A joint team of Pakistani and U.S. agents arrested Al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed near Pakistan’s capital on Saturday and began interrogating the terrorist who claims to have masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks, officials said.
Pakistani intelligence agents led the early morning raid on a safe house in Rawalpindi, southwest of Islamabad, arresting Mohammed and an unidentified Middle Eastern man. In another raid, they apprehended a local man believed to have been trying to hide Mohammed from the U.S.-led global dragnet that had been searching for him and had put a $25-million bounty on his head.
Mohammed, who was believed to be 37, was whisked out of Pakistan immediately under extremely tight security and was taken by American military transport to an undisclosed location outside the United States, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.
From the moment of his capture at 3 a.m. local time, the CIA and other U.S. counter-terrorism authorities began an urgent effort to disorient and “break” Mohammed, they said. They were attempting to get information from him about planned attacks that could already be in motion in the U.S. and abroad, as well as the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders.
There was no immediate indication that those efforts had been successful. But top U.S. and Pakistani officials said they believe Mohammed has encyclopedic knowledge of current Al Qaeda operations, making his arrest perhaps the most significant detention in the war on terrorism.
“Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the chief operating officer of Al Qaeda. The effect that his capture will have on Al Qaeda as an organization is devastating. And the effect that it has on the safety of the American people and our allies cannot be overstated,” said one U.S. counter-terrorism official. “This is the guy who planned their operations. This is the guy who catalogs and keeps track of their operations.”
U.S. officials portrayed Mohammed as the Al Qaeda member posing the gravest threat to Americans. They believe him to be not only the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon but also a co-conspirator in other devastating Al Qaeda terrorist strikes dating to 1993, when he played a role in the bombing of the World Trade Center.
The officials said Mohammed was also the key leader of Al Qaeda’s current attempts to regroup, reestablish itself on the world stage and launch new attacks -- including, they fear, the use of weapons of mass destruction. Those plots were one reason U.S. authorities last month raised the nation’s terrorism alert level to orange. It was lowered to yellow last week.
Officials in both countries hailed Mohammed’s arrest as a huge victory, particularly if he talks. But it is also one that could trigger repercussions, they warned, including retaliatory attacks by Al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers.
President Bush was notified of Mohammed’s capture at 7 a.m. EST Saturday at Camp David in a telephone call from national security advisor Condoleezza Rice. She had been told seven hours earlier, in a midnight call from CIA Director George J. Tenet, that one of the individuals captured had been tentatively identified as Mohammed.
By morning, after Mohammed was conclusively identified and in U.S. custody, Rice called Bush with the news.
“The president’s reaction was, ‘That’s fantastic,’ ” a White House official said.
In recent months, U.S. officials have been critical of Pakistan, saying privately that the Muslim nation was dragging its feet in the war on terrorism. They said Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf was walking a political tightrope, trying to satisfy both the Bush administration and the increasingly powerful militant constituencies in his country.
On Saturday, however, in a statement that confirmed Mohammed’s arrest, the White House pointedly praised both U.S. and Pakistani counter-terrorism officials for their “successful joint operation.”
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said: “It’s hard to overstate how significant this is. It’s a wonderful blow to inflict on Al Qaeda.”
Although U.S. authorities would not comment on the details of the raid, a Pakistani official said it was conducted by heavily armed members of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Pakistan’s top-secret spy organization. The ISI members went in “like a SWAT team, heavily armed, expecting everything and anything,” but the men were arrested without incident, the official said.
The raid was prompted by U.S. intelligence provided by the CIA and FBI, the Pakistani official said.
“It’s your brains, your intercepts and remote-sensing capability, and our brawn,” the official said.
Some of that intelligence came as a result of a raid conducted last week in the southwestern city of Quetta, apparently one of the places Mohammed had been hiding in recent months as U.S. and Pakistani officials scoured the country looking for him.
Authorities believe that Mohammed narrowly escaped capture in that raid. But they arrested at least one alleged Al Qaeda member and were able to home in on Mohammed as a result of intercepted phone calls and other means, a Pakistani official said.
Authorities would not identify the second Middle Eastern man arrested Saturday. The local man arrested was Ahmed Abdul Qadoos, 42, a member of one of the country’s leading religious political parties, Jamaat-i-Islami, they said.
A Pakistani official said although Qadoos was not believed to be hiding Mohammed with the knowledge of the party’s leaders, “but this will be an embarrassment to them nevertheless.”
Authorities in Pakistan said Qadoos rented an apartment for Mohammed and an associate in the Saddar neighborhood of Rawalpindi, a busy, upscale market area where a number of military officers live. The apartment is about two miles from Musharraf’s official residence as army chief of staff.
Qadoos had been under surveillance but didn’t go to the apartment until Friday, the authorities said, and the joint Pakistani-American team pounced early Saturday.
First, the team raided Qadoos’ home in an adjacent neighborhood and took him away. Qadoos’ wife said about 25 men, dressed in blue and carrying automatic weapons, raided her home about 2:30 a.m. She said they broke down the door and seized her husband without allowing him to change clothes. They also took a tape recorder, cassettes and a computer in a search that took about an hour, she said, adding that her children, ages 8 and 12, were pushed into a bedroom and told to keep silent.
Some of the raiders spoke English and looked to be foreigners, she said.
Interior Ministry sources said that in the second raid in the Saddar neighborhood, Mohammed was caught in his sleep and offered no resistance. Local police said they were kept in the dark about the operation.
Although Mohammed’s immediate location and fate were unknown, several U.S. officials said it was extremely unlikely that he would be brought back to the United States for trial on terrorism charges filed in 1996. Mohammed has not been charged in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, even though he has publicly said he is responsible for them.
“He isn’t coming anywhere near here,” said one U.S. counter-terrorism official. “We are at war. Our national security has to come first. Obviously, we want to know everything he knows.”
As a result, Mohammed is being treated as an unlawful combatant, the status the Bush administration has conferred upon other top Al Qaeda leaders who remain at undisclosed locations as they undergo interrogation.
Mohammed is on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists and had a $2-million bounty on his head long before Al Qaeda became a household name. Born in Kuwait to Pakistani parents, he has been wanted since early 1996 for his alleged role in a Philippine-based terrorist plot to blow up 12 U.S. airliners over the Pacific. If successful, that plot could have killed more people than the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Mohammed’s nephew, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, was convicted in that case and for masterminding the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. He and Mohammed also are believed to have discussed flying a plane into CIA headquarters. Yousef was arrested in Pakistan in 1995 and within hours was flown out of the country in a secret operation much like the one that occurred Saturday with Mohammed, authorities said.
The hunt for Mohammed in recent months was even more intensive -- and frustrating -- than the search for Bin Laden, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials.
Bin Laden is believed to have gone deep underground with top aide Ayman Zawahiri and may be wounded or otherwise incapacitated. He is not believed to have played a direct operational role in Al Qaeda terrorist conspiracies in the works after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mohammed, by contrast, is believed to have been Al Qaeda’s military commander, a hands-on tactical leader who was helping organize, finance and execute terrorist attacks while at the same time reestablishing lines of communication and authority among terrorist cells on at least four continents.
A short, stout and often jovial man, Mohammed is believed to have orchestrated several of Al Qaeda’s most deadly post-Sept. 11 attacks. Among them: the bombings at two nightclubs on the Indonesian island of Bali, which killed more than 200 people, and one at a Tunisian synagogue, as well as other plots in Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Authorities also believe that Mohammed was actively trying to gain access to low-level radioactive “dirty bombs” and other weapons of mass destruction and was planning “catastrophic” attacks against Americans on their own soil and abroad.
Despite their best efforts, Mohammed has proved maddeningly elusive.
On at least two occasions, U.S. authorities were a hairsbreadth away from catching him. In January 1996, an FBI team was sent to Yemen to catch him after pinpointing his location. He barely eluded capture. When the FBI arrested Yousef, Mohammed was staying in the same safe house, under an alias, and even gave a statement to reporters afterward.
“He was a very big fish then, and he became a bigger fish and has been allowed to work his ways of evil for the past seven years leading up to Sept. 11,” said Neil Herman, the now-retired FBI supervisor who led the effort to catch Mohammed in Yemen.
“He was allowed to fester,” Herman said Saturday. “I wish we’d caught him seven years ago when we had the chance, but that was not to be.”
U.S. authorities intensified their hunt for Mohammed following Sept. 11, after concluding that he had orchestrated the attacks and led the operation.
But unlike other top Al Qaeda leaders who have been captured, such as Abu Zubeida and Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, or Sept. 11 plotter Ramzi Binalshibh, Mohammed always seemed one step ahead of his pursuers.
And he seemed to rejoice in taunting them.
Last summer, Mohammed boasted in an interview with the Arab cable television network Al Jazeera that he was the military commander of Al Qaeda and the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mohammed and Binalshibh had invited an Al Jazeera reporter to interview them at an apartment in the teeming Pakistani city of Karachi. Within weeks of a broadcast based on that interview, Binalshibh was arrested in September after a shootout with Pakistani intelligence operatives in Karachi. Mohammed’s two young sons were taken into custody in a related raid the night before.
Authorities thought that they would catch Mohammed there and then, but once again, he slipped away. Afterward, U.S. and Pakistani officials redoubled their efforts to catch Mohammed. Leaders of Pakistan’s ISI said that they marveled at his craftiness but that, in addition, they were personally insulted by his continued ability to elude them.
On Saturday, Pakistani officials said they believe they came close to catching Mohammed several times in recent months. They attempted to monitor his travels in Karachi, as well as the Pakistani city of Lahore and other cities in which local militants and religious sympathizers are believed to be providing cover for Al Qaeda fugitives. And they followed tips that he was hiding in his ancestral homeland of Baluchistan and in Pakistan’s wild, warlord-controlled Northwest Frontier Province, on the border with Afghanistan.
“He kept eluding us. It was very frustrating,” said one Pakistani official. “It was like one of your western movies, where every time, you get there and the campfire is still warm.”
ISI agents persevered, however, working with FBI agents, CIA operatives and an army of local informants “that we have on every street corner in Pakistan,” according to one ISI official.
Finally, they came to believe that Mohammed was hiding in Rawalpindi, a bustling city next to the capital. Rawalpindi is the headquarters of Pakistan’s army.
One Pakistani official surmised Saturday that Mohammed might have gone there because of the huge military presence -- to hide, essentially, in plain sight.
“There is so much people and army presence all over there, that’s probably where they thought they could lie low,” the official said. “It was very frustrating, because our detractors kept saying we were not being a good partner in the terrorism fight. But we were looking for him. He was being tracked.”
Special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad contributed to this report.