Published November 23, 2002
WASHINGTON – Al Qaeda's Persian Gulf operations chief has given his American captors a significant amount of information, administration officials have implied, and authorities hope he will reveal details of acts of terror still being planned.
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi in his mid-thirties who is suspected of being the mastermind behind the USS Cole bombing in Oct. 2000, was captured nearly two weeks ago, Fox News has learned, by an unidentified foreign government which turned him over to the United States.
Since last week, U.S. officials had said a senior Al Qaeda leader was in custody, but had declined to identify him. On Sunday, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the prisoner was providing information to his interrogators.
Al-Nashiri is probably the highest-ranking Al Qaeda figure seized since the March capture of Abu Zubaydah, the Palestinian who is thought to have been the terror network's chief coordinator of cells around the globe.
The questioning of other senior figures, such as Abu Zubaydah and Omar al-Farouq, the Kuwaiti who was Usama bin Laden's Southeast Asia operations chief, have provided a wealth of information — often of unknown reliability — of planned terrorist operations. Their words have led to several public alerts in the last year.
Officials declined to comment on the circumstances or location of al-Nashiri's capture, but described it to Fox News as a significant achievement, not least because it showed that the unnamed nation that captured him is committed to the U.S.-led war on terror.
After being turned over to American authorities, al-Nashiri was held briefly in Afghanistan before being flown to an undisclosed location, anonymous U.S. government sources said.
However, the capture of al-Nashiri did little to quell fears of new terrorist attacks.
In its weekly bulletin Thursday to state and local law enforcement officers nationwide, the FBI warned that terrorists might try to attack shipping, possibly using scuba divers to put explosives on vessels. The warning was not based on any information about specific targets, a federal law enforcement official said.
In the Cole attack, which took place in the harbor of Aden, the Yemeni capital, U.S. officials have said al-Nashiri gave telephone orders to the bombers from the United Arab Emirates and may have also provided money. He went to Afghanistan after the bombing, which killed 17 sailors.
Born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, al-Nashiri "has a reputation as a ruthless operator," said one U.S. official. "He is a very committed follower of Usama bin Laden."
Al-Nashiri oversaw the purchase and transport of explosives, the leasing of safe houses and the planning and financing of attacks, officials said.
He has also traveled under a number of other names, including Umar Mohammed al-Harazi and Abu Bilal al-Makki.
U.S. officials believe he was in Ghazni, Afghanistan, around the time U.S. military operations began there in October 2001. Al-Nashiri is thought to have moved to Pakistan after the Taliban defeat, and from there to Yemen in recent months. Some tribesmen in Yemen, however, said his next destination was Malaysia.
In addition to the Cole attack, al-Nashiri is suspected of helping direct the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He recruited his cousin, Azzam, to train in Afghanistan and serve as one of the suicide bombers in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, officials said.
Two hundred and forty-seven people were killed in Nairobi, including 12 Americans; 10 died in Dar es Salaam. The blasts, separated by hundreds of miles, went off less than seven minutes apart.
Al-Nashiri was also thought to be behind the attempt to bomb another destroyer in Aden, the USS The Sullivans, nine months before the Cole attack. That attack failed when the suicide boat, overloaded with explosives, sank.
He is also suspected of organizing a plot to bomb the U.S. 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain, a plot revealed in January by another top Al Qaeda operative, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan who was captured by Pakistan after fleeing Afghanistan.
The 5th Fleet has responsibility for the Persian Gulf and provides ships for the operations of U.S. Central Command, which is running the war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
U.S. intelligence also is investigating whether he was behind the Oct. 6 suicide boat bombing of a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, officials said. One crewman was killed.
Al-Nashiri also is suspected of playing a role in a failed Al Qaeda plot to use suicide boats to bomb U.S. and British warships crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, U.S. officials said. In June, three Saudis were arrested in Morocco in connection with that plot.
His precise role in either the tanker or Gibraltar plot has not been verified, officials said.
The capture of al-Nashiri is the latest reported success in the worldwide effort being led by the CIA, FBI and U.S. military to capture or kill top Al Qaeda chiefs.
On Nov. 3, a CIA Predator drone fired a missile at a car in rural Yemen that was carrying several suspected Al Qaeda operatives, killing Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, Al Qaeda's top operative in that country.
Al-Harethi was also suspected of involvement in the Cole plot.
Also killed in that rocket attack was a Yemeni-American suspected of being the ringleader of the "Lackawanna Six," the upstate New Yorkers of Yemeni extraction who have been accused of being part of an Al Qaeda cell.
In September, U.S. and Pakistani authorities captured Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni who is an alleged planner of the Sept. 11 attacks upon New York and Washington, D.C.
While not considered a member of Al Qaeda's uppermost echelon, Binalshibh is seen as an aide to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a Kuwaiti who is the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and remains at large.
In June, Indonesian authorities captured al-Farouq, Al Qaeda's operations chief for Southeast Asia, and turned him over to U.S. custody.
Other Al Qaeda leaders still at large include bin Laden; his chief deputy, the Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahri; security chief Saif al-Adil, another Egyptian; financier Shaikh Saiid al-Sharif, a Saudi; Usama bin Laden's son Saad; and Tawfiq Attash Khallad, a Yemeni who is another alleged planner of the Cole attack.
Fox News' Major Garrett and the Associated Press contributed to this report.