Tom Sanderson, the deputy director of the Transnational Threats Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that the arrest of alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed can be compared to Michael Jordan’s retirement.
”Just because the Bulls lose Michael Jordan, it doesn’t mean that they stop playing basketball,” Sanderson says. “At some point, someone will fill the spot.”
The good news for the Americans and al Qaeda foes worldwide under Sanderson’s analogy is that the Chicago Bulls have stunk since Jordan left (87 wins and 270 losses in four and a half seasons). The bad news is that the franchise didn’t disband.
Analysts on the periphery of America’s intelligence community discussed Mohammed’s capture Monday with optimism that al Qaeda has been dealt a major blow, mixed with a mild anxiety that the terror network may strike quickly in reaction to the arrest.
“The fact that he’s been captured will give al Qaeda some consternation,” says James Phillips, a Middle East and terrorism research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “They’ll have to assume that we now know about any plot he knew about, and they may reacting by accelerating their timetables, or by dropping their entire plans.” Phillips says that based on al Qaeda’s past behavior, some cells may move up their timetables, as the terrorists decide their plans’ status is now “use it or lose it.”
That may explain why, as USA Today reported Monday, CIA officers, FBI agents, and foreign-intelligence networks have been arresting suspects worldwide “in a frenzied effort” on the assumption that they had only 24 to 48 hours to act on information found on Muhammad’s computer, cell phones, and documents.
Getting a certain sense of the cells’ next move is difficult, because the terror network’s cell leaders differ in the way they approach threats and opportunities.
“They can go both ways, because we’re dealing with so many different personalities,” Sanderson said. “You could have some in East Africa saying ‘his computer might reveal our existence, and thus we need to lay low,’ and you could have another cell in another cell in another country saying, ‘we need to move the attack up, or attack immediately.’”
Sanderson has doubts about how much reliable intelligence information that Muhammad will give up under questioning.
“I don’t think we can expect him to divulge much information,” he said. “He’s not some flunky who went through the [Afghan terror training] camps because he didn’t have a good job. This is a guy who has faced the threat of torture by the Soviets and has been running from intelligence forces around the world. He’s not someone who’s going to shy or bend under U.S. interrogation.”
But Phillips is more confident that Muhammad will eventually divulge
“I understand that in the past, a couple of the people in the rung just below [Muhammad] spread a bit of disinformation, and they may have been responsible for the recent up-tick in our alert status,” he said. “It’s clear that some of them are playing a war of nerves, but even those [detainees] corroborated previous information that we had gotten from others. Mohammed may be able to do that as well.”
Phillips believes that the mere threat of turning over Muhammad to the intelligence forces of a Middle Eastern country — where restrictions against torture are looser, or ignored — should get him spilling some beans.
“Because we’re a nation of laws we’re not able to extract all of the given information a suspect may have,” Phillips said. “The threat of turning over a suspect to his native country, in many instances, is enough to prompt a suspect to give certain information… Muhammad is a citizen of Kuwait of Pakistani heritage, although I’m not sure the Kuwaitis would want him back.”
Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Fox News Sunday that American interrogation of Mohammed will be “as aggressive as we can be over time. You hope for success. We are not doing anything that would be at odds with the Geneva Convention. That sometimes this takes a little more time, and we will take that time.”
Phillips speculates that “topic one” in Muhammad’s interrogation will be al Qaeda’s progress in developing a radiological weapon, or “dirty bomb.” British intelligence agents who infiltrated the network learned that the group had built a device near Herat in western Afghanistan, the BBC reported last month. According to the BBC, the Taliban regime helped al Qaeda construct the device by providing medical isotopes before its rule came to an abrupt end. The bomb has not been recovered, according to the BBC report.
Both experts agree on the importance of taking Muhammad out of commission. As Roberts put it, “if there was one person that we wanted to get, it was this man.”
“He probably knows more than bin Laden.” Phillips said. “If he starts offering information, it could be extremely high grade.” Phillips explains that Muhammad acts as the terror network’s chief operating officer, “the one who supervises the day-to-day operations, the one in personal contact with the most underlings and a crucial link between upper echelons and the cells that are spread throughout 60 countries.”
But the analysts also agree that while al Qaeda has been wounded, the threat has not yet passed.
Phillips suspects that the terror network is likely to resort to “smaller, less lethal but nevertheless dangerous terrorist attacks” like the shooter at the terminal of El Al, the Israeli national airline, at Los Angeles International Airport last July 4th. But Sanderson worries that al Qaeda, desperate to demonstrate its power, may attempt to strike at familiar targets to inflict the most intense psychological blow to America.
“When they’ve attacked another building in New York and another building in Washington, they can say, ‘you’ve just spent X billion, reorganized your government, curtailed civil rights, and suffered billions of dollars of damage, and you still can’t catch us,’” Sanderson said. “It would be a tremendous propaganda victory to hit the U.S. again, particularly if they could get hold of a plane and do it, even if the casualties were half of 9/11… If I were running al Qaeda, that’s the type of attack I would try, along with maybe six simultaneous suicide bombers hitting around the U.S. Israeli-style.”
— Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service, covers Washington for several newspapers including the Boston Globe.