Special Reports

Detainee sheds light on al-Qaida plans

WASHINGTON - Omar al-Farouq, the detainee whose information prompted the United States to raise its terrorist threat indicator for the first time, is al-Qaida's facilitator for Southeast Asia and reported directly to Abu Zubaida, the terror group's senior operations coordinator, government sources said Wednesday.

Al-Farouq, who has been in U.S. custody in Afghanistan since June, told interrogators Monday that al-Qaida was seeking to launch multiple same-day attacks on U.S. embassies in South Asia, was not committed to any particular date and would act when there is a letdown in security.

"Next week to them is just as good as today," said one U.S. official, summarizing what al-Farouq has told investigators.

Information provided by al-Farouq helped prompt the shutdown of 13 U.S. embassies and consulates this week and led the government to elevate the terrorist threat status Tuesday to "Orange," reflecting a high chance of attack on U.S. interests.

"He's helping knit together a lot of things out there," said a Jakarta source familiar with the al-Farouq investigation. A security official in the region said, "His information was the final straw that pushed Washington and Jakarta into that increased awareness mode. He was able to provide a lot of detail."

Al-Farouq, an Arab in his mid-30s, is a key al-Qaida link to Jemaah Islamiah, a regional terror network in Southeast Asia suspected of organizing a foiled plot earlier this year to blow up the U.S., British and Australian embassies in Singapore, according to U.S. and Indonesian officials.

Al-Qaida leaders put out word in advance, al-Farouq has told investigators, that if they were incommunicado, lower level operatives were free to conduct operations on their own.

Al-Farouq's disclosures, along with information now being provided by several other detained al-Qaida operatives, is described as specific and concrete, a welcome advance on the diffuse, coded "chatter" that intelligence agencies have obtained during months of monitoring computer and telephone communications.

His revelations appear to show increasing success by the government in securing vital information about plots from the hundreds of detainees in U.S. military custody and scores of others who have been arrested or held by other governments, officials said.

Al-Farouq and another detainee in Afghanistan - one with knowledge of al-Qaida cells in Yemen and other Persian Gulf states - have been supplying the names of al-Qaida operatives planning attacks on U.S. interests, government sources said. Zubaida, the highest-ranking al-Qaida official in custody, has confirmed al-Farouq's role in al-Qaida's operations and has verified some of the information he has provided, according to one U.S. official.

But authorities also conceded that progress in obtaining information is still slow and fractured, hampered by the small number of high-level al-Qaida operatives in custody. Zubaida provided snippets of information and tips last spring that led to a flurry of mid-level terror alerts and were instrumental in the apprehension in Chicago of Jose Padilla, who allegedly was scouting targets for a radioactive-material bomb.

But many of Zubaida's other claims have never been confirmed and, according to some officials, may have represented attempts to fool his captors.

One official said U.S. military and intelligence agencies are improving their ability to detect misleading accounts, in part because the pool of evidence is always expanding.

One U.S. official said, however, that Zubaida has helped establish al-Farouq's credibility. "Zubaida was coordinating tactics, techniques and procedures," said the official. "When Farouq says they were going to do X, they run that by Zubaida, who says 'yes, that is what they were told to do.'"