By Paul Cruickshank
A suspected senior European al Qaeda operative with alleged links to a plot to launch Mumbai-style attacks in Europe in 2010 has been arrested in Pakistan, a German intelligence official told CNN.
Naamen Meziche, 42, a French citizen of Algerian descent, was previously a longtime resident of Hamburg, Germany, and a friend of Mohammed Atta, lead hijacker in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
German authorities were informed by their Pakistani counterparts last week of Meziche's arrest, according to the official.The official said that Meziche traveled from Pakistan to Iran in the fall of 2011. German intelligence were able to trace him there after he placed phone calls to his wife in Hamburg, the official told CNN. German intelligence officials were not sure what he was doing in Iran, but the official said the presumption was that the Iranian government knew about his presence on their soil.
German intelligence agents believe Meziche traveled back to Pakistan this spring, several weeks before his arrest, the official said.
The official said German authorities are still trying to untangle Meziche's role in a stream of al Qaeda plots against Europe in the fall of 2010.
The plots led to an unprecedented U.S. State Department travel warning that October. Authorities hope Meziche's arrest will eventually provide more information, according to the official.
Meziche's alleged role in the plotting was revealed by his Hamburg associate Ahmed Sidiqi after Sidiqi was taken into custody by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in the summer of 2010.
Sidiqi claimed that he, Meziche, and another associate from Hamburg met with Younes al Mauretani, a senior North African al Qaeda operational leader, in the tribal areas of Pakistan that year to discuss plans to return to Europe to prepare attacks.
Mauretani at the time was emerging as one of al Qaeda's most promising operational leaders, according to correspondence recovered from the Abbottabad compound of the late al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Mauretani was arrested in Quetta, Pakistan in August 2011.
German intelligence officials told CNN the plot Meziche was allegedly involved in was in the early stages of preparation when Western counterterrorism officials learned of it. Drone strikes in Pakistan subsequently killed at least one of the German operatives tasked to be involved, but Meziche eluded them.
Meziche had traveled to the tribal areas of Pakistan in 2009 with a group of militants he recruited from the Taiba mosque in Hamburg, the same mosque frequented by Mohammed Atta's 9/11 Hamburg cell, according to German intelligence officials. There he is believed to have first connected with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan before linking up with al Qaeda, said the officials.
Meziche had committed much of his adult life to al Qaeda's cause, according to German intelligence officials. In the years after the 9/11 attacks, they suspect he helped recruit Europeans to join Abu Musab al Zarqawi's terrorist organization in Iraq.
Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, was killed in a U.S. attack in 2006.