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Al-qaida in America

June 19, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: That al-Qaida plea: We get more on it now from Daniel Klaidman, Washington bureau chief of Newsweek Magazine. Dan, welcome.


JIM LEHRER: This man, 34 years old, where did he come from?

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: He was born in Kashmir, Pakistan, he came to the United States in 1994 and went to Columbus, Ohio, where he took on a job as a commercial truck driver. In 1999, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

JIM LEHRER: When he came here, was he already affiliated with al-Qaida?

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: We don’t think so. We think he was actually recruited in this country, and took it from there.

JIM LEHRER: What is known about his views on terrorism, on Islamic militancy, on the United States of America, or what? In other words, why was he a member of al-Qaida, do we know?

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: Well, he was a committed Jihadi. That appears to have taken place while he was in this country. We’ve talked to his ex-wife who said that he was a devout Muslim. She didn’t think he was an extremist, although she was surprised and concerned after Sept. 11 that he was reading newspapers, magazine articles about ultra-light aircraft. In retrospect, she wondered about that.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Now what is it that he specifically admitted that he did? What was he charged with and what has he admitted to?

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: He’s charged with conspiracy to support a terrorist organization, and supporting, providing material support to a terrorist organization. Specifically, he’s admitted that he went to Afghanistan, he met with Osama bin Laden, he met with the top leadership of al-Qaida, and he was planning attacks in the United States. He was planning to take down the Brooklyn Bridge, he was planning attacks on trains, derailing trains, he was planning to attack airplanes as well, something that al-Qaida has always wanted to do.

JIM LEHRER: Now, is it known whether or not he had any connection to 9/11?

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: No indication that he had any direct connection to 9/11. The only connection is he was being supervised, run by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the number three in al-Qaida and the mastermind of the 9/11 plot. What’s significant here in some basis that this is the first evidence that post-9/11, after the attacks, there was an al-Qaida presence in this country. They were planning attacks, and they were being directed by the very top leadership of the organization.

JIM LEHRER: Now, clearly he wasn’t operating alone, right?

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: He was not operating alone, in fact, we know of people in the United States at the time who he was dealing with, other al-Qaida operatives, one of them who we report on in our magazine this week…

JIM LEHRER: I should say you have a major cover story on al-Qaida’s operations in the United States.

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: That’s right, which specifically talks about this guy, the truck driver, and a relative of his, a Pakistani who he was dealing with, a man by the name of Majid Kahn who lived in Baltimore whose family owned gas stations in Baltimore, and because he had ties to America, in the same way that Iyman Faris did, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed wanted these people to be plotting and planning attacks here, they would be less susceptible to the security that existed after Sept. 11.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any evidence one way or another, Dan, on whether or not Faris was a kind of stooge, a dupe, or whether he was a well-trained serious terrorist?

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: It’s a good question. Some people that we’ve talked to in law enforcement have a theory that this particular plot, and these operatives, were low level people and the idea here was to have a kind of diversion for law enforcement and that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is very practiced in intelligence, —

JIM LEHRER: That’s the number three guy.

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: — the number three guy, was willing to give out this information because he in effect wanted to send law enforcement down the wrong path. And in fact, there are other operatives in this country who were planning more serious attacks and we’ve been diverted. But there’s no evidence that’s the case. That’s just a theory.

JIM LEHRER: Where is this guy now, Faris? Where did they catch him?

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: That’s a mystery. He pleaded guilty secretly, we believe in a secret hearing on April 17. Don’t even know where it happened. He was, I think, brought to Virginia much more recently. And we don’t quite know why they’ve done it this way, but it’s almost the way that they used to turn mafia informants and squirrel them away somewhere, have them plead guilty to something secretly, it’s possible that they didn’t want them at the time to be put into the criminal justice system afforded all sorts of rights that could then tie prosecutors in knots. We just don’t know why, and it’s also possible that they wanted to keep his identity secret to make him a more effective informant.

JIM LEHRER: I reported in the News Summary – this came off the wires –that he’s cooperating. Can you verify that?

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: That’s right. That was the condition of this plea agreement. He’s only been charged with crimes that would get him something like 20 years in prison. The condition of the agreement was that he would cooperate.

JIM LEHRER: Do the people you talk to, you and your staff have been on this story for a long time now, do they see this as a major development?

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: Absolutely. It’s a major development because it means that after Sept. 11, al-Qaida was able to get in this country, was able to recruit in this country. And they see it as an important shift in tactics, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, again the number three official in al-Qaida, has gone from infiltration into the United States, that was the model of the Sept. 11 hijackers, to what the FBI calls recruitment in country, looking for people who have ties here, who perhaps have citizenship. In the case of this truck driver, who are married to Americans. In addition to that, they are looking for people who might be able to travel in the country with their families, so as not to arouse suspicion. They’re looking for women in this country who might help with logistics. So it’s an important shift in tactics, and it’s scary.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Dan, thank you very much.