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U.S. Identifies al-Qaida Leader In Custody as Cole Mastermind

By Robin Wright

and Richard A. Serrano

U.S. authorities said Thursday that they have captured a top al-Qaida leader who allegedly masterminded the 2000 attack on the USS Cole and is a suspect in the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Abd al Rahim al Nashiri was identified as one of a dozen key terrorist leaders about whom the FBI had been seeking information. Federal law enforcement officials called his recent arrest a major setback to Osama bin Laden’s plans to strike again.

“This is a serious blow to al-Qaida and a significant success in the fight against terrorism, to catch a guy like this,” said one high-placed official.

Word of the capture first surfaced last week. At that time, Congressional Democrats were questioning the wisdom of starting a war with Iraq when many senior al-Qaida leaders were still on the loose and a fresh audiotape made by bin Laden threatened more strikes against the United States and its allies.

Responding to their critics, administration officials insisted that they had made progress in combating al-Qaida. Unnamed officials were quoted in press reports as saying a senior al-Qaida member had been captured, but they refused to name him. On Sunday, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge confirmed that a top al-Qaida member had been apprehended, but again declined to give details. Ridge said the detainee was providing U.S. interrogators with insight into al-Qaida’s operations.

Thursday, U.S. officials provided few details of the capture or of Nashiri’s status. They said he was arrested earlier this month at an undisclosed location abroad and is now in U.S. custody, although officials refused to say where he was being held, or why they were confirming his identity now.

A Justice Department official, while confirming the capture, said that Nashiri, who is close to bin Laden, is not in their custody but that the matter was being handled by other federal agencies abroad.

“He’s one of the most top wanted guys. He’s on the list,” the Justice official said. “We don’t have him in our custody, but he could be in military custody or in the custody of some foreign government with our guys getting access to him.”

Nashiri is considered the most senior al-Qaida operative arrested since the capture of Abu Zubaydah, bin Laden’s operations chief, in Pakistan last March. Top U.S. officials on Thursday described him as the terrorist network’s chief operative in the Persian Gulf.

U.S. intelligence considers the Saudi-born Nashiri to be the brains behind the attack on the USS Cole off Yemen, when two suicide bombers detonated an explosive on the ship’s hull and killed 17 U.S. sailors. He also is believed to have had a hand in the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which claimed 224 lives.