Al Qaeda retains resilience
With a top terror suspect in hand, officials scramble to sift computer disks.
WASHINGTON — Warning to America: You may have nabbed a key terrorist leader, but the network he helped run still exists - and has adapted to major setbacks before.
That's a key message emerging from US officials and counterterrorism experts in the wake of Saturday's capture of Al Qaeda's operational mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed in Pakistan.
Leaders of the intelligence and homeland-security communities seem to be tamping down expectations. That could be due, in part, to the euphoria wearing off over the first arrest of a high-ranking Al Qaeda member in months. But it also could signal that officials are standing back, taking stock of the bigger terrorist picture.
"Despite the arrest of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Al Qaeda is extremely adept at protecting their organization," FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday. "As they evolve and change tactics, we too must evolve."
Evolving, for now, means racing through reams of data collected from Mohammed's cellphone, laptop computer, and notebook, which were confiscated during his arrest.
And they are keeping the pressure on him 24/7 to reveal the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda members, and details of any possible terrorist plots in the works. But, despite a drumbeat of new progress on the "most-wanted" front, snuffing out Al Qaeda isn't going to be easy, and not necessarily quick, say senior intelligence officials and experts.
The Al Qaeda network has continued, over the past decade, to show great resilience. It not only has thousands of footsoldiers in place around the globe, it also has a deep bench to draw on for mid-level managers.
"If you look at Al Qaeda as a criminal organization, where you pick off one gangster at a time, then yes, maybe it will lead you to the others," says a high-level government official. "But if you look at it as a military organization, the odds are longer."
For example, he says, "When we shot down [Japanese Admiral] Yamamoto in World War II, it was nice to get rid of him. But the Japanese had others to take his place. They may not have been as skilled, but the war went on for another 2-1/2 years."
Intelligence officials say the interrogation of Mohammed - currently taking place in an undisclosed location outside the US - may be fruitful, but that it usually takes some time before an individual of this caliber begins to break and reveal anything new - or true.
The directors of both the CIA and FBI are quick to point out that Al Qaeda is still extremely dangerous. They say only one-third of its leadership has been captured or killed. That means at least two-thirds of the leadership is out there.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge tried to put the arrest in perspective. "We cannot overestimate [Mr. Mohammed's] importance to the Al Qaeda terrorist organization," he told reporters on Monday. "But we shouldn't underestimate the continuing abilities that he has helped develop around the world."
To be sure, the government has made significant progress. Several other high-level Al Qaeda members captured in the past have led to additional arrests.
For example, the apprehension of operations chief Abu Zubaydah in March 2002 led to the eventual capture of the cell leader for the 9/11 hijackers, as well as Jose Padilla, suspected of planning a "dirty bomb" attack here in the US. Several others have been rounded up, including Mohammed Omar Abdel-Rahmen, the son of the blind Egyptian cleric who is imprisoned in New York for plots in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Still, both Osama bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are assumed to be hiding - probably in the tribal area between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
And although the government has arrested or killed several other high-ranking Al Qaeda members, including military chiefs Mohammed Atef and his successor, Abu Zubaydah, others have picked up the mantle to lead additional terrorist strikes.
A senior intelligence official, who has written an extensive survey of the Al Qaeda organization, "Through Our Enemies' Eyes," points out how the network has replenished its leadership corps over the past decade. In mid-1996, Al Qaeda's then military operations chief, Abu Ubaydah al-Banshiri, drowned in an accident in Uganda. At that time, the network had several operations in the planning stages, including the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
Mohammed Atef quickly stepped in to fill Bansshiri's shoes. And when Atef was killed by US bombing in December 2001, he was replaced by Abu Zubaydah. He in turn was captured in March 2002 in a shootout in Karachi, and Zubaydah's role was believed to have been filled by Saif al-Adel. It is not clear whether Mohammed had replaced al-Adel as No. 3, or if al-Adel is still filling that role.
Al-Adel had been a member of the Egyptian commandos. All the military chiefs - up to now - have come from Egypt, which has one of the strongest military traditions in the region, intelligence officials say.
Mohammed, though, was born to Pakistani parents in Kuwait and was raised and schooled there. And he wasn't suspected of being a high-ranking Al Qaeda member until his name began to come up more frequently over the past year. The first public mention of his role - said to be under al-Adel - was made in June 2002, after Abu Zubaydah began to provide intelligence officers with operational details. "When he popped up in connection with 9/11 attack, it surprised me," says the government official. "His name never popped up except in connection with the 1993 [World Trade Center bombing.] "If we got surprised once with somebody, we could certainly be surprised again."