is on the list, and
reaffirming the importance of Mr. Libbi. To be included on the F.B.I.'s most
wanted list, they noted, a terrorist must have been indicted by a federal
grand jury, which Mr. Libbi has not.
Another senior counterterrorism official based in Europe, who spoke on
condition of anonymity, confirmed the Americans' version, saying Mr. Libbi
had indeed become an important operational commander of Al Qaeda. He had
worked directly with Mr. Mohammed, the official said, and assumed many of
Mr. Mohammed's responsibilities in Pakistan after the latter's arrest. "He's
someone we have been watching closely for a while now," the official said.
The official went on to say that Mr. Libbi is believed to be among the few
members of the organization who know the whereabouts of Mr. bin Laden and
his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In a photograph released yesterday by Pakistani authorities, Mr. Libbi
appeared disheveled, with an ill-kempt beard, in sharp contrast to the
well-groomed, smartly suited man whose portrait appeared on Pakistan's
most-wanted list. Pakistan had offered a reward of roughly $340,000 for
information leading to his arrest.
How Mr. Libbi was captured, and with what degree of American assistance,
remains vague. Two Pakistani intelligence officials said a tip early Monday
led to a suspected hideout in Mardan. When intelligence officials arrived,
he fled on a motorbike. They pursued him, with two of them disguised as
burka-clad women, until Mr. Libbi holed up in a house.
For 45 minutes, security forces urged the man to give up, said Amanullah
Khan, the Mardan superintendent of police. Mr. Khan said he punched through
a window and lobbed a tear-gas canister inside. A man emerged, he said,
"hands in the air and head slightly bowed."
"He was unarmed," Mr. Khan went on. "I searched him and he only had a cell
phone on him."
Intelligence officials quickly whisked him away. Neither Pakistani nor
American officials would say whether Mr. Libbi, like Mr. Mohammed and other
Qaeda officials being held by the American government at undisclosed
locations, would be taken into United States custody.
Mr. Libbi is the chief suspect in two assassination attempts in December
2003, both in Rawalpindi. In the first, a bomb ripped through a bridge just
moments after General Musharraf's motorcade had passed; no one was hurt. In
the second, suicide bombers descended upon the president's car in two
vehicles stuffed with explosives; nearly 17 people, mostly officers, were
Mr. Libbi's suspected accomplice in those attacks was a well-known Pakistani
militant named Amjad Hussain Farooqi, who was also implicated in the murder
of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in February 2002. Mr.
Farooqi was killed last September in a shootout with security forces in
Two Pakistani soldiers have been convicted in connection with the
assassination attempts; one of them, sentenced to death, managed to escape
from a military prison last November.
General Musharraf's alliance with the American-led campaign against
terrorism has made him a target of Islamist militants who once counted
Pakistan as an ally. At the same time, his government is under intense
pressure from Washington to produce results. Hints of similarly high-profile
arrests have come and gone in the past.
Though the C.I.A. has played a leading role in working with Pakistani
intelligence, the American counterterrorism official would not be more
precise about the role the agency or others might have played in the arrest
yesterday, except to say that human intelligence had "played a critical
Indeed, Washington seemed keen to credit the Pakistanis, a notion that is
likely to play well with General Musharraf's audience at home.
"The Pakistanis are to be congratulated for the hard work that they did,"
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday. "Of course, we've been
cooperating with them, but the Pakistanis, as we've been saying, have been
really stalwart in the war on terrorism."
Salman Masood reported from Islamabad, Pakistan, for this article, Mohammed
Khan from Peshawar, and Somini Sengupta from New Delhi. Douglas Jehl
contributed reporting from Washington and Don Van Natta Jr. from London.