Al-Qaeda Commander Turns Canary

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Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Faqasi al-Ghamdi

TIME has been told that the source for the tip that al-Qaeda leaders are attempting to mount another multi-pronged airline hijacking attack is Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Faqasi al-Ghamdi, aka "Abu Bakr," an al-Qaeda field commander who surrendered to Saudi authorities June 26.

Two official sources report that al-Ghamdi is providing an intelligence windfall about potential a-Qaeda plots against the U.S., western and Saudi governments. The sources say Saudi authorities passed al-Ghamdi's allegations about what could be multiple airline hijackings to the CIA, which then briefed President Bush and also provided them to the Department of Homeland Security.

The al-Ghamdi revelations could partly explain why the Bush administration is so determined to maintain smooth relations with the Saudi government in the wake of a congressional report which blanks out 28 pages of information about informal financial links to terror groups. It also explains a somewhat cryptic reference to the captured terrorist at the President's press conference yesterday. "Abu Bakr is now captured by the Saudis. We're dismantling the operating, the decision makers."

Disclosure of Abu Bakr's role in feeding information to U.S. intelligence could also be part of a campaign by the Saudi's to counter suggestions that the Royal Kingdom is soft on terror. Since a series of bombings in early May in Riyadh, the Saudi government has killed or arrested 175 people. Al-Ghamdi is thought to have been the ringleader of those attacks.

U.S. intelligence believes that Al-Ghamdi trained at Osama bin Laden's al-Farouq camp and fought with the al-Qaeda leader at Tora Bora. Escaping the U.S. bombardment, he returned to his native Saudi Arabia and reported to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, plotting "second wave" attacks on Americans and their allies until Mohammed's arrest in Pakistan last March. As more and more al-Qaeda field leaders were rounded up, al-Ghamdi rose in the ranks, safely hiding in Saudi Arabia until the May 12 attacks galvanized the kingdom's rulers into cracking down. U.S. officials believe al-Ghamdi may have a knowledge of conspiracies now being hatched all over the world, and that he could reveal previously unidentified sleeper cells in the U.S. and Canada. There's even a chance he could know something about the whereabouts of the elusive bin Laden.