ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A French national suspected of being a key Al Qaeda operative and having ties to a mastermind of the 9/11 attacks has been captured by Pakistani security forces, a senior security official said Wednesday.
Naamen Meziche was seized outside the southwestern city of Quetta in the volatile province of Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, said the security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on such matters. The official said the capture of Meziche was "fairly recent," but he declined to be more specific.
Meziche's arrest underscores the role that Pakistan plays in the battle against the Al Qaeda network, despite the steady deterioration in the country's relations with Washington over the last year. Ties between the U.S. and Pakistan have been extremely tense since November, when U.S. military helicopters mistakenly killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border.
Meziche was trying to escape to Somalia when he was captured, the official said. He is a close associate of Younis Mauritani, a top Al Qaeda commander who was captured by Pakistan's main intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, last fall in Quetta, the official said. He added that Mauritani met Meziche in 2010 and asked him to help with Al Qaeda's foreign operations.
At the time, U.S. officials called Mauritani's arrest a major victory against Al Qaeda and said he played a central role in coordinating the terrorist network's operations in Europe. Pakistani security officials said Mauritani had been planning attacks on various U.S. economic targets, including gas and oil pipelines and hydroelectric dams. He also allegedly had been plotting to target American ships and oil tankers with speedboats filled with explosives. Information gleaned from the interrogation of Mauritani led to Meziche’s capture, the security official said.
Articles published in 2010 in the Wall Street Journal and the German magazine Der Spiegel described Meziche as a longtime Islamic extremist based in Hamburg, Germany, who left Europe in 2009 to undergo jihadist training in Pakistan. The Wall Street Journal report stated that Meziche was friends with Mohammed Atta, one of the engineers of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. and the man who piloted one of the passenger jets into the World Trade Center. Meziche has never been directly linked with the 9/11 attacks.
Meziche's capture potentially deals another blow to Al Qaeda, which had been severely hampered by the CIA's drone missile campaign on militant strongholds in Pakistan's tribal belt along the Afghan border. Earlier this month, U.S. drone strikes in the North Waziristan tribal region killed Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Abu Yahya al Libi.
Al Libi had replaced Atiyah Abdul Rahman, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in northwest Pakistan last August.
In May 2011, a U.S. Navy SEALs team killed Osama bin Laden in a raid in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. Afterward, many in the West questioned whether Pakistan was aware of bin Laden's presence in the heart of the country for many years and did nothing about it. Pakistani military and civilian leaders have strongly denied those assertions.
-- Alex Rodriguez