ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan on Friday said it would not consider extraditing a senior Al Qaeda (search) suspect until it finishes questioning him, and a government official said the arrest showed Usama bin Laden's (search) Al Qaeda terror network was "crumbling."
Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani (search), a Tanzanian wanted in the 1998 bombings at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was giving authorities "very valuable" information, Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayyat said Friday.
Ghailani — who is on the FBI's list of 22 most wanted terrorists, with a reward of up to $25 million on his head — was arrested Sunday in the eastern city of Gujrat along with at least 15 other people, Hayyat told The Associated Press.
A U.S. official confirmed the capture of Ghailani and said it is a significant development because he is an Al Qaeda operative and facilitator who has been indicted for his role in the east Africa bombings.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan said "Pakistan is determined to flush out terrorists from its soil and dismantle their network definitively."
"The latest arrests indicate that the network is crumbling down...," he said.
Hayyat refused to disclose what Ghailani might have told investigators about possible whereabouts of bin Laden, saying "I cannot talk about it."
However, he said, the arrest of Ghailani was a "great blow to Al Qaeda" network of bin Laden.
Pakistan said so far it has not received any request from the United States for Ghailani's extradition. "So far they have not made any such request, but we are expecting it because Ghailani is believed to be responsible for killing Americans," said Abdul Rauf Chaudhry, spokesman for Pakistan's Interior Ministry.
He said Pakistan would consider Ghailani's extradition under a law if the United States made such request. "But, first we would like to interrogate him thoroughly to check his links with other people in Pakistan."
Meanwhile, a Tanzanian police spokesman, Ernest Saria, said his country had not yet decided whether to seek custody of Ghailani or clear his extradition to the United States.
"If it's true that the fugitive is arrested, the police will consider the next steps of whether he should be brought to Tanzania ... or be allowed to be tried in the United States," he said.
Hayyat said Ghailani had apparently been living in Pakistan for some time, but it was not clear how long, or how he entered the country. Gujrat is an industrial city surrounded by rice and sugar cane fields, not known as a haven for militancy or extremism.
He said Ghailani has given authorities some useful information. Hayyat would not speculate on whether the suspect was planning any attacks in the United States or Pakistan.
"It would be premature to say anything about this, but obviously we have certain information, some very valuable and useful leads have been acquired," he said.
Ghailani was being interrogated by Pakistani intelligence at an undisclosed location, an intelligence official familiar with the questioning said.
"These people are so well trained that they often give false information, and they keep changing their statement," he said on condition his name not be used. He said Ghailani had been silent at first, but that he had eventually yielded to incessant questioning.
"He initially resisted, but our people were able to get a lot of information from him," said the official.
Hayyat said two South African men were also arrested in Sunday's raid, along with Pakistani accomplices. Their identities have not been released.
"This is a major breakthrough which the Pakistani intelligence and security agencies have achieved," the interior minister said in a speech to parliament later Friday, adding that anti-terror operations would continue until "we purge Pakistani society of these extremist and terrorist elements."
Ghailani may be able to shed further light on the 1998 embassy bombings or have information about terror cells or Al Qaeda operatives, particularly in east Africa, the official said on condition of anonymity.
Mohammed Sadiq Odeh, who was convicted in the African embassy bombings, told the FBI that he joined the rest of the East Africa Al Qaeda cell in Nairobi on Aug. 6, 1998 and flew to Karachi on a Kenyan Airways flight before the bombs even exploded, according to a court transcript. That was the last known sighting of Ghailani until his arrest six years later.
"This is a big success," Hayyat told Pakistan's Geo television network. "As a result of our investigation, it became clear that he was a major figure wanted for the bombings," Hayyat said.
Ghailani rented a house there with help from two militants in an outlawed Pakistani extremist group, a senior security official said on condition of anonymity. He said Ghailani "was planning to flee Pakistan by using fake travel documents," but gave no details on the possible destination.
Hayyat said Ghailani was being held at an undisclosed location in Pakistan, but indicated he might be turned over to U.S. authorities after investigations are completed. An intelligence official told The Associated Press he was being held at a facility in the eastern city of Lahore.
Ghailani, thought to be in his early 30s, was indicted on Dec. 16, 1998 in the Southern District of New York for his alleged role in the embassy bombings, which killed more than 200 people, including 12 Americans.
He is suspected of buying the truck used as the vehicle bomb in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in which 12 people were killed.
He could face the death penalty if convicted of the charges, which include murder of U.S. nationals outside the United States, conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals outside the United States, and attack on a federal facility resulting in death.
Ghailani, who also goes by the names "Foopie," "Fupi" and "Ahmed the Tanzanian," was also one of seven wanted Al Qaeda suspects that the FBI and Justice Department asked for help in finding in May to help avert a possible terror attack over the summer in the United States.
Pakistan had said earlier that some of the 16 suspects arrested Sunday were from Africa, but had not said whether they were linked to Al Qaeda.
Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, who is in charge of coordinating Pakistan's counterterrorism effort, told AP that Ghailani's wife, an Uzbek woman, was also arrested, along with several of his children.
It was not clear if the suspects were planning any attacks in Pakistan or simply using the country to hide out.
"They had arrived in Gujrat recently but we don't know where they came from or how they got into the country," Cheema said.
The suspects were captured by police and intelligence agents during a raid on a house in the industrial city of Gujrat early Sunday after a 12-hour long shootout.
The authorities also recovered two AK-47 rifles, plastic chemicals, two computers, computer diskettes, and a "large amount" of foreign currency at the home, where the suspects had moved last month.
Cheema said the raid in Gujrat was carried out on information from a suspected Pakistani militant who was arrested in a separate operation in eastern Punjab province.
Hayyat announced the arrest after midnight in Pakistan in an interview with Geo television, an unusually late hour considering the arrests were made Sunday and authorities had known but not revealed the man's identity for some days.
Pakistani leaders have rejected allegations they time the announcements of major terror arrests for maximum impact, though several other arrests have come on the eve of important Pakistan-U.S. summits. Al Qaeda suspect Ramzi Binalshibh was nabbed in Karachi on Sept. 11, 2002, the one year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Pakistan, which became a key ally of the United States in its war on terror after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in America, has so far arrested more than 500 Al Qaeda suspects from different parts of the country.
They included Al Qaeda No. 3 leader, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was arrested in March 2003 during a raid in Rawalpindi, a city near Islamabad. Almost all the foreign suspects, including Mohammed, were later handed over to the U.S. officials.
Ramzi Binalshibh and Abu Zubaydah, two other Al Qaeda leaders, were also arrested in Pakistan.
Bin Laden and his right hand man, Ayman al-Zawahri, are believed to be hiding in the rugged tribal frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but there has been no hard evidence on their whereabouts.