ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani officials Sunday said they'd arrested the American face of al Qaida, a key militant propagandist, which if it's confirmed would be the first high-profile capture of a leader of the terrorist group since Pakistan's civilian government was elected in February 2008.
The officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that Adam Yahiye Gadahn, a U.S. citizen from California who converted to Islam, was arrested in the southern port city of Karachi.
However, some officials gave different names for the detained person, including Abu Yahya Mujahdeen al Adam, a Pennsylvania-born militant who's thought to help command fighters in Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence officials said they couldn't confirm reports of Gadahn's arrest and thought the Pakistanis may have confused him with al Adam.
Adding to the uncertainty, the militant mouthpiece uses a number of aliases; Pakistani officials have mistaken the identity of militants they've detained or killed in the past; some reported deaths and arrests have never been confirmed; and other reports have proved to be wrong.
The report about Gadahn, 31, who has a $1 million bounty on his head from U.S. authorities and is on the FBI's list of most wanted terrorists, came on the day that al Qaida released a video in which he called on American Muslims to attack their own country.
The detention follows a slew of Pakistani claims in the last few weeks about arrests of senior Afghan Taliban commanders in Pakistan, including the movement's deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Those claims have convinced some journalists and others that Pakistan has made a "strategic shift" toward a closer alliance with the U.S. and away from its longstanding relationship with ethnic Pashtun Islamic militants in Afghanistan.
Many Western intelligence analysts, military officers and officials, however, say they're unsure of Pakistan's motives but remain convinced that Islamabad is determined to retain influence in neighboring Afghanistan after the U.S. begins withdrawing its troops there, which President Barack Obama last December said he'd begin doing in July 2011.
Some officials have even suggested that Pakistan may simply be siding with hardcore Afghan extremists against militants who are more open to negotiating with the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
"I'm an agnostic at this point . . . as to whether this was a policy change (by Islamabad) or a serendipitous collection of discrete events," Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, said in a recent interview.
Recent detentions of Islamic extremists in Karachi and other big Pakistani cities have raised embarrassing questions for Pakistani authorities about how militants have been able to operate there and led to renewed demands for the capture of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. Both, along with bin Laden's second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahri, and other senior leaders, were long thought to be in Pakistan's lawless tribal belt along the Afghan border or in sparsely populated Baluchistan province.
"This shows that these guys are not all in one place, and that the senior leadership is not in the tribal belt," said Kamran Bokhari, the director for the Middle East and South Asia at Stratfor, a private U.S. intelligence firm. "Pakistan has seen the Afghan Taliban as pliable, useful; but with al Qaida, it hasn't had a problem handing them over."
Gadahn, who sometimes calls himself "Azzam the American," has appeared in more than a half dozen al Qaida videos, calling in his American-accented English for attacks on the U.S. and other Western countries.
"He was the gateway to the Western world, for them to communicate in English," said Imtiaz Ali, a fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, an independent research organization in Washington.
In his latest broadcast, Gadahn praised Muslim U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who shot and killed 13 people at Ft. Hood, Texas in November.
"Nidal Hasan is a pioneer, a trailblazer and a role-model who has opened a door, lit a path and shown the way forward for every Muslim who finds himself among the unbelievers," Gadahn said, urging American Muslims to look beyond obvious targets and methods of attack.
It's unclear whether Gadahn had any operational role in al Qaida beyond his propaganda activities, or whether intelligence gained from recent Taliban arrests played a role in his reported capture.
A number of al Qaida leaders, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, were detained in Pakistan in the years after 2001, when military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf was in power. Prior to Sunday's claim that Gadahn had been detained, the last big name arrested in Pakistan was Abu Farraj al-Libi, the reputed number three in al Qaida, in 2005.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.
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