Can This Man Help Capture bin Laden?

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NABBED: Al-Libbi allegedly masterminded two assassination attempts—one shown atbove—against Pakistani President Musharraf

The figures huddled beside the graveyard on the road that leads into the Pakistani town of Mardan seemed an unremarkable group, their identities obscured behind the head-to-toe burqas that local women traditionally wear. But these were no ordinary women--in fact, they weren't women at all. Instead, the burqas concealed a group of Pakistani commandos who were waiting last week for a killer. U.S. and Pakistani intelligence had received a tip that a suspected al-Qaeda operative would be traveling to Mardan disguised as a burqa-clad woman. Because any plainclothesmen seen grabbing a woman would attract a hostile mob, the commandos had donned female garb and accosted the suspect as his motorcycle crossed a graveyard. When the fugitive fled through a wheatfield, the commandos shed their burqas and flip-flops and gave chase, eventually cornering him in a house a mile away. After police tossed in tear gas, the suspect, clutching his cell phone, surrendered without a fight.

Even more remarkable than how the burqa bust came about was the identity of the operative that Pakistani officials announced they had netted: Abu Faraj al-Libbi, 40, a Libyan believed to be al-Qaeda's third-highest-ranking official--and one of the few individuals who counterterrorism experts believe may have knowledge of the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. But the arrest had barely been hailed by President Bush as a "critical victory in the war on terror" when the picture grew murky. According to an Islamabad intelligence source, the burqa-clad fugitive arrested by the Pakistani commandos last week was not al-Libbi but a local Pakistani militant. Al-Libbi, the source says, had been seized a few weeks earlier, but his arrest was hushed up so agents could pursue unsuspecting collaborators. U.S. counterterrorism sources insist on the official version. "We not only believe, we know it happened this week," a U.S. official told TIME.

Everyone does agree that in al-Libbi, the Pakistanis have reeled in a big fish. U.S. and Pakistani sources think that al-Libbi has been in direct contact with bin Laden and al-Zawahiri and that al-Libbi was the mastermind behind two attempts to assassinate Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in December 2003. U.S. counterterrorism officials told TIME that the CIA suspects al-Libbi was involved in a terrorist plot timed to coincide with last November's U.S. presidential election, including "training and supporting people and planning to send operatives" who could slip into the U.S. "He was a key operations guy," says the source. "His operations weren't confined to Afghanistan or Pakistan but extended into the West."

A bearded, heavyset man whose face is splotched by a skin disease, al-Libbi first developed ties with bin Laden in the early 1990s, when bin Laden was based in Sudan. According to a Pakistani intelligence source in Islamabad, al-Libbi became one of bin Laden's few trusted aides. After allegedly organizing the assassination attempts on Musharraf in 2003, al-Libbi fled to Waziristan, a mountainous area along the Afghan border that has long been outside the reach of Pakistani law. After the Pakistani army mounted an offensive in the region in March 2004, al-Libbi and other al-Qaeda fighters, thought to number fewer than 30, left Waziristan and headed for the safety of Pakistan's frontier towns, according to a Pakistani intelligence source. The source says the al-Qaeda fugitives often took shelter in mosques and seminaries along the way. The Pakistani Interior Ministry says al-Libbi was tracked down through monitored telephone intercepts and details extracted from a band of Pakistani militants arrested on Feb. 27 near Mardan, a town 40 miles north of Peshawar. A police source says al-Libbi may have stayed near a Muslim shrine there before his capture.

Can al-Libbi lead his captors closer to his ultimate boss? A senior Pakistani intelligence official says the Pakistanis are sharing details of their interrogation with the U.S. A Pakistani official says al-Libbi has already provided information that led to the arrest last week of more than 20 al-Qaeda suspects in Lahore and Bajaur, a mountainous tribal land near the Afghan border. Hours before the Libyan's arrest was made public last Wednesday, two Pakistani journalists received telephone calls from men identifying themselves as al-Qaeda. The callers asked that news of al-Libbi's arrest be broadcast, hoping to dissuade other operatives from trying to contact him and to alert his associates to flee before U.S. and Pakistani authorities could track them down. When asked how he knew that al-Libbi had been caught, the caller replied, "Because he used to be with us." The U.S. is hoping al-Libbi kept good company.