Video: Major al-Qaida suspect seized

NBC News and news services
updated 5/5/2005 7:46:24 AM ET 2005-05-05T11:46:24

Pakistan has shared with the United States initial results of its interrogation of reputed al-Qaida No. 3 Abu Farraj al-Libbi, who stayed silent for hours after his capture this week before confessing his identity, an intelligence official said Thursday.

Earlier, U.S. officials told NBC News that so far al-Libbi, thought to be al-Qaida's operations commander, has been talking, but “nothing he has said so far is fascinating.”

Despite the immediate lack of actionable intelligence, President Bush hailed the arrest as a victory that removes a key enemy, and jubilant Pakistani officials said the capture will boost the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid confirmed to The Associated Press on Thursday that al-Libbi was still in Pakistan’s custody and that he was being questioned. He declined to give details. Video: Arrested

However, an intelligence official who is familiar with the investigation said that al-Libbi was being questioned by Pakistani counterterrorism experts and security officials. He said U.S. officials were not present at the interrogation, but Pakistan had shared with them its preliminary findings.

He said that al-Libbi initially refused to speak.

“He remained silent for hours, but he had to admit that he is al-Qaida. He had no other option because our people had very solid evidence to prove his identity,” said the Pakistani official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Anatomy of a takedown
U.S. officials said that al-Libbi's arrest resulted from years of painstaking detective work, penetrating the al-Qaida terrorist network and tracking him as he moved from remote tribal regions to finally, on Monday night, a cemetery on the outskirts of Mardan, a town 30 miles north of Peshawar, capital of the deeply conservative North West Frontier Province.

The actual arrest was a daring takedown by Pakistani special forces, operating with the help of American intelligence, which was monitoring his movements.

U.S. and Pakistani officials told NBC News that al-Libbi and another man riding a motorbike were being followed by Pakistani intelligence agents, one disguised as a woman in a burqa.

As they rode through the cemetery, witnesses said, Pakistani special forces opened fire. Al-Libbi jumped off the bike, ran through the cemetery, scaled a wall and hid in a nearby house.

The soldiers evacuated the residents and tossed in tear-gas canisters. Al-Libbi fell unconscious and was arrested. He was easy to identify because of a disfiguring skin disease.

Al-Libbi, a Libyan who was also wanted for two attempts to assassinate Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is seen by U.S. officials as significant because of his reputed control over al-Qaida's daily operations.

Suspect could provide leads
As al-Qaida's reputed third in command, al-Libbi could provide new leads to Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Both have eluded a 3½-year dragnet since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

And he could give details about the attempts to kill Musharraf, as well as information on future terrorist plots, including attacks by insurgents in Iraq.

“He has real-time operational knowledge of current al-Qaida plans, and he's probably a conduit for al-Qaida's contact with the (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) group inside Iraq," said Roger Cressey, an NBC News analyst and a former U.S. counterterrorism official.

“It's going to impact the ability from a command and control perspective for al-Qaida to do certain things,” said James Pavitt, a former CIA official.

May know whereabouts of bin Laden
U.S. officials tell NBC that al-Libbi might know at least the general whereabouts of bin Laden  because part of his responsibility was to manage the courier networks delivering messages, video and audiotapes.

A government-released photo taken after al-Libbi's arrest shows a disheveled, bearded man with sunken eyes and an apparent skin condition.

Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said the U.S. government was offering a $10 million bounty for information leading to al-Libbi’s arrest, though al-Libbi does not appear to be on the FBI’s list of the globe’s most-wanted terrorists.

Sherpao would not speculate on whether the arrest might help lead to the capture of bin Laden or al-Zawahiri.

“We have no information” about the al-Qaida leaders, he said. “It’s premature to say (whether al-Libbi’s arrest will help track them down), but definitely interrogation is going to take place.”

Al-Qaida's No. 3?
According to U.S. officials, al-Libbi is thought to have become al-Qaida's operations commander after the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in March 2003. Mohammed was later handed over to U.S. custody and his whereabouts are unknown.

Video: Interview with Musharraf The operations commander is thought to be third in line at al-Qaida after bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. Al-Libbi is also believed to have earlier been Mohammed's deputy and to have had a role in planning the Sept. 11 attacks.

One of the officials said 11 more terrorist suspects — including three Uzbeks, an Afghan and seven Pakistanis — were arrested before dawn Wednesday in the Bajor tribal region. The official would not say what prompted authorities to launch the raid or whether it was linked to al-Libbi’s capture.

The intelligence officials said authorities were led to al-Libbi’s hideout by a tip that foreigners had been spotted in the area. The suspect was held overnight at a military facility in Mardan, then transferred by helicopter to the capital, Islamabad, the officials said.

Pakistan has arrested hundreds of terrorist suspects since Musharraf ended the country’s support of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks on America.

It has handed over about 700 al-Qaida suspects to the United States, including Mohammed, Sept. 11 planner Ramzi Binalshibh and al-Qaida senior operative Abu Zubaydah.

NBC News' Andrea Mitchell, NBC News producer Robert Windrem and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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