WASHINGTON – The United States on Tuesday confirmed the capture of a senior Al Qaeda leader who is believed to hold the key to unlocking many of the terrorist group's secret operations.
U.S. officials said they believe Abu Zubaydah can identify names, faces and locations of Al Qaeda operatives the world over and may also know where Usama bin Laden is hiding.
The White House confirmed the capture Tuesday, and while it acknowledged it was a "very serious blow" to Al Qaeda, it also said Americans were still threatened.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer described Zubaydah as an operational planner and key recruiter for Al Qaeda and a member of bin Laden's "inner circle" who can provide a treasure-trove of top-to-bottom information about the terrorist group.
"He will be interrogated about his knowledge of ongoing plans to conduct terrorist activities. This represents a very serious blow to Al Qaeda," Fleischer said.
Pakistani authorities, in concert with the CIA and FBI, captured Zubaydah in an early-morning raid Thursday at a compound in Faisalabad, far from the Afghan border, Fleischer confirmed to reporters Tuesday. Zubaydah was shot three times trying to escape — in the stomach, groin and leg — but was expected to survive, said another official.
They also recovered useful data from the site, the official said, but declined to provide details. U.S. intelligence has made use of documents, computer disks and videotapes recovered at other Al Qaeda sites.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Zubaydah was in custody and receiving medical care for several wounds that "seem not to be life-threatening." He described him as "a very senior Al Qaeda official who has been intimately involved in a range of activities for the Al Qaeda."
"There is no question but that having an opportunity to visit with him is helpful," Rumsfeld said.
Only a day earlier, after Zubaydah's capture was widely reported by news organizations, Rumsfeld refused to confirm it, saying the less Al Qaeda knew about who had been the captured, the better.
Zubaydah acknowledged his identity, said Pakistani officials and others familiar with his capture. Other past associates also have identified the captured man as Zubaydah, U.S. officials said.
Zubaydah is in U.S. custody, but it's unclear whether he remains in Pakistan, is among 20 Al Qaeda suspects to be sent to the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or will be transported to a separate location.
Fleischer cited security concerns in declining to discuss Zubaydah's location.
Since the United States attacked Afghanistan, Zubaydah has led an effort to reorganize Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Financial transfers and intercepted communications suggested he was directing attempts to conduct new terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, American officials have said.
Stan Bedlington, a former senior terrorism analyst with the CIA, called Zubaydah's capture "a major, major victory, if not the biggest victory so far."
"He will know the organization of Al Qaeda, if he talks," Bedlington said. "Usama bin Laden is a master planner. He must have made some contingency plans (for a major U.S. military pursuit). If Abu Zubaydah was privy to that planning, then obviously he can tell us a lot, possibly where Usama bin Laden would go."
Zubaydah has been linked by intelligence and police officials to at least five Al Qaeda terrorist plots, including the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The extent of his role, however, has not been fully determined.
Captured Al Qaeda operatives said he organized the millennium plots to blow up Los Angeles International Airport and the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman, Jordan, which is frequented by American tourists. Both were thwarted.
In 2000, a Jordanian military court found him guilty in absentia of conspiracy to carry out terrorist attacks, and he was sentenced to death.
"We've followed him for a very long time — a very dangerous character," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Monday.
Think of him as a "choke point" between bin Laden's will and actual terror attacks, said Vince Cannistraro, a former senior CIA counterterrorism chief. Where bin Laden and deputy Ayman al-Zawahri would set policy, Zubaydah would implement it. U.S. officials said when the inner circle would order the bombing of an embassy, Zubaydah would select the embassy, cell and method of attack.
His contacts with cells came through his role as a recruiter in the group. Prospective recruits in Pakistan would meet Zubaydah, who would assign them to camps. When they finished training, he placed them in cells overseas.
Only bin Laden, al-Zawahri and Mohammed Atef ranked higher than Zubaydah, and Atef was killed by U.S. airstrikes in November.
Zubaydah, a 31-year-old Palestinian who was born in Saudi Arabia, also was tied to thwarted plots to blow up the U.S. embassies in Paris and Sarajevo after Sept. 11. U.S. officials say they are investigating links to the attacks on the USS Cole and the East Africa embassy bombings.
Despite his prominence, the FBI never named him as a "most-wanted" terrorist. He is also known as Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.