ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan said Monday it had arrested a senior member of al Qaeda with help from the United States, dealing a fresh blow to the Islamist militant group and prompting both countries to stress they were working closely on counter-terrorism.
The arrest of Younis al-Mauritani in the southwestern city of Quetta and comments about intelligence cooperation suggested the United States and Pakistan were putting behind them the bitterness caused by the unilateral raid by U.S. forces who killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2.
“This is an example of the longstanding partnership between the U.S. and Pakistan in fighting terrorism, which has taken many terrorists off the battlefield over the past decade,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
“We applaud the actions of Pakistan’s intelligence and security services that led to the capture of a senior al-Qaeda operative who was involved in planning attacks against the interests of the United States and many other countries,” he said.
The Pakistan army said in a statement that bin Laden had personally told Mauritani to focus on targets of economic importance in the United States, Europe and Australia.
“He was planning to target United States economic interests including gas/oil pipelines, power generating dams and strike ships/oil tankers through explosive laden speed boats in International waters,” it said in a statement.
While his exact status inside al Qaeda was unclear, western intelligence officials had said last year that Mauritani had been involved in plots to attack multiple targets in Europe in the summer of 2010.
Pakistani commentators interpreted the arrests of Mauritani and two other senior al Qaeda operatives as a breakthrough after months of sour relations between the United States and Pakistan.
Pakistani security analyst Imtiaz Gul said it meant intelligence sharing had been restored between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and the Central Intelligence Agency.
“This is what the situation demanded,” he said. “The entire Pakistan-U.S. relationship basically revolves around the CIA and ISI and now it appears they are resuming their normal contacts.”
The Pakistan army, which had taken steps to limit CIA activities after being embarrassed by the raid which killed bin Laden, said the Quetta arrests had been carried out with “technical assistance” from U.S. intelligence.
“Both Pakistan and United States intelligence agencies continue to work closely together to enhance security of their respective nations.
“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,” it said.
In Washington, a U.S. official said Mauritani’s capture was “another major blow to al Qaeda.”
“The U.S. provided critical lead information and technical assistance in working with Pakistan to eliminate the threat posed by this terrorist,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Mauritani played “an absolutely central role in planning and coordinating al Qaeda’s operations in Europe, plots that targeted both European and American interests,” he said.
“The Pakistanis deserve real credit for their hard investigative and operational work in taking deadly threats like al-Mauritani off the battlefield,” the official added. “There is clearly more to be done, and both sides recognise the imperative of acting together against these dangerous targets.”
Pakistan, describing the capture as “another fatal blow” to the militant group, identified the other captured al Qaeda operatives as Abdul Ghaffar al-Shami and Messara al-Shami. No further details were provided.
Al Qaeda had already been reeling from bin Laden’s death and other setbacks before news of Mauritani’s arrest.
U.S. officials have said al Qaeda’s deputy chief, Libyan national Atiyah abd al-Rahman, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan near the Afghan border on August 22. But Pakistan officials have not confirmed his death.
Washington has been angered by what it sees as Pakistan’s failure to crack down harder on Islamist militant groups.
Pakistan in turn had deeply resented the unilateral U.S. raid to kill bin Laden which its powerful military saw as an embarrassment and invasion of sovereignty.
The souring relations between the two had complicated efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan, where the United States wants to draw down troops.
“Hopefully this (the captures) will lead to a more open relationship with the United States after this difficult period,” said former army general and analyst Talat Masood.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan and Jim Wolf in Washington, Rebecca Conway in Islamabad; writing by Michael Georgy and Myra MacDonald, editing by