- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

KARACHI, Pakistan — A Libyan hunted by Pakistan because of his senior role in the al Qaeda terrorist network has taken charge of its cells in Britain and the United States, intelligence officials have concluded.

Abu Faraj al Libbi, said to have taken over as third in command of al Qaeda after the capture last year of his mentor, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, has sent coded messages to “several” Islamic militants in Britain over the past 10 months, according to Pakistani officials.

Security officers who interrogated recently captured militants say it was Al Libbi, believed to be al Qaeda’s new operational chief, who masterminded and financed assassination attempts against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf last December.

They said Al Libbi, once Osama bin Laden’s personal assistant, is also in frequent contact with al Qaeda members and supporters abroad, particularly in the United States and Britain. They have identified two persons — both in British custody — as recipients of coded messages from Al Libbi.

The existence of a trove of secret al Qaeda e-mail messages emerged in July, when Pakistan announced the arrest of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, a communications specialist who had gathered information on potential terror targets around the world. Pakistani officials now say some of the encrypted messages originated from Al Libbi.

“The coded messages deciphered recently have revealed to us that he was not only coordinating pre-election terrorist acts in the U.S., but had sent several messages to several militants in the UK in the last eight to 10 months,” said an investigator who had seen the communications.

At least two of the British-based militants are believed to have traveled to Pakistan from London and met Al Libbi to finalize details of attacks.

Investigators discovered a passport-sized photograph of Al Libbi among the possessions of another captured militant. Dressed in Western clothes with a tie, jacket and white shirt, he may have been attempting to create a new identity and passport in order to flee Pakistan if necessary.

Last month, Pakistan put him at the top of a list of the country’s “most-wanted terrorists” and offered a reward of $340,000 for his capture.

Al Libbi, who is 40, has a Pakistani wife and speaks Arabic and Urdu, is thought to be around 5-foot-6 and muscular, but he suffers the skin disorder lucoderma, which causes white spots.

He became closely involved with bin Laden while based in Sudan and later arranged forged passports to enable Arab recruits to travel to new training camps in Afghanistan. For some time he was chief of al Qaeda’s North African operations, but assisted Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — known as KSM — plan the September 11 attacks and was promoted in his place when Mohammed was captured in Rawalpindi.

“He was KSM’s righthand man and was personally trusted by bin Laden due to his past role,” an official said.

He is now thought to be operating from the tribal areas of Pakistan, one of a handful of al Qaeda operatives who may know the whereabouts of bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.

“He communicates with his cadres through a Pakistani militant, who receives cell or satellite telephone calls on his behalf, gets his instructions and passes them on,” an official said.

“But they are very smart. Every time we arrest any militant linked to them and get access to their numbers, they quickly switch over to a new cell or satellite phone number.”

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