- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

A senior al Qaeda operative who worked to procure chemicals to attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan and helped Osama bin Laden escape from U.S. forces at Tora Bora in 2001 was handed over to Pentagon officials this week by the CIA.

U.S. counterterrorism officials categorized the capture of Afghan national Muhammad Rahim as “very significant” in the war on terror and illustrative of significant gains made against terrorist groups in recent months.

“Rahim is a tough, seasoned jihadist,” CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said. “His combat experience, which dates back to the 1980s, includes plots against U.S. and Afghan targets. He reportedly sought chemicals for one attack on U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and tried to recruit individuals with access to American military facilities there.”

Rahim, who is proficient in several languages and familiar with the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, was a courier for al Qaeda with high-level contacts in many of the terrorist cells throughout the region.

His ties to bin Laden include delivering personal messages for the terrorist leader and others. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, he helped prepare the Tora Bora complex along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as a hide-out for the al Qaeda leader while U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban regime that had been harboring him. He also assisted in al Qaeda’s exodus from the area in late 2001, as U.S. forces closed in.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman made the announcement yesterday saying “at the time of [Rahim’s] capture, he was providing support to anti-coalition militias, and groups allied with al Qaeda.”

Rahim, who is from Afghanistan’s Nangahar province, had close ties to al Qaeda organizations throughout the Middle East and “is one of [bin Laden’s] most trusted facilitators and procurement specialists,” Mr. Whitman added.

Rahim was taken into U.S. custody last summer by the CIA, and although defense officials would not disclose where he was captured, he was known to have been active in the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

CIA officials transferred Rahim, one of the fewer than 100 terror suspects in their custody, to the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, this week.

Mr. Hayden said in a recent interview with The Washington Times that al Qaeda’s regrouping and gaining “safe haven” in remote tribal-controlled areas of Pakistan, and inside Afghanistan, posed a significant national security risk in the war on terror.

“It has become more of a safe haven for al Qaeda,” he said. “There is more of a nexus between al Qaeda and various Pashtun extremist and separatist groups than we’ve seen in the past.”

Mr. Hayden emphasized that the war on terror is far from over and that intelligence officials continue to remain vigilant against threats emanating from the region. He said terrorists training in the Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal region include Western-looking operatives who would not be detected standing in line “at Dulles Airport.”

Defense officials said “Rahim had been a person of interest for many years” and although he is considered a second-tier operative, his capture is an important blow to the terrorist organization.

Intelligence officials say Rahim and others in al Qaeda are attempting to recruit unsuspecting operatives with access to military installations in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East.

The increased terrorist activity is a threat to the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mr. Hayden told the Times, while noting that al Qaeda’s safe haven along the border does not give it the same freedom to conduct training as it had in Taliban-era Afghanistan.

“What they have is not comparable to what they had in Afghanistan,” Mr. Hayden said. But “what they have is far more worrisome than what they had in 2003, or 2004 or September 2006.”

A September 2006 agreement between tribal leaders in North Waziristan and the Pakistan government, which called on tribal leaders to expel foreign fighters in return for a reduced military presence by Islamabad, provides al Qaeda with “a lot more breathing space than they had,” he said.

Also yesterday, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said in a trip to Britain that he opposes executing the men charged with participating in the September 11 terrorist attacks if convicted, according to the Associated Press.

Mr. Mukasey said executing terrorists would not be fitting because “many of them want to be martyrs” and that by sentencing them to death, U.S. authorities risk granting them their wish. He emphasized that his view was a personal opinion.

U.S. intelligence agencies and their foreign intelligence counterparts have, however, seen significant success in killing or capturing senior terrorist leaders in recent months.

In March, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, one of the most wanted al Qaeda terrorists in Africa, who masterminded the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was killed in a U.S. missile strike.

In early February, another infamous terrorist, Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh, was killed when his car was bombed in Syria. He was linked by U.S. officials to training anti-U.S. militias in Iraq in 2006, but gained infamy as early as 1985 in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847. In late January, Abu Laith al-Libi, a top-tier al Qaeda commander in Afghanistan and No. 12 on the U.S. most-wanted list, was killed when a precision missile hit his hideout in the Afghan tribal region.

“The counterterrorism successes we’ve had in recent months is a tribute to the hard work of the United States and its partners in the War on Terror,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official.

“But there’s still much work to be done, and we realize that serious terrorist threats remain. We’re using a wide range of lawful capabilities at our disposal to confront those threats,” the official said. “While we face determined terrorist enemies and are keeping our guard up, the capture of senior terrorist leaders illustrates how our efforts are bearing fruit.”

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