The inside story of how U.S. terrorist hunters are going after al Qaeda
"It is impossible to overestimate the importance that our Arab allies played--the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the North Africans," explains Roger Cressey, the former terrorism expert on the National Security Council. "They understand them better, they penetrated the cells--we certainly didn't."
The Pakistanis, however, draw the most praise. Pakistan served as midwife to the Taliban, helping bring the radical regime to power in neighboring Afghanistan. But after 9/11, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf turned on a dime and cracked down on al Qaeda terrorists who sought refuge in his country. That policy netted the war on terror's biggest fish.
It began with Riyadh the Facilitator. Little is known about the man, whom Pakistani forces seized in Karachi in January 2002. Responsible for managing al Qaeda's affairs in Pakistan, he is one of a handful of important operatives about whom U.S. officials have released virtually no information. During the war, allied troops in Afghanistan nabbed a pair of middle managers, but Riyadh was the first field commander captured after 9/11. "Riyadh was a serious logistician," says an intelligence source. He was also the first link in a chain that would lead from one al Qaeda leader to another.
The tactics employed were basic enough. In newspaper ads, the Pakistani Army offered fat rewards for tips about strange foreigners. Riyadh's neighbors had noticed the odd comings and goings of people who entered his small home. Once in custody, he talked. Soon, investigators were chasing down leads into al Qaeda's growing presence in Pakistan.
The next jihadist domino to fall was much bigger. Abu Zubaydah was a rising star in al Qaeda. Just 31, the Saudi-born Palestinian already had served as the top recruiter for the group's training camps in Afghanistan. After its military chief, Mohammed Atef, died in the U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan, Zubaydah was tapped to replace him. He wasn't very good at it, investigators say. He set up shop in Pakistan's third-largest city, Faisalabad, but lasted only a month. The big break came, again, through a local tip.
Zubaydah's arrest took place just as U.S. analysts were digesting the windfall of intelligence from around the world. Interrogators now knew what questions to ask him. Even better, they knew some of the answers. "He initially gave us a bunch of outdated crap," says one official. But eventually he slipped up. He made reference to an American in the al Qaeda ranks, a tip that led weeks later to the Chicago arrest of alleged "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla, a former street hood who found his way to radical Islam. He identified a photo of Omar al Farouq, the Southeast Asia chief; two weeks later, authorities in Indonesia nabbed Farouq.
Turning point. The Pakistanis also recovered a trove of materials in Zubaydah's safe house--CDs, address books, financial records, a satellite phone. "It felt like the working documents of an organization," says a senior intelligence source. "Zubaydah's capture felt like a turning point." By the end of spring 2002, more than 100 CIA officers and FBI agents had poured into Pakistan, setting up units to work with local intelligence. The CIA brought eavesdropping devices; the FBI, forensic detective gear. The chase was on.