Can Al Qaeda Survive Capture of Top Terror Officials?

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, March 4, 2003, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Our terror trackers took a shot at Al Qaeda when they captured Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Earlier, I spoke to one of the world's leading authorities on Al Qaeda . Dr. Magnus Ranstorp is deputy director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland's University of St. Andrews. I asked how Mohammed's arrest will affect Al Qaeda 's operations.


MAGNUS RANSTORP, UNIVERSITY OF ST. ANDREWS: Obviously, it's a huge scalp for the Bush administration in the war against terrorism. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was a very important player in terms of heading up the military committee of Al Qaeda . He is someone who is a mastermind of very complex, big operations and this will be a very big blow for the organization in the interim.

However, I would say this, that there is a race against time in trying to find his associates and trying to find what kind of target range he was identifying.... the interrogators are, I'm sure, working very hard at this moment in trying to decipher and detect and to work with him psychologically to reveal as much as possible in a very short period of time. But I suspect it's going to take a long time.

GIBSON: The Bush administration views this as a — I think the phrase was "a heart-slamming moment" for any cells that might be in the United States. [The terrorists] don't know if they've been compromised. They don't know if there's going to be a knock at the door at any moment. So, what do they do? If there is anybody in the United States who is working for Mohammed, what do they do now?

RANSTORP: Well, first of all, I think that there was a problem in terms of the coordination between the Pakistanis and the U.S. It is very clear the U.S. wanted more lead time in trying to buy time in finding cells inside the United States who may be working in the service of Al Qaeda. They would have already, as soon as the news was released, they would have tried to go to their plan B in terms of concealing their tracks, in terms of making contingency plans, in hiding their activities, in different modes of contacting each other.

And they will be buying time to see how much information may come out. But, certainly, they will try to erase any tracks that they would have that could lead them back to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed...

GIBSON: Is this organization designed to withstand an arrest like this? Or is this guy so big that there really is no way to prepare for someone like him being taken into custody?

RANSTORP: The organization is not built around Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. There are people stepping into his shoes as we speak. Obviously, it will be a huge help in trying to detect what kind of targets were they identifying [and] what kind of means they have at their disposal.

And it is really up to the interrogators to try to find that information out as quickly as possible. My suspicion is that he will be held in a friendly Arab country who will be working him over as we speak, who will be trying to find out not so much what he's done in the past, but more importantly [where] his associates [are].

But more crucially [is] what kind of things did Al Qaeda have in mind. Obviously, he is not the be-all, end-all for Al Qaeda. There are more people. Al Qaeda is a hierarchical structure. The movements of those groups working in the service of Al Qaeda, individuals lending their hand in the terror business. And, of course, there are sympathizers that also act in terms of wanting to carry out attacks. But certainly it is a big blow. But it is not the be-all, end-all for Al Qaeda.

GIBSON: Let's look at the present situation in the United States and Western Europe where there have been signs that there were people moving into place to commit some sort of attack, for certain in Britain, that little cell that had ricin. Are these cells now cut loose to do what they think they ought to be doing now, or are they still under some sort of control from somewhere?

RANSTORP: Well, you know, it is a misconception to think of Al Qaeda as just a hierarchical structure, that all the decisions were taken from the top down. I mean, it's always been that there are also localized cells that identify targets within their security environment. Certainly, there was a move to try to do something. There is a great concern in Europe that there will be some type of chemical attack.

And, therefore, these cells will be able to withstand any nipping of the bud of Al Qaeda 's ability to carry out operations like what happened with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. They're able to function without him. And they are extremely nimble and flexible. They will go to contingency plans when someone key gets arrested.

The unfortunate thing in this scenario is the fact that the information came out so quickly, which did not allow intelligence officers enough time to be able to unearth the wealth of information that was found in Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's possession.

GIBSON: What do you think the shelf life of his information is? I mean, how long do they have to interrogate him and get usable information before that information is just too old to be meaningful?

RANSTORP: Well, gauging from other interrogations from various senior Al Qaeda leaders, they are masters of counter-interrogation techniques. Certainly they will be able to timely parcel out the information and disinformation. And from our past experience with interrogations of people like Abu Zubaydah, who was fourth or fifth in the organizational structure… certainly he was very good at resisting interrogation.

But it depends very much on the psychological state of mind of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, or how they will be able to play off him…What kind of targets was Al Qaeda thinking about? And where, of course, are his associates and his network?

GIBSON: Magnus Ranstorp of the Center for the Study of Terrorist at Scotland's University of St. Andrews. Thank you very much.

RANSTORP: My pleasure.


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