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Ashcroft: al-Qaida Arrest a "Severe Blow"

Ashcroft: al-Qaida Arrest a "Severe Blow"

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Attorney General John Ashcroft told Congress Tuesday that a major al-Qaida arrest over the weekend "is a severe blow to al-Qaida that could destabilize their terrorist network worldwide."

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, was "the brain" of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization and bin Laden's "senior terrorist attack planner," Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Next to bin Laden, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the FBI's most wanted terrorist," Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft also announced the January arrests of a Yemeni cleric who officials said secretly raised money and recruited troops for al-Qaida and Hamas. A complaint unsealed Tuesday in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., charges Sheik Mohammed Ali Hasan al-Moayad with providing material support to a terrorist network.

"The FBI undercover operation developed information that al-Moayad personally handed Osama bin Laden $20 million from his terrorist fund-raising network," Ashcroft said.

Al-Moayad, and his assistant, Mohammed Mohsen Yahya Zayed, were arrested Jan. 10 in a sting operation at a hotel near Frankfurt airport in Germany. U.S. authorities consider al-Moayad's arrest a blow to Muslim charities used as fronts to finance terrorism.

Intelligence officials over the weekend captured Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, operations chief for the al-Qaida terror network, in Pakistan. The Judiciary Committee was hearing about the developments Tuesday in testimony from Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

"The capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed by Pakistan authorities, in coordination with the CIA, is a severe blow to al-Qaida that could destabilize their terrorist network worldwide," Ashcroft told the committee.

Mueller said that while bin Laden is more internationally known, Mohammed "was the operational mastermind."

"His terrorist plots are believed to include the 1993 World Trade Center, the USS Cole bomb delivered by boat and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks delivered by air, having resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people," Mueller said.

Law enforcement officials so far have stopped "well in excess" of 100 terrorist attacks around the world through their work, Mueller said.

"We also are looking with some anticipation to determine what information we may obtain from whatever was seized with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in hopes of exploiting those materials with the expectation that we will be able to avert additional attacks," the FBI director said.

"The apprehension of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is just one more success in a string of successes by you and others in the law enforcement and intelligence community aimed at disrupting and eliminating al-Qaida from the face of this earth," Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah said.

But Democrats and some Republicans have become highly critical of administration efforts to ensure against new terror attacks and to round up al-Qaida operatives in the nearly 18 months since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Just last week, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, all Judiciary Committee members, issued a report contending that the FBI and Justice Department had done a poor job with a law permitting broad new surveillance of suspected terrorists or foreign spies.

"Sept. 11 might well have been prevented," Specter said. "What are they doing now to prevent another 9/11?"

Leahy, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and other Democrats say they've been asking Justice officials for months for their ideas on expanding the anti-terrorism statutes but have been rebuffed. Leahy said a Justice official told one of his staffers that no new law was being crafted, less than a week before what appeared to be a leaked copy of a new draft anti-terrorism proposal was posted on the Internet by The Center for Public Integrity.

"Somebody who reports directly to you lied to her and this is not a good thing," Leahy said. "I think it shows a secretive process in developing this."

Ashcroft said he would respond later to Leahy's charge "that there are individuals in the Justice Department that have been lying."

Ashcroft said earlier that no decisions have been made on a final proposal for an anti-terrorism expansion, although officials were working with "a full range of ideas."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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