Two prominent al-Qaida figures were arrested in Morocco in the last two weeks in apparently unrelated investigations, US officials said on Tuesday. US authorities have been involved in interrogating both men, one of them a key suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks and the other believed to be a senior aide to the terrorist network's operations chief.
One of the men, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, 41, who has German-Syrian citizenship and is believed to have recruited at least one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, is being held in Syria, where Moroccan authorities sent him without informing Germany, the officials said.
The other man, Abu Zubair al-Haili, a 300-pound Saudi nicknamed "the Bear," is on the US list of top terrorist suspects. He was arrested in Casablanca and is being held at an undisclosed location.
Al-Haili is believed to have run some of Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan before the United States began bombing them after the Sept. 11 attacks.
A senior US official characterized al-Haili as "one notch below" Abu Zubaydah, a senior lieutenant to bin Laden whom US authorities captured in Pakistan in March.
The officials said US investigators have had "access" to Zammar in Syria, but it was not immediately clear whether US officials were being allowed to question him directly or whether Syrian authorities were putting questions to him on their behalf.
Arab sources told The Washington Post that Zammar had been able to verify information the United States learned from interrogating al-Qaida prisoners, including Zubaydah.
Al-Haili, meanwhile, was being interrogated by US investigators, officials said. So far, he is not talking, they said, but they believe he eventually should be able to provide details about al-Qaida's organization, as well as plans for future terrorist attacks.
SOURCES: OPERATIONS UNRELATED
Although both men were believed to have links to Zubaydah and were seized in Morocco about the same time, officials said their arrests appeared to be unrelated.
Officials told NBC News that Zammar was detained in connection with a plan to carry out a bomb attack in Syria. Because Zammar has Syrian-German citizenship, German officials criticized Morocco, Syria and the United States for failing to inform them of his arrest, saying the secrecy was a violation of international law.
Germany has played a central role in the investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks since it was learned that a cell of the 19 hijackers who slammed airliners into US landmarks was recruited and organized in the German city of Hamburg.
Zammar has told interrogators that it was he and another fugitive from Germany, Said Bahaji, who recruited Mohammed Atta and the other Hamburg-based hijackers into al-Qaida, Arab sources told The Washington Post, which raised questions about Zammar's whereabouts in an article last week. They said he admitted playing a key role in linking Atta with al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan.
Newsweek reported in its current edition, published before Zammar's arrest was disclosed, that German investigators had been tailing him on suspicion of aiding a terrorist organization since last fall but had trouble finding enough evidence to arrest him. German authorities issued him a temporary passport and let him travel to Morocco, where he disappeared, the magazine said.
"Zammar is in a lead role" in the Sept. 11 investigation, the Post quoted an unidentified US counterterrorism official as saying, but other US officials said that he was at best a "midlevel" operative in the larger structure of al-Qaida.
Fewer details were immediately available about the arrest of al-Haili, but he is potentially the bigger catch. Al-Haili was one of those named in a list of most-wanted al-Qaida leaders the United States publicized late last year, and US officials described him Tuesday as one of the network's "operational commanders."
NO LINK TO OTHER ARRESTS
The US officials said the arrests also appeared to be unrelated to the recent arrests of several other suspected al-Qaida operatives in Morocco.
Three Saudi nationals who claimed to be members of al-Qaida were arraigned Monday in Morocco on charges that they planned suicide attacks against US and British warships, officials said.
The suspects, identified as Hilal Jaber Aouad Alassiri, Zuher Hilal Mohamed Al Tbabti and Abdellah M'Sefer Ali Al Ghamdi, all between the ages of 25 and 35, were charged with "breach of internal and external state security."
The suspects will be tried in a Moroccan court, officials said, excluding for now the possibility that they would be extradited to Saudi Arabia or handed over to the United States. The charges carry the death penalty, but Morocco rarely carries out executions.
Three women, including two wives of the suspects, were summoned to appear before a criminal court on related charges. Prosecutors said Tuesday that a seventh person also had been detained but gave no details.
No trial date was given.
SIMILARITY TO COLE ATTACK
The men, who allegedly were planning attacks against US and British warships in the Strait of Gibraltar, were arrested in May.
Moroccan authorities said they planned to sail a dinghy loaded with explosives from Morocco into the strait to attack the vessels. The plan was similar to one carried out in October 2000, when two suicide bombers in a small dinghy rammed the USS Cole destroyer in a port in Yemen, killing 17 sailors.
Moulay Abdallah Alaoui Belghiti, the prosecutor of the Casablanca Court of Appeal, identified Al Tbabti, who entered Morocco in January after a long stay in Afghanistan, as the ringleader, saying he was known to have had direct contacts with bin Laden.
(China Daily June 19, 2002)