Anatomy of a Raid

10 minute read
TIM McGIRK Faisalabad

It was meant to be a simple raid to roust some “illegal settlers.” On March 27 Tsadiqui Hussain, the lean and weary police chief of Faisalabad, Pakistan, was told by superiors that his officers were needed for some routine arrests. Hussain didn’t think much of it. Faisalabad, in the center of Punjab province, is a humming mill town, and illegal immigrants are always turning up there in search of work. But shortly after midnight, some unexpected visitors came striding into Hussain’s colonial-era office. They were members of Pakistani military intelligence, accompanied by American CIA and FBI personnel wearing bulletproof vests. This was hardly routine.

Among the “illegal settlers,” Hussain was told, was a Middle Easterner of particular interest to the U.S. In the police chief’s office, with its vaulted ceilings, the Americans passed around a sheaf of photocopies, each bearing a photograph of a thirtyish Arab with wire-rimmed glasses and furtive, intense eyes. Next to the photo were drawings of how the suspect might look with long hair, with a goatee or clean shaven.

The hunted man was Abu Zubaydah, 31, the Saudi-born Palestinian who helped assemble the inner mechanisms of Osama bin Laden’s worldwide terror network. If anyone knows where bin Laden is hidingor where al-Qaeda sleeper cells are lying dormant inside the is this trusted lieutenant. As al-Qaeda’s chief of operations and top recruiter, Zubaydah could provide the names of terrorists around the world and which targets they planned to hit.

But first he had to be caught. Hussain’s orders were “to capture the suspects alive at all costs,” which wouldn’t be easy. U.S. intelligence showed that more than a dozen terrorist suspects were staying in perhaps nine Faisalabad safe houses. They were fanatical, probably armed with guns and grenades.

U.S. and Pakistani intelligence were not sure which of the houses might be harboring Zubaydah. During their month-long stay in Faisalabad, the al-Qaeda agents seldom, if ever, left their houses, even to pray at nearby mosques. But telephone and computer wiretaps had given the agents a strong hunch that Zubaydah was hiding in Shabaz Cottage, a monolithic gray villa in the suburb of Faisal Town. With high stone walls topped by vines of barbed and electric wires, the three-story place was bounded on two sides by grassy fields, which afforded a good view of anyone approaching.

Should the raiding party burst into the compound and risk a shoot-out, or surround the place and wait for the suspects to surrender? Hussain couldn’t decide. In the end, his men did both. At 3 a.m., more than 100 police crept up to Shabaz Cottage. In case the suspects escaped, Hussain also mounted 40 police checkpoints on all the main roads in Faisalabad; each had Zubaydah’s photo.

Clipping the electric wires above the gate, the assault team spidered over, then subdued three guards asleep in the garage. “We gave warning to surrender,” Hussain says. There was no response, so the cops broke down the door and rushed in. Zubaydah and three other Arabs grabbed money and fake Saudi passports and raced up the central staircase to the roof, with the police in hot pursuit. The al-Qaeda men were cornered.

Then Zubaydah and his companions pulled off a move that would have impressed any Hollywood stuntman. With a running start, they leaped off the cottage roof, sailed over the barbed-wire fencing and tumbled onto the neighboring villa’s roofa drop of 8 m. They were immediately grabbed by four Pakistani cops waiting for them. Zubaydah was furious that fellow believers would act against him. “You’re not Muslims!” he is said to have told the police disdainfully in English. “Of course we are,” an officer replied. “Well, you’re American Muslims,” he sneered.

The taunting stopped when one of Zubaydah’s comrades lunged at a cop and wrested away his AK-47. “There was a struggle for the gun, and Zubaydah was hit in the cross fire,” Hussain says. He was shot in the stomach, the leg and possibly the groin. His gun-grabbing comrade, a Syrian named Abu al-Hasnat, was killed, and the third, unidentified suspect was also wounded, along with three officers. Once the al-Qaeda men were all handcuffed, the Americans moved in, comparing their catch25 foreigners in all that nightto photos kept in a casebook of known al-Qaeda members. When one of the wounded matched up with Zubaydah’s photo, “the FBI agents were very happy,” says Hussain. “They applauded when they found out.”

A trove of computer discs, notebooks and phone numbers discovered in the safe house should help investigators trace Zubaydah’s web. A senior U.S. intelligence official says the take amounts to 10,000 pages of material. Most of this cache was flown back to the U.S. for analysis. “We know for certain that Abu Zubaydah was planning future terrorist attacks,” this official said. Investigators are also intrigued by a roster taped up on a kitchen wall, which has “Osama” and “Abu Zubaydah” down for unspecified duties. Whether these chores were domestic or subversive in nature is not yet known. And investigators say there is no evidence that bin Laden was in the house. There were no weapons found. Says an Islamabad military officer: “These were men on the run.”

In the U.S. and Europe, authorities were exultant over Zubaydah’s arrest. American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said dryly, “There’s no question but that having an opportunity to visit with him is helpful.” He added, “Sometimes I understate for emphasis.” French officials, who have been tracking the Palestinian far longer, were less laconic. Zubaydah’s arrest, said a Paris official, represents “a serious blow to the al-Qaeda terror organization around the world and may significantly undermine its ability to plan and stage attacks.”

Like most of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Zubaydah grew up in a comfortable middle-class home. His real name is Zayn al-Abidin Mohammed Husayn, and he was born into a Palestinian family living in Riyadh. In his teens, he was lured into Islamic extremism through the Palestinian cause. At 18, he surfaced in Gaza as a member of the Islamic Jihad. In the mid-1990s, he moved to Afghanistan, where his zeal and efficiency earned him a place in al-Qaeda’s inner circle. Fastidious by nature, he was more a logistician than a fighter. Bin Laden trusted him enough to put him in charge of transit houses in Peshawar, the Pakistani border town. He became a kind of admissions officer, deciding which volunteers would be accepted for terrorist training. As a cover, he posed as a honey merchant but nonetheless attracted notice from the Pakistanis, who raided the halfway houses in 1997. Zubaydah fled to Afghanistan. He was promoted to director of the Khalden training camp near Jalalabad, where he indoctrinated many Europe-based Arabs. As a French official explains, “He was clearly establishing contacts with people he could call upon when his al-Qaeda superiors told him to mount an operation.”

Zubaydah’s fingerprints appear on most of al-Qaeda’s terrorist plotssome successful, most notduring the past few years. While bin Laden and his No. 2, the Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, hid out in Afghanistan, Zubaydah was one of al-Qaeda’s most traveled leaders, employing at least 37 aliases in extensive trips to Asia and Africa, according to U.S. investigators. (There have been reports that al-Zawahiri was spotted in eastern Afghanistan last month.) Zubaydah was implicated in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa; soon after, he rose to become al-Qaeda’s chief of overseas operations. He allegedly played a role in the so-called millennium plotstwo thwarted terrorist attacks planned for December 1999, one at Los Angeles International Airport and the other at a popular tourist hotel in Jordan. His name was blurted out by a Franco Algerian picked up last July in Dubai who identified him as plotting to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris. He is also linked to Zacarias Moussaoui, the French trainee pilot who will be tried in the U.S. as the purported “20th hijacker.” Moussaoui is reportedly a Khalden camp graduate and probably took orders from Zubaydah.

After the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan, on Oct. 7, Zubaydah slipped across the border. Washington investigators say the U.S. and its allies were using all existing intelligence assets to look for him in the region, especially in Pakistan. Initially, U.S. mistrust of Pakistani intelligence agencies slowed the search. But it was the Pakistanis who provided the first big break.

A month ago, a Pajero jeep with four men and three burka-clad women was stopped at a checkpoint in Chapri, a village with an ancient stone arch that serves as a gateway to the Pakistani tribal region. Two tribal militiamen questioned one of the passengers and was surprised that he spoke no Pashtu. He was a Yemenite. All the passengers were ordered out of the car, and the militiamen noticed that the women in the burkas were very tall; one of them wore men’s sandals. They turned out to be African men, two Sudanese and a Mauritanian. Their Pakistani driver was from Faisalabad.

The foreigners, as one officer put it, were “hard nuts to crack”; the Pakistanis less so. At the nearby town of Kohat, the group was turned over to the FBI for interrogation. “All we did was facilitate things for the Americans,” says an intelligence officer in Peshawar. Money seemed to work better than any arm twisting. “The local contacts for al-Qaeda were caught, and financial inducements were made to them,” explains a Pakistani military officer.

Using “extremely sensitive methods”FBI-speak for telephone intercepts and locator devicesPakistani and American investigators zeroed in on at least two houses in Faisalabad where calls were being made to suspicious phone numbers in Afghanistan. The investigators staked out the house in Faisal Town and found that it had been rented through a local go-between by Middle Easterners posing as cotton merchants. Ideally, the agents would have “sat on” Zubaydah, monitoring his contacts and e-mails for as long as possible to unlock his secret plots and pick up clues about bin Laden.

But the FBI was worried about leaks from within the Pakistani government. (Only President Pervez Musharraf, the Punjab governor and the top-echelon military intelligence men knew of the impending raid, according to a senior Islamabad official.) And the longer the surveillance dragged on, the more likely the watchers were to be spotted by Zubaydah’s team. So they struck.

In the end, more than 50 al-Qaeda suspects were caught in night raids around Faisalabad and Lahore on March 28. More arrests were to come. In Peshawar five Sudanese training at a flying club were detained, and FBI agents pored over the school’s alumni roster, looking for known al-Qaeda operatives. Last Monday police in Lahore arrested an additional 16 al-Qaeda suspects. Many of the Arabs and Afghans caught in the Faisalabad raid have been flown out of the country, according to Pakistani authorities, probably to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. is interrogating captured Taliban and al-Qaeda members. The wounded Zubaydah was rushed by ambulance to Lahore, then flown to a hospital in southwestern Pakistanprobably to either Dalbandin or Jacobabad, two military bases used by the U.S. “For now,” says a Pakistani source, “Abu Zubaydah’s keeping mum. He’s not admitting to anything.” His underlings, also in U.S. custody, may be more willing to talk.

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