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Al-Qaida Still a Threat?

June 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The apprehension of a man accused of plotting a dirty bomb attack on the United States has raised fresh questions about al-Qaida, the terrorist organization led by Osama bin Laden.

How, and what, is it doing now, nine months after its deadly attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington? Kwame Holman begins our look.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today at the Pentagon Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz led a ceremony marking the buildings restoration.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: This deep commitment and abiding love so evident and painstaking in patient rebuilding honors those who died here, those who died in New York, those who died in Pennsylvania. And it defies those who seek not to build but to kill and to destroy.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile the effort to destroy the apparent perpetrators of the attack, the al-Qaida network, continues. Wolfowitz said Jose Padilla whose capture was revealed yesterday worked with al-Qaida. Officials say the man also known as Abdullah al Muhajir was planning a dirty bomb attack. Wolfowitz spoke on the Early Show on CBS.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: This man, it’s worth pointing out, was a petty criminal in the United States. Somehow he was recruited in jail into being something far worse than a petty criminal. And he came into this country with the intention by various means not just the dirty bomb idea of killing hundreds and maybe thousands of Americans. And now he’s where he belongs.

KWAME HOLMAN: Late last year FBI officials say Padilla planned his attack from Pakistani cities like Lahore under the direction of top al-Qaida leader Abul Zubaida. Abul Zubaida was captured in March and now is under U.S. interrogation.

Elsewhere in Pakistan, U.S. Intelligence officials say al-Qaida has regrouped along the country’s western border with Afghanistan. Al-Qaida also is believed to be active to the east in Kashmir, the region being fought over by nuclear powers, India and Pakistan. Indian leaders say al-Qaida fighters have joined with militant Muslims in attacks on Indian troops. Al-Qaida also is suspected of activity in Morocco, where the two Saudi women arrested today are said to be al-Qaida couriers.

Yesterday the women’s husbands and a third Saudi man also were captured in Morocco. They’re suspected of plotting attacks on U.S. and British warships in the strait of Gibraltar.

Separately on Sunday an al-Qaida spokesman used the Web site of an affiliated group to threaten more attacks on Americans using chemical and biological weapons. The statement said, “What is coming to the Americans will not be less than what has come, so beware, America. Get ready. U.S. officials say it is not known where Osama bin Laden is at the center of the ongoing al-Qaida activities. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said today it’s puzzling that bin Laden has not appeared on videotape since December.

JIM LEHRER: For more on al-Qaida, here are Jerrold Green, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at RAND, a research organization. Robin Wright is the Los Angeles Times correspondent. She has covered terrorism for over 20 years, and recently authored the book Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam. And Larry Johnson, a former counter-terrorism official with the State Department and the CIA. Larry Johnson, so al-Qaida remains an ongoing, operating organization?

LARRY JOHNSON: Significantly reduced in capability. The attacks on their infrastructure in Afghanistan, the disruption of their financial networks, we’ve taken down at least three in the United States, Global Relief, Benevolent International, Holy Relief, and then actually killing people on the ground and putting them in custody so they’re not the animal they once were.

The danger that they represent is they know no limit self-imposed. They’re willing to do anything; they will try to do anything. But that’s an important point. Without the ability to train, without sanctuary and safe haven, their ability to conduct attacks is going to be, you know, very difficult.

JIM LEHRER: Well, if they’re not what they were, what are they now then? A bunch of… are they organized in any way? Is there a central command or do we even know?

LARRY JOHNSON: I don’t think there’s a central command. Candidly as we go back and sort of uncover the intel that has existed, I don’t think either the intelligence community or the law enforcement community has had a good picture of them. It’s starting to come together over the last six/eight months.

I think we need to avoid portraying them as a global organization along the lines of American Express, you know, they can go anywhere, or as the Energizer Bunny that no matter what you do to them, they’re going to keep on coming. They are human beings. And they are subject to the same limits that any human being is. When they are right now under attack by the United States, their capability to do what they did prior to 9/11 is significantly reduced. We’ve got to keep the pressure on. That means two areas: Pakistan and Lebanon. We really haven’t gone after those aggressively.

JIM LEHRER: And Robin Wright, speaking of Pakistan, that’s where this man Padilla came from. He was an American but he went to several places, but he went to Pakistan and he came back to the United States from there. What’s the latest word on how U.S. officials knew he was on that plane and knew he had something evil in mind like a dirty bomb plot?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, the Padilla case actually tells a great deal about how we’re going about the investigation of the broader organization and what luck we’re having. In the case of Padilla it actually was initially an enormous fluke. He was… he went into the American consulate in Karachi, Pakistan to ask for a replacement visa, passport.

JIM LEHRER: He had lost his passport.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Either lost it, or it had been stolen, or whatever the case. Anyway he asked for a replacement. This was in February. The consular official thought it rather suspicious but under law unless there is something concrete, you have to reissue. It was reissued in March but he still smelled something suspicious about it.

So he on-passed the case to the regional security officer who we have them in every region of the world. And he began to look at the case in part because of identity theft. The initial suspicion was that this guy may in fact not have been Jose Padila; he might have been someone else trying to claim that identity in order to get an American passport. That was the initial fear.

And then they tracked down the case to his incarceration in Florida, found that he had a criminal record and then began looking into why exactly was he in Pakistan. And so the United States had no knowledge that there was yet another American out there with an association with al-Qaida who was training, who had been there for some time.

JIM LEHRER: And so they got on to him. And through him they found out about these meetings he was having with al-Qaida officials? Is that….

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, they tracked back his record and some of his associations and made a hook-up. There were actually… they began tracking him very closely and they’re actually U.S. officials on the plane with him flying from Switzerland. By that point, there had been a real connection.

JIM LEHRER: He went to Zurich and then to Chicago –


JIM LEHRER: — from Pakistan. Mr. Green, what can you add to this? First of all, just an overall way or you can pick up the Padilla thing if you want to, what does that tell us about the abilities or lack of them or whatever of al-Qaida now nine months later?

JERROLD GREEN: Well I think what’s significant was the ability of al-Qaida or somebody– it’s not absolutely certain that this is al-Qaida at this point– to recruit somebody in an American prison. And there are three American citizens who have been implicated, one being John Lindh who was captured in Afghanistan, the second a Saudi who was born in the U.S. and was incidentally a U.S. citizen. This is the third — that sort of most mainstream American who began his career as a terrorist in the U.S. and has continued abroad.

So I think it’s interesting and significant, although there are vast pieces of information, which he’s likely… we hope he will reveal so we’ll have a better understanding of their ability to operate in the U.S.

JIM LEHRER: But, Mr. Green, don’t up find it interesting that this man was recruited after September 11? Would that not show signs that al-Qaida is still operating out there if it has a recruiting mechanism?

JERROLD GREEN: Well, I think it’s operating but one never knows if it’s some sort of copycat organization, if it’s loosely… we don’t really know the nature of al-Qaida other than it being a rather elusive organization.

I agree with Mr. Johnson that we really should avoid labeling all terrorist activity al-Qaida and get a sense of the true dimensions of this organization. I would for example, suggest that Abu Sayyef in the Philippines is primarily a criminal organization and not the offshoot of al-Qaida that others have suggested.

So the question is to what degree is this really mainstream al-Qaida or something that’s loosely based on it for affiliated with it and it’s not clear. What’s the relationship between Abu Zubaida and Padilla? Abu Zubaida vaguely assisted in identifying hip. That’s what Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said. So again there’s a lot of information that is missing, which makes this very difficult to explain in total.

JIM LEHRER: Larry Johnson, I want to come back to something you said in the very beginning too which is that these people have to be trained.


JIM LEHRER: And, of course the big training bases were all in Afghanistan. They’ve all been closed now. What are they doing? Are they still training people?

LARRY JOHNSON: There are still active training camps.

JIM LEHRER: Where are they?

LARRY JOHNSON: Lebanon for starters. I for the life of me do not understand what the Bush administration is doing or in this case not doing by not highlighting the terrorist camps that are active in the Beka Valley. Hamas, Hezbollah, yes but there’s also reports that link al-Qaida activities there.

And I understand there’s going to be information coming out that will link the Prime Minister Hariri of Lebanon with financial assistance to al-Qaida. Now, that’s alarming and yet we say not a word.

There is no human being in the world that is born knowing how to build bombs, how to shoot guns. You have to be taught. You have to be trained — and when you look at what has gone over in this region for years, Lebanon, Iran, and Pakistan. Pakistan has been a state sponsor of terrorism at least through the ISI.

JIM LEHRER: That’s their intelligence service.

LARRY JOHNSON: Their intelligence service.

JIM LEHRER: But that supposedly has changed since September 11.

LARRY JOHNSON: Some elements but there’s still some elements out there. You know, if anyone has seen the Danny Pearl video, that has some production value on it that is just alarming in terms of… they use two or three different camera angles. They interposed different scenes of Palestinians.

JIM LEHRER: Danny Pearl of course was the Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered.

LARRY JOHNSON: Exactly. So that tells me that there’s still direct intelligence support from some elements of ISI in Pakistan to al-Qaida. And that has to be rooted out.

JIM LEHRER: Robin Wright, does that jibe with your information? There’s still a long way to go before we even know the full… I mean remember, when September 11 happened, I remember we had people on this program saying and government officials say there are fifty to sixty thousand people who were probably involved in the al-Qaida organization. Was that figure realistic? What is the current figure? What can we believe at this point?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well I think that there is a belief within the U.S. intelligence community that there were about 25,000 who went through al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan. That’s covering two generations: Those who fought against the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989, and then the second generation, those who went afterwards and were involved in a lot of other causes.

So far there have been 2,400 picked up in dozens of different countries around the world primarily al-Qaida. But if you deduct that from the 10,000 you still have a lot of people out there who have been through those camps. Does that mean every single one of them is out to, you know, bomb U.S. strategic facilities? I don’t think so but there are a lot of people we can’t account for.

I think one of these points about what happens next is the fear that post 9/11 you see the regeneration or mutation of what were al-Qaida operatives starting their own groups, maybe with their own issues, going out on their own, these are very… you know, it doesn’t take very many people to engage in these kinds of activities.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Green’s point that there also could be copycatting and some freelancing going on as well.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Green, what’s the conventional wisdom as we speak on the status of Osama bin Laden — dead or alive and if so where?

JERROLD GREEN: I think that people honestly don’t know. What I’ve been reading in Secretary Rumsfeld and others have said is that people are somewhat perplexed. I think that the general assumption is he is alive, although again there’s no evidence to sustain that.

But I think what’s far more important and is the ability of this organization to operate with him or without him. Since we can’t establish whether or not he’s alive but clearly there are terrorist events being planned, executed, people recruited. We need a better sense of the dimensions of this organization and it’s not only bin Laden. It’s many of his senior deputies. Other than Abu Zabaida, we really have not been able to apprehend any of the senior leadership. And that in and of itself is evidence of the professionalism — I don’t say that with admiration — but the professionalism and the planning of these people.

What also is striking is someone obviously recruited Padilla in an American penitentiary, and the question is: What’s going on in the United States? In other words, what’s going on in the prison system so that someone like this could be recruited and then passed off to people in Pakistan to be trained and then sent back to the United States? If there’s one Padilla, there may be multiple Padillas, and it would be interesting to find out how they’re operating as well.

JIM LEHRER: Larry Johnson, would you use the term “professional” to describe these people?

LARRY JOHNSON: To an extent. But I think we need to avoid portraying them sort of as the Sean Connery and Pierce Broznan of terrorism where they’re very sophisticated and very well organized.

As we look at what happened leading up to 9/11, it was more a breakdown in law enforcement and intelligence not acting upon information as opposed to their shrewdness. They were pretty weak in several operational areas but nonetheless they did show an ability to plan, to be committed to a plan and to carry it out.

There was an assumption for example that they selected, they monitored the weather on the day. No, they just bought the tickets because if they had monitored the weather, and it had been cloudy, there’s no way they would have hit those targets. We need not invest them with there aura of invincible.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your theory on Osama bin Laden.

JERROLD GREEN: I’m in the dead camp. – with six degrees of separation. If he was alive, he would have talked to someone, who talked to someone, who talked to someone, and said, Osama bin Laden was alive.

JIM LEHRER: Where do you come down…

ROBIN WRIGHT: I think he’s still alive. I’ve been to Afghanistan. It’s a very rough terrain, and I think they were very clever about preparing places that they could go and hide, knowing that their satellite telephones were monitored and they probably do things in a very basic way word of mouth world – World War I style from trench to trench.

JIM LEHRER: Well, I’m glad we could clear all this up tonight. Thank you all very much.