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Tracking Terrorism

September 16, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Here to assess the significance of these arrests, we’re joined by Elaine Shannon, who covers the Justice Department for “Time” Magazine. 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 Zachary Abuza, an assistant professor and head of the Asia program at Simmons College in Boston. He’s spent several months this year in Southeast Asia, working on a book about the al-Qaida network there. Welcome to you all.

Peter Bergen, what is the significance of these arrests?

PETER BERGEN: Well, the arrest of Ramzi Binalshibh is incredibly significant. Up to his arrest basically the 9/11 investigation had only detained Zacarias Moussaoui, the Minnesota… the guy who was in the Minnesota flight schools, and it’s not clear exactly his relationship to the 9/11 hijackers so Binalshibh’s arrest is an immense breakthrough.

If Binalshibh told American investigators what he told al Jazeera in a recent interview, that would be quite interesting for those investigators.

MARGARET WARNER: And Professor Abuza, what would you add to that in terms of how significant a figure Binalshibh is?

ZACHARY ABUZA: I think he was a very important figure especially considering the arrest in early April of Abu Zubida. I believe Ramzi Binalshibh probably had a lot of day-to-day operational information about the network — most importantly about how to keep in contact with different cell members around the world.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, you’re saying not only does he know a lot about 9/11 but that he knows a lot about the ongoing operations of al-Qaida.

ZACHARY ABUZA: Precisely. He very clearly is the second most powerful al-Qaida figure that we have captured so far.

MARGARET WARNER: Peter Bergen, back to you. You mentioned the al Jazeera interview. For people who haven’t read about it, just give a flavor of the level of… it was quite incredible detail that he provided, he and another senior al-Qaida figure, to this al Jazeera reporter.

PETER BERGEN: Well, several things. First of all, that the fourth target the target of flight 93 was indeed Capitol Hill not the White House as some had speculated. They initially thought they might attack American nuclear facilities, but they decided that idea might have too many unintended consequences. Thirdly Ramzi Binalshibh himself said that he was really the conduit between Mohammed Atta and the United States and al-Qaida and Afghanistan, on two occasions passing very significant messages.

Three weeks before 9/11 he said that there were four targets including the Capitol Hill in the form of code to al-Qaida. And then on August 29, Mohammed Atta calls from the United States to Ramzi Binalshibh and says again in the form of code that the attack would be on 9/11, a message that Ramzi Binalshibh passes on to bin Laden the Thursday before the Tuesday of 9/11. So that interview was full of all sorts of interesting news and may have in fact been an act that rather shot himself in the foot, because perhaps by giving that interview and being public he may have drawn unwanted attention to himself.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Abuza, what does the fact that he went into such details in that interview tell us, if anything, about the possibility that he may talk while in custody? Anything?

ZACHARY ABUZA: I think it says a lot. He very clearly has a very large ego. We can play to his vanity. I think often you will have al-Qaida suspects that will resist for long periods of time, such as al Farooq that was quiet for three months.

MARGARET WARNER: This is a man arrested in Southeast Asia.

ZACHARY ABUZA: Yes, he was arrested in June in… June 5 in Indonesia and now is at Bagram Air Force base where he’s been interrogated. He was quiet for three months. And finally he was broken. Ramzi Binalshibh is a different case altogether. He seems to want to show off how much he knows. I think it will be hard for him to go back and try to retract the statements he made on al Jazeera.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Elaine Shannon, now tell us about this Lackawanna, New York group of six young men. Authorities said they’ve actually had them under surveillance for more than a year. What triggered these arrests?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, one thing on September 11 just ironically, the FBI got to this guy in Bahrain who was over there at this arranged marriage of his. And they confronted him.

He said… he told the same story they had all told, which is we went to Pakistan to do religious training. They had all stuck to this story. The FBI said something to him. I don’t know exactly what. I’d like to know. He broke and he said I was lying. Let me tell you the whole story and he did. We went to Afghanistan. We saw Osama bin Laden. We learned… using weapons, one of the group learned he used anti-aircraft weapons. He was over there a little bit before. Then we came back. That was September 11.

On September 12, the FBI in Lackawanna went to one of the group who was there and said, you’ve been lying to us. Tell us… do yourself a favor. Tell us what you know. Maybe things will be better for you. So he told the same story. So there they had them. They were going to watch them a little bit longer but it started to leak on Friday night so the FBI and the U.S. Attorney in there just got straight into court and released the material Saturday.

MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying that they actually hadn’t planned to arrest them and make these charges public until the news of the break in the case started to leak?

ELAINE SHANNON: Yes, this was a task force case. It actually started… the New York state police started it. They were investigating an unrelated crime in the Yemeni community there. It’s fairly large and somebody said hey you ought to look at these guys over there. They’ve been to Afghanistan. I don’t know who leaked it. But it did. You know, journalists do what they do so they decided to go ahead and roll ‘em up.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what is the law really under which they’re charged or what makes it a crime what they’ve done because again authorities have said they have no evidence so far that these six men were planning any kind of specific new attack.

ELAINE SHANNON: Yes, well it’s a law that is giving material support and resources to a terrorist organization. Two of them have allegedly confessed that they were in training in these camps and they knew what they were and using firearms. The resources themselves, offering themselves as soldiers for it.

The Justice Department, Attorney General Ashcroft, Michael Chertoff who is the chief architect of all this, said we are not going to wait until these people strike. We’re going to get them however we can get them. If we can get them on credit card fraud, we’ll do it that way. If we can get them knocking over convenience stores to make money, we’ll do that. In this case they didn’t find any arms but they just don’t believe that they’re going to sit there and just forget about what happened.

MARGARET WARNER: Peter Bergen, what do these arrests, both the Binalshibh and this, tell us about how the anti-terror campaign is progressing, about how much progress is being made in apprehending other members of the al-Qaida network?

PETER BERGEN: If you’d ask me the same question a week ago I would have said not very much progress but obviously there’s been a lot of progress this week. Obviously this is a long-term intelligence-gathering and law enforcement exercise. On the men who were arrested in Buffalo, it’s quite possible that a reasonable defense they could mount is that they were sympathizers with the Taliban who, after all, we were not at war with when they were training at this camp and they had really no idea that it was anything to do with al-Qaida. I mean there are some innocent constructions that can be put on it particularly since they haven’t actually been accused of participating in any real crime.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Abuza, you heard the President say… and also Secretary Rumsfeld say today that, you know, this is part of this pressure that the U.S. is being able to exert on the al-Qaida network and making it harder for them to operate. Do you think that’s the case? Does your reporting suggest that?

ZACHARY ABUZA: It is making it harder for them, but you have to remember there’s a very large pool for them to draw on. They have a lot of sympathizers around the world. I still don’t think we’re really getting beyond the tip of the iceberg.

When Omar al Farooq was arrested and brought in, he made it very clear that he left behind teams and cells across Southeast Asia that are able to operate independently without waiting for approval or authorization from a centralized al-Qaida command. So it’s going to be a very long, drawn-out war. I think we are doing a good job slowly but there’s a lot more to be done.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s your take on this, Elaine Shannon?

ELAINE SHANNON: These cases tell me that the good guys are very, very good but so are the bad guys.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning?

ELAINE SHANNON: You know, when you look at the sophisticated organization with continuity of government plans, if you will, that they had in Southeast Asia, I mean this is why it landed on the President’s desk September 9, why they went immediately… or sorry, September 10, and they went immediately to code orange because they realized that this is the ant army. It’s like the drug trade. You can knock off a group. You can knock off five groups and there’s still ten out there to take their place.

MARGARET WARNER: Peter Bergen, the U.S. and the Pakistani authorities though here really did cooperate, did they not, in this raid? I mean, there have been questions about how good the cooperation really is.

PETER BERGEN: Pakistan has cooperated in the war against terrorism long before 9/11. I mean they handed over Ramzi Yousef who was the lead organizer of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; they also handed over Mira Milcancy, who shot up a group of CIA employees outside CIA Headquarters. In fact, Mira Milcancy was a Pakistani citizen. So Pakistan has been quite cooperative long before 9/11 and continues to be so. We’ve seen that with Abu Zubida. We’ve seen that with Ramzi Binalshibh and I think we’ll continue to see that. General Musharraf was cracking down on religious groups, militant groups in Pakistan way before 9/11 because he understands that they represent a threat to his government and they’re also killing hundreds of Pakistanis in inter-communal violence between the Shiites and the Sunnis.

MARGARET WARNER: And yet Ramzi Binalshibh and the other man who gave the al Jazeera interview have been living in Karachi since June when they gave the interview. What does that tell you?

PETER BERGEN: Well, if I was going to select one place in the world to disappear, Karachi would be it. I mean, it’s one of the biggest cities in the world, 15 million people. It’s got a huge number of different factional groups that you can ally yourself with; Kashmiri separatists groups that are sympathetic to al-Qaida or trained with al-Qaida. So it’s a great place for them to disappear, but the bottom line is that Ramzi Binalshibh was picked up by the Pakistani police who suffered quite a number of casualties in that exchange of fire. So I think you know, Pakistan is doing the best it can in very difficult circumstances.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor Abuza, go back to this other topic we’ve been talking about, about the interrogations and how well they’re working. How do U.S. authorities know that someone in captivity isn’t completely misleading them, which, in fact, you would assume they would want to do?

ZACHARY ABUZA: I assume that very good al-Qaida operatives are trained to mislead. The best way you can do it is through triangulation and to take a little bit of information from one person. You interrogate someone else to confirm things; when you start to get facts, you go back and present these people with new bits of evidence. You can try to get them to cooperate over time.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you all three very much.