Friday, May 06, 2005

Bin Laden aide had ten-strong British network

By Daniel McGrory
London Times

AL-QAEDA’S third-in-command, being interrogated after his capture in Pakistan, was in close contact with ten militants working for him in Britain, according to investigators.
So far Abu Farj al-Libbi has refused to reveal the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and his key accomplices.

His British cell is said to include a radical cleric and a terror suspect awaiting trial but the eight other men are still at large.

Their role was allegedly to carry cash around the world for the network using a number of aliases. Counter-terror officials are not certain of the identity of the eight suspects, who are said to be of Pakistani and North African origin. British officials hope that they will eventually be allowed to question al-Libbi.

Officials say that one of al-Libbi’s couriers unwittingly led the CIA and Pakistani security officials to the Libyan-born mastermind in a town close to the Afghan border. He and four close aides were hiding at a shrine on a hilltop outside Mardan, near Peshawar.

Witnesses described yesterday how armed undercover agents in burkas ambushed al-Libbi on Monday as he rode pillion on a motorcycle through a graveyard. Al-Libbi, who was disguised as a woman, shot at his pursuers.

Bystanders dived for cover as a dozen people — all in black burkas — returned fire. The 42-year-old militant with a $5 million (£2.6 million) price on his head fled to a nearby guesthouse shouting to staff that he was “a jihadi” and pleaded for help.

Amanullah Khan, the deputy superintendent of police in Mardan, said that his officers fired teargas into a room in which al-Libbi barricaded himself but it took 45 minutes before he surrendered.

He emerged after apparently making a number of calls on his mobile phone. “He came out unarmed with his hands in the air and his head slightly bowed,” Mr Khan said. He was hooded and bundled on to a special forces helicopter then flown to an army barracks in Rawalpindi for questioning.

An official said yesterday that al-Libbi had been asked two questions over and over again — “Where is bin Laden?” and “What were your plans?” — but had given no reply.

He is expected to be moved to what have been called “ghost prisons”, run by the United States, where al-Qaeda suspects are interrogated.

Once he had been traced, there was disagreement between the CIA and Pakistani officials on whether to shadow him so that he might lead them to bin Laden.

The authorities in Islamabad were not prepared to risk losing the man blamed for orchestrating two assassination attempts on President Musharraf in 2003 so they went ahead with their ambush. Al-Libbi was easy to pick out because of blotches on his face caused by a virulent skin condition.

Pakistani officials say that they have rounded up more than 20 suspects since his capture, including a former air force technician who escaped a military prison after being sentenced to death for his role in the plots to kill the President.

Al-Libbi is believed to have been in regular contact with bin Laden but used couriers to carry coded handwritten messages.

He was promoted to No 3 in al-Qaeda after Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, his mentor and architect of the September 11 attacks, was arrested in Pakistan in September 2003.
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