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Major score for anti-terror war

The capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed could significantly impact Al Qaeda operations.

By Faye BowersStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Scott BaldaufStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 2003


Unlike Osama bin Laden, he's not a household name - at least not until now.

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But no individual's capture could have wider implications for America's war on terrorism than that of Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

Apprehended in Pakistan this weekend and now facing interrogation in US custody overseas, Mohammed is considered to be Al Qaeda's foremost operational leader, with unrivaled knowledge of the organization's plans and personnel.

The news of Mohammed's capture could help on several fronts, from the manhunt for bin Laden to the efforts to crack "sleeper" cells in the US and elsewhere. For one thing, Al Qaeda members may now feel compelled to change locations, making them more vulnerable to capture.

Moreover, as the Bush administration struggles to build international backing in a controversial showdown with Iraq, Mohammed would also know something that could either bolster or beset that effort: the degree of any Iraqi involvement with Al Qaeda operations.

"This arrest is likely to have profound repercussions on Al Qaeda, and perhaps even on bin Laden and his continued ability to avoid apprehension," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terror at the Rand Corp. "Mohammed has been at the vortex of every major operation going back a decade - from the first bombing of the World Trade Center to 9/11 to the most recent incidents."

At the very least, experts say Mohammed's arrest removes a key link in the command structure of the Al Qaeda network, a crucial link that translated Mr. bin Laden's threats into operational details.

Nabbed with two compatriots in a joint FBI-Pakistani sting, he would know virtually every operation in the planning stages - including those in the US.

"Depending on who interrogates him and where, several Al Qaeda operations in the planning, preparation, and execution may be disrupted," says Rohan Gunaratna, an Al Qaeda expert at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "As head of the military committee of Al Qaeda, he knows all the key regional leaders and assets ... in at least 98 countries."

If information is pried from him or from computer disks captured with him, it could fill in details on past and future attacks, their financing, and even how much control the Al Qaeda network exerts on minions worldwide.

The conventional thinking has been that after Al Qaeda was driven from Afghanistan, its leadership went into hiding - unable to communicate and exert control, and that attacks since have been planned and carried out by smaller, disparate local groups.

But Mohammed is the latest of some 400 Al Qaeda members detained in Pakistan, including two other high-level leaders. Abu Zubaydah, Al Qaeda's field operations commander, was captured in a shoot-out in March 2001. Ramzi Binalshibh, who allegedly headed the 9/11 hijackers cell in Germany, was captured in a joint FBI-Pakistani string operation in September 2002.

"Given such a critical mass of Al Qaeda leaders seized in Pakistan, that might reveal a centralized control over operations," Mr. Hoffman says. "They might not have stayed close to Afghanistan only because it kept them from being caught. They might have tried to create a command and control that was pretty effective."