Friday, January 23, 2004

U.S. and Iraqi security officials have captured a senior al Qaeda operations leader in Iraq, who intelligence officials believe was planning for attacks against U.S. and coalition forces, The Washington Times has learned.

Hasan Ghul, a key terrorist “facilitator” and the highest-ranking al Qaeda apprehended in Iraq, was captured Thursday and is suspected of trying to link up with elements of Saddam Hussein’s ousted regime, U.S. officials said.

“He was there to do targeting and to check out the situation on the ground,” one official said. “He had a lot of experience moving people and money. He has an extensive network of contacts all over the world.”

In the past, Ghul has worked with senior al Qaeda leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, one of the key al Qaeda figures involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks who was captured in Pakistan in March 2002.

Ghul, who is being interrogated at an undisclosed location in Iraq, also was involved in the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Officials said Ghul’s capture supports claims by Bush administration officials that Iraq has become the front line in the global war on terrorism.

“His capture is very significant; the world is a safer place because he is off the street,” an official said. “It’s fair to describe him as a very significant figure in al Qaeda. He’s a very serious player.”

Al Qaeda-style bombings, including suicide car bombings, have been carried out regularly in Iraq over the past several months. The most recent bombing involved a pickup truck laden with 1,000 pounds of explosives.

One U.S. official said “indigenous” security forces in Iraq — some of the newly trained 200,000 Iraqi police — were involved in the capture. The official said U.S. special operations commandos did not take part in the capture, which was assisted by U.S. intelligence personnel.

The capture of Ghul coincided with U.S. forces’ apprehension of an insurgency leader in Iraq with close ties to Abu Musab Zarqawi, an al Qaeda affiliate linked to the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam.

Ansar al-Islam, composed mainly of ethnic Kurds from northern Iraq with suspected al Qaeda ties, operated in northern Iraq before the U.S. invasion, U.S. officials said.

U.S. troops captured Husam al-Yemeni on Thursday. He was described by U.S. officials as the leader of an insurgency cell in Fallujah, west of Baghdad. The official said al-Yemeni is the highest-level member of Ansar al-Islam captured to date.

Zarqawi, a Jordanian operative, attracted attention when Washington named him in the run-up to the war in Iraq last year as a potential link between al Qaeda and Saddam. He remains a high-priority target for U.S. forces in Iraq, where he is suspected of coordinating anti-U.S. operations.

Last year, Saudi sources said Zarqawi had been detained in Iran. Iran for the first time yesterday said it would place a dozen jailed suspects of bin Laden’s terrorist network on trial. It did not release their names.

Besides Zarqawi, Saudi sources have said Iran also had detained Saad bin Laden, a son of bin Laden, and al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who is a Kuwaiti.

The Bush administration immediately opposed the Iranian plan, insisting all the captives be handed over to their countries of origin for questioning and punishment.

The Bush administration has long believed that Iran is harboring al Qaeda militants who escaped Afghanistan after U.S. troops invaded that country in late 2001 in the wake of the September 11 terrorists attacks.

The official who disclosed al-Yemeni’s capture yesterday said he could provide no more details, including the location where the prisoner was picked up inside Iraq.

U.S. intelligence officials have said more than three-quarters of al Qaeda’s top leaders have been killed or captured since the war on terror began, with about 3,000 al Qaeda suspects are being held around the world. But they believe about 500 al Qaeda members remain at large and continue to plan attacks against the United States.

The threat level in the United States was raised last month based on intelligence that al Qaeda was planning a major attack using aircraft as missiles or through the use of a radiological bomb — a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material.

The threat level was lowered after the attack failed to materialize.

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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