A French militant described as an Al-Qaeda leader linked to the 9/11 attacks has been captured in Pakistan, experts and a Pakistani official said Wednesday.
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 Pakistani security official told AFP.
A Western terror expert said Meziche was arrested in late May in the area of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province that borders Iran, as he was travelling to Pakistan’s tribal belt — a militant hotbed on the Afghan border.
Pakistani agents carried out the operation alone at a time when Islamabad is under huge US pressure to do more to eliminate the threat from Al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants sheltering on its soil.
This month, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Washington was running out of patience with Islamabad over its refusal to act against havens used by the Al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network and other Islamist militants to attack American troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistani-US relations have been in freefall since Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011, but it remained unclear whether Meziche’s arrest would ease distrust between the allies.
Born in 1970 and of Algerian descent, security sources say Meziche is an “important” Al-Qaeda figure in Europe who 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.
The Western expert said French intelligence had known for several years that Meziche had been in the border areas between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
The expert 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.
On September 5, Pakistani agents cooperating with the CIA arrested Mauritani, believed to have been instructed by the late bin Laden to plan attacks on Australia, Europe and the United States.
He was detained with two other operatives in the suburbs of Quetta, the main city in Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province that borders Iran.
The Pakistani 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 Maziche 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.
Meziche was reportedly questioned numerous times in Germany but never indicted.
There were also reports that Meziche was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan’s militant stronghold of North Waziristan on April 10, 2010.