Pakistan security officials expect the capture of a key suspect in the US embassy bombings to yield a trove of information about the Al Qaeda terror network.
Pakistan announced Friday the arrest of a key suspect in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in East Africa that killed more than 200 people, including US citizens.
Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani's capture marks the most significant success for Pakistani security forces since nabbing Al Qaeda's No. 3, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in 2003.
The news came just hours before US presidential candidate John Kerry delivered his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The timing of the disclosure may rekindle controversy surrounding an earlier media report alleging US pressure on Pakistan to produce a "high value target" in July when the Democratic convention was to kick off.
Pakistani officials say Mr. Ghailani was captured last Sunday, during an operation that lasted for hours in the town of Gujrat in central Punjab Province. The US had placed a bounty of up to US$25 million on Ghailani, who has been indicted in the US over the bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
"We expect to get significant information about the Al Qaeda terror network in Pakistan and abroad through questioning," says a security official, "...and whether or not he has got some information about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden."
A Tanzanian national, Ghailani was arrested along with at least a dozen other suspects, including his Uzbek wife.
"He is an important catch in the ongoing war against terrorism," said Faisal Saleh Hyyat, Pakistan's interior minister. "We only came to know during interrogation that Ahmed Khalfan was among the arrested terrorists."
It remains unclear how long Pakistani authorities knew Ghailani's identity before releasing the news, four days after apprehending him. In the past, Pakistan has typically delayed the announcement of major Al Qaeda captures for 24 hours or so, and the news has sometimes coincided with high-level US meetings or symbolic anniversaries.
In the July 19 edition of The New Republic, several unnamed Pakistani security officials said the Bush administration has been privately bearing down on the government of President Pervez Musharraf to capture Osama bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman Al Zawahiri, or the Taliban's Mullah before US elections in November. One source in the report said a White House aide suggested to Pakistan's intelligence chief that the first three days of the Democratic convention would be the "best" timing.
Both US and Pakistani officials have denied the story, and continue to do so following the latest announcement.
"The war on terror is not kid's play [whereby] Washington puts pressure on Pakistani investigating agencies and they produce high value targets as and when required," says one Pakistani security official. "If there is a pressure, then it is the pressure on both American and Pakistani investigating agencies of eliminating the dangerous terrorist network of Al Qaeda."
While the timing has definitely raised some eyebrows, analysts say Ghailani's capture could hardly make the difference in the US presidential elections.
"It is pretty odd to announce the arrest four days after the operation. It is definitely a big catch but not big enough to be make or break in the US presidential elections," says Aisha Siddiqua, a defense analyst. Only Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri would be famous enough to seriously impact the vote, she says.
Pakistan has significantly stepped up the hunt for Al Qaeda leaders in recent months.
"[Al Qaeda leaders] are facing some of the most aggressive Pakistani military and paramilitary operations now in June and July of 2004 that they have ever seen," a senior CIA counterterrorism official told reporters last Wednesday. "And they are uncomfortable."
Thousands of Pakistani military and paramilitary troops have been battling for several months against 600 Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the mountainous tribal region of South Waziristan. The semiautonomous border region along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan is thought to be a potential hiding place for bin Laden and his deputy, Zawahiri.
Islamabad became a key ally to Washington in its war on terror after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, shifting its support away from the Taliban and handing over some 600 suspected Al Qaeda militants. However, some US officials, both in private and in public, have said Islamabad needs to do more to eradicate Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants in the country.
Monitor staff reporter Faye Bowers contributed to this report from Washington.