THE capture of a supposed Al-Qaeda kingpin by Pakistani agents last week was hailed by President George W Bush as “a critical victory in the war on terror”. According to European intelligence experts, however, Abu Faraj al-Libbi was not the terrorists’ third in command, as claimed, but a middle-ranker derided by one source as “among the flotsam and jetsam” of the organisation.
Al-Libbi’s arrest in Pakistan, announced last Wednesday, was described in the United States as “a major breakthrough” in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
Bush called him a “top general” and “a major facilitator and chief planner for the Al- Qaeda network”. Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, said he was “a very important figure”. Yet the backslapping in Washington and Islamabad has astonished European terrorism experts, who point out that the Libyan was neither on the FBI’s most wanted list, nor on that of the State Department “rewards for justice” programme.
Another Libyan is on the FBI list — Anas al-Liby, who is wanted over the 1998 East African embassy bombings — and some believe the Americans may have initially confused the two. When The Sunday Times contacted a senior FBI counter-terrorism official for information about the importance of the detained man, he sent material on al-Liby, the wrong man.
“Al-Libbi is just a ‘middle-level’ leader,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, a French intelligence investigator and leading expert on terrorism finance. “Pakistan and US authorities have completely overestimated his role and importance. He was never more than a regional facilitator between Al-Qaeda and local Pakistani Islamic groups.”
According to Brisard, the arrested man lacks the global reach of Al-Qaeda leaders such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s number two, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, or Anas al-Liby.
Although British intelligence has evidence of telephone calls between al-Libbi and operatives in the UK, he is not believed to be Al-Qaeda’s commander of operations in Europe, as reported.
The only operations in which he is known to have been involved are two attempts to assassinate Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, in 2003. Last year he was named Pakistan’s most wanted man with a $350,000 (£185,000) price on his head.
No European or American intelligence expert contacted last week had heard of al-Libbi until a Pakistani intelligence report last year claimed he had taken over as head of operations after Khalid Shaikh Mohammad’s arrest. A former close associate of Bin Laden now living in London laughed: “What I remember of him is he used to make the coffee and do the photocopying.”
Of course this is not surprising; we're talking about people who wouldn't know what honest work is if they saw people actually working.