email from the field

On Aug. 12, FRONTLINE producer Martin Smith, his co-producer Marcela Gaviria, and cameraman Scott Anger set out on a two-month journey that will take them from London to the Persian Gulf to Pakistan and Afghanistan in an effort to find out what has become of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, Al Qaeda, since the U.S. launched its war on terrorism. In the weeks ahead, we'll be posting regular email dispatches from Smith and Gaviria as they report back to us on their progress, offering an unprecedented behind-the-scenes perspective on a FRONTLINE documentary in the making. Smith's report will air in mid-November.

(posted 23 September)

"The Next Big Get"

photo of marty smith

A longtime, award-winning FRONTLINE producer, Martin Smith produced "Hunting bin Laden" -- first broadcast in 1999, then updated and rebroadcast immediately after Sept. 11. His other recent FRONTLINE reports have included "Saudi Time Bomb?," "Looking for Answers," and "Dot Con."

The trail that led to the arrest of Ramzi bin al-Shibh began with the arrest of another man in another neighborhood two days earlier.

For months, the ISI, Pakistan's proud and darkly secretive intelligence agency, has been investigating a ring of human smugglers based in Karachi which is led by an infamous Pakistani millionaire they call "Mr. M." He owns a large "import-export business," but investigators believe he is also trafficking in illegal human cargo. Some of his payloads, they suspect, consist of 11- and 12-year-old boys destined to become camel jockeys at the race tracks in Dubai, or consist of poor undocumented workers seeking jobs in Saudi Arabia.

But the payloads they are most interested in are Al Qaeda militants on the run. They believe "M" may be able to tell them about where some of those militants may have gone or just who's still in the pipeline. Unfortunately, "M" remains at large.

However, on a balmy Monday night, the 9th of September, ISI agents and Sindh Rangers -- a paramilitary force under the control of the Interior Ministry -- raided a house in the Badurabad section of Karachi. According to a high-level Pakistani government official who spoke to me on the condition that I would not reveal his identity, the ISI arrested "a foreigner" who had been seen in the presence of a "Pakistani accomplice" on several occasions over the last few weeks. This "accomplice," I learn separately, is "M".

According to the official, the "foreigner" sang. He confirmed to investigators that he was in the business of providing false identity papers and arranging the smuggling of Al Qaeda militants across the Gulf of Oman to Middle Eastern countries such as the U.A.E., Yemen and Oman. He also told police where some of his Al Qaeda clients were hiding. Based on this information, a small contingent of around 15 to 20 ISI agents and Sindh Rangers took up positions around a four-story apartment block in the Defense neighborhood of Karachi at around 3:00 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 11. They did not know who exactly was in the building, but they knew "there were some Arabs." At around 9:00 a.m., two men came out of the buildings' front door, just beneath a sign that reads "Nice Enterprises," and began making their way across the street where they appeared headed for breakfast. The ISI agents moved out and arrested them.

The two men put up little resistance, but realizing the danger they were in they began shouting warnings back up to their friends on the fourth floor. One grenade was thrown and some shots were fired. A battle followed that lasted three to four hours, although most of this time was spent waiting for someone to make a move.

Police fired more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition on this apartment in Karachi on the morning of September 11, 2002.  Arrested in the raid was  Ramzi bin al Shibh.  (Photo by Marcela Gaviria)

Police fired more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition at this apartment in Karachi on the morning of Sept. 11, 2002. Arrested in the raid was Ramzi bin al-Shibh. (Photo by Marcela Gaviria)

The gun battle can be roughly reconstructed from the visual record of the event. The first video crew on the scene was from GEO TV, a new Urdu-language TV news network service now beginning to broadcast by satellite around Pakistan. From their cameraman's footage it is obvious that most of the top floor was already heavily riddled with bullet holes at the time he began taping, around 9:45 a.m. And from 9:45 to 1:00 or 2:00 p.m., when the 10 men and one woman and two children were taken into custody, very little gunfire was recorded by him or the other local cameramen who covered the event. Most of that time, the "battle" was a standoff during which hundreds of reinforcements, mostly Karachi policemen, arrived.

Some neighbors told me the men in the apartment didn't fire any shots at all. I think they are wrong, but not very. I saw two bullet holes in the glass window of the shop directly across the street and a few more, no more than 5 or 6, in the front façade of that same building. This was all. There were no bullet holes visible on the roof, either. The police on the other hand, clearly fired hundreds of rounds, if not thousands, mostly from the roof of the opposite building. And after the raid only one Kalashnikov rifle was found in the apartment, along with a laptop and a message smeared in blood on the wall. "God is great. There is only one God and Mohammed is His messenger."

According to the government official, these men were lying low."There was no evidence they were planning anything. They may have just been in transit. They had only been in the apartment for less than a month."

President Musharraf announced there were eight Yemenis, one Pakistani and one Egyptian arrested. The world now knows that the big get was a 30-year-old Yemeni named Ramzi bin al-Shibh: one of the key planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the U.S., a former roommate of Mohamed Atta in Hamburg, Germany.

"It was not the interception of a satellite phone call by the Americans, as has been reported in your papers, that led to this arrest. It was the work of our investigators," the government official emphasized to me. I have learned more than once that there is an ongoing battle between the Pakistanis and the Americans over who is responsible for the big gets.

Another man arrested on Sept. 11 is Fazal Karim. Karim was already known to the police as one of three Yemenis responsible for the killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl last spring. Karim has not been handed over to the Americans because unlike bin al-Shibh's alleged crimes, Karim's was committed on Pakistani soil. Authorities want to try him here. The ringleader of the Pearl kidnapping, British born Sheik Omar Saeed Sheik, has already been tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Meanwhile, he awaits a ruling on his appeal in a Pakistani prison.

There are some other reports that it was a tip-off from an Al Jazeera reporter that led to the arrests. Three months ago, Yosri Fouda came to Karachi to interview Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. News of the interview leaked out to reporters and editors a few weeks ago. The London Sunday Times ran a transcript of the interview about a week before the raid. Al Jazeera originally planned to broadcast the tape on Sept. 12. If the ISI was picking up information from Al Jazeera, they would have moved in on bin al-Shibh sooner. Reports of Al Jazeera leading investigators to the Al Qaeda raid are, I think, false. And only bin al-Shibh was caught. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed escaped capture.

Although barely. On Sept. 19, Interior Minister Lt. General Moinuddin Haider told a small group of Pakistani journalists that the two children captured on Sept. 11 were Khalid's. "We are holding them. We are not turning them over to anyone. And we will get Khalid." Some investigators believe he is right: that with Abu Zubaydah and bin al-Shibh in custody, and the whereabouts of bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri unknown, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be the next big get.

A very big get ... Many American counterterrorism officials believe that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is the true mastermind behind 9/11. Such plots may run in his family. Sheikh Mohammed is reportedly the uncle of Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.

He is a flamboyant character. While most 9/11 conspirators stayed in modest flea-bag motels, Sheikh Mohammed prefers 5-star quality hotels. And, once, he reportedly rented a helicopter to impress a dentist he was dating -- flying by her window and waving while calling her on his cell phone.

In a recent report, reporters Dan Rubin and Michael Dorgan of Knight Ridder News Service quote a U.S. intelligence official talking about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed:

"'He gets more interesting every day...' If he had to decide between catching Osama bin Laden and catching Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he might prefer the latter. 'Bin Laden is unquestionably the leader, the symbol and the recruiting poster. But it's looking more and more like Khalid actually makes things happen.' Their report also quotes a French terrorism expert and U.N. Security Council consultant, Roland Jacquard, as saying, '[Sheikh Mohammed] is probably the only man who knows all the pieces of the puzzle.'"


Yesterday, Sept. 23, Pakistani police launched a major new manhunt to find "Mr. M." His name is Saud Memon, and the Sindh provincial government declared him among their 10 most-wanted terrorists back on June 29 because they believe he is a major financier of the Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen al-Alami, one of Pakistan's outlawed jihadi groups. It was on land owned by Saud Memon that the body of Daniel Pearl was found.

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