Pakistani authorities on Saturday arrested a top Al Qaeda operative in the latest in a string of such arrests, feeding speculation that the capture of the terrorist group's leader, Osama bin Laden, could be drawing closer.
Details of the arrest in the northeastern city of Lahore of Yasser Jazeeri -- said by Pakistani authorities to be ranked seventh in the Al Qaeda hierarchy -- were sketchy late Saturday. Information Ministry sources said only that he was wanted by U.S. authorities and that he was carrying Moroccan and Algerian passports.
The arrest followed the March 1 apprehension of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in the northeastern city of Rawalpindi. Mohammed's capture resulted in the seizure of a trove of intelligence material that has provided leads on a number of Al Qaeda suspects, including Bin Laden, authorities here say.
Mohammed is in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location and is said to be disclosing information to his interrogators.
"We can only confirm that Jazeeri is next in rank to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and that he is an Al Qaeda leader," Sheik Rashid Ahmed, Pakistan's information minister, said Saturday night.
A U.S. official in Washington said Jazeeri "is a trusted subordinate of Osama bin Laden. He is not a mastermind or key operational planner like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, but it is not an overstatement to call him a key Al Qaeda facilitator."
According to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the United States provided the intelligence that led to Jazeeri's arrest. Authorities here said a Pakistani national also was taken into custody in the early evening operation, but they declined to identify him.
News reports that the FBI had participated in the arrest were inaccurate, the U.S. official said. He also said that he believed the intelligence that led to Jazeeri's arrest did not come from Mohammed.
Pakistani officials, for their part, would not comment on whether Jazeeri was arrested because of information gleaned from Mohammed's arrest. Clues left by Mohammed are thought to have played a significant role in the March 7 arrests in two Spanish cities of five suspects linked to Al Qaeda and allegedly connected to the April 2002 bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia.
Several television news reports Saturday described Jazeeri as an explosives expert. But Pakistani sources said his specialty was finances. According to the U.S. official, he was "a key facilitator for communications and logistics" for Al Qaeda and his arrest was "significant."
Since Mohammed's arrest, Pakistan has been alive with rumors of increased military operations on the border with Afghanistan aimed at apprehending Bin Laden. Pakistani and U.S. officials have downplayed the likelihood that such an arrest is imminent.
In a briefing here for foreign reporters Monday, however, officials of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency defended their participation in the anti-terrorism campaign and said Pakistan has arrested hundreds of suspected terrorists.
Those efforts have brought renewed expressions of appreciation from the United States. Later in the week, President Bush extended waivers of trade and aid sanctions against Pakistan -- a sign of U.S. satisfaction with Pakistan's cooperation in tracking down remnants of both Al Qaeda and Afghanistan's deposed Taliban regime.
Captured in the upscale Gulberg section of Lahore, Jazeeri was another example of how Al Qaeda suspects are being caught in urban areas.
Kraul reported from Islamabad and Drogin from Washington.