WASHINGTON - Al-Qaida leader Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the network's chief of operations in the Persian Gulf, has been captured, senior U.S. government officials said Thursday.
Al-Nashiri, a suspected mastermind of the USS Cole bombing in October 2000, was captured in an undisclosed foreign country earlier this month and is in U.S. custody, officials said.
He is the highest-ranking al-Qaida operative captured since the CIA, FBI and Pakistani authorities captured bin Laden's operations chief, Abu Zubaydah, in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in March.
U.S. officials had recently said a senior al-Qaida leader had been caught, but they had declined to identify him. On Sunday, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the leader was providing information to his interrogators.
Al-Nashiri is suspected in a number of other al-Qaida terrorist plots, including the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings. One of the suicide bombers in the attack on the Nairobi embassy, known only as Azzam, is believed to have been his cousin. Al-Nashiri is said to be either Saudi or Yemeni.
He has also traveled under a number of other names, including Umar Mohammed al-Harazi and Abu Bilal al-Makki. U.S. officials believe he was in Ghazni, Afghanistan, around the time the war began in October 2001. He is thought to have moved to Pakistan when the Taliban fell, and he may have gone to Yemen in recent months. Some tribesmen in Yemen, however, said he had gone to Malaysia.
In the Cole attack, U.S. officials have said al-Nashiri gave telephone orders to the bombers from the United Arab Emirates. He then fled to Afghanistan.
In addition to the Cole attack, officials say he has been involved with a number of plots targeting the U.S. Navy in the past three years.
He is thought to be behind a nearly identical attempt to bomb another destroyer, the Mayport-based USS The Sullivans, nine months before the Cole attack, at Aden. That attack failed when the suicide boat, overloaded with explosives, sank.
Most recently, he has been tied to a failed al-Qaida plot to bomb U.S. and British warships crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, U.S. officials have said. In June, three Saudis were arrested in Morocco in connection with that plot.
He is also suspected of being behind plans to bomb the 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain, a plot revealed in January by another top al-Qaida operative captured by Pakistan after fleeing Afghanistan.
The 5th Fleet has responsibility for the Persian Gulf and provides ships for the operations of U.S. Central Command, which is running the war effort in Afghanistan. It also supports the enforcement of the no-fly zone over southern Iraq, the U.N. economic embargo against Iraq and the monitoring of sea traffic from the Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf.
The capture of al-Nashiri is the latest reported success in the U.S. effort to capture or kill top al-Qaida chiefs. On Nov. 3, a CIA Predator drone fired a missile at a car carrying several suspected al-Qaida operatives, killing six, including al-Qaida's top Yemen operative, Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, who is also suspected of involvement in the Cole plot.
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