ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani intelligence officials confirmed Monday that a top Al Qaeda suspect captured earlier this month met Usama bin Laden in December and has produced information that has helped authorities close in on the terrorist mastermind.
The March 1 arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, thought to be the No. 3 figure in the terror network, as well as information from other suspected terrorists has brought authorities "significantly closer to Usama," an intelligence official said at a rare briefing.
"We find we appear to be just hours behind him [bin Laden]. One suspect met with Usama in September, and Khalid Shaikh said he met with him in December," the official said on customary condition of anonymity. "We were months behind, then weeks and now hours behind him."
U.S. forces searching for bin Laden are operating in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, Muhiddin Khan, a director at the provincial Governor's House, told The Associated Press. Other operations reportedly were being carried out in Afghanistan's southern Nimroz and along the rugged mountainous border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Murky reports have surfaced about more arrests since Mohammed's capture, including possibly of one of bin Laden's sons.
The press conference at the InterServices Intelligence, or ISI, headquarters in Islamabad was the first-ever by the spy agency.
ISI offered a short video of poor quality purportedly of the arrest in nearby Rawalpindi of Mohammed, suspected of being the key planner of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Newsweek reported in its current issue that an Egyptian radical arrested in an earlier raid on an Al Qaeda hideout decided to cash in on the $25 million reward that was offered by the United States for information leading to Mohammed's arrest.
The Egyptian also demanded an additional $2 million to relocate to Britain with his family, the magazine said, citing an unidentified Middle Eastern intelligence source.
A law-enforcement official said the United States agreed to pay the reward to an unidentified informant, but wouldn't discuss details, according to Newsweek. The report could not immediately be confirmed.
Mohammed told intelligence officials that he met bin Laden in December, but he refused to say where. He also had letters in his possession that he said were written by bin Laden. Pakistani intelligence said that U.S. agents were present at the interrogation.
They said Mohammed was in Pakistan for three days but refused to give anything but his name in the first two days.
This information was contrary to earlier reports that Mohammed was taken out of Pakistan within hours of his capture and that he was initially belligerent, telling his captors that he would never give up his boss, bin Laden.
Also nabbed in the arrest was Mustafa al-Hisawai, the alleged financier of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Pakistani Ahmed Abdul Qadus, whose family is closely affiliated to the hard-line religious organization Jamaat-e-Islami.
Mohammed's face was not shown in the short videotape although he was seen being handcuffed and having a black hood placed over his head. It showed that only Pakistani police and ISI agents were involved in the actual arrest of Mohammed.
The video — which was scratchy and of poor quality — appeared to be cut and spliced together. It also showed Pakistani intelligence agents and police in bullet proof vests scaling the high wall outside the house where Mohammed was captured.
Surveillance of Al Qaeda telephone contacts have played a major role in the search along the border, Pakistani officials said Monday.
Pakistani officials have said the search was launched on the basis of information obtained by the Pakistani and U.S. experts after examining the record of the telephone calls that had been made on Mohammed's cellular phone. The phone contained numbers inside and outside Pakistan, a government official said.
U.S. News & World Report quoted a "high-level official" in this week's edition as saying that the United States' National Security Agency used its Echelon surveillance system to monitor more than 10 different cell phone numbers that Mohammed used.
"The Echelon system links phone numbers and voices and can locate these phones by triangulating with cell phone sites and satellites," the magazine said. "'They were tracking him for some time,' this source says. 'He would shift; they would follow.'"