Pakistani intelligence officials patiently tracked the potato truck all the way from the tribal hinterlands near the Afghanistan border to the port city of Karachi. Then they pounced. And in one of the biggest coups of the antiterrorism campaign so far, they grabbed a Yemeni al-Qaeda leader named Waleed Muhammad bin Attash along with five Pakistanis who had stashed 330 lbs. of explosives and weapons under the produce. Another big fish netted in the raid was Ali Abd al-Aziz, a bin Laden bagman who, U.S. officials tell TIME, funneled nearly $120,000 to the Sept. 11 hijackers. Aziz could help expose the secret financial networks that fund al-Qaeda operations.
Last week's raid of the terrorists' lair yielded an additional 770 lbs. of explosives--in all, enough to level a city block. It was a timely haul. Interrogations revealed that Attash and his cohorts had imminent plans to crash a small plane laden with the explosives into the U.S. consulate in Karachi. That prompted the Department of Homeland Security to issue an advisory to all pilots and aircraft-rental companies, urging them to secure their planes in case other aerial attacks had been planned. "Just because these six have been arrested, it doesn't mean there's no longer a concern," warns one official.
The arrests could also help investigators unravel the inner workings of al-Qaeda. FBI sources say Attash, a key suspect in the October 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, met that January in Kuala Lumpur with two Sept. 11 hijackers and Southeast Asian jihadists. Because Attash once worked as one of bin Laden's bodyguards--until losing a foot several years ago in Afghanistan--investigators hope to press him on where his boss is hiding. --By Tim McGirk/Islamabad and Elaine Shannon/Washington, with reporting by Ghulam Hasnain/Karachi