Terrorist Captured: Al-Qaeda Leader Abu Zubaydah
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MARGARET WARNER: The al-Qaida leader known as Abu Zubaydah was seized in Pakistan last week, though his capture was only confirmed by U.S. Officials today. To tell us about Zubaydah and how he was caught, we turned to Michael Gordon, military correspondent for The New York Times.
So, Michael, tell us who this Abu Zubaydah is and why he is such a big deal.
MICHAEL GORDON: Abu Zubaydah is an absolutely critical figure in the al-Qaida organization. He is the highest ranking al-Qaida operative to have been captured so far, and he’s really… this is the first real success in capturing senior al-Qaida leaders since the United States began its military campaign in Afghanistan.
He has become, in recent months, really this sort of functional chief of operations for the organization. He was instrumental in trying to reconstitute al-Qaida and mount new terrorist attacks against the United States, and he also knows where all the old al-Qaida operatives are. So he’s really quite a catch.
MARGARET WARNER: Tell us about his operations or his activities before 9/11, and how he got this detailed knowledge of whole global al-Qaida network.
MICHAEL GORDON: Well, he got it by being part of this outfit for quite a while. He was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He was born to a Palestinian family. He’s been with bin Laden for some time. He had a role in recruiting fighters for the various terrorist camps in Afghanistan, and indeed managing some of them. Whole range of plots. He has been directly implicated in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in Washington and New York. He was implicated in a foiled effort to mount an attack on the Los Angeles Airport. He’s been involved in a failed plot to attack American embassies in Sarajevo and Paris. So he is a trusted and critical person in the al-Qaida hierarchy.
MARGARET WARNER: I have read several reports that said that when these recruits would come out… back out of the camps in Afghanistan, they would pass through Pakistan, and he would sort of debrief them or meet with them and basically assign them to whatever cell they were going to have to be… they were going to be affiliated with. How certain are U.S. officials that that was his role– that he had that central a role?
MICHAEL GORDON: Well, some of this has come up in trials that have been conducted of the suspects apprehended in the attempt to attack the Los Angeles International Airport. So there is not only intelligence information, but there is law enforcement information about him.
They are pretty certain that he does indeed play this role, not only in the past, but I’m told that he was trying to mount yet new operations against the United States at this time, against American interests. It’s not quite clear to the Americans what the nature of those attacks were to be, but he was in the process of organizing new attacks against the United States.
MARGARET WARNER: So in other words, U.S. officials think that just by capturing him, they may have at least retarded or hampered al-Qaida’s ability to launch further attacks?
MICHAEL GORDON: They think they have accomplished two things: They think they may have frustrated some new attacks, and they think they may have obtained information, if they can get him to talk, which I think is a big “if,” about where al-Qaida operatives are located around the world.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you wrote in a piece a couple of days ago, when you broke this story, that they believe that’s whom they had captured, but he wasn’t easy to capture. He’d made it hard. Explain that.
MICHAEL GORDON: Well, obviously he is not a household word. He is now, but he doesn’t have the visibility that bin Laden had. He wasn’t known. His picture wasn’t known to everyone. He was accustomed to changing his appearances. He had various passports. He knew some English. He was fairly accomplished at disguising his identity. The other thing is he had been in Pakistan for some time, so he knew his way around that country. He was captured in Faisalabad. But he knew, you know, the terrain in which he operated. He was very familiar with it.
MARGARET WARNER: So how was he captured?
MICHAEL GORDON: He was captured in a raid on Thursday that was mounted by Pakistani police, but had critical support and backup from the American CIA and FBI, and he was wounded in the effort, by the way.
MARGARET WARNER: And there were a lot of people caught up in this sweep, weren’t there?
MICHAEL GORDON: Yes. There were about 30-odd people: Some 25 Arabs, some five so- called Taliban, who were captured in raids in Lahore and Faisalabad. He is the most important of the people who have been caught. Some of his deputies were caught. They are still trying to figure out who some of these people are, I’m sure, but he was really the kingpin. They weren’t quite sure he would be there. They didn’t… this wasn’t just an accident. They went there on the assumption that he would be there– that they had some intelligence information that led them in that direction. But they weren’t positive that they would come upon him until they indeed found him.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you said he was wounded; he was shot in this attack. Where has he been since last Thursday?
MICHAEL GORDON: Well, that’s an excellent question. He’s been, I’m told authoritatively, at an undisclosed location.
MARGARET WARNER: (Laughs) A famous phrase.
MICHAEL GORDON: Yeah, a famous phrase, and I’m certain it’s not the undisclosed location where Dick Cheney is. So the thought has been that originally, the people who were captured would be taken to Kandahar, put into military detention there, and then moved to Guantanamo Bay, and he was very seriously wounded. He was shot in the stomach and the thigh and groin. Obviously he’s getting American medical treatment, whether that’s on a ship in the Arabian Sea or in some hospital somewhere, I just don’t know.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, there have been several reports that he is going to be… U.S. authorities are thinking of bringing him back to U.S. custody somewhere in the states– maybe Guantanamo, wherever– but via a third country, where he could be interrogated a little more intensively than is usually permitted under U.S. law.
Can you confirm any of those reports? Do you think there’s any truth to them?
MICHAEL GORDON: Well, I can’t… cannot confirm any of those reports, and I’m somewhat skeptical without knowing anything about them, to be honest. I mean, Jordan has had a… they tried him in absentia and had a death warrant out for him. But I think the Americans are going to want to have custody of him. The reason they want him is to gain his knowledge. In fact, yesterday Defense Secretary Rumsfeld didn’t even want to acknowledge that he had been caught. His hope was that he could be debriefed, they could gain information about intelligence operations and act on that before the rest of the al-Qaida organization just knew who the Americans had in custody. But of course, it was all out around town. I think they are going to want to bring him… keep him in U.S. custody– I was told he was in U.S. custody– retain him in U.S. custody. And I think he is an excellent candidate to be the first person brought before one of these military tribunals. If he is not one, I can’t imagine who would be.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Michael Gordon, thanks again.
MICHAEL GORDON: Thank you.