September 17, 2002 Posted: 3:21 PM EDT (1921 G
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) — The CIA and FBI are hoping to get key details on al Qaeda operations now that Ramzi Binalshibh — an al Qaeda operative who has acknowledged he participated in the September 11 terror planning — is in their custody.
"The first focus is to find out what he knows," a senior State Department official said Monday.
Binalshibh, who was captured last week in Pakistan, has been handed over to U.S. authorities and moved out of that country. He is to be taken to an undisclosed third country for further interrogation, officials said.
He has yet to talk in the initial rounds of interrogation. The State Department official said that was not surprising, noting that "dedicated guys" such as Binalshibh generally "don’t spill their guts" right away
This official would not disclose the location or even the country where Binalshibh is being held, and said U.S. investigators are not pressing for Binalshibh to be brought to the United States at the moment.
Although Binalshibh is not among the senior most wanted al Qaeda leaders, a senior U.S. official said he is a "very, very big fish for us," a senior official said, both because he is believed to have played a critical role in the September 11 plot and because he is believed to have been in contact with senior al Qaeda leaders since then.
Binalshibh, a Yemeni national, will be questioned by U.S. intelligence officers in an undisclosed location, officials said.
Pakistani government officials told CNN that Binalshibh and about half of the others captured in raids last week in Karachi were taken out of Pakistan by U.S. officials.
"The first focus is to find out what he knows," said a senior official who has knowledge of the investigation into the al Qaeda network.
One official also said U.S. and Pakistani agents have captured another al Qaeda operative, said to be an associate of another man who was connected with the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 that killed 17 U.S. sailors. However, the operative is not known to have been involved in that attack himself, officials said.
Binalshibh had been in Pakistani custody since his arrest last Wednesday — a year to the day after the hijackings — during a series of raids on suspected al Qaeda homes in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi.
According to officials, he belonged to the same al Qaeda cell based in Hamburg, Germany, that first began plotting the September 11 attacks.
He was also a roommate of lead hijacker Mohammed Atta, who flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center. According to U.S. investigators, Binalshibh later sent money to at least two of the hijackers — Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi.
Khallad Tawfiq, a suspect in the USS Cole bombing, also led meetings in Malaysia that included two of September 11 hijackers almost two years before the attacks.
The arrests followed dozens of raids across Pakistan over the past months. Pakistani security forces — working in cooperation with the CIA and FBI — have attempted to track down al Qaeda members who crossed into Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan.
Authorities have arrested more than 400 suspects, but Binalshibh is the most prominent al Qaeda member captured to date, officials said.
A State Department official said at the moment U.S. investigators are not pressing for Binalshibh to be brought to the United States.
Germany, which issued an international arrest warrant for Binalshibh, has said it will seek his extradition but would allow any U.S. extradition request to be considered first.
German Interior Minister Otto Schily told reporters Monday, "Wherever he is extradited depends on the country where he is. We are well advised to give the U.S.A. the first choice because the attacks took place in America. We will not make any demands (to go first)."
U.S. officials would not say how they found Binalshibh and the others, but stressed that an interview shown on the Al-Jazeera network given by Binalshibh and another al Qaeda official — Khallid Sheikh Mohammed — had nothing to do with it. "They [Al-Jazeera] didn’t lead us to him," a senior official said.
Binalshibh acknowledged in the Al-Jazeera interview he played a role in planning the September 11 attacks and had hoped to be one of the hijackers but could not obtain an entry visa into the United States.
In January, when the FBI named Binalshibh as a man it sought, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told CNN’s Larry King that Binalshibh was one of the most-wanted al Qaeda operatives.
"He tried to come to the United States three times and we believe it could well have been that he wanted to be the 20th hijacker," Ashcroft said.
— CNN Correspondents Kelli Arena, Andrea Koppel, David Ensor and Ash-Har Quraishi contributed to this report