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Al-Qaeda's number-three leader is in custody; that's according to US and Pakistani security officials. They are hailing the arrest of Abu Faraj al-Liby as the most significant blow to al-Qaeda since 2003, when 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed was picked up. Al-Liby was reportedly captured earlier this week after a shootout in the Pakistani town of Mardan in the Northwest Frontier provinces. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has more.
MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:
Abu Faraj al-Liby is not a name many Americans know, but today US officials are describing him as al-Qaeda's most senior field commander, the man at the helm of the network's global operations. President Bush calls his detention a `critical victory in the war on terror.'
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Al-Liby was a top general for bin Laden. He was a major facilitator and a chief planner for the al-Qaeda network. His arrest removes a dangerous enemy who is a direct threat to America.
KELLY: Al-Liby, as his name suggests, is from Libya. He first met Osama bin Laden in Sudan, then worked with him at terror training camps in Afghanistan, according to a US counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official says more recently, al-Liby has served as the gatekeeper to bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, overseeing courier routes to the senior leaders' hideout. At a press briefing today, national security adviser Stephen Hadley emphasized al-Liby's influence throughout many wings of al-Qaeda.
Mr. STEPHEN HADLEY (National Security Adviser): This is a big deal. This is a guy who was not only, in some sense, the successor to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, he was a facilitator, he was into finance, he was into administration. This is a real accomplishment.
KELLY: But there are some conflicting signals about al-Liby's importance. Unlike other senior al-Qaeda leaders, the US offered no reward for his capture, and al-Liby is nowhere to be found on the FBI's most wanted list, which features 21 of the world's most dangerous terrorists. Several retired CIA officials reached today agreed with the assessment that al-Liby is an important figure in al-Qaeda; among them, Mike Scheuer, a former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit. But Scheuer also downplays the notion that al-Liby's capture will seriously dent al-Qaeda's capabilities.
Mr. MIKE SCHEUER (Former CIA Official): Al-Qaeda, like any good military organization, prepares very in-depth succession plans. So once al-Liby steps off the stage, as he's apparently done, someone will fill in for him who had been his understudy. It's as if an American military division--if the general gets killed, he has a number-two who steps in, and al-Qaeda is the same way.
KELLY: Daniel Byman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, agrees. Byman says the Bush administration is right to characterize this arrest as a major success, but he adds it's not in the same league as catching the very top guys.
Mr. DANIEL BYMAN (Georgetown University): There is a distinction that should be made between bin Laden himself and Zawahiri and the number-three. Bin Laden and Zawahiri are really global names, and defeating them, capturing them or killing them would send a message around the world in a way that capturing or killing the number-three simply does not.
KELLY: Al-Liby's arrest is apparently the work of cooperation between US and Pakistani intelligence services. The counterterrorism official says human intelligence--that is, spies on the ground--played a major role with, quote, "Pakistan following up on that intelligence with great skill." Today, President Bush also praised Pakistan's contribution to the operation.
Pres. BUSH: I applaud the Pakistani government and President Musharraf for acting on solid intelligence to bring this man to justice. The fight continues. We'll stay on the offensive until al-Qaeda's defeated.
(Soundbite of applause)
KELLY: There's no word yet on whether al-Liby will be held and eventually face trial in Pakistan, or whether he'll be handed over to the US for interrogation. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and other top terrorist suspects arrested in Pakistan since 9/11 are now in US custody being held in undisclosed locations.
But Pakistan may have a greater stake in holding on to Abu Faraj al-Liby. Until this week, he was the most wanted man in Pakistan, believed responsible for two assassination attempts on President Pervaiz Musharraf in December 2003. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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