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Top al Qaeda leader in custody

From Kelli Arena and Pam Benson
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A senior al Qaeda leader known as "The Bear" because of his large size is in custody in Morocco, accused of plotting with other al Qaeda terrorists there to blow up U.S. and British warships in the Strait of Gibraltar, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

Abu Zubair al-Haili, a Saudi national, is considered one of the top 25 al Qaeda leaders. He is said to have played a pivotal role in recruiting al Qaeda members and bringing them to Afghan terror training camps before September 11.

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One official said al-Haili knows "quite a bit," including where many of the al Qaeda cells are around the world and that he could "be useful in preventing future attacks."

The official said al-Haili has "a very close relationship to Abu Zubaydah," the man considered to have been Osama bin Laden's operations chief and now in custody and being interrogated at an undisclosed location.

The official said al-Haili also is "well-plugged in" and has "a wealth of information." Officials said the United States has access to information provided by al-Haili, but one official said the access is indirect.

Al-Haili is one of seven al Qaeda suspects taken into custody in May and June in Morocco for an alleged plot to sail explosives-laden dinghies into U.S. and British warships in the Strait of Gibraltar -- a plot that mirrors the attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 sailors in October 2000.

"A group composed of seven suspected members of al Qaeda are currently being interrogated by an examining magistrate," said Moulay Abdallah Alaoui Belghiti, prosecutor of the Casablanca Court of Appeal.

"They had plans aimed at committing terrorist attacks in Morocco, including Marrakech, and in the Gibraltar strait."

Al-Haili was one of three Saudi nationals taken into custody, along with their three wives. Details on the seventh person in custody were not immediately known.

A senior Moroccan official on Sunday said Moroccan intelligence agents located the alleged al Qaeda sleeper cell based on information provided to them by the CIA.

The CIA information came from a suspected al Qaeda member in custody at Guantanamo Bay, the Moroccan official said.

The information was passed on to Moroccan agents, who focused on two heavily populated districts in Rabat and Casablanca. Eventually, agents narrowed their probe to the three Saudi Arabian men and their three Moroccan wives who were living in Casablanca.

The Moroccan official said that when security forces arrested the suspects, they found weapons manuals and bomb-making manuals. The official said the men were preparing to leave the country on orders from an undisclosed source outside Morocco. (More on this story)

Zubaydah, since his capture by authorities in Pakistan in late March, has provided U.S. officials with information that has led to threat alerts and the arrest of terrorist suspects -- most recently suspected "dirty bomb" plotter Jose Padilla. (More on Zubaydah tips)




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