ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani security forces aim to close a net around more key planners in Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network in coming weeks and months, senior government officials said on Friday.
The government was also considering handing to U.S. agents two captured suspects at the center of Pakistan’s recent breakthroughs against al Qaeda — Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, intelligence sources said.
Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat said recently arrested militants were still in Pakistan’s custody though he refused to confirm Khan’s arrest.
With terror a crucial issue in who wins the U.S. election in November, the Bush administration is increasingly looking to Pakistan to deliver big names on its wanted list for al Qaeda.
“We know key al Qaeda planners are operating out of Pakistan, and we are hoping to neutralize them,” a senior government official told Reuters.
A senior Interior Ministry official said security forces were trying to arrest several foreign al Qaeda members on the basis of information extracted from some 20 Pakistani and foreign militants captured over the past couple of weeks.
“Investigations are in full swing by our top agencies. But we cannot reveal the names of those we are looking for because it would hamper investigations,” he said.
Interior Minister Hayat described Ghailani’s capture as the most significant by Pakistan in some time.
The United States offered a multi-million dollar reward for the capture of Tanzanian-born Ghailani, wanted for his role in the 1998 East African U.S. embassy bombings.
But intelligence sources said it was information resulting from Khan’s arrest in early July that led to the arrest of 12 al Qaeda suspects in Britain earlier this week and the U.S. decision to put New York and Washington on high alert against possible al Qaeda attacks.
One intelligence source said Khan had e-mailed al Qaeda comrades while in custody as part of a sting operation by security agencies.
The source said Khan sent e-mails as late as Monday, the same day his name appeared in U.S. media after a briefing by U.S. officials, raising the possibility that the disclosure had jeopardized the sting operation.
Hayat sought to draw a veil over Khan’s significance to the al Qaeda investigation calling it a “very sensitive subject” and saying there had been a lot of “media hype.”
“It doesn’t help us, it doesn’t help the British, it doesn’t help the Americans.”
WHERE IS BIN LADEN?
Pakistani officials said military operations in South Waziristan on the border with Afghanistan were driving al Qaeda operatives to look for new safe havens.
Hayat said there was clearly an al Qaeda presence in the southern port of Karachi and the western city of Quetta, but operatives were also hiding in obscure towns.
The minister said the string of arrests in recent weeks had helped security forces get a better picture of the network, but the whereabouts of bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man, was still unknown.
“In the weeks and months to come we hope to further intensify our efforts in hitting at those nerve centers and at those crucial and sensitive areas where, by hitting hard, al Qaeda will certainly be hurt the most,” Hayat told Reuters.
Asked whether the wave of arrests had brought Pakistan closer to catching bin Laden or his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, the minister said security agencies were better placed than before.
“As far as these two top notches are concerned we do hope … we are certainly in a much better position today to have a better view of where al Qaeda stands,” Hayat said.
He added it had never been determined whether the two al Qaeda leaders were hiding in Pakistan or over the border in Afghanistan where U.S.-led forces are battling Taliban fighters, driven out of Kabul in late 2001 for sheltering al Qaeda.
Officials in Afghanistan believe only a small number of the network’s foreign sympathizers, rather than die hard senior operatives, have been involved in helping the Taliban insurgency against U.S.-led troops and the government.