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Bin Laden Aide Held in Pakistan

Special to The Times

Pakistani security forces have captured a Libyan lieutenant of Osama bin Laden suspected of masterminding two attempts to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf, officials here announced Wednesday.

Pakistani Information Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed said Abu Faraj Farj was the most significant Al Qaeda figure arrested in Pakistan since alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was captured in 2003.

Some Pakistani and U.S. security officials have said they think that Farj is Al Qaeda’s operations chief, a position once held by Mohammed. If true, he may have valuable information on pending Al Qaeda plots.

Pakistani intelligence sources have also said they believe the Libyan has been in direct contact with Bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy Ayman Zawahiri. Ahmed predicted that Farj’s arrest “would lead to new successes in the war against terrorism,” but he was reluctant to speculate whether the Libyan could lead authorities to Bin Laden.

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President Bush praised Pakistan for the arrest, saying it was a “critical victory in the war on terror” that removed “a dangerous enemy who was a direct threat to America.”

Farj was being interrogated Wednesday night in Islamabad, the capital, Pakistani intelligence sources said.

Officials gave conflicting accounts of where Farj, Pakistan’s most-wanted fugitive, was arrested. Ahmed and Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao said he was picked up in South Waziristan, a tribal region on the Afghan border. But Pakistani intelligence sources said the Libyan was captured Monday near Mardan, in North-West Frontier Province.

Security officials had been tracking Farj for months, but he escaped arrest at least six times when his hide-outs in South Waziristan were raided, sources said.

This time he was tracked through a satellite phone call, intelligence officials said. Pakistani commandos and intelligence agents surrounded him in the small town of Shandan, adjacent to Mardan, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity. There was reportedly a gun battle before he surrendered.

Farj’s capture follows the arrest of four of his associates in January in the city of Lahore, authorities said.

“This was a very complex operation. There was an awful lot of hard detective work that was done to get us where we are today,” said a U.S. counter-terrorism official, who requested that he not be identified because of the sensitivity of the U.S.-Pakistani anti-terrorism effort. He said a “human source” ultimately led to Farj’s capture.

Pakistani officials announced a $350,000 reward last summer for the arrest of Farj, 42, also known as Abu Faraj Libbi and Dr. Taufeeq. At the time, the government published a photo of Farj in newspapers across the country showing him with a neatly trimmed beard and wearing a jacket and tie. Pictures of five Pakistani suspects were also printed, under the headline “Most Wanted Terrorists.”

On Wednesday, Pakistani officials showed a photo of Farj apparently taken after his arrest. He appears disheveled, his beard is longer, and the skin on his face seems blotchy.

There has been some dispute about Farj’s position in the Al Qaeda hierarchy.

When the reward for Farj’s capture was announced, top Pakistani intelligence officials called him a “regional commander” in a decentralized terrorism network and likened him to Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who claims to be heading Al Qaeda’s operations in Iraq. Officials said Farj had moved up the ranks as more senior figures, such as Mohammed, were arrested or killed.

The U.S. counter-terrorism official Wednesday described Farj as “basically the No. 3 in Al Qaeda, at the risk of grafting a Western organizational structure onto a non-Western organization.”

The U.S. official said Farj had been a top aide and personal friend of Bin Laden, first in Sudan and later in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He allegedly was an important figure in the terrorist training camps in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks, and in communicating with and leading various cells since then.

“This guy goes way back to Sudan in terms of his relationship with Bin Laden,” the American official said. “This was a relationship of trust.”

But some Pakistani sources and other analysts hesitated to call Farj the No. 3 official in Al Qaeda and rejected the idea that he had taken over from Mohammed as operations chief.

“There may be some grade inflation going on,” said Kenneth Katzman, a senior terrorism analyst with the independent Congressional Research Service, which advises U.S. lawmakers.

“If he really had moved into [Mohammed’s] position, I think they would have been more public about him, including [offering U.S.] rewards,” Katzman said. “There hasn’t been a big capture in a while, so maybe they’re emphasizing his importance more than they would have otherwise.”

Katzman and other U.S. counter-terrorism authorities said another longtime Bin Laden associate, Saif Adel, for years had been considered Al Qaeda’s No. 3 operative. But Adel, an Egyptian, is believed to be hiding in Iran and may not be currently involved in Al Qaeda’s operations, Katzman said.

Mohammed, who was caught in March 2003 in the city of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, was handed over to U.S. authorities, but the Pakistani government has not made clear whether it intends to do the same with Farj.

Ahmed said Pakistan would exercise its jurisdiction over Farj. “We will interrogate him regarding attacks on President Gen. Pervez Musharraf,” the information minister said.

Farj is the prime suspect in at least two attempts to assassinate Musharraf, both in December 2003. In the first attempt, explosives destroyed a bridge as Musharraf’s convoy passed. No one was hurt. In the second attack, suicide bombers in vehicles packed with explosives rammed his motorcade. That blast killed 17 people, but Musharraf escaped unhurt.

Farj is also accused of working with a Pakistani militant, Amjad Hussain Farooqi, who was killed in September in a shootout with security forces in southern Pakistan. Farooqi was implicated in the 2002 kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

In addition to the attacks in Pakistan, Farj planned operations abroad, and other captured Al Qaeda suspects named him as the man who issued their orders, two Pakistani intelligence sources said last year.

“The length and breadth of terrorist planning and contacts go to, and stop with, him,” said one of the sources, who spoke on condition that they not be named.

U.S. officials had no evidence Wednesday that Farj was plotting specific attacks against American interests. But U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials have linked him to Al Qaeda operatives arrested in Britain and Pakistan who allegedly conducted surveillance on airports near London and financial landmarks in the United States.

Katzman, the congressional analyst, said one intriguing detail about Farj’s arrest were reports that Pakistani officials had said an Uzbek within Al Qaeda had helped lead them to Farj.

If that information is correct, Katzman said, “that is significant because it shows there are schisms developing within the various Al Qaeda factions, which could be used against one another to help dismantle the overall organization.”

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Times staff writer Watson reported from New Delhi and staff writer Meyer from Washington. Special correspondent Zaidi reported from Islamabad.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Al Qaeda suspects

Some of the high-profile events in Pakistan’s crackdown on Al Qaeda suspects:

This week: Abu Faraj Farj, suspected of planning two assassination attempts on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, arrested. Conflicting reports place arrest in Mardan or the South Waziristan region.

September 2004: Pakistani security agents kill Amjad Hussain Farooqi, wanted in the assassination attempts on Musharraf and the death of American journalist Daniel Pearl.

July 2004: Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan (aka Abu Talha) arrested in Lahore; provides leads to 13 other Al Qaeda suspects in Britain. Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, suspected in the attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, arrested.

March 2003: Alleged planner of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, arrested in a raid in Rawalpindi.

March 2002: Former Al Qaeda operations director Abu Zubaydah captured in Faisalabad.

Source: ESRI, Associated Press


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