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U.S.: Top al Qaeda operative arrested

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Al Qaeda's chief of operations in the Persian Gulf is in U.S. custody after his recent capture in an undisclosed country, U.S. officials said Thursday.

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the suspected mastermind behind the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 sailors, was arrested earlier this month, officials said. He is considered one of the highest ranking al Qaeda leaders captured in the international war on terrorism.

He is of similar rank to two other captured al Qaeda operatives -- operations chief Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi Binalshibh, believed to be a main organizer of the September 11 attacks.

Few details were revealed about al-Nashiri's capture or where he is being held.

One U.S. official told CNN he was captured "in the region for which he was responsible," but would not elaborate. Intelligence officials said al-Nashiri was running his reputed operations out of Yemen, but they would not say if that is where he was nabbed.

Al-Nashiri has been cooperating with interrogators since his apprehension, another U.S. official said.

"He has been of some help in terms of information," the U.S. official said, declining to be more specific.

In recent weeks, U.S. and coalition officials have warned of a growing terrorist threat, based on a recent audiotape message by Osama bin Laden and information from key detainees captured in the war on terror.

The U.S. State Department issued a "worldwide caution" Wednesday arning Americans of continued threats posed by terrorists against U.S. interests

U.S. government sources said Thursday there had been persistent intelligence reports over the past several weeks of possible maritime attacks in the Red Sea -- including plans to fly airplanes into U.S. and coalition warships in the region. Officials described the reports as "credible" but "uncorroborated," but said they were taking all the reports seriously. (Full story)

17 killed

The October 2000 USS Cole bombing killed 17 U.S. servicemen.
The October 2000 USS Cole bombing killed 17 U.S. servicemen.

An explosives expert, al-Nashiri made the bomb that was placed on a dinghy that rammed the USS Cole, according to U.S. officials. The attack, which investigators also say al-Nashiri funded, blew a hole in the side of the destroyer, also injured 39.

Al-Nashiri was the mastermind behind a foiled plot earlier this year to bomb U.S. and British warships in the Strait of Gibraltar, authorities say.

He also is believed to have been a major player in the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and wounded 4,500 others.

His cousin, investigators said, was the suicide bomber who carried out the attack on the embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.

Al-Nashiri, who is in his 30s, would rank in the top 10 among al Qaeda's leadership, said CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen. His arrest is comparable in importance to Binalshibh's recent apprehension, Bergen said.

"Eventually, if these arrests keep going at this rate, they will start getting some of the real top people," Bergen said.

U.S. officials had said last Friday the United States had a senior al Qaeda leader in custody, but did not release his name.

They had been reluctant to share details of al-Nashiri's capture, worried that if his identity and the country in which he was caught became public knowledge, their investigation might be compromised.

Different names, different operations

Born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, al-Nashiri has operated under several aliases, according to officials, and it was under a fictitious name that he engineered the Cole assault.

It was after the August 1998 embassy bombings in Africa that al-Nashiri -- calling himself Mohammed Omar al-Harazi at the time -- called conspirators in Yemen with a proposal: attacking a U.S. warship, a U.S. investigator close to the case said.

U.S. and allied officials also have said al-Nashiri has operated under the alias Abdul Rahman Hussein al-Nashari.

Like other top al Qaeda officials, including bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, he was one the "Afghan Arabs" who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, officials said.

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