Pakistan says it's arrested an al Qaida figure

McClatchy NewspapersMay 17, 2011 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan said Tuesday that it had arrested an al Qaida operative in the southern city of Karachi, the first arrest of a terrorism suspect since an American special forces raid killed Osama bin Laden deep inside the country on May 2.

The Pakistani military described Muhammad Ali Qasim Yaqub, also known as Abu Sohaib al Makki, as a "senior al Qaida operative," though there was some debate about his importance.

"The indications are that he is a midlevel al Qaida operative who may have been involved in operations," said a U.S. official in Washington who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The arrest appeared to be a Pakistani effort to show the United States that it would go after al Qaida and Taliban extremists who've taken refuge in Pakistan. It came a day after Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said here that the U.S. and Pakistan had agreed to try to reset their relations after the bin Laden raid, which angered and humiliated Pakistan's military and raised questions in the U.S. about Pakistan's commitment to combating terrorism.

But the difficulties the relationship faces were on display Tuesday.

Pakistani military authorities announced that two of its soldiers were wounded when helicopters from the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan crossed into Pakistani airspace and Pakistani soldiers fired on them. Coalition officials in Afghanistan said the helicopters had been called in by a U.S. outpost near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that had come under fire from Pakistan.

Meanwhile, U.S. military officials in Islamabad acknowledged that Pakistan had told them in writing to reduce the number of U.S. trainers who are working in Pakistan.

It was unknown whether a treasure trove of information that US troops scooped up at bin Laden's hideout in the resort town of Abbottabad had contributed to Yaqub's capture.

Word of the arrest came as other news reports indicated that al Qaida had named an interim leader to replace bin Laden. Saif al Adel, a senior al Qaida military commander who was in Iranian custody until a year ago, will assume the group's top position until a permanent successor is named.

The Pakistani military said that Yaqub was a Yemeni national who "has been working directly under al Qaida leaders along Pak-Afghan borders." He appears to be a virtual unknown, however, and doesn't appear on the FBI list of wanted terrorists or lists of top al Qaida figures.

"He's certainly not a top-tier figure," said a U.S. official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters.

"The arrest of al Makki is a major development in unraveling the al Qaida network operating in the region," said the statement from the Pakistani military, which added that he'd been arrested by "security agencies," usually code for the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the military's biggest spy agency.

Pakistan is a magnet for jihadists from all over the world, drawn partly by past state patronage of Islamic extremist groups. Karachi is where many think that Mullah Mohammad Omar and other top Afghan insurgents as well as al Qaida commanders are in hiding, in a sprawling run-down metropolis where it's easy to melt away. Last year, the Taliban's deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was arrested in Karachi.

Many suspect that Pakistani security forces have protected the Afghan insurgent leaders in Pakistan or at least tolerated their presence. But Pakistan has arrested a series of top al Qaida operatives since 9/11, though it's been years since a similar arrest was made.

Also on Tuesday, a confused picture was emerging of the helicopter attack on a Pakistani border post that left two Pakistani soldiers injured.

Pakistan said it had "lodged a strong protest and demanded a flag (high-level) meeting" over the incident.

Officials with the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the incident is under investigation, said that the helicopters, which were almost certainly American, had been called in by a coalition outpost named for former NFL football star Pat Tillman after the post had come under fire from Pakistan. When the helicopters arrived, they also came under attack and, the second time it happened, they returned fire.

The Pakistani military said the helicopters clashed with Pakistani soldiers after they crossed into North Waziristan, part of Pakistan's tribal area, in the early hours Tuesday.

"The troops at the post fired upon the helicopters and, as a result of exchange of fire, two of our soldiers received injuries," the Pakistani statement said.

Lt. Cmdr. Colette Murphy, a spokeswoman for the international coalition in Afghanistan, said, "ISAF is aware of the incident and is assessing it to determine what happened."

North Waziristan is home to the Haqqani network, a deadly Afghan insurgent group that's allied with al Qaida and the Taliban. The U.S. has asked Pakistan for years to mount an assault in North Waziristan to rout extremists there.

Previous such incidents have even led to Pakistan closing its border crossings into land-locked Afghanistan, holding up supplies for coalition troops.

U.S. military officials in Islamabad, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said they'd been instructed in writing in recent days to reduce the number of American military training personnel in the country.

An American military official wouldn't specify how many U.S. trainers were involved in the drawdown. Pakistan's chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said the trainers would be reduced to the "minimum essential required."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)

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For more coverage of Osama bin Laden's death, visit McClatchy's bin Laden page.

McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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