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Al Qaeda’s Web

September 25, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: The Bush administration has labeled bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network as the prime suspect in the September 11th attacks.

They’ve also charged him with masterminding the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa and last year’s attack on the USS Cole. For more on Al Qaeda and how it operates, we turn to Judith Miller, a New York Times correspondent who has covered the Middle East and written extensively on bin Laden and his network. Her new book is Germs, Biological Weapons, and America’s Secret War. And Jessica Stern, who served on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration — she’s now a Public Policy lecturer at Harvard University and author of the book The Ultimate Terrorist. Welcome to you both.

Judith Miller, beginning with you, when we’re talking about Al Qaeda, what are we talking about? Give us an idea of its size and its reach.

JUDITH MILLER: Well, we’re talking about an organization that, as Colin Powell described it, is more of a holding company for terror. It is a group, a united front, to combat, as they say, Christians and Jews or crusaders and Jews. It is a network of affiliated terrorist groups. It stretches to some 50 to 60 countries. It runs training camps. It provides support facilities and financing for terrorist enterprises, and the name itself is reflective of its mission.

The name “Al Qaeda” in Arabic means “the base,” and it is the platform or the base from which Osama bin Laden and his affiliated terrorists hope to launch their worldwide Jihad or Holy War that is to turn all societies and states into places that are run in an “Islamic way,” that is, as they interpret Islam.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Jessica Stern, what would you add to that, particularly in the connections between Al Qaeda and some of the other militant Islamic groups we’ve heard about in countries from, you know, Egypt all the way to the Philippines?

JESSICA STERN: Right. This group, bin Laden either funds or inspires or is affiliated in some way with a number of groups, including Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the Islamic group, the Armed Islamic Group, Har Cad Ul Mujahadeen, a new group in Indonesia that I just visited this summer called Laskar Jihad is allegedly affiliated or funded by bin Laden. So it’s a very far-reaching organization.

MARGARET WARNER: So, would you say there’s kind of a core group and then there are also affiliations with other groups that may have started on their own, but now they work together?

JESSICA STERN: They don’t even necessarily work together. They may carry out operations on their own initiative.

JUDITH MILLER: So you get a kind of top-down and bottom-up organization. The reason that Osama bin Laden has been so hard to kind of pinpoint and pin down is that he can rely on an Algerian militant group or a Moluccan Islamic group.

I mean, he can pull from any one of a number of different organizations, and that really makes the job of law enforcement and intelligence so much harder.

MARGARET WARNER: Jessica Stern, so its main targets are what? Both secular… What they see as secular Muslim regimes and the United States and/or all western countries?

JESSICA STERN: Yes, that’s right. One of the things that came out of the bombing trial this spring of four terrorists involved in the Africa Embassy bombings in 1998 is that these groups are very concerned about intelligence, counterintelligence in particular. They’re very, very good at evading law enforcement detection.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, now let’s… In staying with you, Jessica Stern, how do they get recruits? I’ve heard there are anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 who have been trained, I guess, in these training camps in Afghanistan, but they can’t all be veterans of the Afghan War because many of them are too young for that. Where do they get their recruits?

JESSICA STERN: The recruits come from all over. I think… They require both skilled and unskilled labor. One of the sources of unskilled labor is Madrassahs, a number of which I visited in Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Madrassahs, being what?

JESSICA STERN: Religious schools. Extremist religious schools. Half of the students at one of the schools I visited were actually Afghani. The mental training for these groups is far more important, in fact, than the technical training. Anyone can learn to fly, but learning to… the discipline and the hatred, really, that would enable someone to carry out the kind of attack that we saw on September 11, that is far more difficult.

So mental training is key. And where they meet each other, there are networks established at these schools. People come from all over the world to study in these schools, and then there are networks established in the camps, many of which are in Afghanistan, but they’re also around the world. And we know that terrorists are generally very good at recruiting through social networks. That’s a very important aspect of recruitment.

And finally they’re all advertising on the Internet. They have elaborate Web sites, trying to make Jihad look very attractive.

MARGARET WARNER: And Judith Miller, the classic definition or the stereotype of people who would join a group like this are that they’re poor, uneducated. But that isn’t necessarily true, is it?

JUDITH MILLER: No, as we’ve seen in the horrific September 11 events, many of these people were college graduates. They were middle class. Mohamed Atta, who was apparently one of the key figures in the hijacking plots, he was… came from a very good family in Egypt.

So we’ve really got to, I think, discard the old profiles of the people we expect the terrorists to be. The only thing that seems to be true up to this point is that they do not yet use women as suicide bombers or in suicide missions. I have not encountered a senior- ranking Al Qaeda person or even a woman in a militant affiliated group, but that, too, could change.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. So Judith, how do they then move into operations? How do they decide where to go? Where do they establish cells? Who chooses the targets? Who runs these actual operations?

JUDITH MILLER: Well, once again, it’s a combination of top-down and bottom-up decision making.

When I was investigating in Jordan the millennium bombing plot, which was a failed Osama bin Laden plot to blow up bridge crossings and holy sites and tourist sites in Jordan to welcome in the millennium in their own inimitable fashion, we saw a combination of local initiative on the part of the militant Islamic group that was already well ensconced in Jordan. Most of them were Jordanians and Palestinians. And then we saw some outside direction. Osama bin Laden’s lieutenants, his key lieutenant, gave an order that a mission was supposed to start at a certain time, and they provided some external assistance.

So what you had was a kind of blend of boys who wanted to strike out– and in this case men, there were once again a range of ages– against the West, against what they viewed as their secular society, directed at a certain time by the bin Laden organization. This is kind of the classic model for a bin Laden operation. Fortunately it failed, thanks to rather extraordinary work on the part of Jordanian law enforcement and intelligence.

MARGARET WARNER: Jessica Stern, what would you add to that in terms of how they actually operate once they’ve chosen a target?

JESSICA STERN: Well, first they send out a surveillance mission. I just want to make clear that that’s part of the operation. There are people involved in surveillance. And then leaders– this came out in the trial– are involved in selecting the target. And then another group would actually be… would be involved in executing the attack. And people involved are often only told what they need to know.

In other words, the group functions very much like a government or intelligence agency, where classified information is protected on a need-to-know basis. And that also makes it much harder to penetrate the group.

MARGARET WARNER: They’re also very sophisticated in their use of technology, are they not, Jessica Stern?

JESSICA STERN: Well, there’s no question that they’re very interested in buying weapons of mass destruction.

MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me. I was thinking more of communications technology and how they encrypt messages among themselves. Just describe that a little bit.

JESSICA STERN: Yes, they use encrypted communications to talk with one another. They also meet, I’m told… Some of the groups affiliated in Pakistan, they told me that a very good place to meet is actually Iran, where you can meet face-to-face rather than having conversations over the telephone.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that, Judith Miller, in terms of their use of technology?

JUDITH MILLER: Well, I think that for example, they’re very astute to efforts by the West to penetrate them.

One story that springs to mind is there was a time in which American intelligence apparently used to listen to bin Laden as he spoke to friends and even relatives on a satellite phone. One newspaper published that fact in a story about him, and the next day, I’m told, that channel of communication dried up. He stopped using the satellite phone. So they’re very aware of the extent to which western intelligence agencies attempt to monitor them, and they will go to great lengths to avoid penetration, as Jessica said.

MARGARET WARNER: And also, Judith Miller, what about their financing? This couldn’t all still just be financed from bin Laden’s original fortune, could it?

JUDITH MILLER: Well, it could be, because actually we know relatively little about how wealthy bin Laden is. I’ve seen estimates of everything from $50 million to a $1 billion, but, you know, the difficult part of trying to dry up his financing– and I think it’s well worth the effort– but it doesn’t take a lot of money to conduct the kind of terrorist operations that we’ve seen in New York and Washington.

I mean, that was… which was far and away one of his more expensive efforts, cost an estimated $200,000. So you’re not talking about millions of dollars, the kind of financing you’d need if you were trying to start up a really sophisticated nuclear program, for example.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, to both of you briefly on this, Jessica Stern, how much support does Al Qaeda rely on or need from other states and which states?

JESSICA STERN: Well, we know, again, from the bombing trial that Sudanese government officials were facilitating their activities in Sudan, and also that Iranian government officials were facilitating training in Lebanon. So we do know something about state involvement or state actors’ involvement.

MARGARET WARNER: Judith Miller, what would you add to that about state support?

JUDITH MILLER: I would just say that we’ve heard a lot about Iraq, but my sources… The officials that I’ve talked to say at the moment there is no evidence to suggest that Iraq was involved. That’s not to say that they were not, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence at this point.

My concern is that ultimately groups like this don’t need states. What they do need is a sanctuary, and the largest one at the moment is Afghanistan. And that’s the one that the administration is now attempting to isolate and deal with.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Judith Miller and Jessica Stern, thank you both very much.

JUDITH MILLER: Thank you.

JESSICA STERN: Thank you.