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Pakistan Army says it has Al Qaeda’s global operations chief in custody

Pakistan’s Army says it has captured Sheikh Younis al-Mauritani, a senior Al Qaeda leader also known as the group’s “foreign minister,” who was linked to last year’s foiled terror plot in Europe.

In a press statement, the Army said Mr. Mauritani had plans to target US economic interests including gas and oil pipelines, power generating dams, and oil tankers by using explosive-laden boats in international waters.

His arrest, alongside other senior operatives Abdul Ghaffar al-Shami and Messara al-Shami from the southwestern city of Quetta, was called “another fatal blow” to Al Qaeda by the Army, and could be a sign of the Pakistan Army’s desire to mend relations with the US following the Osama bin Laden raid.

In its press statement, the Army highlighted the “strong, historic intelligence relationship” between Pakistan and the US that resulted in the successful capture of Mauritani, adding: “The intimate cooperation between Pakistan and United States Intelligence agencies has resulted into prevention of number of high profile terrorist acts not only inside Pakistan/United States but elsewhere also in world.”

The operation, which follows the killing of Al Qaeda second in command Atiyah Abd al-Rahman in a drone attack last week, may also signal a return to the relationship of the early 2000s when Pakistan handed over a string of high-profile Al Qaeda operatives to the US, according to Pakistani military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.

As the US deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 draws near, she argues, the Pakistani security establishment may be willing to give up Al Qaeda figures in exchange for getting the Afghan Taliban, with whom it has maintained good relations, a seat at the negotiating table.

“We have told the Americans we will capture Al Qaeda wherever we find them. If the Americans are worried about terrorism coming from this region then this gives them this peace of mind. We’ll eliminate Al Qaeda as long as they’re willing to do this trade-off with the Taliban,” she says.

But other analysts say Pakistan’s opposition to Al Qaeda, which views the Pakistani government as heretical, has remained strong over the past 10 years. According to Amir Rana, head of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), Pakistan has captured some 1,500 Al Qaeda operatives since 9/11.

“Despite tension between the two countries, the cooperation against Al Qaeda was continuous. We haven’t seen any break or any disconnect in that cooperation,” he says. Pakistan has handed over high-level Al Qaeda operatives in the past, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Abu Zubaydah, and Spanish national Mustafa Setmariam Nasar. Imtiaz Gul, head of the Islamabad based Center for Research and Security, agrees.

Though the Pakistani security establishment may have played a so-called double game with factions of the Taliban and Punjabi militant groups, “I never believed the Army had any love for Al Qaeda,” he says. “Al Qaeda are the stated enemy of the Pakistan Army, so it makes all the more sense to go after them.

According to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, Mauritani came to authorities’ attention after US intelligence discovered a paper authored by him from the “treasure trove” of intelligence they seized from Mr. bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout.

McClatchy news reported that amid that “trove” was a document written by Mauritani, “where he sets out plans to attack economic targets in Europe. That multi-city plot, which involved Britain, France and Germany, was uncovered after the arrested of two German jihadists last year, triggering a terror alert in Germany. According to reports, the two had been recruited by al-Mauritani in 2009 in Pakistan’s tribal area, where he allegedly told them that ‘what we’re planning, not even the devil has in mind.’ “

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