Capture of al Qaeda's No 3

The arrest of al Liby could be a critical
blow to the terrorist network masterminded by Osama bin Laden

What is India News Service
5 May 2005

Yesterday’s capture of an al Qaeda man in Pakistan has revived the hope that its mastermind Osama bin Laden will soon be arrested.

It is too early to say whether Abu Faraj Farj al Liby will show investigators the way to the heart of the bin Laden maze, and eventually to the mastermind himself, but his arrest is widely acknowledged as a major breakthrough for the Pakistani authorities, and the US allies.

For a man said to have been number three in al Qaeda, Abu Faraj Farj al Liby managed to keep a remarkably low profile.

His picture wasn't even among the mugshots on a U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation Web site of "most wanted terrorists", although U.S. counter-terrorism officials say he became al Qaeda's operations chief and third in command two years ago.

But Pakistani intelligence sources say the Libyan's capture presents the best chance yet of tracking down bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri. "If anyone in Pakistan knows their whereabouts it would be him," one intelligence official told Reuters, although Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao said it was "premature" to speculate.

Liby shot to prominence in Pakistan after intelligence sources named him as the real brains behind two assassination attempts on President Pervez Musharraf in December 2003.

He was characterised as the head of al Qaeda's operations there, although the hits on Musharraf carried out by Pakistani militants were ordered by Zawahri.

The authorities released a photograph of Liby to Pakistani newspapers in the months after those attacks, but few details about the man were disclosed.

An Interior Ministry photograph of the captured militant showed a bearded man suffering from a skin ailment akin to vitiligo, a disease causing blotchiness due to a loss of pigmentation.

Jubilant Pakistani officials say their capture of Al Qaeda’s presumed No. 3 man at his barren hideout will boost the hunt for Osama bin Laden, while US President George W. Bush hailed the arrest as a victory that removes a key enemy.

The arrest of al-Libbi drew praise by US officials as the biggest blow to Al Qaeda in more than two years.

He also was Pakistan’s most-wanted man, the main suspect behind two 2003 assassination attempts against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf - and is likely to face the death penalty in Pakistan if convicted.

Commandos seized al-Libbi along with another foreigner Monday after a firefight outside the hardscrabble town of Mardan in Pakistan’s northwest, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Peshawar, Pakistani officials said. The arrests were announced Wednesday.

Witnesses said one of two men captured there Monday was disguised with a burqa, the all-encompassing veil worn by women in conservative Islamic families.

Al-Libbi, a native of Libya who’s thought to use at least five aliases, was behind only Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri and bin Laden himself in the terror group’s hierarchy, US counterterrorism officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Al-Libbi is believed responsible for planning attacks in the United States, the officials said.

The American commander of the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General David Barno, stated on April 18 that terrorists were infiltrating into Afghanistan from Pakistan, and that Islamabad had been asked to begin a fresh operation against remnants of Taliban and al-Qaeda presently hiding in the Waziristan region of Pakistan.

However, Peshawar Corps Commander Lieutenant-General Safdar Hussain was quick to dismiss Barno's claim on April 20, describing it as a highly irresponsible remark: "Lt Gen Barno should not have made that statement. It was a figment of his imagination. There is no bloody operation going on until we have the right intelligence." Safdar, while ruling out joint military operations with the US-led coalition forces, added, "My strategy is to achieve the end goal without firing a shot."

These point to differences within the anti-terror coalitions of various countries. The Peshawar corps commander's statement was followed by Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Shaukat Sultan's rejoinder, claiming, "No such military operation is being launched, and we decide for ourselves what needs to be done and when and where." Barno made his statement during a meeting of the tripartite commission of the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan that was held in Islamabad on April 18.

According to Pakistani media reports, the US general claimed during the meeting that remnants of Taliban and al-Qaeda were planning to stage some high visibility attacks over the next six to nine months, which would get them back on the scoreboard after suffering major strategic reversals.

Ten days later, on April 28, Barno in an interview to The New York Times stated further: "The Americans have been training Pakistanis in night flying and airborne assault tactics to combat foreign and local fighters in the tribal areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border." Significantly, this was the first time the American military acknowledged the training. Barno further admitted that the presence of American troops in Pakistan was regarded as extremely delicate, adding that he had visited the Special Services Group headquarters of the Pakistan army at Cherat, near Peshawar, recently, where he watched a display by the units trained by the US in their new Bell 4 helicopters.

However, the New York Times report also quoted ISPR's Sultan as saying that there were no American military trainers at Cherat and that Barno had probably been referring to joint military exercises between the two countries. He told the newspaper in a phone interview, "The Pakistan army has been training with many countries of the world. We have also been conducting joint military training with the US Army many a time earlier. They benefit from each other's experience. They learn from each other. That's what has been happening, and nothing else." Yet, contrary to the claims of the Pakistani generals, the report stated that the Pakistan army was gearing up to go into the last redoubts of al-Qaeda and foreign fighters - the tribal areas of North Waziristan near the border with Afghanistan.

War and peace in Waziristan, Asia Times
Captured al Qaeda man could hold key to bin Laden, Reuters
Pak says capture of Al Qaeda No. 3 helps the hunt for bin Laden, Khaleej Times