WASHINGTON Anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan have apparently captured their biggest known trophy to date, a top al-Qaida operative who is the son of a sheik convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday.
Ahmed Abdel Rahman ran a key terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, U.S. terrorism officials said. He is being held at an undisclosed location as the Pentagon and Afghan opposition leaders weigh what to do with a growing number of prisoners belonging to Osama bin Laden”s terror network.
Rahman has been an important and popular figure in al-Qaida, sources said. He has been widely used in recruiting for the network, the sources said, because he was believed to be carrying on the work of his father, Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called “blind sheik” who is being held in one of the highest-security federal prisons in the United States. The father remains an enormously influential figure in the jihad, or holy war, movement even as he languishes behind bars.
There were unconfirmed reports that the younger Rahman and up to a dozen other captured al-Qaida operatives were being flown to the Pacific region to be held at a U.S. military facility, perhaps on Guam or Wake Island. This has fueled speculation that such facilities could be the site for military trials for captured terrorists.
A Bush administration official with extensive knowledge of terrorist organizations said: “This is a significant catch. He is a known terrorist, a member of the top al-Qaida hierarchy.”
The younger Rahman “shows up in (promotional) pictures, and they have been showcasing him, promoting the ties between al-Qaida and the “blind sheik,”” said Daniel Benjamin, a former staff member with the National Security Council and now a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“He is the new model of the jihad and is important symbolically,” Benjamin said. “His connection confers legitimacy on bin Laden and al-Qaida.”
Administration officials said the younger Rahman spent many years in Afghanistan, in the al-Qaida training camps, where he played a leadership role among bin Laden”s inner circle.
Rahman spent several years “trying to cook up ideas on how to get his father released from prison, including kidnapping, but nothing came of it. The blind sheik is not going anywhere,” Benjamin said.
Rahman could become an early test of the Bush administration”s plan to try terrorists in a military tribunal rather than U.S. civilian courts, a proposal that has triggered substantial controversy.
“This is exactly the type of individual that the military tribunal was created for,” the administration official said, describing Rahman as “an out and out terrorist who should not be afforded the rights and privileges of an American citizen who should be tried in a civilian court of law.”
As of late yesterday, however, according to a report from the Defense Intelligence Agency cited by CIA sources, Rahman remained in custody of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which has been in control of all prisoners taken in the Afghan campaign.
And Robert Underwood, Guam”s delegate in Congress, said Wednesday that military officials he has contacted said they had no knowledge of any plans to transfer al-Qaida prisoners to the Pacific region or to try them there.