Feds: We Disrupted Al Qaeda Plans

The Bush administration believes it has set back al Qaeda's plans for a possible attack against the United States with the recent arrests of suspected terrorists and the seizure of detailed surveillance of financial centers, administration officials said Sunday.

A senior intelligence official told the New York Times that one of arrested men, computer expert Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, was in contact with al Qaeda operatives who are plotting to disrupt the fall elections.

"I certainly think that by our actions now that we have disrupted it," Frances Fragos Townsend, President Bush's homeland security adviser said in a broadcast interview. "The question is, have we disrupted all of it or a part of it? And we're working through an investigation to uncover that."

In cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies, authorities in Pakistan and Britain have detained suspected al Qaeda operatives, while computer files uncovered in Pakistan contained surveillance information of major financial sites in New York, Washington and Newark, New Jersey. The United States issued a terror alert based on that information.

Some have questioned whether the warnings were politically motivated to strengthen Bush's image as commander in chief in an election year.

British Home Secretary David Blunkett said in a statement reported by Reuters there was "a difference between alerting the public to a specific threat and alarming people unnecessarily by passing on information indiscriminately."

Newsweek reports that a "knowledgeable British source" says Bush administration officials "compromised an ongoing surveillance operation that ultimately could have uncovered more about al Qaeda operations around the world" by raising the terror threat last week and publicly revealing new intelligence they had found.

A Pakistani intelligence official told Reuters that Khan was working secretly to help investigators track down al Qaeda militants when his name appeared in U.S. newspapers as a source of the information that lead to the terror alert.

But Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, defended the administration's decision to issue the terror warnings and tighten security in New York, Newark and Washington even though some of the surveillance intelligence on which the government acted dated from four years ago.

"The government has a duty to warn when we find information that is more specific than the sort of general warnings that have been out there," Rice said in a broadcast interview.

"Starting on a week ago Friday and going through the weekend we began to get important intelligence from some of the people who were being rounded up in these raids in Pakistan, from the raids that were done that produced physical evidence — all in the context of a pre-election threat that we had talked about before," Rice said.

Al Qaeda's history of planning threats years in advance made it imperative to warn the public, she said.

"The idea that you would somehow play politics with the security of the American people — that you would not go out and warn if you have casing reports on buildings that are highly specific," Rice said. "Are you really supposed to not tell?"

Officials in the United Arab Emirates captured and turned over to Pakistan a senior operative in Osama bin Laden's terror network, the information minister said Sunday, flying him secretly to the eastern city of Lahore for interrogation.

The man, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, used to run a vast terror camp in Rishkhor, Afghanistan which was visited by bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar, and where 3,500 men learned combat skills, including assassination and kidnapping.

Akhtar melted away in the hours before U.S. bombing began in October 2001, and had not been heard from since.

A Pakistani intelligence official said on condition of anonymity that Akhtar was being held in Lahore, where he was undergoing interrogation.

Townsend said Akhtar's arrest was significant, and that he was believed involved in two attempts in December to assassinate President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

The arrest is "very important, particularly for Pakistan," said Townsend. "He's wanted in connection with the two assassination attempts on President Musharraf. He was also involved in the training camps in Afghanistan."

Asked if Akhtar is thought to be someone who's currently operational, Townsend said, "Absolutely. Absolutely."

Ahmed, the information minister, said it was "premature" to say that Akhtar was involved in the assassination attempts.

Akhtar is said to have been active in several Kashmiri militant groups, including the Harakat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami, whose Muslim fighters have fought as far afield as Chechnya and Bosnia.

Pakistan's Geo television reported Sunday that authorities had arrested another Kashmiri militant, Maulana Fazl-ur Rahman Khalil, on charges that he was sending militants to Afghanistan to join the Taliban insurgency there.

Khalil is said to be the leader of Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, a group linked to Harakat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami and one of several Kashmiri militant groups banned by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for its alleged ties to al Qaeda. He helped organize a secret trip by about a dozen Pakistani journalists to interview bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan in 1998, one of the last interviews granted by the terror chief.

Ahmed said the arrest of Akhtar was not linked to the recent capture of two other al Qaeda operatives, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and Khan.

Information gleaned from those two arrests helped lead to a terror warning in the United States and a sweep in Britain that has netted about a dozen suspects. About 20 suspects have been arrested in Pakistan as well.

Two South Africans arrested with Ghailani on July 25 had just arrived from the United Arab Emirates, and several other al Qaeda suspects are believed to have transited through that country as well.

Word of Akhtar's arrest follows news that Pakistani agents working closely with U.S. officials are searching for two north African associates of Ghailani, a Tanzanian who had a $25 million bounty on his head for his role in the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in east Africa, security officials said Saturday.

The hunt for Abu Farj, a Libyan, and Hamza, from Egypt, began on a tip from Khan, an al Qaeda computer whiz who last month helped Pakistani police arrest Ghailani and whose computer contained photographs of potential targets for attacks in the United States and Britain.

Pakistan, a key ally of the United States in its war on terror, has arrested about 20 al Qaeda suspects in less than a month.

British authorities on Tuesday conducted a sweep in and around London that netted 13 suspects, including a man known as Abu Eisa al-Hindi or Abu Musa al-Hindi, believed to be a senior al Qaeda member who had been plotting an attack on Heathrow.