The arrest of al Qaeda’s No. 3 man, Abu Farraj al-Libbi, in Pakistan promises to provide new information on Osama bin Laden’s life on the run and deprives the terror network of its chief operating officer, according to counterterrorism and defense officials.
Officials said that if al-Libbi chooses to talk, he is in a position to dish out valuable information about al Qaeda’s current structure, funding sources and attacks in the pipeline. And most importantly, he might provide information that could rekindle leads to bin Laden that have grown cold this year.
Al-Libbi is potentially the best source of information since the March 2003 capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
“As far as an information bonanza, I know that, to this day, we are still getting actionable intelligence from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and he has been in custody for a couple of years now,” a senior defense official said.
“The real question is how loyal this guy is to bin Laden. If he’s a die-hard, he may not give up much. If he’s a canary, we could be getting something very soon,” he said.
Al-Libbi had ascended to the al Qaeda inner circle after the arrest of Mohammed, who masterminded the September 11 attacks.
Officials said al-Libbi is thought to have had contact with bin Laden since December 2001, when a U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan and the terrorist leader fled to Pakistan.
U.S. officials have said bin Laden, and his top aide, Ayman al-Zawahri, have spent most of their time on the run. In contrast, al-Libbi had stayed active in carrying out terror attacks until the hunt for him become so intense this summer that he, too, went underground.
Based on a tip from locals that foreigners were in the area, Pakistan nabbed the Libyan-born al-Libbi in a home near Mardan in northwestern Pakistan on Monday. The arrest was leaked to the press in Pakistan prematurely, local officials told Reuters news service.
Counterterrorism officials usually withhold information on such top arrests for weeks or months so as not to tip off other fugitives that one of their own is behind bars.
U.S. officials expressed hope privately that if residents of Mardan were willing to turn in al-Libbi, other Pakistanis might be willing to pinpoint bin Laden, for whom a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture or killing has been issued.
A U.S. counterterrorism official said al-Libbi worked for bin Laden in 2002 as chief of his U.S. and African operations before Mohammed’s arrest. Al-Libbi is thought to be in his 40s and also is known as “Dr. Taufeeq.”
Monday’s capture was part of a broader crackdown begun by Pakistan in July after an al Qaeda computer specialist, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, was arrested and his coded communications seized. Information on his computer led to the arrests of Islamic militants in London.
It was al-Libbi’s al Qaeda cells that made two assassination attempts on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
“The arrest is huge and important for the United States and Pakistan because this was the mastermind behind two assassination [attempts] and deaths of 17 Pakistanis in those incidents alone,” said Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, Illinois Republican, who has collected information showing al Qaeda has reaped $28 million in illegal drug profits in Afghanistan.
Mr. Kirk said the attacks on Gen. Musharraf appear to be drug-funded because “they had some of the latest weapons and equipment.”
Just two months ago, Gen. Musharraf declared that he had broken the back of al Qaeda in his country and predicted of al-Libbi, “We will locate him and eliminate him, don’t worry.”
The U.S., under an agreement with Gen. Musharraf, has not deployed forces into the tribal areas.
But senior officials have told The Washington Times that CIA operatives, some of whom recently served in the U.S. military, are in Pakistan aiding government troops.