Taking Down a Top Al Qaeda Plotter
A timely bust, but will he cough up bin Laden?
Over the past year, intelligence officials had been hearing more and more about a shadowy al Qaeda figure who was supposed to be the terrorist group's new chief operational planner. Abu Farraj al-Libbi, a longtime associate of Osama bin Laden's, quickly became one of the group's most wanted. Late last year, CIA officials received a tip that placed al-Libbi in the remote tribal areas of Pakistan. "So we got hot after him," says one intelligence official.
In recent days, Pakistani officials followed al-Libbi's movements as he passed through some of Pakistan's most lawless territory, but they were reluctant to arrest him there, fearing resistance from local tribes. The chase paid off last week when CIA officers and Pakistani security forces traced al-Libbi to a house in a town where the police were loyal to the national government. Al-Libbi escaped the first raid on a motorbike, along with a colleague disguised as a woman in a burka. After a brief chase, al-Libbi holed up in another house before surrendering to police after they fired tear gas.
Big fish. The capture was the most significant takedown of a senior al Qaeda official since the March 2003 arrest of al-Libbi's predecessor and mentor, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the September 11 attacks. Al-Libbi is "the most senior operational commander within al Qaeda responsible for global terrorist operations, including operations planned against the U.S. homeland," says a U.S. counterterrorism official, adding that al-Libbi was, in effect, al Qaeda's No. 3 man, under bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Libbi had been around bin Laden since the early 1990s, when he was still in Sudan. Later, al-Libbi ran a training camp, where he tutored suicide bombers and found new recruits.
The successful raid underscores the importance of Pakistan's cooperation, given that some of the most important al Qaeda arrests have taken place there. President Bush quickly praised the Pakistanis for their cooperation in the raid and several subsequent raids that netted additional al Qaeda militants. But other officials remain skeptical that Pakistan is quite as committed to going after al Qaeda militants hiding out in the tribal regions, including perhaps bin Laden himself. "I did say that I think the Pakistanis would not make an effort to get bin Laden," says Gary Schroen, a veteran CIA counterterrorism officer, "because the political blowback would be too awful for them."
For now, al-Libbi remains in Pakistani custody, in part because he is accused of plotting two assassination attempts against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Pakistani intelligence officials believe that al-Libbi had recently been in touch with bin Laden, but one says the "hard nut" has been uncooperative in early interrogations. This official also told U.S. News that al-Libbi had contacted operatives in Britain and the United States before last year's presidential election.
With Aamir Latif
This story appears in the May 16, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.