ISLAMABAD — Pakistani security forces working in co-operation with U.S. intelligence captured senior al Qaida commander Younis al Mauritani, the most important al Qaida figure in several years to be arrested in Pakistan, officials said Monday.
Mauritani, described by some to be the organization's "foreign minister," central to the group's plots against the West, was detained in the western city of Quetta, along with two other al Qaida operatives. In Washington, a U.S. official called Mauritani's capture "another major blow to al Qaida."
Al Qaida was already reeling from the death in May of its founder, Osama bin Laden, and the elimination, by a U.S. missile strike last month in Pakistan's tribal area, of its new deputy leader, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, according to U.S. officials.
Since the discovery of bin Laden in the northern Pakistani town of Abbottabad by U.S. special forces, there has been intense pressure on the Pakistani authorities to prove that they're committed to the fight against al Qaida.
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The U.S.-Pakistani collaboration over the capture of Mauritani was in contrast to the bitter recriminations from both sides that followed the unilateral bin Laden raid, which threatened to sink the alliance and had, in effect, frozen intelligence co-operation. White House spokesman Josh Earnest hailed the arrest as "an example of the longstanding partnership between the U.S. and Pakistan in fighting terrorism."
Mauritani "was tasked personally by Osama bin Laden to focus on hitting targets of economical importance in United States of America, Europe and Australia," said a statement from the Pakistani military. "He was planning to target United States economic interests, including gas and oil pipelines, power generating dams, and strike ships and oil tankers through explosive-laden speed boats in international waters."
Bin Laden had long been obsessed with trying to cripple the U.S. and its allies economically, realizing that militarily it would be impossible.
Mauritani "is a seasoned, senior operative trusted by the group's top leaders. He played an absolutely central role in planning and coordinating al Qaida's operations in Europe, plots that targeted both European and American interests," said the U.S. official, who requested anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive matter. "The U.S. provided critical lead information and technical assistance in working with Pakistan to eliminate the threat posed by this terrorist."
The U.S. official provided no further details of the U.S. role in the capture, but asserted that the speed boat plan and other plots were "aspiration," and may not have moved into the actual planning stages.
"The Pakistanis deserve real credit for their hard investigative and operational work in taking deadly threats like al Mauritani off the battlefield," the U.S. official said. "There is clearly more to be done, and both sides recognize the imperative of acting together against these dangerous targets."
The arrest of Mauritani was "planned and conducted with technical assistance" from American spy agencies, the Pakistani military said, adding that intelligence co-operation between the countries is "intimate."
Among the papers recovered from bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad was reportedly a document written by Mauritani, where he sets out plans to attack economic targets in Europe. That multi-city plot, which involved Britain, France and Germany, was uncovered after the arrested of two German jihadists last year, triggering a terror alert in Germany. According to reports, the two had been recruited by Mauritani in 2009 in Pakistan's tribal area, where he allegedly told them that "what we're planning, not even the devil has in mind."
The detention also confirmed that many of al Qaida's leaders remain in hiding in Pakistan, including, U.S. officials say, the current chief, Ayman al Zawahiri. Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan, close to the border with Afghanistan, is famous as the supposed headquarters of the Afghan Taliban leadership, known as the "Quetta Shura." The city's association with al Qaida is much less known.
In the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks, a series of leading al Qaida figures were captured in Pakistan, including the confessed mastermind of the twin towers operation, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, but there have been few high-profile arrests in recent years. The hunt for al Qaida's top command in Pakistan was largely taken over by CIA-operated "drone" aircraft which have killed scores of extremist leaders in the tribal belt, a lawless area that lies along the Afghan border.
The last senior operative arrested by the Pakistani authorities was probably Abu Faraj al Libbi, in 2005, who was then said to be the group's third in command. Umar Patek, an Indonesian militant allegedly behind the Bali bombing of 2002, was arrested in January this year in Abbottabad, though he isn't considered a senior figure in al Qaida.
Washington believes that now is the time to deal a fatal blow to al Qaida, for which Pakistan's help is required. In July, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the U.S. was "within reach of strategically defeating al Qaida."
"There are signals in different directions on the Pakistan-United States relationship, signals that suggest a negotiation is going on," said Farrukh Saleem, an analyst based in Islamabad. "Pakistan wants the entire relationship, the rules of engagement, to be put down on paper, in black and white, while the United States is reluctant to do this."
While Islamabad has good reason to see al Qaida as a common enemy, Washington believes that Pakistan is much more ambivalent towards the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, another Afghan insurgent group.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington.)
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