Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the September 11 attacks and a senior operative in Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, was in the hands of US authorities today, after being been captured in a joint raid by CIA and Pakistani agents.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was whisked out of the country to an undisclosed location by American intelligence after being handed over, following an interrogation by Pakistani officials.
The arrest yesterday of Mohammed and two other men outside the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, will probably hurt the terrorist organisation’s ability to strike and could provide the United States with new clues in the hunt for bin Laden.
“It’s hard to overstate how significant this is,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. “It’s a wonderful blow to inflict on al-Qaida.”
Mohammed, 37, is perhaps the most senior al-Qaida member after bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.
A naturalised Pakistani who was born in Kuwait, Mohammed is on the FBI’s most-wanted list and allegedly had a hand in many of al Qaida’s most notorious attacks. The US government had offered a reward of up to $25m (€23m) for information leading to his capture.
Mohammed is the third senior al-Qaida figure to be arrested in Pakistan. He was captured in Rawalpindi, a city near Islamabad, information minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said.
CIA officers and Pakistani authorities carried out the operation that led to Mohammed’s capture, according to American officials.
Pakistan has handed other al-Qaida suspects over to the United States but neither Pakistani nor US officials would say whether that was the plan this time.
“This is a great success today, but the war on terrorism goes on tomorrow,” said Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman at US Central Command in Tampa, Florida. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”
US officials say Mohammed organised the September 11, 2001, terror mission that sent hijacked passenger jets crashing into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing more than 3,000 people.
But even before then, Mohammed was wanted in connection with plots in the Philippines to bomb transpacific aircraft and crash a plane into CIA headquarters. Those were broken up in 1995.
He has also been linked to April’s bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia. At least 19 tourists, mostly Germans, were killed.
Mohammed was arrested along with an unidentified man of Middle Eastern origin and a Pakistani identified as Ahmed Abdul Qadoos, a 42-year-old member of one of the country’s main religious parties, Jamaat-e-Islami.
Mohammed narrowly escaped capture in a raid about a week ago in the south-western town of Quetta, a Pakistani government source said. During that raid, a Middle Eastern man, possibly of Egyptian origin, was arrested, according to the source.
“At the time of that raid in Quetta the authorities were looking for Khalid Shaikh but he escaped and from there they followed him to Rawalpindi,” the official said. ”They got information from the man they picked up in Quetta and from phone calls until they tracked him down to Rawalpindi.”
Senior government officials said the three men were arrested about 3am local time at a house where Qadoos lives with his father.
But Omar Qadoos, Ahmed’s cousin, said only Ahmed, his wife and two children were in the house. There also was a guard outside, he said.
“The police pounded on the gate and then they rushed through. There was some firing, but no-one was hurt and then they beat the guard and broke the lock on the front door,” Omar Qadoos said.
He said police held the family at gunpoint while they collected cassettes, a computer and computer discs, leaving the floor littered with clothes, papers and other items.
Mohammed’s ties to terrorism are deep. He is the uncle of convicted 1993 World Trade Centre conspirator Ramzi Yousef and one of his older brothers also belongs to al-Qaida. Another brother died in Pakistan when a bomb he was making exploded.
He also is said to be close to bin Laden’s son, Saad.
The Pakistani government says it has handed over more than 420 al-Qaida and Taliban suspects to the United States.
Until now, the biggest catch so far was the arrest last March of the group’s suspected financier, Abu Zubaydah, who was taken into custody in a raid in the central Pakistani city of Faisalabad. Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi-born Palestinian, was said to be a link between bin Laden and many of al-Qaida’s operational cells.
Abu Zubaydah ran the Khalden camp in Afghanistan, where US investigators believe many of the September 11 hijackers trained.
On September 11, 2002, Ramzi Binalshibh, a would-be hijacker who could not get into the United States, was captured in the southern port city of Karachi. He was an aide to Mohammed and a key money man for the attacks.
Binalshibh also was the former roommate of hijacker Mohammed Atta.