That record helped earn Mohammed the No. 3 position in al-Qaeda's murderous meritocracy. He rose to become its chief military planner and perhaps the world's most dangerous terrorist operative until Pakistani agents nabbed him at 2:30 a.m. Saturday at a house in Rawalpindi owned by a retired 75-year-old microbiologist. Unlike the wild shoot-out in Pakistan that preceded the capture in September of another al-Qaeda honcho, Ramzi Binalshibh, Mohammed's capture went quietly. Inside the rambling, two-story house, in a neighborhood inhabited by retired army generals, Pakistani Interior Ministry officials say they found Mohammed and another suspected al-Qaeda operative of Middle Eastern origin. The two were seized along with the scientist's son, an unemployed Pakistani man, Ahmed Afzal Qudoos. "We have finally apprehended Khalid Shaikh Mohammed," boasted Pakistani presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi. "He is the kingpin of al-Qaeda." Sources tell TIME that agents had been led to his hideout through the earlier arrest of an Egyptian in Quetta who had been in contact with Mohammed. Neighbors, wary of the lone Arab who appeared in their working-class area, tipped off the police, hoping for a reward. Phone records led them to Rawalpindi, where investigators say Mohammed had been hiding for 10 days before his arrest.
That leaves al-Qaeda boss Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri still at large, if not at liberty. Mohammed is a prize catch because he was still very much in business. With 200,000 U.S. and British troops stationed in the Persian Gulf ready to move on Iraq, authorities feared that he would activate sleeper cells in the gulf states or recruit fresh volunteers for suicide attacks against U.S. military targets. His network of agents in Kuwait (where he was born to a Pakistani father) and in Qatar two key staging posts for the U.S. command are still intact, intelligence experts say. "This is the planner, the key planner of 9/11 and probably al-Qaeda's most active planner right up until his capture," says a White House aide.
Besides taking one of the world's top terrorists out of action, the arrest could provide a valuable source. Other al-Qaeda detainees have given useful information, according to the FBI and the CIA. Two of those arrested al-Qaeda financier Abu Zubaydah and the so-called 20th hijacker, Binalshibh fingered Mohammed as an instrumental planner in the 9/11 attacks. They also told U.S. officials that Mohammed has been involved recently in planning spectacular attacks on the U.S. and its allies which was one important factor that triggered the orange alert raised Feb. 7. The arrest was so important, CIA chief George Tenet awoke National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice at Camp David late Friday night to tell her the news. Rice called President Bush, who was also at Camp David, at 7 a.m. "This is fantastic," he responded. "You gotta understand how big this is," Bush effused to White House communications chief Dan Bartlett.
If bin Laden is the wrathful figurehead of al-Qaeda, Mohammed, 38, has been its ringmaster. Several of his captured cohort have described him as "the Brain." He had remained remarkably elusive, apparently by keeping in almost constant motion. Several times in the past six years in cities like Karachi, Manila and Rio de Janeiro Western intelligence agencies closed in, only to see him slip away. Fluent in Arabic, English and Urdu, Mohammed is known to have used 60 aliases. His identity was kept secret even from many of his al-Qaeda operatives.
Mohammed was committed to Islam from an early age. The son of a devout Pakistani living in Kuwait, he joined the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood as a young man. In 1983 he enrolled at Chowan College in Murfreesboro, N.C., studying engineering. He impressed his fellow Arab students there. "Khaled, he was so, so smart. He came to college with virtually no English. But he entered directly in advanced classes," Mohammed al-Bulooshi, a Kuwaiti who attended college with him, recently told the Financial Times. "He was a funny guy, telling jokes 24 hours straight ... I would never have thought in a million years that he could be involved in these terrorist things."