A tightening noose
The capture of an al Qaeda mastermind spurs a manhunt for Osama bin Laden and company
In the traumatic days that followed 9/11, senior American officials warned that the war against terrorism would be long and difficult. Wins and losses, they said. Right now, the United States and its allies are toting up a few in the win column. The arrest of al Qaeda's operations chief, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the brains behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, has touched off an even more intense hunt for Osama bin Laden and his associates. The bust has yielded some of the most promising clues in months about the whereabouts of bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in western Pakistan along the Afghan border.
Computers, documents, and cellphones seized during the raid on Mohammed's safe house in Pakistan are giving investigators an unprecedented look at al Qaeda's operations. "This is some of the best intelligence in years," says a senior counterterrorism official. "You've got details, names, locations, plans, tactics, agendas--and it ties them all together."
Armed with these new leads, authorities fanned out from the badlands of Pakistan's frontier all the way to Arab quarters of American cities to disrupt any possible terrorist plots and grab suspects before they might flee. At home, the FBI scrambled to follow up on the most chilling discovery--Mohammed's computers contained the names of "dozens" of al Qaeda associates holed up in the United States, American officials reported. Some were already under FBI surveillance. At the same time, Pakistani police raided a series of suspected hideouts, hunting for key al Qaeda operations in Pakistan's western tribal belt.
Hatching plots. The arrest of Mohammed, held in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location, offers both opportunity and risk. Mohammed, says one U.S. intelligence official, "not only is knowledgeable about things they did in the past but central to things they were planning to do in the future." Some of these plots were being hatched inside the United States, while others apparently targeted U.S. forces in Afghanistan and U.S. private interests in Pakistan. At the same time, al Qaeda operatives could accelerate plans and strike early. There is particular alarm that terrorists may be plotting attacks to coincide with the onset of a war with Iraq, prompting some officials to discuss raising the homeland security alert status back to orange again.
Mohammed's capture was the worst setback in a week of bad news for al Qaeda. In the same Rawalpindi raid that netted Mohammed, agents nabbed Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, a key moneyman who had provided funds to the 9/11 hijackers. Perhaps more significant, in the pair's safe house, officials found leads on how al Qaeda moves cash, including the names of banks, underground money exchangers, and couriers. In New York, officials obtained an indictment of Mohammed Ali Hassan al-Moayad, a Yemeni cleric arrested in Germany who, they claim, is another key financier. In Lebanon, on the same day Mohammed was nabbed, a car bomb blew apart Mohammed Shanouha, an Egyptian thought to head al Qaeda's operations in the region. Shanouha allegedly helped plot millennium strikes against U.S. and Israeli targets in Jordan.