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Homeland Security

SLUG: 1-01290 OTL Taking Down Al-Qaida.rtf









[Please note. This show will have a double airing: Friday through Sunday.]

Host: Taking Down al-Qaida. Next, On the Line.


Host: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, said by U-S officials to be the "opperations planner" of the September eleventh attacks, among other al-Qaida terrorist acts, is now in the U-S custody. He was captured by Pakistani authorities in the city of Rawalpindi on March first. One of al-Qaida's top three leaders, Mohammed has been described as the "details man" for the terrorist network. He ran recruitment efforts and day-in, day-out operations of al-Qaida. As United States Attorny General John Ashcroft said, "Next to [Osama] bin Laden, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the FBI's most wanted terrorist." What does his capture mean for the ongoing war against terrorism? I'll ask my guests: James Robbins, professor of international relations at the National Defense University; William Rosenau, Associate Political Scientist at the RAND corporation; and author and defense analyst David Isby. Welcome thanks for joining us today. David Isby, let me ask you who is Khalid Shaikh Mohammed?

Isby: Well, he is, as his nick name: "the brain." He was al-Qaida's primary planner. That's very important because al-Qaida, of course, gained its notoriety from it's well-planned attacks, its simultaneous attack on the U-S embassies in East Africa and, of course, the World Trade Center. So perhaps as you see, next to Osama himself, who is the facilitator, he is the planner. He grew up in Kuwait, of Pakistani origin. And his links with al-Qaida go back into the nineteen-nineties. He's the uncle of Ramsi Youssef who is linked to the original nineteen-ninety-three World Trade Center bombing. So this is perhaps a fairly key event in the war on terror.

Host: William Rosenau, if he is the brain, the planner of specific operations, exactly what role did he have and the nine-eleven attacks?

Rosenau: Well, we know he confessed to a foreign journalist that he actually -- he was responsible for the attacks. I mean, he's been integral to every major al-Qaida operation, going back into nineteen-ninety-three, I mean, plots to assassinate the pope in Manila, Bali. Just a whole series of terrorist spectaculars, some of which never happened, some of which were extremely deadly. So, I think there's absolutely no question, this guy was the trophy so far in the war on terrorism, the most important capture thus far.

Host: James Robbins, Bill Rosenau mentioned Bali and the Bali bombing obviously happened sometime after the September eleventh attacks, so what does that say about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's on-going activities?

Robbins: Well, it illustrates the global reach of the international terrorist network, wherever Muslim radicals can be found, they will be doing operations against Western targets. Clearly he was a guy who moved around a lot. He did a lot of plotting in the Philippines and that whole region in the South Pacific there. So [it's] also reasonable to assume that he was involved in activities in Yemen and in Somalia and Sudan.

Isby: I think you also [see] that the post nine-eleven al-Qaida, with its tendency to hit soft targets, such as Bali or the synagogue in Tunisia, in areas where there are locals -- there has certainly been no local grievance against these areas. So they have shifted from hard targets to soft, largely because of the war on terror. It's been harder for him to have his trademark multiple [target] organization, because the group is under pressure.

Host: Bill Rosenau, David Isby mentions that he [Khalid Shaikh Mohammed] was related to working -- with local groups. And it's said that he was the contact man with Pakistani extremist groups over the last year. How does his capture affect smaller organizations that have affiliated themselves with al-Qaida?

Rosenau: I am not exactly sure what the answer to that is. I think we're going to have to watch and see how things unfold over the next few months. I think the most important thing is, his capture is really going to put a clamp on the ability to mount these very spectacular attacks. I mean, one of the things that's gonna be, I think, expected to be found on his computer -- he probably won't volunteer it, but he knows the names of the actual agents, the people who make up the sleeper cells. So, once you start learning things like that it becomes much easier for the authorities to roll these people up. And I think, without the brain, as David described him, they're gonna find it much more difficult to mount these large devastating attacks which is exactly what we've been fearing and fortunately, since nine-eleven, we haven't experienced in the U-S. But this capture is going to, I think, put a major dent in that.

Host: James Robbins talked about the computer that was found. What all was captured along with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed?

James Robbins: Oh, well, aside from documents and cellular phones -- which are valuable in themselves -- reportedly there were multiple laptop computers. And the value of that can't be under-estimated because not only do they store documents, but also the laptop is a major means of communication for terrorist networks. Communication is what terrorist networks do. It's how they maintain themselves. So you can get passwords, you can get web sites that they went to, cookies and e-mail addresses.

Host: Cookies are?

Robbins: Things that are placed in computers when you visit web sites to let you get back into them or to track how many times you visit them. So, they may not even be aware that they have these things on their computer. And then, things like e- mail addresses or just records of phone numbers or snail mail addresses and names and you name it, it's probably in there and it's a major loss for them.

Host: David Isby?

David Isby: Oh yes. Really, what they've got to do is anyone who knows or thinks his identity has been known to this man now has to activate their escape and evasion plan. They have to stop what they're doing, which is terrorism, leave their jobs and go somewhere else before law enforcement finds them and this makes them vulnerable. Their escape and evasion plans might not work. When they come up on the phone to make arrangements they become vulnerable. Even Osama [bin Laden] is probably going to have to move now to somewhere else. And that's going to make him vulnerable because he has to come out of wherever he has been hiding. Also, the other thing [is] that this makes more information actionable, even information which will may have had and not been willing to use because it's been gotten from human sources inside these groups or decrypts. Now we can use this because it can be confirmed or seem to come from this most recent capture. So this is how you just roll up groups: make them move and then look for the indicators and wait for them to get something wrong.

Host: Bill Rosenau, how does that work with the terrorists that have been captured over the last year, the information gleaned from them combined with the information now gained from looking at computers and cellular phones of someone like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed?

Rosenau: Well, it presents great opportunities but great problems as well. We know for a fact that some of the people who've been apprehended, some terrorist suspects and even some so-called "big fish" have deliberately spread disinformation, have lied to their inquisitors and apparently on some occasions have really thrown off U-S and allied authorities. So, the more time these guys can buy to allow their comrades to scurry away, the better. And one of the things that they've been successful in doing is really throwing red herrings across the trail. So I'm sure Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is going to be doing that. He's going to be attempting that. He's probably going to have a story that he's already cooked up, a false story aimed at deceiving his inquisitors. So, getting that right is going to be a real challenge. You can polygraph the guy, you can check out what he says, but when you do that you're burning up time and the more time it takes, the greater the chance that his colleagues will escape or that his information will no longer be useful.

Host: Well, James Robbins, when Ramsi Binalshibh, a close collaborator of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was captured. It's said that he told interrogators that there was going to be an attack at any moment on banks and other financial institutions and that led to warnings going out to the U-S. It turns out that that was a phony story meant merely to try to sow some kind of concern and crisis atmosphere in the U-S. Is there an expectation that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed will do the same thing? And have they learned from the experience with Ramsi Binalshibh.

Robbins: Well it's a good way for the terrorists to strike back after they've been captured, to activate us and make us scared and so forth. It's certainly possible that he'll do that. A report today came out of Pakistan saying that he was giving up a lot of good information. Maybe he's trying to cut a deal because he knows that he's in a very bad situation. I mean, he's definitely going to be punished severely, so perhaps he thinks he can cut a deal. On the other hand, it could all be disinformation. We don't know. But right now, the Pakistanis are saying he's giving up a lot of information, good information and that dramatic events are going to follow.

Host: Now, David Isby, just because authorities say that he's giving up good information, is that potentially disinformation from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed? [crosstalk]

Isby: It could be. Certainly we would want to know, but they're going to have to assume that, otherwise they may be turned in. But in all those things, unless they can keep up the same story after month after month of interrogation, it's little bits they have put together from some of the small fish and if it's a story they haven't heard before, then it may be disinformation. If it's something however, that seems to relate to even unconnected things they've had from previous people or things that have come in from another type of intelligence, then they may be able to draw the different pieces together. So, if he says anything, even if he is trying to deceive us, even the small bits of truth may link up, whereas lies quite often can be filtered out.

Host: Bill Rosenau, authorities in the U-S in the past few weeks had raised and then recently lowered the threat assessment given to the public of the likelihood of terrorist attacks. And they're now saying that some of that assessment of what the threat was about was related to terrorist plots that were being organized by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Are those plots likely to be unraveled at this point?

Rosenau: Well, I think we have to assume that it's going to be much more difficult for them to carry out these attacks, although, you know, they may be so far along that that may be difficult. So, I think it's fairly hard to say. I think we probably have to error on the side of caution and assume that whatever plot or plans that were in the works are still going to be at least attempted.

Isby: The other thing is, they may, terrorists in the past, when they think they're blown [discovered] may push things to completion quicker, go in instead of a rehearsal, rather than escape and evade. So, that's the other thing. In the short term, there may be a not fully-formed plot. We may see actions from that.

Host: Jim Robbins, have we learned much of anything about how al-Qaeda is operating right now from the way Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was captured?

Robbins: I don't think they're operating very well right now. They don't seem to be able to pull off any major attacks. He was apprehended after a previous al-Qaida guy was apprehended, I think in Quetta. And then that nailed him down to Rawalpindi and then some people in the neighborhood apparently gave a tip that flushed him out. He was staying in a neighborhood in which there are a lot of retired Pakistani military people, so maybe that had something to do with it, although, that could work either way. I'm not quite sure how that would factor in. But, seriously, I don't think that al-Qaida has been able to pull off the kind of, as David had said, the dramatic attacks that we're used to in the past. The attacks that they've done seem to be kind of opportunistic, not as well-planned, not as big targets and not always successful as the recent attempted bombing of the Philippines showed that failed.

Host: David Isby, what have we learned about Pakistan's efforts in the war on terrorism at this point?

Isby: Well, Pakistan has been under a lot of pressure. Certainly, not only is this supporting the international efforts, it's also supporting the situation in Afghanistan, where al-Qaida and remnants of the Taleban and other groups such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar the Afghan leader are trying to put together resistance to the [Hamid] Karzai government, trying to organize attacks on the United States. Now the question is will Pakistan continue to clamp down on these efforts. One of the most significant things in this is it showed that he had been working with people from Jamaat-e-Islami, a pakistan religious party. And the links between al-Qaida and some of the Pakistani political parties is significant and shows how they have been able to embed themselves in Pakistan. And it's going to require very strong efforts from the Pakistani government to counter this.

Robbins: It's interesting how many of them turn up in Pakistan even today. I mean, they keep finding them there for some reason.

Host: Well, there was talk that al-Qaida had gone all around the world when they were flushed out of Afghanistan. Is it looking now as though, more and more that they were actually couped up in the border regions of Pakistan or within Pakistan and the larger areas?

Robbins: Some of them got out. One fellow was apprehended in Morocco, also Yemen. But, apparently, some of the leadership cadres have remained in Pakistan and didn't take the chance to go global.

Host: Bill Rosenau, David Isby mentions there being some plan among al-Qaida and former Taleban people to launch a new offensive against the government of Afghanistan in the coming months. Is the capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed going to have an impact on those brewing plans?

Rosenau: I'm not really a South Asia hand, so I'll defer to my colleagues on that question, but I'd just add a couple of things about Pakistan, one of which of course is the heat that the Pakistani government is no doubt going to feel after this arrest. And they need to be commended in very strong terms I think for taking these steps in referring politically. It also illustrates, it seems to me, just the importance of this kind of cooperation as we seek to dismantle al-Qaida. I mean, it's a fairly obvious point, but nonetheless, we need to rely on the Pakistans of the world to do a lot of this work. I suppose we could have gone in and snatched him somehow. I think it's pretty unlikely. We need friendly governments to take these kinds of strong steps to go after these guys, even if it's with our intelligence and some of our people.

Host: David Isby, there had been a lot of talk about how the Pakistani intelligence service, the I-S-I, had been in long-term cooperation with the Taleban and there's been some doubt about the effectiveness of the I-S-I in cracking down on these groups. Does this show that the I-S-I has sort of gotten its act together?

Isby: Perhaps that issue is still out. What is the future of Pakistani politics, internally and also their policy towards Afghanistan. Right now, the government is trying to be more part of the solution than part of the problem. Now, this is not completely so. They certainly do not have complete control over their religious parties, which have control of a great deal of infrastructure. Also the issues with the I-S-I intelligence community, if not active, then certainly retired members who have political links to people who are supporting the terrorists. So, Pakistan is very important and U-S policy needs to show that Pakistan is going to get its policy goals by supporting the war on terrorism rather than backing people who are challenging the government in Kabul.

Host: Jim Robbins, let's talk a little bit about the organizational structure of al-Qaida at this point with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed out of the picture. Are there people in a position to step in and fill his role?

Robbins: Well, it's really hard to say what their organization is these days. I would assume that there's somebody who would be willing to step in and do that once they get situated somewhere. I think right now they're all on the run as we said. We haven't heard lately from Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. He might be willing to step in there.

Host: Who's he?

Robbins: He's an al-Qaida spokesman who when the bombing of Afghanistan started in the fall of '01, who was on T-V frequently threatening that the United States was going to go up in flames and other things like that. He's been pretty outspoken over the last year or so. I thought he was trying to set himself up in kind of a leadership position because he kept talking about himself rather than talking about bin Laden. And then when these guys who shot the marines in Kuwait were apprehended, they kept taking about how they were men from Abu Gaith, not men from al-Qaeda, not men from bin Laden, but, you know, Abu Gaith. So, it's like he's setting up his own little personality cult. He'd be a good candidate.

Host: Are there some other candidates Bill Rosenau?

Rosenau: Well, I guess the real question for al-Qaida is going to be, you know, is this guy somehow irreplaceable? He seems to have been a very, very good terrorist strategist indeed. But the organization is remarkably resilient. That's something we need to keep in mind. And there's certainly going to be plenty of volunteers offering to step forward and become the new brain. So, I wouldn't count al-Qaida out by any means, but perhaps he was sui generis.

Host: David Isby, what roll did he have in terms of handling money within al-Qaida and is there anybody who can fill that roll?

Isby: Well, money was [big] to bin Laden. Bin Laden was the contractor, the facilitator. He made sure that the plans that were made here would actually be actualized because there was money, there were trained people. He however, without the money and the plans, wouldn't have been able to do things like the World Trade Center, the embassy bombings. So, certainly the money remains key. If we are going to build on this success, you've got to continue to cut off the supply of money and its fungible because much of this money is only diverted at the last minute. It doesn't come from its inception with a big stamp on it "intended for al-Qaida." So that's why still perhaps the most important thing in the war on terrorism is the supply of money and cutting back.

Robbins: As David said, "the contractor," that was bin Laden's code name within the organization.

Host: Well, we've got a little less than a minute in the show left, but let's finish up by going around the table and ask: Does the capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed mean the noose is tightening on Osama bin Laden? Jim Robbins?

Robbins: If Osama bin Laden is alive, then the noose is tightening. I heard that they found names of plastic surgeons on one of the computers, so perhaps this means something, perhaps not. I'm not so certain he's alive. He should come out on video if he is alive or say something specific.

Host: Bill Rosenau?

Rosenau: I'm not sure he's alive either, but if he is, you know, don't go answering the door in your bathrobe, because it's a very, very scary time indeed.

Isby: If he's alive time for Osama to execute his "E-and-E" plan, escape and evade.

Host: Well I'm afraid that's going to have to be the last word for today. That's all the time we have. I'd like to thank my guests: James Robbins of the National Defense University; Bill Rosenau of the Rand corporation and author and defense analyst David Isby. Before we go, I'd like to invite our audience to send us your questions or comments. You can e-mail them to Ontheline@ibb.gov

For On the Line. I'm Eric Felten.

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