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Homeland Security

SLUG: 3-568 Steve Emerson









HOST: Pakistani officials say they have found several hand-written letters from Osama bin Laden that indicate he is alive and hiding in or near Pakistan. A security official says the letters were found Saturday when Pakistani agents arrested the accused al-Qaida operations mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, near Islamabad. (CN-74)

HOST: Steven Emerson is an authority on terrorism and the author of "American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us." In a conversation with VOA's Tom Crosby...he said he agrees with those in the Bush administration who say this capture is a "major development" in the war on terrorism:

MR. EMERSON: It is exceptionally major, it is exceptionally significant, because here's a guy who was really in charge of operational planning, coordination, and really knew everybody in the organizational network. So, I think that this is probably the biggest achievement since 9/11 in terms of tracking down terrorists.

MR. CROSBY: We've had Attorney General John Ashcroft saying that this capture could destabilize the entire network worldwide. Is it likely, though, to have that much of an impact?

MR. EMERSON: In the short term it will have a major impact. And it may even have a sustained impact, depending upon what intelligence was gleaned from his computers, his cell phones and all that. So, I think that the U.S. officials are really not exaggerating when they describe this as just an extraordinary achievement. The only question is whether the terrorists can sort of reconstitute themselves and not get caught, in terms of other people out there and, basically, allow others to enter the fray and take over Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's responsibilities.

MR. CROSBY: Is there a possibility, with his capture, that the al-Qaida terrorist organization might speed up whatever plans it might have?

MR. EMERSON: I think that there always is that possibility but, generally speaking, they've got their plans and, if anything, I would see more likelihood that they would not speed up their plans. On the other hand, you never know about the psychological orientation of terrorists. When you mix up their formula, you never know where it's going to end. So, the possibility is just as great that it will slow down operations as well as instigate new ones.

MR. CROSBY: When we talk about not knowing where it's going to end, a lot of people look at terrorist organizations and perhaps see something comparable to the hydra, the monster of Greek mythology, with many heads. If you cut off one head, there are still other heads to deal with. Is that the situation we have here?

MR. EMERSON: Yes, one thing is sure, that Islamic militant groups functioning under the umbrella of al-Qaida have multiple heads and certainly can shift resources when one of their key leaders is arrested. On the other hand, there is a finite number of really operational terrorist commanders in the world. It comes from experience, the respect in the field from the operatives, the contact level, the level of trust, and simple experience. And Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had 10 years of this and simply is not that replaceable, at least in the short term.

MR. CROSBY: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, at the time of his arrest, apparently had a lot of computer data that was captured along with him. Does that come as any surprise?

MR. EMERSON: I think that what is a surprise here is that he allowed himself to be caught with this material, because anybody in that position would have prudently made sure that worst-case scenarios always are taken into account. He obviously didn't. On the other hand, people are just absolutely dependent upon their computers today, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was no different. There is no way you can keep all operations and numbers and dates and phone numbers in your head, so he clearly proved that the reliance on computers is a vulnerability to all types of operational security.

MR. CROSBY: Does it also suggest that there is the possibility that people who are very computer aware are going to be able to backtrack through all of this data and go back to find things that happened a long time ago and names that may have been forgotten?

MR. EMERSON: It's certainly possible. It depends what's on his hard drive and what's on his computers. He may have been changing computers every six months. We don't know at this point. But if the computer had been used for a long time, certainly it would have -- even if he decided to delete them on the computer, there are ways of accessing it. So, it really depends how long he was using that specific computer. The possibility is that this could really be a boondoggle in retrieving names of people involved in operations whose names had never been known to U.S. law enforcement.

MR. CROSBY: Is it a possibility, too, that this might be some kind of a smokescreen, designed to perhaps confuse authorities?

MR. EMERSON: I don't think so. I think that the odds are that this was the genuine thing, that he was caught with a terrorist database from al-Qaida. After all, if it was designed as a smokescreen, he wouldn't have allowed himself to be caught. He would have put somebody else up to it, to basically provide this information. It wouldn't have been himself.

MR. CROSBY: Is there any likelihood in your mind that he is going to point the finger at people during interrogation, name names and places, or is that real hard to tell?

MR. EMERSON: Look, you can never predict whether someone cooperates under interrogation, especially if there is psychological pressure. Generally speaking, the success rate in inducing people arrested in al-Qaida has been pretty high in terms of eliciting information from them. My hunch is that he will talk over time and that he will end up confirming in ways that we never had of operational suspects in other countries and of basically allowing us to reconstruct the al-Qaida network in ways that we never knew how.

HOST: Terrorism expert Steven Emerson, the author of "American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us."


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