| An FBI release shows the man tentatively identified as Ramzi. (Reuters)
Karachi, Sept. 14 (Reuters): Key al Qaida member Ramzi Binalshibh was captured after a long running gunbattle in Pakistan, on the first anniversary of the September 11 strikes he is accused of helping to plan.
American officials said the Yemeni national, who was refused a visa into the US at least four times before September 11, 2001, wanted to join the 19 hijackers involved in last year’s attack.
US President George W. Bush hailed the arrest and vowed to hunt down other suspects. “One by one, we’re hunting the killers down. We’re relentless, we are strong, and we’re not going to stop,” he said at Camp David.
Pakistan’s government added that a second high-level al Qaida suspect was also being held after a series of raids in Karachi this week which have netted 12 foreign suspects and left two dead.
Binalshibh, who is wanted by Germany for his alleged role in planning and carrying out the hijacked plane attacks, is one of the most important al Qaida members to be taken into custody. A US official said Binalshibh was captured in Karachi by Pakistani authorities with help from the FBI and CIA.
In Pakistan, officials said Binalshibh and four other suspected al Qaida militants were picked up after a three-hour gunbattle, and were being questioned at a secure location in Pakistan.
Interior minister Moinuddin Haider said Pakistan was ready to hand the suspects over to the US if there was evidence they were involved in terrorist activities. But the German government said it also wanted to try Binalshibh.
Pakistani police said US agents had traced Binalshibh to a three-storey building in an upmarket district of Karachi, thanks to a satellite phone call.
But security and intelligence agents met armed resistance when they raided the building and only arrested Binalshibh after a shootout in which two al Qaida suspects were killed and six policemen and a four-year-old girl wounded.
“The FBI and ISI had initially raided the place and arrested two suspects, but later police were called out to help in the operation when other suspects present in the building retaliated,” a senior Pakistani policeman said.
Binalshibh was one of the roommates of Mohamed Atta — the suspected ringleader of the September 11 hijackers — in Hamburg. He was very prominent in the Hamburg cell and his capture is considered a significant development in the US goal of destroying the network, officials said.
Binalshibh was not as high in the organisation as Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in Pakistan in March and turned over to US authorities.
But German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung said Binalshibh was a rising star in Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network and could have been the leader of the Hamburg cell rather than Atta.
It said he had also become something of an icon within the movement, adding that many Taliban fighters had been found carrying his photograph. Most of the arrested men appeared to be Yemeni, like Binalshibh.
One of the arrested men, wearing a blue T-shirt, blindfolded by the police but bearing a close resemblance to Binalshibh, shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) as he was led away by police.
Police said they had recovered a satellite phone, a laptop and “a few CDs of Osama’s speeches” from the apartment. A policeman said the Kalma, the Muslim declaration of faith, was written in blood on the kitchen wall.
Binalshibh’s capture came just days after a journalist with al Jazeera television said he interviewed the Yemeni in or around Karachi.