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Like most of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Zubaydah grew up in a comfortable middle-class home. His real name is Zayn al-Abidin Mohammed Husayn, and he was born into a Palestinian family living in Riyadh. In his teens, he was lured into Islamic extremism through the Palestinian cause. At 18, he surfaced in Gaza as a member of the Islamic Jihad. In the mid-1990s, he moved to Afghanistan, where his zeal and efficiency earned him a place in al-Qaeda's inner circle. Fastidious by nature, he was more a logistician than a fighter. Bin Laden trusted him enough to put him in charge of transit houses in Peshawar, the Pakistani border town. He became a kind of admissions officer, deciding which volunteers would be accepted for terrorist training. As a cover, he posed as a honey merchant but nonetheless attracted notice from the Pakistanis, who raided the halfway houses in 1997. Zubaydah fled to Afghanistan. He was promoted to director of the Khalden training camp near Jalalabad, where he indoctrinated many Europe-based Arabs. As a French official explains, "He was clearly establishing contacts with people he could call upon when his al-Qaeda superiors told him to mount an operation."
Zubaydah's fingerprints appear on most of al-Qaeda's terrorist plots--some successful, most not--during the past few years. While bin Laden and his No. 2, the Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, hid out in Afghanistan, Zubaydah was one of al-Qaeda's most traveled leaders, employing at least 37 aliases in extensive trips to Asia and Africa, according to U.S. investigators. (There have been reports that al-Zawahiri was spotted in eastern Afghanistan last month.) Zubaydah was implicated in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa; soon after, he rose to become al-Qaeda's chief of overseas operations. He allegedly played a role in the so-called millennium plots--two thwarted terrorist attacks planned for December 1999, one at Los Angeles International Airport and the other at a popular tourist hotel in Jordan. His name was blurted out by a Franco Algerian picked up last July in Dubai who identified him as plotting to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris. He is also linked to Zacarias Moussaoui, the French trainee pilot who will be tried in the U.S. as the purported "20th hijacker." Moussaoui is reportedly a Khalden camp graduate and probably took orders from Zubaydah.
After the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan, on Oct. 7, Zubaydah slipped across the border. Washington investigators say the U.S. and its allies were using all existing intelligence assets to look for him in the region, especially in Pakistan. Initially, U.S. mistrust of Pakistani intelligence agencies slowed the search. But it was the Pakistanis who provided the first big break.
A month ago, a Pajero jeep with four men and three burka-clad women was stopped at a checkpoint in Chapri, a village with an ancient stone arch that serves as a gateway to the Pakistani tribal region. Two tribal militiamen questioned one of the passengers and was surprised that he spoke no Pashtu. He was a Yemenite. All the passengers were ordered out of the car, and the militiamen noticed that the women in the burkas were very tall; one of them wore men's sandals. They turned out to be African men, two Sudanese and a Mauritanian. Their Pakistani driver was from Faisalabad.
The foreigners, as one officer put it, were "hard nuts to crack"; the Pakistanis less so. At the nearby town of Kohat, the group was turned over to the FBI for interrogation. "All we did was facilitate things for the Americans," says an intelligence officer in Peshawar. Money seemed to work better than any arm twisting. "The local contacts for al-Qaeda were caught, and financial inducements were made to them," explains a Pakistani military officer.
Using "extremely sensitive methods"--FBI-speak for telephone intercepts and locator devices--Pakistani and American investigators zeroed in on at least two houses in Faisalabad where calls were being made to suspicious phone numbers in Afghanistan. The investigators staked out the house in Faisal Town and found that it had been rented through a local go-between by Middle Easterners posing as cotton merchants. Ideally, the agents would have "sat on" Zubaydah, monitoring his contacts and e-mails for as long as possible to unlock his secret plots and pick up clues about bin Laden.