Pakistan’s president said Tuesday he will hand over senior al-Qaida terrorist suspect Abu Farraj al-Libbi to the United States for prosecution, even though the man is believed behind two assassination attempts against him and could have received the death penalty here.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said al-Libbi was cooperating but had not provided any useful information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, and that Pakistan has no interest in keeping him.
“We deport al-Qaida suspects to the United States,” Musharraf told a CNN conference in Atlanta, speaking via video hookup from Islamabad.
Al-Libbi was arrested May 2 after a shootout in northwestern Pakistan. At the time, a senior intelligence officer told The Associated Press he had been in frequent contact with bin Laden in recent months and that Pakistani interrogators were grilling him on the terrorist chief’s whereabouts.
It was not clear when al-Libbi would be turned over, or where he is being held.
U.S. divulges little
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. government has been discussing al-Libbi with Pakistan but there has been no decision on his extradition. “As far as where ultimately he ends up for trial or custody remains a question. I don’t have an answer at this point,” Boucher said in Washington.
At one point during the speech, Musharraf intimated that he believed the suspected terrorist had already been handed over to U.S. custody, before backtracking later.
“I presume that he may have been deported already to the United States,” Musharraf said, then added that: “As of three days back, he was not (deported). ... My information is about three days old.”
“We are obviously going to deport him,” he continued. “We don’t want him in Pakistan.”
He said al-Libbi, believed to be a close confidant of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, has not passed on any information about bin Laden’s whereabouts during interrogation.
“No, he did not provide useful information about Osama bin Laden,” Musharraf said, speaking from the Pakistani capital. “He says he is not in contact with Osama bin Laden.”
Role in al-Qaida murky
Asked if al-Libbi was helping authorities, Musharraf added: “To a large extent, he is. ... We have extracted all the information and intelligence from him.”
Some officials have described al-Libbi as al-Qaida’s No. 3 leader, after bin Laden and Egyptian surgeon Ayman al-Zawahri. However, he does not appear on the FBI list of the world’s most-wanted terrorists, and his exact role in al-Qaida is murky.
It is not entirely clear what charges if any he might face in the United States, or if he has been indicted by any U.S. court.
In Pakistan, al-Libbi was wanted for allegedly masterminding two attempts on Musharraf’s life in December 2003. The president was unhurt, but 17 people died in the second attack.
The assassination attempts carry a maximum penalty in Pakistan of death by hanging. The personal nature of the attacks led many to believe Musharraf would seek to try al-Libbi here, but the general, a staunch ally of the United States, said that wouldn’t be necessary.
President puts deportations at 7,000
Musharraf used much of his speech to extol the efforts of his security forces in the hunt for al-Qaida suspects, and he made a number of claims that could not be verified, among them that Pakistan had deported 7,000 al-Qaida members, and that it had arrested people involved in the production of anthrax and the 2002 bombing in Bali, Indonesia.
No known arrests have been made in the late 2001 anthrax mailings in the United States that killed five people and left 17 people sickened, and it was not clear if Musharraf was referring to those attacks.
He gave no details.
“We apprehended about 7,000 al-Qaida members. We apprehended them and deported them. These 7,000 people roughly had linkages with all organizations and networks in various parts of the world. In Malaysia, in the Gulf, the United States, U.K., Indonesia, Uzbekistan,” Musharraf said. “These people were involved in the ... production of anthrax, the U.S. bombing in Tanzania, the USS Cole bombing, the Bali bombing and the 9/11 bombing.”
Previously, officials had put the number of al-Qaida suspects detained in Pakistan and deported at 700.
Critics call Pakistan a preferred hideout
While the government sees those numbers as a sign of its commitment to Washington’s war on terror, critics say they are evidence that Pakistan is still the preferred hideout of a disturbing number of militants, many of whom have managed to elude capture for years.
Musharraf reiterated Pakistani claims that it has broken the back of the terror group.
“Al-Qaida no longer exists as a homogenous body,” he said, adding that remaining al-Qaida fugitives are on the run and travel in small groups of no more than 10 to 12 men.
He stressed that scores of Pakistani security forces had died in the war on terrorism, many in clashes in Waziristan, the tribal region near Afghanistan where bin Laden is believed to be hiding.
“Pakistan’s army has suffered 250 casualties,” Musharraf said. “We paid in blood.”