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U.S. interrogates top al-Qaida chief

A senior leader of al-Qaida described as its chief of operations in the Persian Gulf has been captured, American officials said Thursday.

The suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, also was a crucial planner of the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa and the October 2000 attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole, officials said.

A Saudi in his mid 30s who reportedly worked at Osama bin Laden's side for more than a decade, Al-Nashiri would be the highest-ranking operative taken into custody since the March arrest of Abu Zubaydah, who is described as the terror network's No. 3 official.

The American officials said that al-Nashiri was captured this month at an airport in a foreign country and that he had been surprisingly cooperative in initial questioning at an American-run interrogation center elsewhere overseas.

They expressed optimism about al-Nashiri's information, saying it might help the United States thwart otherwise imminent terrorist attacks, especially because he seemed to be the architect of several past plots. They also said he might provide leads to the whereabouts of even more senior leaders.

The officials said al-Nashiri was believed to have been responsible for terrorist attacks carried out in the gulf region as recently as Oct. 6, when a boat loaded with explosives disabled a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, killing a crewman.

His capture, they said, is a relief to U.S. intelligence agencies at a time when the Bush administration has been criticized for having failed to apprehend the terror network's most notorious leaders, including bin Laden. Through a newly released audiotape, he appears to have proved that he is alive.

According to the New York Times, a U.S. official called the capture a serious blow to al-Qaida, saying al-Nashiri is an expert in terrorist weapons and explosives and describing him as a ruthless operator who had traveled to Afghanistan as a teenager in the 1980s.

Another American official, according to the newspaper, said al-Nashiri was so dedicated to al-Qaida's cause that he recruited a cousin to be one of the suicide bombers in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in August 1998. That attack and a simultaneous one on the embassy in Tanzania left more than 220 people dead.

Officials would not say whether al-Nashiri's arrest was connected to a Nov. 3 incident in Yemen, in which a senior leader, Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, was killed in a pinpoint missile strike from a CIA drone aircraft. Al-Harethi was described as an architect of the Cole bombing.

The Bush administration has acknowledged for several days that a senior leader was recently taken into custody, but administration officials refused to reveal al-Nashiri's name until Thursday.

The officials said they had hoped that the withholding of the name would prod others in the terror network to take the risk of contacting one another for news about the arrest and that the resulting communications would be vulnerable to electronic monitoring by U.S. intelligence agencies.

They said they had wanted to delay revealing al-Nashiri's name while they followed up on the information he provided in his initial interrogations.

The officials said they decided to confirm his identity Thursday after news organizations made clear that knew the captured terrorist was al-Nashiri. ABC News reported Thursday night that it had known the identity for several days and had withheld the name at the request of senior government officials.

Officials said al-Nashiri was among the top dozen leaders of al-Qaida, and his authority had grown appreciably with the killing or capture of others in the terror network since the Sept. 11 attacks.

They said that he appeared to have been with bin Laden in Afghanistan last fall but that he fled the country as the United States began its military campaign to oust al-Qaida and its Taliban patrons.

They also said al-Nashiri made his way to Pakistan and then to Yemen _ where, at a base he established, he oversaw recruitment and logistics, including the purchase of weapons, and plotted a new wave of attacks in the region.

American and Moroccan officials have said that al-Nashiri had planned an operation this year to blow up American and British warships in the Strait of Gibraltar, off the northern coast of Morocco. The plan was thwarted by Moroccan intelligence agents who traced intercepted telephone conversations and e-mail messages to al-Nashiri. He was then in tribal areas of Pakistan, near the Afghan border.

The plot appears to have resembled the attack on the Cole in October 2000, when two suicide bombers in the Yemeni port of Aden slammed their explosives-laden boat into the flank of the docked destroyer, killing 17 American sailors. American officials said al-Nashiri was believed to have paid for other terrorists to buy the boat used in the attack, and he rented safe houses used in the plot.

Before his capture, American officials had described Zubaydah, the former terrorist operations chief, as the most important al-Qaida suspect in custody. Zubaydah, they have said, provided valuable information during grueling interrogations in the weeks after his arrest in Pakistan in March.

But they acknowledged Thursday that his information had grown stale in the eight months since his capture and that intelligence agencies had been eager to find someone like al-Nashiri, who appears to have been at the heart of planning for fresh al-Qaida attacks.

Status of major al-Qaida leaders

AT LARGE

OSAMA BIN LADEN - Saudi. Leader of al-Qaida terrorist network.

AYMAN AL ZAWAHRI - Egyptian. Chief deputy and organizer for bin Laden.

SAIF AL ADIL - Egyptian. Security chief. Wanted for U.S. embassy bombings.

KHALID SHAIKH MOHAMMED - Kuwaiti. Suspected of planning Sept. 11 attacks.

SAAD BIN LADEN - Saudi. Eldest of Osama bin Laden's sons.

CAPTURED

ABD AL RAHIM AL NASHIRI - Saudi. Leader of Persian Gulf operations, allegedly behind the bombing of the USS Cole. November, in undisclosed country.

RAMZI BINALSHIBH - Yemeni. Helped coordinate Sept. 11 attack. September, in Pakistan.

ABU ZUBAIR AL HAILI - Saudi. Recruiting, operations planning. June, in Morocco.

ABU ZUBAYDAH - Palestinian. Chief of operations, recruiter. March, in Pakistan.

KILLED

QAED SALIM SINAN AL-HARETHI - Yemen. Leader of al-Qaida in Yemen. Died in missle attack in November.

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