- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

President Bush yesterday hailed the arrest of al Qaeda’s third-ranking leader by Pakistani authorities as a major blow in the war against terrorism that will make the United States safer.

“The capture of a top al Qaeda operative, Abu Farraj al-Libbi, represents a critical victory in the war on terror,” Mr. Bush told an economic conference in Washington. “Al-Libbi was a top general for [Osama] bin Laden.

“His arrest removes a dangerous enemy who was a direct threat to America and for those who love freedom,” the president added.

Al-Libbi, who had a $10 million bounty on his head, was arrested Monday after a fierce gunfight near Mardan, Pakistan. Authorities found his hide-out after receiving a tip that foreigners had been seen in the vicinity.

Al-Libbi was outranked only by bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. He replaced Khalid Shaikh Mohammed after his arrest in Pakistan two years ago.

“This is a big deal,” National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said. “He was not only doing operations; he was a facilitator, he was into finance, he was into administration. This is a real accomplishment.”

Al-Libbi is accused of personally orchestrating two assassination attempts against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in December 2003. Mr. Musharraf escaped injury in both bombings, one of which killed 17 persons.

U.S. forces played a role in the al-Libbi capture, Mr. Hadley said.

“We provided active support,” he told reporters at the White House. “It’s an indication that by working together with friends and allies and doing the patient kind of work that’s required over time, we can set back this organization and bring to justice its key leaders.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who described al-Libbi as an “important field general,” said that while U.S. forces have been “cooperating” in the region, Pakistan deserved most of the credit.

“The Pakistanis are to be congratulated for the hard work that they did,” she said. “They’ve been fighting in parts of Pakistan that have not been even open to Pakistani forces for a very long time and so this is a great victory for them.”

Al-Libbi is a native of Libya who has been close to bin Laden for 15 years. Authorities hope his capture, along with that of another foreigner who Pakistani authorities have not identified, leads to the arrest of additional terrorists.

“This is a very important day for us,” Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told the Associated Press. “This arrest gives us a lot of tips, and I can only say that our security agencies are on the right track.”

A Pakistani intelligence official said 11 more terror suspects — three Uzbeks, an Afghan and seven Pakistanis — were arrested before dawn yesterday in the Bajor tribal region.

The official, who spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity, would not say what prompted authorities to undertake the raid, or whether it was linked to al-Libbi’s capture.

Pakistan has handed over about 700 al Qaeda suspects to the United States since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which prompted Gen. Musharraf to end support for the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan, which had been sheltering bin Laden.

Among those who have been turned over are Mohammed, senior al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi Binalshibh, who helped plan the terrorist attacks of September 11.

Al-Libbi was thought to be responsible for planning attacks in the United States and other countries. While news of his arrest was welcomed at the White House, Mr. Bush cautioned against complacency.

“The fight continues,” he said. “We’ll stay on the offensive until al Qaeda is defeated.”

After his capture, al-Libbi was held Monday night at a military base in Mardan, about 30 miles north of Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province. He then was flown by helicopter to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.

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