The capture of Abu Farraj al-Libbi, Al Qaeda's new No. 3 leader, in a remote region of Pakistan is a major step forward in the fight against terrorism, according to government officials and terror experts.
"Abu Farraj al-Libbi's one of the hard-core Al Qaeda members," says Bruce Hoffman, a terror expert at the RAND Corp. in Washington. "He's not as well-known to Americans as many of the 9/11-era Al Qaeda leaders. But since Al Qaeda's expulsion from Afghanistan, he has become an increasingly important player - stepping into the role vacated by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed."
Mr. Libbi, whose capture Monday was made public only Wednesday, isn't considered to be as sophisticated or talented as Mr. Mohammed, who is credited with hatching the 9/11 plot and others, and who also was captured in Pakistan in 2003.
But after Al Qaeda was evicted from Afghanistan in 2001, Libbi allegedly traveled with Osama bin Laden, seeking refuge in the border region of Pakistan.
Since then, the Pakistani government has placed him on their top-six list of terrorists, accusing him of engineering several attacks, including two assassination attempts on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in December 2003.
Those attempts on Mr. Musharraf's life - in which 17 others died - came quite close, experts say, indicating that Libbi was an Al Qaeda up-and-comer with good command of intelligence, surveillance, and planning.
Musharraf himself named the Libyan as the chief suspect, the "mastermind" of the assassination attempts, and the government in 2004 placed an advertisement in Pakistani newspapers that showed Libbi dressed in a Western suit, with a trimmed beard. A reward of 20 million rupees (about $335,000) was offered at the time for any information that might lead to his capture.
"He's definitely an operator and a very important guy," says Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit.
Now security officials say they will question him about the location of Mr. bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
"We don't have any information about Osama or Zawahiri being in Pakistan or in the tribal region," says Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, Pakistan's federal interior minister. "We can say we can get good information about Al Qaeda's network from him, but we cannot say whether his information could give us useful clues about bin Laden's whereabouts."
Pakistan has been a major battleground in the fight against Al Qaeda since the 9/11 terror attacks on the US. And Pakistan has been both applauded and criticized by the US in its efforts to rein in terror groups there.
President Musharraf, as the assassination attempts show, walks a fine line between running a transparent government and dealing with Islamic fundamentalism there.
This past year, for example, Pakistan waged a huge security offensive in the North West Frontier province, known as a tribal area that hasn't responded well to central government intervention.
It has also built new roads and schools in the region in an attempt to win over the allegiance of tribal leaders there.
Meanwhile, hundreds of local and foreign militants have been killed by Pakistan's security forces in the tribal belt during the past year. And Pakistan has handed over some 700 suspected Al Qaeda militants to the US, most of whom have been captured in cities and towns rather than the remote, mountainous region bordering Afghanistan.
Among those captured in major cities and handed over to the US by Pakistan are top-ranking members Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi Binalshibh, and Abu Zubaydah. Those three are in US custody in an undisclosed location, and have apparently provided a wealth of information to US interrogators.
But Pakistani officials say they will not hand over Libbi to the US, as he is wanted - and will be charged - in Pakistan for the assassination attempts on Musharraf.
Still, Pakistan has also received large doses of criticism from US government officials. Many of them say the Pakistani leader hasn't gone far enough to root out terrorists.
In a two-part interview aired on National Public Radio this week, former CIA operative Gary Schroen, who led the hunt for bin Laden immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said he didn't think Musharraf was doing all he could to apprehend Al Qaeda members.
But Wednesday, President Bush applauded the Pakistani government's apprehension of Libbi, a man Mr. Bush said was a "major facilitator and chief planner for Al Qaeda," and also implied that Pakistan acted on US intelligence.
"I applaud the Pakistani government for their strong cooperation in the war on terror," he said, and "for acting on solid intelligence to bring this man to justice."
In announcing Libbi's arrest Wednesday, Pakistani officials said they nabbed him, along with an associate, in a shootout on Monday in Mardan, one of the towns in the Frontier province where Al Qaeda members have sought refuge in the past.
"He is a big catch and a big dent in Al Qaeda's network," says Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, federal information minister. "We had been looking for him for a long [time]. He was a key terrorist apprehended after Abu Zubaydah and KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] by our security agencies."
"Abu Farraj [al-Libbi] was considered to be amongst the planners of Al Qaeda," adds Mr. Sherpao, the Pakistani official. "It is a big blow to the Al Qaeda network and will further create dents after acquiring information from him."
Pakistani officials say it is not clear that Libbi would know bin Laden's whereabouts, or those of Mr. Zawahiri. But they say they do expect to glean important clues about Al Qaeda's operations in the region. "We expect invaluable information from his interrogation. We may find further clues to strike further blows to Al Qaeda network," says a Pakistani security official who asked not to be named. "We are going to interrogate him also about his links with sleeper cells in Pakistan or abroad."
"He can speak Urdu and Arabic, so he was kind of a bridge between local militants and foreign militants," the official went on to say. "He is believed to be an expert on drawing maps and diagrams. His arrest could badly damage any links between the various tiers of Al Qaeda."
Libbi, Pakistani officials say, sent coded messages to contacts in both Britain and the United States, and may be able to provide information on those contacts, as well as any plots that may be in the pipeline.
But it's not entirely clear how long Pakistan has actually had Libbi under its control. One US intelligence official suggests that he may have been in custody for some time. That, he says, is typical operating procedure because the intelligence operatives want to exploit not only any information they would gather from al Libbi through verbal interrogations, but also from any of the electronic devices in his possession or other documents he may have carried with him, before his fellow terrorists knew he'd been nabbed.
US officials and terror experts say much could be learned from Libbi, including, possibly, bin Laden's whereabouts. And even more, perhaps, about how Al Qaeda has been adapting in the past several months.
It's known, for example, that several members of the top tier of Al Qaeda's hierarchy have been replaced. Intelligence officials believe these replacements are not as talented as the first string. But Libbi's arrest could not only confirm that information, but also provide names as well as locations for other leaders.
Moreover, intelligence officials and terror experts say Al Qaeda has expanded its operations across the globe. Because Libbi is from Libya, intelligence officials could also learn more about operations and the "ratline" - recruiting stream - coming from there as well as other North African countries.
"One of the first training camps we came across in Afghanistan had 'Libyan fighting group' " on a nearby sign, Mr. Scheuer says.
While the Pakistani government was hunting Libbi, it was also apparently homing in on a close associate of his, an Egyptian known as Hamza. But it wasn't clear at press time if Hamza was the other person who the Pakistani government apprehended along with Libbi.
Both of them are alleged to have spent time with another terrorist, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who was arrested in Pakistan last summer. Ghailani was apparently a computer expert, and it is believed that Pakistani officials, possibly with the help of US operatives, gained information from Ghailani's computer about Libbi.
The security agencies also retrieved information about Libbi and his associate, Hamza, from the interrogation of another Pakistani computer wiz, Naeem Noor Khan, also arrested last year. His computer, reportedly, contained messages and pictures of buildings targeted by Al Qaeda in both the US and Britain. That information led to heightened alerts in both countries at the time.
Now, with the arrest of Libbi, security officials say they will question him about his involvement in those plans and other Al Qaeda links.