Tracking Down Al-Qaida
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RAY SUAREZ: Over the past three weeks, U.S. officials have reported progress against al-Qaida. Two of the top targets were the alleged planners of the USS Cole bombing two years ago. Investigators last week reported the arrest of Saudi native Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri. They say he’s al-Qaida’s top man in the Persian Gulf, and one of the network’s top leaders known to be in U.S. custody. Along with the Cole bombing, which killed 17 U.S. sailors, he’s connected to a similar attack last month against a French supertanker off the coast of Yemen. It killed one crew member. Washington has given no details about where, when, or how Al-Nashiri was caught.
U.S. Officials say Al-Nashiri also participated in the attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa back in 1998. The lead architect of the attack on the Cole, which is now repaired and back at sea, is said to be Qaed Salim Sinan al Harethi, also known as Abu Ali. He was killed earlier this month in Yemen, along with several colleagues, when an American missile blew up their car. The missile was fired by an unmanned drone, known as the predator, operated by the CIA. Abd al-Kareem al-Iryani is an advisor to the president in Yemen. He says air support was critical to the strike on Al-Nashiri and his team.
ABD AL-KAREEM AL-IRYANI: They are roaming in a very vast desert area — no towns, no cities, no villages. And so, it was not possible to keep running over everywhere in the desert to catch them. So there was resort to the use of the predator. There is no proof what was his target, but there is proof that the car was full of explosives and ammunitions and so on, and that he was going to do something in the region.
RAY SUAREZ: Still, Al-Iriyani says there are two additional senior al-Qaida members still on the loose in Yemen.
ABD AL-KAREEM AL-IRYANI: Both of them have been in Afghanistan and received training, and I think both of them know Osama bin Laden before September 11. So they are part of a network.
RAY SUAREZ: Today U.S. Officials said Yemen native Abu Mohammed, considered a major al-Qaida figure, was killed by Algerian forces in September. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, investigators reported new progress on the Bali nightclub bombing case. 200 people, mostly foreign tourists, were killed in the attack last month. Last week, local police arrested Imam Samudra, who reportedly confessed to planning and executing the strike. Police say Samudra worked alongside a man known as Amrozi, who’s also in custody. Both men are reportedly leaders in the Muslim extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah. Yesterday, investigators searching Samudra’s house found traces of chemicals linked to the Bali explosion, as well as video recordings of Osama bin Laden speeches.
The reports of progress come amid new evidence that bin Laden is indeed still alive, by audio recordings of his speeches, authenticated by U.S. intelligence. On the day the bin Laden tape was announced, November 14, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle voiced skepticism about the war on terror and its progress.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: We haven’t found bin Laden, we haven’t made any real progress in many of the other areas involving the key elements of al-Qaida. They continue to be as great a threat today as they were a year and a half ago. So by what measure can we say this has been successful so far?
RAY SUAREZ: The White House responded the same day.
SPOKESMAN: If Osama bin Laden is alive, we know he is on the run. We have dismantled his terrorist network. We are going to continue tracking down these trained killers, their leaders.
RAY SUAREZ: That “tracking down” includes village raids in Eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaida operatives, according to U.S. Officials, have recently engaged in significant conversations, or “chatter.” The FBI warned of a possible “spectacular” attack meant to inflict maximum U.S. casualties.
RAY SUAREZ: For more on the hunt for al-Qaida, we go to Daniel Benjamin, the director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council during the second Clinton administration. He’s co-author of The Age of Sacred Terror, a book about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. And Angel Rabasa was deputy director of the State Department’s office for the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore affairs in the late 1990s, and is now a senior policy analyst at RAND, a research organization.
Well, Daniel Benjamin, are arrests such as these, a serious setback for the ability of al-Qaida to do its business?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: They’re undoubtedly a setback. They’re undoubtedly a step forward in the effort to dismantle the organization. But just as a measure to give also little perspective, they’ve been going on since 1997. The biggest arrest ever of an al-Qaida operative took place after the east Africa embassy bombings in 1998. So these are essential. But we shouldn’t take any false consolation and believe that we’re making huge inroads just yet.
RAY SUAREZ: Is an organization like al-Qaida ready to lose these sort of mid-ranking officers? Are they immediately replaced when someone like al-Nashiri is taken into custody?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: It’s hard to say how easily replaced they are. But what is certainly true is that there is a cadre of other, shall we say, upper middle and senior managers who can coordinate and carry out large-scale operations. So there’s still at least a dozen of these level operatives out there.
RAY SUAREZ: Angel Rabasa, does the foiling of a plot in Singapore, a successful bombing in Bali, show that this network’s attentions have swung to Southeast Asia and why would it go to a place like Indonesia?
ANGEL RABASA: Well, Ray, actually Southeast Asia is shaping up as a major battlefield in the war on terrorism. And the reason for that is because Southeast Asia has many of the characteristics that would make it a very hospitable environment for the operations of terrorist groups.
Take Indonesia for instance, this is the world’s largest and most populous Muslim majority country. It’s a sprawling archipelago of 14,000 islands with porous borders, a weak and dysfunctional government and security institutions, an economic crisis, communal infighting, out of control militias, and a political environment that until the Bali bombing made it very difficult for the government to crack down on terrorists. Because of these conditions, al-Qaida has naturally found in Southeast Asia a place to move now that it’s under pressure in Afghanistan.
RAY SUAREZ: But for a long time, one of the commonly noted things from area experts, from people who analyze the situation in Indonesia, was that this was a brand of Islam that was different, not a breeding ground for this kind of terror that we might associate with different parts of the world. What happened?
ANGEL RABASA: Absolutely. The Indonesian brand of Islam is a very moderate brand of Islam. For example, the two largest Indonesian Muslim organizations… have a combined membership of about 70 million people. They accept the secular state, they condemn terrorism, they have participated in interfaith dialogues with other faiths.
On the other hand, if you look at the sheer numbers, 220 million people, 80 percent Muslim. If you take that only 10 percent of those are politically active in Islamic causes, and if you take that maybe one out of 100 of that 10 percent would be willing to participate in violent activities, that is 200,000 people. So you have a base, even though very much a minority of the overall population, a base from which the terrorists can grow participants.
But aside from that, it’s very important to say that the political conditions in in Indonesia, the political chaos that followed the overthrow of Suharto, the fact that after the fall of Suharto the intelligence organizations in Indonesia were decentralized; they used to have a centralized intelligence service, they broke it off into state intelligence, military intelligence, the police has its own separate intelligence operation. So this makes it very difficult for the government to react to these threats.
Now, after Bali, they realize the magnitude of the threat, they’re trying to change, they have been very successful in capturing some of the participant in this terrorist actions. So they’re on the right track, but they have a long way to go.
RAY SUAREZ: Could this also mean, Daniel Benjamin, that this new activity that’s being detected in Southeast Asia, a sign that it’s just much harder to operate in the eastern Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, Southwest Asia?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, the history of al-Qaida is that it has always moved towards the periphery to gain converts, and as a way of finding a place where you could have safe haven and operate with some impunity. Afghanistan, after all, was in many ways a distant boundary for a group had its roots in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. And in fact one of the reasons that al-Qaida is so different from earlier Jihadist groups is that it has sought to surpass the old strategy.
Traditionally these groups went only after their national governments. Al-Qaida saw that the Jihadists were being whipped at the national level, and decided to find a safe haven and try to craft a strategy that attacked what they call the foreign enemy, the United States, which they believe is propping up these regimes and making their survival possible.
So this is really consistent with what they’ve been doing all along. They’ve never stopped supporting indigenous groups, like Jemaah Islamiyah. But they also sought to carry out attacks against the U.S., to break the legs under these regimes as well. So I think what we’re seeing is a piece of the group’s evolution.
RAY SUAREZ: Does this decentralization also make them harder to fight as a group?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, the group has often spoken of as a loose network. And perhaps by the standards of a western intelligence service, it is a loose network and has a lot of affiliate groups. But the fact is it’s been fairly well organized, and so far as I know, no major attack has ever than been carried out without the green light of the senior-most officials. So when we talk about decentralization, I think we need to be careful about how far we go with that.
RAY SUAREZ: Angel Rabasa, what link there is between al-Qaida and the Indonesian attack depends on who you ask. The Indonesian police say there’s no link between Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaida, while some intelligence analysts say no, no this has al-Qaida fingerprints all over it. How do you know what to believe?
ANGEL RABASA: Well, actually, before the Bali attack, there was some skepticism among the Indonesian authorities on whether in fact al-Qaida was in Indonesia whether Jemaah Islamiyah was there. There were people who denied it. Now they accept it. Now the most senior Indonesian officials have accepted the fact that they have a big problem on their hands, that the Jemaah Islamiyah is in fact operating in Indonesia and that they are linked to this devastating terrorist attack in Bali.
Now, there is no question in my mind that there is a strong link between gem that Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaida, and I believe that Jemaah Islamiyah can be considered the subsidiary of al-Qaida. And a lot of the leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah, this person in Bali for instance who is the operational head of the group in Southeast Asia, they were trained in Afghanistan; they established connections with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, they have traveled back and forth between Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. And there is just no question that there is direct connections.
Now, as it was mentioned before, this is a decentralized operation. What the al-Qaida leaders do is they give the green light to, on specific attacks, and then they leave to it the local organization, to Jemaah Islamiyah in this case, to decide the place, the timing, and the nature of the attack.
RAY SUAREZ: Does that mean — you go ahead, I’m sorry.
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Actually, I differ a little bit on that. First of all we know about Jemaah Islamiyah, we know a lot more about it, because very specific plans for a huge attack in Singapore were found in a safe house in Afghanistan. But this is to a certain extent a scholarly dispute as to how closely coordinated the groups are. There’s no question that Jemaah Islamiyah is a subsidiary of al-Qaida.
RAY SUAREZ: And is al-Qaida today a much reduced organization, less able to do its will in the world?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, there’s no question that being thrown out of Afghanistan was a big setback for the group. A temporary setback probably because the group will evolve to become a virtual network. There’s no question as well that the arrest or killing of a number of senior operatives is a setback.
But one of the problems we have in saying, you know, where we are vis-à-vis al-Qaida is you only know how much progress you’ve made if you know where you are, and the fact is we don’t know how big the group is still. We’re all been continually surprised the last few years to find more and more cells, more operatives and just more activity.
The fact is we’ve made awful these very good arrests, the operation in Yemen was an important strike forward. But at the same time, there continues to be an enormous amount of activity, and we’ve had repeated warnings from officials of all the communications that they’re privy to.
RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you very much.