Accessibility links

World: Muhammad's Arrest Likely To Have 'Huge Effect' On Al-Qaeda's Effectiveness

  • Don Hill

Pakistani intelligence agents have captured Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, whom U.S. authorities accuse of being the chief operations man for the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Jubilant U.S. officials say the arrest is a powerful blow against the terrorist group. RFE/RL reports that, until the end, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad had been a busy fund-raiser and organizer, and probably was brought down by his visibility.

Prague, 3 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani intelligence agents swarmed near dawn on 1 March into a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of Rawalpindi, a city of nearly 1 million people not far from the capital, Islamabad. They burst into a family home and emerged with three men.

One of these men was Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, wanted by the United States as a terrorist since 1996. Since the events of 11 September 2001, however, Muhammad has been one of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's most-wanted terrorist suspects. U.S. officials accuse him of being the chief operational planner of the attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in which some 3,000 people died.

U.S. and Pakistani officials say agents have begun interrogating Muhammad at a location inside Pakistan.

In the United States, political leaders are jubilant at news of the arrest. President George W. Bush is said to be delighted. Critics of his administration had been hinting that his preoccupation with a possible war on Iraq had drawn attention and energy from the war on terrorism.

U.S. Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, said yesterday that Muhammad's capture has set Al-Qaeda back severely. "This is a giant step backwards for the Al-Qaeda. This must send a message, will send a message to the Al-Qaeda, who is mounting a spring offensive for use in Afghanistan. Now their operations commander is simply out of operations," Roberts said.

Muhammad first came to the attention of the U.S. public in 1996, when authorities indicted him for participation in a plot to blow up 12 U.S. civilian airliners over the Pacific. Intelligence officials in the Philippines said he was also part of a cell that they believe had plotted to kill Pope John Paul II in their country in 1995.

Since then, officials suspect him of involvement in the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and an attack on the warship "USS Cole" in Yemen in 2000. U.S. authorities had offered $25 million for his capture. A Pakistani newspaper reported that Muhammad also may have been the man who slit U.S. reporter Daniel Pearl's throat in January 2002 as a video camera taped the gruesome act.

Magnus Ranstorp is director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism at Scotland's University of Saint Andrews. Ranstorp said a great deal is known about Khalid Shaykh Muhammad because intelligence services around the world have been pooling documented data about him for more than 12 years. "Well, it's known because he has been popping up on the intelligence radar screens for some time, you know, at least dating back to even before 1998 when Al-Qaeda was formed," Ranstorp said.

Ranstorp said Muhammad's capture is an important event in the worldwide antiterrorism effort. "I think it's very significant in terms of overall significance. You can imagine -- the head of the military committee, the mastermind of very complex large operations. When you take him out of the equation, certainly it will have a huge effect on the ability of all of Al-Qaeda to launch large-scale operations," he said.

The terrorism scholar said Pakistani and U.S. officials are not overstating the importance of his arrest. "It's not an exaggeration at all. He is a very significant individual who has had a long-standing capability. He's somebody with technical expertise. He's someone that knows most of the serious Al-Qaeda operatives in various areas around the world," he said, adding, "He is certainly the third-most-important individual within Al-Qaeda [after Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri]."

News reports quote intelligence officials as saying that Muhammad continued to be remarkably active almost to the day of his arrest. He is reported to have been an important recruiter and fund-raiser in recent months. "The New York Times" reported that he maintained his role as an operational commander, using couriers, e-mail, and coded telephone messages to communicate. In fact, the newspaper said, his activity may have made possible the chain of leads and information that resulted in his capture.

Khalid Shaykh Muhammad was born in 1965 in Ahmadi, Kuwait, the son of a Pakistani immigrant. He grew up in Fuhayil, whose residents' drab lifestyle contrasts with that of the oil-wealthy Kuwaitis. Somehow he was able to travel to the United States, where he enrolled in Chowan College and in North Carolina State Agricultural and Technical University, both in North Carolina. He studied engineering.

Ranstorp said he was a quiet student who did not mix with non-Muslims but who also showed no signs of radicalism. Somewhere along the line, that changed.

Just a month after the 11 September attacks, Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell showed reporters a number of photographs of men the U.S. president said were terrorists. Bush vowed that the U.S. would track them down. "The men on the wall here have put themselves on the list because of great acts of evil. They plan, promote and commit murder. They fill the minds of others with hate and lies. And by their cruelty and violence they betray whatever faith they espouse," Bush said on 10 October 2001.

One of those men was identified as Khalid Shaykh Muhammad.