WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An Iraqi from al Qaeda’s top leadership in South Asia has been captured trying to enter Iraq and turned over to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo, U.S. officials said on Friday.
Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi was described by defense and intelligence officials as an al Qaeda operations chief who oversaw assassination plots against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and commanded al Qaeda paramilitary operations against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Al-Hadi sat on al Qaeda’s now-defunct Shura leadership council before the September 11 attacks and had most recently operated from bases in Pakistan’s tribal regions, according to officials.
A U.S. government summary on al-Hadi said the detainee was “known and trusted” by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said al-Hadi intended to “manage al Qaeda affairs” in Iraq when he was detained.
Other officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was captured as long ago as last October 1 and spent most of the ensuing months in CIA custody before his transfer this week to the U.S. military prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay in southeastern Cuba.
“He was going to Iraq to take a hand in things, though now we’ll never know what kind of reception might have been in store for him,” one U.S. official said.
Al-Hadi could also have been sent by bin Laden and his second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri to use Iraq as a base for planning operations against targets elsewhere in the Middle East as well as in the West, officials added.
U.S. intelligence has long warned that the war in Iraq is providing Islamist militants with hands-on training in urban guerrilla warfare and experience at eluding U.S. security measures.
“This guy was a veteran jihadist whose capture is a significant victory in the fight against terror. Getting him off the street is good news,” CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said.
But human rights advocates said his capture and secret detention raised concerns about U.S. and international law. “There have to be serious red flags raised everywhere as a result of this announcement,” said Hina Shamsi of Human Rights First.
Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan is the remnants of the core militant network blamed for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington that prompted the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.
Its branch in Iraq emerged as an al Qaeda affiliate after bin Laden declared the late Jordanian-born militant, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, his deputy in the country. Bin Laden also called on Zarqawi to carry out attacks on western targets outside Iraq, including the U.S. homeland.
U.S. forces killed Zarqawi last June and he was replaced by Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir.
With al-Hadi, the Pentagon is now holding 15 men it considers “high-value detainees” — a classification that indicates U.S. officials believe the capture had a significant effect on al Qaeda operations and the prisoner is capable of providing high-quality intelligence.
The Defense Department accused al-Hadi of providing leadership and reconnaissance support in attacks on U.S. forces as late as 2003.
The Pentagon has not scheduled initial administrative proceedings for al-Hadi at Guantanamo, the U.S. naval base in Cuba where the United States runs a prison camp for foreign terrorism suspects.