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What’s Next for U.S. Military in Fight Against Al-Qaida?

May 2, 2011 at 6:33 PM EDT
What effects will Osama bin Laden's death have on al-Qaida? Gwen Ifill speaks with the New America Foundation's Steve Coll and the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism's Farhana Qazi about U.S. military and intelligence operations, and what the operation revealed about the U.S. relationship with its ally, Pakistan.

GWEN IFILL: The assault that killed bin Laden shed new light on U.S. military and intelligence operations and also about what role the government of Pakistan did or didn’t play in the outcome.

The entire episode also raises another key question: How much was bin Laden’s death — how much has bin Laden’s death actually weakened al-Qaida?

Author and journalist Steve Coll has written extensively on the unfolding terror battle and he is president of the New America Foundation. And terrorism analyst Farhana Qazi specializes on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Booz Allen consulting firm. She is also a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism.

Steve, let’s start — start by talking about this combination of military action and intelligence action. When you weigh the two things, in this particular case, how much of which was involved?

STEVE COLL, New America Foundation: Well first you need intelligence to collect about where your target is located. That was the hardest task in this case.

It took years, as Margaret reported, to even get to the point where they could survey a particular house and assess who was in it. Once there was enough information to strike, then the use of the joint operations, the JSOC forces, Delta Force, in this case, I think Navy SEAL Team six, reflects a capacity that the United States has long possessed but has particularly built up in 10 years of war, frankly, in Iraq and Afghanistan. These teams have been used again and again against other targets of lesser value than Osama bin Laden.

GWEN IFILL: But as much as we talk about intelligence, in the end, it was following a courier back to the place where he had been dispatched from. It wasn’t very high-tech, was it?

STEVE COLL: Well this was because Osama bin Laden had been very successful in evading American technological superiority. That was the vulnerability. I mean even today, I’m told that, if you’re a Taliban commander, and you go into Afghanistan carrying a cell phone, your chances of surviving 60 days are pretty low.

Bin Laden understood this. He had been hunted for years even before 9/11. And so he kept a very low signature. In fact the one vulnerability that surfaced again and again, even at a commonsense level, was the delivery of these media tapes to Al-Jazeera and other media outlets.

And that was where you could pick up some kind of bread crumb trail, couriers and couriers. But, even there, as I understand it, they had layers and layers passing from hand to hand. And so as we understand from Margaret’s report and other sources, it was only when they learned the particular name of a most trusted courier that they got the break that led to this house.

GWEN IFILL: And yet, Farhana Qazi, we kept hearing, I don’t know — I guess it was never correct — that he was hiding in caves, that he was in inaccessible areas. And here he was in plain sight, as so many officials have seen.

Is that unusual or were we not just paying attention to the way this has worked?

FARHANA QAZI, terrorism analyst: I always used to say that we should look at terrorists within the cities of Pakistan. If you look at the historical pattern of other high-value targets, HVTs, that have been captured inside Pakistan, it’s been inside the cities.

It’s been in Faisalabad and Rawalpindi. And we have — we focused our energy so much on the mountains of Tora Bora or the caves, because that just seemed logical to us. So much of our energy in our war effort is spent on looking at the FATA region, the tribal areas of Pakistan, for obvious reasons, the cross-border activity, the drugs and the problems that have existed there.

That’s where our energy has been spent. And yet, if you think of it, it’s really — it makes more sense for these high-value targets to hide within Pakistani cities. And now there’s a great fear inside Pakistan that many of the terrorists, for example, Ayman al-Zawahri, who is our number-two man, or the one who is going to replace bin Laden, is moving to Southern Punjab.

And I have been on the phone with Pakistani journalists all day. And there’s — even we focused so much our energy on Abbottabad, and this is where he’s been, he has lived in this compound well, I think it would be a mistake to think that he’s been in this resort town for a long time.

GWEN IFILL: For very long, yes.

FARHANA QAZI: He’s been moving around.

In fact, one of my sources said that it was only three days ago that he came to Abbottabad. Before that he was in the northern areas of Chitral, which, again, is another peaceful area, another resort-like place, a beautiful valley of Pakistan. So I think that we need to pay more attention to areas that were not on our radar.

GWEN IFILL: Well, help me with this, because one of the things we have become conditioned in these 10 years to believing is that he is the head of the snake, as John Brennan put it this way. How important operationally is, was bin Laden anymore? When he — when we couldn’t catch him, we said he wasn’t that important. Today, we said he was.

STEVE COLL: Well, there’s a lot about exactly what he did in operations after 9/11 while he was in hiding that we obviously don’t know.

But if you go back even to the pre-9/11 period, he’s always functioned more as a chairman of the board than as a chief operations officer. He was the organizer of a big-tent movement of both violent operatives and sort of political leaders. And he — you know, he functioned through networks, as well as through the al-Qaida core organization.

And, think, what is al-Qaida? Yes, it’s a specific organization, of which he was emir, that was founded in 1988 and enjoyed his continuous leadership. But from the beginning, it was also a network of like-minded organizations, of franchises and affiliates.

And it was even more broadly aspiring to be a political movement that would incite individuals to act on their own, even without ever having contact with al-Qaida trainers. So, it was always all of those things. It was a synthesis of those characteristics.

GWEN IFILL: So with him gone is there a number two who then rises up to number one?

FARHANA QAZI: There is a number two. It is Ayman al-Zawahri.

But again, I would echo what Steve has said, is this is a loose — an infrastructure. He was — his death has been symbolic. And I think that that symbolism now is — it no longer matters. It’s irrelevant. And there are many Pakistanis who actually are quite indifferent to his death.

In fact, if you were to poll Pakistan, quite frankly, they would say that a Muslim has passed. And so the response from even the local street in Pakistan has been rather muted.

And the — I think what we should really worry about is not al-Qaida. Al-Qaida, if you look at the foreign fighter force in Pakistan, has been a few hundred people. We really should worry about the local jihadi tanzeem or the organizations. There’s a plethora of organizations inside Pakistan.

If you think of what India and Afghanistan are most concerned about, it’s local organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Badr Mujahideen, or Jaish-e-Mohammad. There’s a number of organizations that are these smaller franchises that pose a greater threat, not only to the region, but also potentially to America.

GWEN IFILL: Well OK, so that comes to the next question, which is, to what degree do we have cooperation from the government of Pakistan to pursue any of these other groups, if indeed we now have these questions about whether Pakistan, in essence, sheltered bin Laden?

STEVE COLL: Well even before the circumstantial evidence about bin Laden’s hiding place surfaced over the last couple of days, there were frustrations in the American intelligence community about the willingness of Pakistan’s intelligence service to do everything that it could to suppress some of the groups that Farhana was referring to that had cross-border potential and indeed were in some cases in revolt against the Pakistani state itself.

And part of the problem in this equation is that Pakistan’s capacity is limited. They are not in a position to clean out everyone of the Frankenstein monsters that they have built up for regional policy reasons over the last 15 years.

But the frustration is whether or not they’re really doing what they can, given their limited capacity. And when you find evidence of, not just bin Laden, but other significant militant leaders around the country, living in effective safe house conditions, sometimes called house arrest, but it’s — it’s essentially a pattern of tolerance of violent leaders that, at some stage, for the countries that are on the receiving end of that violence, not just the United States,but India, Europe and other countries, there’s just a limit to how much patience those governments are willing to exercise.

GWEN IFILL: Well then how worried should we be that any of these other monsters, as you describe them, which have been built up, will retaliate now?

FARHANA QAZI: Well if you look at the online jihadi forums, there’s been two messages, one of congratulations, because now Osama bin Laden is a martyr, and they welcome that, and then, obviously, condolences.

And through those condolences and the mourning period, there have been a number of attacks. The Tehrik-i-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban’s spokesman Tariq Aziz has issued very harsh warnings against the United States.

He said the fedayeen, the mujahideen force is ready to strike the United States. Of course, they have been saying that for years. So I think we should not dismiss these threats, but also know that our law enforcement agencies and having come from the intelligence community, that our men and women in uniform and within the intelligence community are working fearlessly and tirelessly to ensure that we are safe.

I think the real question is how safe is Pakistan? Because Steve is correct. There are great limitations. Pakistani military officers I’m in touch with, they feel completely stretched. They’re stretched on having a contingency force on the line of control for Kashmir. They have forces now on the western front to thwart attacks from Afghanistan or the threat there.

And then there’s also the internal problem now stemming from Punjab. So Pakistan cannot do this alone. And if you speak to the Pakistanis, from their vantage point, they really need the cooperation from the United States, from India, from Afghanistan, from a multitude of regional actors in order to ensure that the threat doesn’t come to the United States.

GWEN IFILL: And for that reason, briefly, Steve, Pakistan and the U.S. have to cooperate — cooperate moving forward.

STEVE COLL: Well Secretary Clinton signaled it in the report you aired that neither country can afford a state of open hostility at this stage. There’s too much at stake in the war in Afghanistan and in terms of Pakistan’s own stability.

GWEN IFILL: Steve Coll of the America — New America Foundation, and Farhana Qazi of Booz Allen Hamilton, thank you both very much.

STEVE COLL: Thank you.