Anti-terror raids yield bonanza for U.S. intelligence

E-mail E-mail this article
Print Print this article
Documents, computers and other materials seized in Pakistan last week in surprise raids, including one in which senior al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah was caught, could lead to other al-Qaida leaders and disrupt planned terrorist attacks, according to Bush administration officials.

Telephone numbers and names found in the raids at more than a dozen homes are already being sent around the world for investigation, one official said. The residences and compounds served as "safe houses" for at least 20 al-Qaida members from outside Pakistan, along with 40 Pakistanis who may or may not have been Taliban or al-Qaida members.

Similar materials obtained during earlier operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan helped intelligence analysts zero in on the safe houses targeted in the raids Thursday, another official said.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the administration considered Zubaydah's capture "a very serious blow to al-Qaida."

"This is one of the bigger fish," said a senior intelligence official, who called Zubaydah "one of the hardest of the hard core."

Even if he never talks, the official said, the materials found in the raids will help in the continuing worldwide investigation of Osama bin Laden's network — and in the goal of capturing bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri.

Intelligence experts see another benefit from the capture: With the death last November of the network's military-operations chief, Mohammed Atef, in a U.S. bombing raid, Zubaydah had moved up to play "a unique role," one senior official said. With both bin Laden and Zawahiri forced by U.S. military pressure to stay on the run between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Zubaydah "had to pass on plans for future operations, with much of it existing in his head."

"Rolling him up," this official said, referring to Zubaydah's capture, "may be the end of that operation or at least until an alternative path can be found to get it done."

Another benefit of the raid, a senior official said, was the capture of several of his subordinates. "They, too, can be useful," he said, indicating the aides may be more prone to talk than Zubaydah.

Zubaydah was shot three times as he attempted to escape the compound in Faisalabad where he and seven or eight other Arab men were staying. Fleischer told reporters the Saudi-born Palestinian "is currently receiving medical attention," and "for security reasons, we are not going to discuss his location."

Both security and the diplomatic sensitivities of Pakistani officials who worked with the CIA and FBI in the weeks leading up to the raids have caused administration officials to shy away from saying where Zubaydah and the three or four subordinates seized with him are now being held.

One official said yesterday that Pakistan is holding the prisoners and is making them available to U.S. interrogators.

Zubaydah's family hails from the Gaza Strip, and, according to Jordanian court records, he holds an Egyptian travel document, which may be fake.

He was drawn to bin Laden's organization as a teenager whose religious fervor and radical Islamic ideology brought him to the training camps of Afghanistan.

According to the Middle East sources, Zubaydah developed a rare talent in mortars and other heavy weaponry. He was apparently named bin Laden's second deputy in 1995, responsible for screening recruits and devising terrorist plans. Where bin Laden and deputy Zawahiri would set policy, Zubaydah would implement it.

U.S. officials said when the inner circle would order the bombing of an embassy, Zubaydah would select the embassy, cell and method of attack.

Ahmed Ressam, arrested in Port Angeles in 1999 and convicted last April of smuggling, terrorist conspiracy and other charges in a plot to detonate a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport, described Zubaydah's role as a recruiter during court testimony.

"He is the person in charge of the camps. He receives young men from all countries. He accepts you or rejects you. And he takes care of the expenses for the camps. He makes arrangements for you when you travel coming in or leaving," Ressam said.

Prospective recruits in Pakistan would meet Zubaydah, who would assign them to camps. When they finished training, he would place them in cells overseas.

Intelligence and police officials have linked him to at least five al-Qaida plots, including the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The extent of his role, however, has not been determined. He has also been named as a recruiter of suspects in plots to bomb U.S. embassies in Paris and Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

He is believed to have been a field commander for the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, in which 17 U.S. sailors were killed, and the foiled plot in Los Angeles at the turn of the millennium and another one in Jordan. Middle East sources said Zubaydah helped set up the terrorist cell in Jordan charged with carrying out a plot to attack U.S. and Israeli targets, and was in constant touch with Khader Abu-Hosher, a Palestinian recruiter with the cell.

But Jordanian intelligence, already tipped to Abu-Hosher and 16 other members of his group, had been listening to his calls. They raided the group's homes in a sweep Nov. 30, 1999, and found fake passports, manuals and maps of tourist targets in Jordan.

In September 2000, a military court sentenced Abu-Hosher to death. Zubaydah, who was at large, was found guilty of conspiracy to carry out terror attacks in Jordan. He was sentenced in absentia to 15 years of hard labor.