The Threat of al-Qaida
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MARGARET WARNER: To analyze the present state and strength of al-Qaida, we’re joined by Peter Bergen, author of Holy War Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden. In 1997, he interviewed bin Laden for CNN, where he now serves as a terrorism analyst. And Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside al-Qaida Global Network of Terror. He’s a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of Saint Andrews, in Scotland. And welcome to you, both.
Peter Bergen, is the al-Qaida of today capable of carrying out the sorts of attacks that Attorney General Ashcroft raised today?
PETER BERGEN: Undoubtedly. I mean, Attorney Ashcroft was talking about a lot of attacks against U.S. facilities overseas, primarily in South Asia and possibly in the Middle East. That’s always been where al-Qaida… well within al-Qaida’s reach. I mean, we saw attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in ’98.
And since 9/11, we’ve seen attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, which killed 11 people. We’ve also seen attacks on western targets in Pakistan, against French defense contractors outside a Sheraton Hotel. So, those kinds of things are well within their reach. What I think what is probably less well within their reach is attacking inside the United States, and certainly doing anything remotely like 9/11, although I’m not entirely sanguine about the future of al-Qaida, because it would be unduly optimistic to presume that they won’t be biding their time.
One of their defining characteristics is patience. It took them two and a half years to plan 9/11. It took them five years to plan the U.S. Embassy attacks in Africa. Americans, of the general proposition, are not a particularly patient bunch of people; unfortunately, al-Qaida is.
MARGARET WARNER: Rohan Gunaratna, how do you see… how do you assess their capabilities now?
ROHAN GUNARATNA: Al-Qaida maintains a significant infrastructure and capability in Southeast Asia, and it is very likely that al-Qaida will conduct a number of attacks in that region in the immediate and in the midterm.
However, al-Qaida’s capability to strike inside the United States has gravely diminished because of two factors. One is the high state of alertness of the public, and unprecedented security, intelligence, and law enforcement cooperation.
And, as Peter mentioned, al-Qaida has staged about a dozen attacks since 9/11, and most of those attacks have failed because of security cooperation and because of the alertness of the public — for instance, Richard Reid attempting to bomb a transatlantic flight — also attempts by al-Qaida to poison the water supplies to the U.S. Embassy in Rome. So it’s very difficult for al-Qaida to operate in this environment.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Gunaratna, the Attorney General mentioned the 9/11 anniversary. Would the symbolic nature of that anniversary, would that fit the al-Qaida pattern: Wanting to be able to stage another attack on that day?
ROHAN GUNARATNA: Al-Qaida has staged attacks previously to mark certain anniversaries. For instance, when the… for instance, al-Qaida attacked the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to mark the introduction of U.S. troops to the Gulf countries in response to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.
So likewise, they tend to launch certain operations and assign the symbolic importance to certain dates. But in the current climate, it is highly unlikely that al-Qaida is able to mount a big operation to mark 9/11. They may have succeed in mounting small-scale operation, but definitely not a large operation as that involves planning across a number of countries and over a long period of time, during which time they could become vulnerable to detection.
MARGARET WARNER: Peter Bergen, have you seen evidence that al-Qaida is trying to use 9/11, 2002, in some sort of symbolic way? I’m thinking of some interviews that have surfaced recently, and some videos.
PETER BERGEN: Right.
MARGARET WARNER: What would be the purpose of that?
PETER BERGEN: Psychological warfare, essentially. I mean, we’re still around. I mean, we saw in Afghanistan some real warfare in attempt to assassinate a prime minister, and also a car bomb in the Kabul central market earlier, in the last few days.
And the release of these videotapes and audiotapes, amongst which an audiotape from bin Laden-a little unclear exactly when it was made– but this is a psychological warfare to remind people that al-Qaida is around.
I do think it serves a useful purpose. Al-Qaida does represent a real threat to us. And if we get distracted by a war in Iraq… it was, after all, al-Qaida that killed thousands of Americans last year, not Iraq. So I think that al-Qaida wants to remind people that it’s still around, and that may be useful for us to remember.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, it was just about nine months ago, Peter Bergen, that I guess we’d say U.S. forces succeeded in really toppling their infrastructure in Afghanistan. Since then, where have they regrouped, and who are we talking about when we talk about al-Qaida? Who is the leadership, where are they, how organized are they?
PETER BERGEN: Well, al-Qaida has become sort of a… almost a sort of shorthand for a lot of different phenomena, but al-Qaida, the group itself, is a relatively group of… relatively small number of people who have sworn allegiance to bin Laden. We… I’ve seen… to answer your question, most of them are in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
The interview that al-Jazeera conducted with the operational leader of al-Qaida, of 9/11, and the military commander of al-Qaida, took place in Karachi, Pakistan. So I think, you know, we’ve seen also a lot of activity in Pakistan, a multitude of different low level kind of attacks against western targets since 9/11. So, the majority are in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
MARGARET WARNER: And Rohan Gunaratna, do you think these attacks are being coordinated? Is this organization being led in any kind of way that we would think of as having leadership?
ROHAN GUNARATNA: In terms of strategic… the broad strategic direction, we can see the hand of Osama bin Laden, as well as Dr. Iman Zawahiri, the principal strategist, deputy leader, and the designated successor of Osama bin Laden.
But at the same time, al-Qaida has infiltrated, and is influencing a number of small terrorist organizations and Islamist groups, and those groups are operating independent of al-Qaida direct control. So we can expect two types of attacks. One is attacks by al-Qaida; other attacks are by groups that are inspired and influenced by al-Qaida, but not by al-Qaida organization, but by like-minded organizations.
MARGARET WARNER: And did you mean to suggest that you think bin Laden is still alive?
ROHAN GUNARATNA: I personally believe that Osama bin Laden is alive because of the mood of the Islamists. There is no unhappiness on the part of the Islamists, and also, there is no declaration on the part of al-Qaida or any other organization that Osama has been killed. What we know from detainee interviews was that Osama bin Laden was ill largely due to his kidney problems as of late last year. But there is no intelligence, no credible intelligence that indicates that Osama bin Laden was killed or has died as a result of illness.
MARGARET WARNER: What’s your view of that, Peter Bergen, bin Laden’s fate?
PETER BERGEN: Exactly the same as Rohan’s. I mean, there’s no evidence he’s dead. So why presume he’s dead? Until there’s evidence he’s dead, let’s presume he’s alive. He may not be in great shape. I mean, I think the best recent information came from Abdul Barry Antoine, the editor of “al Quds” newspaper in London, who has got good sources, that bin Laden was wounded in the shoulder at Torra Borra.
The last videotape we saw of him, he was completely immobilized on his left side– during the course of a half hour videotape. And he had looked… he had aged tremendously. You know, we… I met with him in ’97. And in the last five years, he’s aged 20 years. So, I believe that he’s alive, but in very poor health.
MARGARET WARNER: And then how does this, excuse me, how does this network communicate, and if… well, first of all, Peter Bergen, how do they communicate among one another?
PETER BERGEN: Well, I mean, they’ve communicated in a lot of ways in the past– sat phones, Internet, you know, personal contact. Right now… if we look at 9/11 as an example of how they communicated, the final communication between the hijackers, it was all done either in code on the phone or in person.
Bin Laden got the final message from Ramsey bin al-Shaed in person. Ramsey bin al-Shaed was living in Germany, he flew to Afghanistan, he told bin Laden on the Thursday before the Tuesday that 9/11 was about to happen. So we can presume it’s sort of the same types things. People… significant communication done in person or in code.
MARGARET WARNER: But then, if the U.S… if U.S. intelligence is also able to monitor this communication, as apparently they have been, hence the alert, why can’t they arrest these people? What is it about the communication that makes it impossible to pinpoint the location?
PETER BERGEN: Well, I mean, a lot of communication is in languages that the CIA and FBI have been hugely deficient in. Obviously, they’ve got better since. But, I mean, part of the problem is, also, you’re talking about a lot of people. I mean, if you take even the most conservative estimate of the number of al-Qaida, the people who went through these camps, we’re talking 10,000 or 20,000. So, I mean, how can you monitor 10,000 or 20,000 people all the time? It’s very difficult.
MARGARET WARNER: And Mr. Gunaratna, now, what about the 10,000 or 20,000 who went through the camps and ostensibly, we’re told, have what, dispersed into sleeper cells all over the world? Are they still ready and waiting, do you think?
ROHAN GUNARATNA: Many of the Islamists who have been trained by al-Qaida and Taliban, they have already returned to their countries of origin, or they are in the migrant communities ready to be activated.
So what we can… our prediction is that al-Qaida… it will never run short of recruits, although the infrastructure in Afghanistan has been disrupted because there is a reserve of trained young men in the West, and in the Middle East, and in Asia, that can be re-recruited, or re-tasked, by al-Qaida and by other Islamist organizations.
MARGARET WARNER: And Mr. Gunaratna, what about money? What about that kind of resources? Did they… there’s been a huge effort, obviously, to shut that down.
ROHAN GUNARATNA: Al-Qaida generates its funds from multiple sources. It is charities, legitimate businesses, and also the wealth of Osama bin Laden and other philanthropists that are aiding al-Qaida.
What we are seeing is that the U.S. and other western governments have frozen $120 million of money within three months of 9/11. But since then, less than $10 million of money has been seized. That is because al-Qaida financial operations have adapted to the international response. And as the Americans and the Europeans and other countries are disrupting the al-Qaida financial infrastructure, the al-Qaida unregulated hawala system continues to grow. And they’re continuing to move money through the Hawala system.
So, it’s a very long matter. It will take a long time because these governments will have to train a new generation of specialists who are bankers, accountants, financial experts, who will be able to prepare the al-Qaida financial network, the life blood of al-Qaida.
MARGARET WARNER: Rohan Gunaratna and Peter Bergen, thank you both.