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Al-Qaida Mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

March 3, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: To discuss the arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed from Daniel Benjamin, a director for counter-terrorism on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. He recently co-authored “The Age of Sacred Terror,” about the rise of al-Qaida and Zachary Abuza, an associate professor and director of Asian studies at Simmons College in Boston. He’s currently finishing a book about al-Qaida’s presence in Southeast Asia.

Daniel Benjamin, any question that this arrest is a very important event in stopping al-Qaida?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: None whatsoever. Wrapping up Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is one of the most important steps we could have taken, and I think that there are probably very high spirits at the CIA right now and rightfully so. He was one of the most imaginative, innovative and peripatetic terrorist operational chiefs we’ve ever seen.

JIM LEHRER: How did he get to be this way? What skills or talents did he bring to this that made him so special and effective?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, we don’t know that much about every step of his career, but he, like many of the more successful terrorist operatives, had western training in engineering and in operations, and generally, in bureaucracy, in making the trains run. And he has just been very, very active for a very long time. A lot of being a success in this business is keeping busy and not getting caught and he managed to do that for longer than anyone.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Abuza, what would you add to that, why, what made this man so successful?

ZACHARY ABUZA: On the one hand, I think – I would agree with what your other guest has just said. Something happened when he went to Afghanistan to fight the Mujahideen that he did become radicalized. He became re-associated with his nephew, Ramzi Youssef, who went on to — with his uncle — to the Philippines in 1994 to perpetrate Plan Bojinka. They both eluded capture at the time, Ramzi Youssef was later captured. But his capture angered Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and ever since then he has been absolutely determined to create this network that goes across some 60 countries.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the network, as we reported in the news summary and it’s been widely reported elsewhere as well, that the big effort now is to move as quickly as possible on whatever information they found when they arrested him on Saturday. Tell us what they’re likely to have found and why it would be important.

ZACHARY ABUZA: The most important things that they probably found were his cell phones, and that would give you a sense of who he was communicating with, either through voice or text messaging. The other thing would be his laptops, because he communicated so much through his – to his operatives through e-mail. So those lists of his contacts are absolutely essential. For an operation like this, ideally you would like to keep the arrest as quiet as possible so the intelligence and police services have as long as possible to go and make the arrests of the people in those phones and e-mail address books. In this case, they have to operate very quickly.

JIM LEHRER: Dan Benjamin, why do you think they made it public so quickly, or do we know when this man was even arrested? Could they have had him for several weeks and not told us until now?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: It seems unlikely. They were pretty straightforward about when it was the arrest was made. It’s possible that that happened simply because it happened in a public area, it was in downtown Rawalpindi, and there was no way to keep it quiet. It’s also the case that he had acquired such an enormous reputation that this was a blow that the administration felt it wanted to get out quickly.

JIM LEHRER: There’s been a lot of speculation, Dan Benjamin, about what this could trigger. I mean, the rush was to get – to follow up on the information before to try to stop some other attacks, or the speculation was it might cause operatives out there, al-Qaida operatives to lay low, or it might cause them to very quickly launch some major attacks. Do you have a theory about that?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: It’s impossible to predict and a lot of it depends on where particular plots are in terms of their execution. Many operatives may go to ground in the hope that they won’t be found when the authorities go through the pocket litter, go through the cell phone records, go through the laptop. Others may decide that they have to carry out their operations as fast as possible. It’s absolutely impossible to predict, and it’s vital that the interrogations turn something up. We’re not likely to learn much from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed himself, he’s unlikely to cooperate, but the material they caught him with is very, very important.

JIM LEHRER: I was going to ask you about it. Why do you think, why would he not cooperate, or why would he cooperate?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, this is a man who has devoted his life for the last decade to killing Americans, and my guess is he feels quite strongly about it and he’s not likely to give up the goods on his colleagues who are engaged in that operation. The real question is whether the fright that has been instilled in him by being arrested, the threat of a death penalty, whatever, might change his mind. But my guess is that a hardened operative like this is not going to roll quickly.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Professor?

ZACHARY ABUZA: I do. This man is a very professional individual; he is the most important person who has been caught so far. He had his pulse on every al-Qaida cell out there. He was in constant contact with them. He knows how important he is to this network, and he will do everything he can to stay quiet for as long as he can hold out.

JIM LEHRER: On the same question that I asked Dan Benjamin a moment ago, following up in fact on what you said, let say they get the cell phone, they have the cell phones and if you’re an al-Qaida operative anyplace in the world ask you’ve been talking to Mohammed on your cell phone, in the last several days or weeks, what would be your best guess to what the inclination of that agent would be – to quickly, to run, or to act?

ZACHARY ABUZA: As Mr. Benjamin said, there are two extremes. On the one hand, some people might flee and try to go underground. On the other hand, they might try to lash out as a retaliatory strike. So we just don’t know. And I completely agree that it really depends where they are in terms of planning and executing an attack.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Dan Benjamin, the connection is or the relationship is between Mohammed and Osama bin Laden?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: I don’t know anything about their personal relationship. But it is certainly the case that Mohammed had become one of if not the very top chief of operations, and that they shared a world view and that Mohammed was executing the world view that bin Laden had articulated for so many Muslims, for so many radicals.

I don’t think that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed started out as his chief lieutenant and that job was held by Mohammed Atef until he was killed by the Predator in November in Afghanistan, that was really the biggest strike we’ve had against al-Qaida yet. But at some point in the mid 90s, they joined forces, you know, in a more closely knitted way than they had before, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had simply been an unbelievably productive member of the senior leadership of al-Qaida, there’s no question.

JIM LEHRER: Do we know enough about the structure of this organization to know whether somebody else would very quickly step into this kind of chief of operations slot that Mohammed held?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, we outside of government right now and outside of the circles of intelligence probably don’t know. One of the things that has been impressive about al-Qaida throughout is that it’s been very capable at replacing people.

We have no idea really how deep the bench is, and in fact one of the things about al-Qaida that has surprised counterterrorism experts for so long is just every time there’s an attack, every time there’s a major crackdown, we find out that there’s so many more operatives than we had ever thought. You know, before Afghanistan, there was a member of al-Qaida’s top three or four ruling group named Abuhajar who was picked up in Germany in 1998, and he seems to have simply been easily replaced, and the group just went right along, the organization survived. So we just don’t know. There have been so many people knocked out that it has to set them back a bit, but how long is very hard to say.

JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that, Professor, about what this does to the al-Qaida operation generally?

ZACHARY ABUZA: Well, it is going to make it harder for them to execute attacks, as Mr. Benjamin said. He was so central to the major attacks on American targets in the past few years, that it will be a loss to the organization. But when Mohammed Atef was killed, he was quickly replaced by Abu Zubaida; when Abu Zubaida was arrested in April 2002, he was quickly replaced by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. So the organization does have some strategic depth. If we add up all of the arrests of the senior management, it does take a toll on the organization. The problem is, there is a limitless pool of recruits to this organization. They take great pride in training, education, bringing people up through the ranks. So this organization has incredible staying power.

JIM LEHRER: And so we should not be too hopeful that al-Qaida is going to go away in any dramatic way because of what happened in Pakistan on Saturday?

ZACHARY ABUZA: Well, I think if the interrogations go as well as they can, one of the best things that will happen is that we can deter or prevent any attacks that are currently in the works. Secondly, we might do a good job in rooting up some of the network. But like a cancer it will simply metastasize, and there will be new recruits.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Dan Benjamin?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: I do agree with that, I think that we may have bought ourselves a hiatus in which the group needs to regroup and retrain and adapt itself to an entirely new situation, which – they no longer have their training grounds in Afghanistan and they’ve lost much of their top leadership.

The important thing to remember about al-Qaida is that it’s not only an organization of terrorists, it’s a dynamic ideological movement that is dedicated to spreading a world view, and in that regard they continue to be very successful. We see that the polls show that bin Laden is very popular throughout many parts of the Islamic world, and this is a long-term worry that even if we make inroads now, we may have to deal with the organization in another incarnation later down the line. And as its popularity spreads, it just becomes more and more dangerous.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.