Pakistan seizes alleged Al-Qaeda No 3 man
Updated: 2005-05-05 11:41
ISLAMABAD – Pakistan has captured the alleged Al-Qaeda number three and mastermind behind two bids to kill President Pervez Musharraf, a development hailed as a key victory against the terror network.
A picture released by the Pakistani Interior Ministry shows Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the alleged Al-Qaeda No 3 man. [AFP]
Libyan national Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who has a five-million-dollar US bounty on his head, was seized on Monday after a brief shootout in northwestern Pakistan, government and security officials said.
Pakistani and US officials say the Libyan, considered a close associate of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, ranks third in the current hierarchy after bin Laden and his Egyptian-born deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri.
US President George W. Bush welcomed al-Libbi’s capture, calling it "a critical victory" in the global war on terrorism declared by Washington after Osama bin Laden’s network carried out the September 11 attacks.
"Al-Libbi was a top general for Bin Laden, he was a major facilitator and chief planner for the Al-Qaeda network. His arrest removes a dangerous enemy who is a direct threat to America and to those who love freedom," he added.
Pakistan had posted a reward of 20 million rupees (333,333 dollars) for al-Libbi’s arrest. The United States Central Intelligence Agency also offered a five-million-dollar reward, Pakistani and US officials told AFP.
"He is a very important catch, he was wanted in several high-profile acts of terrorism. He was also wanted in the assassination attacks on President Musharraf," information minister Sheikh Rashid told AFP.
Officials said al-Libbi took over Al-Qaeda operations in Pakistan and the position of third in command after the arrest in March 2003 of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the key planner of September 11.
A US counter-terrorism official said it was the biggest coup since the capture of Mohammed, who has since been extradited to the United States. He indicated that American intelligence played a key behind-the-scenes role.
"He’s number three in Al-Qaeda after Bin Laden and Zawahiri," said the official.
A photograph taken after his capture shows al-Libbi as an exhausted-looking, bearded man with hooded eyes and blotchy facial markings standing against a background of blue tiles.
Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao said the arrest could lead to the dismantling of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan. "A follow up operation is going on. His capture is definitely a big dent in Al-Qaeda hierarchy," he told AFP.
A senior Pakistani security official involved in the hunt for Al-Qaeda militants said al-Libbi may even help the authorities track down Bin Laden himself.
"He is one of his closest confidants and he should be able to provide new leads about both Osama and Ayman Al-Zawahiri," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Al-Libbi was being interrogated by Pakistan security forces at an undisclosed location, Rashid added. Islamabad has handed over hundreds of Al-Qaeda suspects to Washington but Rashid said al-Libbi would remain in Pakistan.
Military leader Musharraf has previously named al-Libbi as the ringleader in the attempts to assassinate him in December 2003.
In the first, militants blew up a road bridge as he drove past while the second happened on Christmas Day, when suicide bombers detonated their vehicles near his motorcade, killing more than a dozen.
Police sources said the militant was captured in a dramatic encounter when he and another man riding a motorcycle near a shrine in the town of Mardan were intercepted on an intelligence tip off.
"The men opened fire and tried to escape but were chased and both were captured," a police official in Mardan told AFP.
Officials said that last year security officers surrounded al-Libbi in a town in northwestern Pakistan but he escaped after another shootout.
Pakistani officials last year told the Daily Telegraph that a deciphered email from another captured militant revealed that al-Libbi was coordinating terrorist efforts in the United States before the November presidential election.
They also said he was communicating with sleeper cells in Britain on future attacks there.
The capture of al-Libbi is the latest in a string of key arrests by Pakistan since Musharraf allied himself with Washington after September 11.
In July 2004 Pakistani forces arrested Tanzanian Ahmad Khalfan Ghailani, wanted by the FBI for the 1998 bombing of US embassies in East Africa.
Last year Pakistani forces killed Al-Qaeda kingpin Amjad Farooqi, who was indicted in the 2002 murder of US reporter Daniel Pearl and suspected of involvement in one of the Musharraf assassination bids.