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Top Al-Qaida Leader Arrested in Pakistan

May 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on the capture of Abu al-Libbi, we turn to Steve Coll, associate editor at The Washington Post. He’s author of “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.”

And, Steve, welcome.

STEVE COLL: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks for joining us. All right, how big a fish in the al-Qaida network is this al-Libbi?

STEVE COLL: He’s a very significant figure near the old leadership group that dominated al-Qaida before Sept. 11. Since Sept. 11, he seems to have played a rising role, running operations, especially in and around Pakistan, where he’s been a particular focus of attention by Pakistani authorities.

MARGARET WARNER: And give us a little bit of his history. I gather he’s Libyan. How did he first hook up with al-Qaida? What operations is he believed to have been involved in?

STEVE COLL: Well, his history before about three or four years ago is a bit dim. There have been statements made by Pakistani officials that he knew Osama bin Laden, worked as a personal assistant to him in Sudan in the mid 1990s, before bin Laden moved back to Afghanistan and formed what we came to know as al-Qaida on Sept. 11.

But his pre-9/11 history is vague. Where he really surfaces is about two and a half years ago just before the arrest Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Al-Libbi was identified as a KSM deputy, who was active in operations in and around Pakistan.

After Khalid Sheik Mohammed was captured in March of 2003, al-Libbi was then identified as his heir to sort of operational authority in the new al-Qaida. This was a group now under much more pressure than it had been before Sept. 11.

Nonetheless, Libbi is accused of carrying out operations such as two assassination attempts against the president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, and other operations even reaching toward the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: And how close is or was he to Osama bin Laden himself?

STEVE COLL: It’s not clear. The Pakistanis have suggested that he was quite close to Osama as a sort of office assistant or personal assistant about 10 years ago.

The surer evidence suggests that he’s been close to bin Laden and Zawahiri more recently, particularly in the last two years, running around Pakistan and the tribal areas where it’s believed that bin Laden and his chief deputy, the Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri are hiding.

The evidence suggests that al-Libbi has been unusually able to move around Pakistan in the last couple of years, despite the hunt that’s been on for him.

There are have been claims made by Pakistani officials on three different occasions that al-Libbi has been in big cities in Pakistan, running operations, taking shelter in the houses of other militants.

MARGARET WARNER: And yet I read somewhere that he actually is very distinctive looking. He has sort of blotches on his face?

STEVE COLL: Well, the photographs released in association with his capture suggest that, though I gather that earlier photographs of him suggest that if he did have this skin condition, it may have evolved more recently.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what is the value to having him captured, other than getting him off the streets, as it were?

STEVE COLL: Two big things: One is that he clearly seems to have been attempting to run operations quite recently. So the evidence is that he’s been active in the last 18 months or two years, so taking him off the streets is significant in that respect.

In another respect, he may be a useful link to advance the recently stalled hunt for bin Laden himself, as well as Zawahiri. The area where he was reportedly captured is quite close to the tribal territories where most intelligence analysts have been saying for some time they believe bin Laden is located.

Even if al-Libbi doesn’t know where bin Laden is or isn’t willing to cooperate on that subject, the networks he used to hide, which have now been exposed by his capture, may overlap with or connect to the networks providing sanctuary to bin Laden himself.

MARGARET WARNER: What more can you tell us about the circumstances of his capture? All the wire report said was simply there was a firefight in this town, about 30 miles from Peshawar, in the region you have discussed. But what else can you tell us?

STEVE COLL: Well, I’m afraid I’ve seen three or four different versions of the same facts. What they tend to have in common is a firefight in a town north of Peshawar, which is a very a rough tribal area, near the tribal territories with bin Laden and Zawahiri are believed to be hiding.

The circumstances of his capture are not clear. Some accounts have him running into a roadblock that was set up on the basis of an intelligence tip. Other accounts have a more formal raid on a hideout where he was meant to be sort of seeking shelter.

In any event, whatever local infrastructure he was relying on to stay safe in the tribal areas has now been fully exposed, and as I understand it, Pakistani officials have said he’s been in their custody for more than a few hours so they’ve presumably exploited this infrastructure as best they can.

MARGARET WARNER: And was this pretty much a Pakistani operation or Pakistani and U.S.?

STEVE COLL: Reports coming out of Pakistan say there was cooperation and that would be certainly consistent with the general way that the Americans and the Pakistanis are working together in the hunt for al-Qaida fugitives.

There’s very close day-to-day operational partnership between American special forces and intelligence agencies, and the Pakistani intelligence service, principal intelligence services, which is called ISI, which is effectively a wing of their army.

MARGARET WARNER: As you know, there’s an ongoing debate about how helpful the Pakistanis really are being in trying to hunt down these leading figures.

But al-Libbi is credited or blamed for being involved in the attempted assassination on Musharraf’s life. Did that give the Pakistanis any kind of special incentive to be looking for him in particular?

STEVE COLL: Well, I think if you just look at the public record that’s available to all of us, there’s no doubt that the Pakistanis were very much focused on this guy because of his role in the two assassination attempts against Musharraf.

There have been, as I say, several cases announced in public over the last 18 months where they have rolled up cells inside Pakistan that they have accused of sheltering al-Libbi, of supporting him, and they’ve been trying to dismantle the network that he’s been relying on to evade Pakistani authorities.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Steve Coll of The Washington Post, thank you very much.

STEVE COLL: Glad to be with you.