A security official said the captured al Qaeda leader was Naamen Meziche, a French national of Algerian origin, who is believed to have links with militant groups based in Europe. Media reports say he may have played a role in the 9/11 attacks.
Meziche worked closely with another al Qaeda leader, Younis al-Mauritani, who was responsible for international operations, officials said. Mauritani was captured by Pakistani authorities in September last year.
Naamen Meziche was detained after disclosures by Younis al-Mauritani, apparently tasked by Osama bin Laden to plot attacks on Australia, Europe and the US, and captured in Pakistan last year, the security official told AFP.
A Western terror expert said Meziche was arrested in late May in Quetta as he was travelling to the tribal belt. Pakistan officials did not specify the time or location of the capture of Meziche, who they said was the ringleader of a group of 11 people who left Germany in 2009 to fight US-led forces in Afghanistan.
A security official said Mauritani told interrogators that Meziche had entered Pakistan from Iran and intended to travel on to Africa.
“The intelligence agencies have been tracking Meziche since then, and at last, after a successful operation he was arrested. At the moment he is being questioned about his purpose for entering Pakistan,” the official said, adding he was held close to the Iranian border.
Born in 1970 and of Algerian descent, security sources say Meziche was linked to the 9/11 attacks as a member of the Hamburg cell that the US says masterminded the 2001 hijackings.
He reportedly recruited jihadists at a notorious mosque in the northern German city, which authorities closed in 2010 for breeding fanatics.
Three of the 9/11 hijackers, including their ringleader Mohammed Atta, who piloted the first plane into New York’s World Trade Center, met regularly at the mosque before moving to the United States.
Another security official said French intelligence had known for several years that Meziche had been in the border areas between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
The official said the Frenchman was in repeated contact with the Hamburg cell, linked to 9/11 and wanted – through his association with Mauritani – over terror threats in Europe. Neither Meziche nor Mauritani feature on the US list of most wanted terrorists.
Since Pakistan joined the US-led war on terror after 9/11, it has arrested and killed several al Qaeda figures. The latest arrest highlights Islamabad’s critical role to eliminate al-Qaeda at a time when its ties with Washington have been severely strained due to various reasons.
US officials often describe Pakistan as an unreliable partner in the war on militancy and demand tougher action against militant groups, especially those based in Pakistan’s volatile tribal regions near the border with Afghanistan.
(WITH ADDITIONAL INPUT FROM AGENCIES)