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Pakistan arrests suspect in '98 embassy blasts

Pakistan said yesterday it had captured an Al Qaeda operative indicted in the United States for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, two months after the FBI posted his photograph across the globe to help track down seven terrorism suspects believed to be planning more attacks.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was captured by Pakistani security forces in the eastern city of Gujrat on Sunday with 15 other Al Qaeda suspects, said Faisal Saleh Hayyat, Pakistan's interior minister. He said the raid had led to ''some very valuable and useful leads," without providing specifics.

Officials in Pakistan said it took several days to positively identify the Tanzanian, believed to have been born between 1970 and 1974. He was among the FBI's 22 most-wanted terrorists, with a reward of up to $25 million for information leading to his arrest.

US intelligence officials and terrorism specialists described his capture as an important milestone in the struggle to unravel Al Qaeda's shadowy, and some say growing, operations in Africa. These officials believe he spent time after the 1998 embassy bombings as a middleman for Al Qaeda's investments in the West African diamond trade to raise money for its global operations.

''He would be key to understanding Al Qaeda's financial structure and other types of activities in sub-Saharan Africa," said Douglas Farah, a senior fellow at the National Strategy Information Center, a Washington think tank, and author of ''Blood from Stones," an account of terrorist involvement in buying and selling precious stones. Ghailani plays prominently in that book, which is based on interviews with many of the principals in the West African gem business.

A US counterterrorism official in Washington confirmed his capture yesterday, saying, ''It's a very good thing since he is a very bad man." An FBI spokesman said negotiations were underway with Pakistani officials to determine how Ghailani would be transferred to US custody.

Ghailani's arrest was the latest in a series of Pakistani operations that have netted key Al Qaeda operatives, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; Abu Zubaydah, a longtime Al Qaeda facilitator; and Ramzi Binalshibh, the leader of the Hamburg, Germany, cell that launched the 9/11 attacks.

Since the US invasion of neighboring Afghanistan in fall 2001, Pakistan's teeming cities and uncharted no-man's lands have become the primary hide-outs for top Al Qaeda figures, US officials believe, including Osama bin Laden and his top deputies.

Ghailani, indicted in New York City in September 1998, is accused of planning and coordinating the embassy attacks, including purchasing the explosives and the 1987 Nissan truck used in the bombing in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam. Killed in the simultaneous August 1998 bombings in Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, were 224 people, including 12 Americans.

He was most recently in the news in May, when the Justice Department posted his photo with six other suspected Al Qaeda operatives thought to be planning more attacks in the United States or overseas.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller described him May 26 as possessing the ''skill and ability to undertake attacks both against American interests overseas as well as in the United States."

His alleged role as an Al Qaeda foot soldier has been the focus of US counterterrorism efforts since his alleged involvement in the 1998 attacks was uncovered. His trail since then has often led to West Africa, US officials said, where a US special forces team in neighboring Guinea was planning to catch him and a partner in the weeks after 9/11 but could not confirm their identities.

Ghailani operated from Monrovia, Liberia, along with Fazhl Abdullah Mohammed, also indicted in the embassy attacks and who remains at large, US intelligence officials said on the condition of anonymity. Abdullah Mohammed is also believed to have masterminded the bombing of a coastal resort hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, in December 2002, and the failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner there the same day. He is also on the FBI's most-wanted list.

According to the US intelligence officials, the two men made several trips to the Liberian capital and neighboring Burkina Faso in 2000 and 2001 and took turns staying in a safe house and traveling to the nearby diamond mines. While serving as a go-between for the Al Qaeda gem trade, Ghailani may have worked with Aafia Siddiqui, Al Qaeda's only female leader and an MIT-trained microbiologist whose whereabouts remain unknown.

A 2002 investigation by several European intelligence agencies concluded that Ghailani and Abdullah Mohammed helped supervise a $20 million diamond-buying spree that effectively cornered the market.

If he cooperates with authorities, Ghailani could provide US and allied intelligence officials with useful information about Al Qaeda activities in Africa, where bin Laden's followers have been attempting to recruit more Africans like him to join their cause.

''He really knows the Africa operation," said Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism specialist at the Investigative Project in Washington.

Farah Stockman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used. Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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