WASHINGTON — A key figure in al-Qaida’s terror network in Europe is under arrest, U.S. counterterrorism officials tell NBC News.
Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say that the alleged terrorist, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, also known as Abu Musab al-Suri, was recently arrested in Pakistan. Pakistani government officials say they are not aware of any such arrest.
Nasar is an expert in explosives and chemicals who trained recruits at al-Qaida terror camps in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, according to counterterror officials and Nasar's wanted poster on the State Department's Rewards for Justice Web site.
Nasar was born in Syria but is married to a Spanish woman and has Spanish nationality. He has traveled extensively in Europe and has militant connections in Europe, Pakistan and elsewhere, and security experts believe his arrest could prove to be an intelligence bonanza for the CIA and other U.S. and European counterterrorism agencies.
Nasar is known inside the US intelligence world as the “pen jihadist”, a prolific writer whose communiques carry great weight in the militant underworld. He has written extensively on the Internet of his desire to use chemical or biological weapons against the United States, an effort he has described as “dirty bombs for a dirty nation."
$5 million reward
Last year, the U.S. government announced a $5 million reward for information leading to the capture of Nasar.
In September 2003, Nasar was among 35 people named in an indictment handed down by a Spanish magistrate for terrorist activities connected to al-Qaida.
Nasar's name has been linked in the press to the July 7 terror bombings in London and to the deadly Madrid bombings in 2004, but US intelligence officials say they are not clear what role, if any, Nasar played in those attacks.
The Associated Press reported Thursday morning that a man believed to be Nasar was captured in a raid this week in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province. A second suspect, identified as Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistani Islamic militant group allegedly linked to al-Qaida, also was arrested and a third suspect, a Saudi named Shaikh Ali Mohammed al-Salim, were shot and killed during the raid, AP reported.
Report on arrest said inaccurate
But U.S. counterterrorism officials tell NBC News that Nasar was arrested prior to the Quetta raid, and say it is unclear if the Quetta arrests are even connected at all to Nasar's arrest.
Nasar's wanted poster on the Rewards for Justice Web site reports:
"Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, also known as Abu Musab al-Suri, is an al-Qaida member and former trainer at the Derunta and al-Ghuraba terrorist camps in Afghanistan. Born in Aleppo, Syria in 1958, Nasar was a member of the radical Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. He fled Syria in the 1980s and traveled widely throughout the Middle East and North Africa, before associating with the Algerian Islamic Group. He settled in Madrid in 1987 and gained Spanish citizenship through marriage.
While in Spain, he authored a series of inflammatory essays under the pen name Umar Abd al-Hakim. In 1995 he moved to United Kingdom and served as a European intermediary for al-Qaida. Nasar traveled extensively between Europe and Afghanistan throughout the late 1990s, finally moving his family to Afghanistan in 1998. He attempted to organize his own extremist group prior to September 11, 2001 — but in the wake of the attacks he pledged loyalty to Osama bin Ladin as a member of al-Qaida. While in Afghanistan, Nasar worked closely with Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, to train extremists in poisons and chemicals. Nasar also conducted training at the al-Ghuraba camp in Afghanistan. He is likely in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Recent unconfirmed press reports suggest that he may have had a role in the March 11, 2004, Madrid bombings."
More than 700 arrested
Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in its war on terrorism, says it has arrested more than 700 al-Qaida suspects since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in America, and has handed most of the suspects to the United States.
The last reported arrest of a suspected key al-Qaida figure in Pakistan was in May, when Abu Farraj al-Libbi, the alleged mastermind of assassination attempts against Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, was nabbed after a shootout in a northwestern town. He was later handed over to the United States.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.