Can Al Qaeda Recruit Westerners?

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, August 16, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, hardly what you'd expect as a description of an Al Qaeda (search) operative. Right? Well, think again. A new reports says Al Qaeda is using operatives that are less Middle Eastern and more European.

Joining me in Washington, former CIA (search) officer Michael Swetnam. Today's big question, Michael: Will new Al Qaeda operatives be able to fool security?

MICHAEL SWETNAM, FORMER CIA OFFICER: Yes, yes. Very much so. The Al Qaeda...

GIBSON: Where are they getting these people who can fool security? I mean, since when is Norway or Sweden an Al Qaeda hot spot?

SWETNAM: Actually, Al Qaeda and its affiliate organizations have been recruiting in Western Europe and in fact in the United States for quite some years.

Remember that in late 2001, we captured John Walker Lindh (search), an American of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant American family who joined the organization and went to Afghanistan to train alongside other Al Qaeda members.

GIBSON: All right, but you would think, though, that if Al Qaeda is recruiting in Western Europe we can kind of penetrate those circles. I mean, as a CIA operative, don't you say, “Oh, goody. They want my blue-eyed blonds now, now we can get something done? “

SWETNAM: Let's hope so. Remember that prior to 2001, the feeling out at Langley and at many of the other intelligence branches in the United States and in fact in Europe was that these hard targets like Al Qaeda were targets that we would never be able to get a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant into. We've come to learn that in fact we can get them in and it does give us some opportunity, but a very, very, very difficult opportunity, because remember, this is a religiously idealistically ideologue organization. So you have to not just convince them that you're on their side, you have to convince them that you're zealot, that you're driven to give your life for Allah.

GIBSON: OK, but Michael, realistically, we know there's a John Walker Lindh and we know there is a Richard Reid and we know there is here and there. But seriously, how many people outside the world of Islam and Middle Eastern Islam are going to sign up for al Qaeda? I'm going to light my shoe on fire and blow up this plane?

SWETNAM: Well, probably not very many, luckily. Only a few probably in the world population. But remember, it only took 19 to cause the 9/11 that we experienced a couple three years ago. And it only takes one to blow up an airplane or a couple to plan a massive attack against one of our financial centers. So they don't have to get very many.

The nightmare scenario of counter-terrorism experts today is that there's an Al Qaeda cell sitting around the block that we have not been able to identify because they look like us, they act like us and in fact, they were probably born here and have been recruited into this horrible organization.

GIBSON: But once again, if you've got a Padilla, who is a home-grown Al Qaeda terrorist, don't you expect that sooner or later he's going to tell somebody, who is not quite as sympathetic as he is and you have a way to compromise his circle?

SWETNAM: Let's hope so. That's what we are counting on, is that there are cracks in this armor and that it's not an airtight argument.

What they're recruiting are often aren't the bin Laden type zealots, but they are people like John Walker Lindh, who are interested in it, driven towards it, but they are not as committed as some of the others and they might well talk, they might well share some things with some friends. They certainly over a period of time are going to leave a signature that's just a little bit different.

But it's going to take an intelligence effort that we haven't mounted yet, that's very different from the kind of effort we have mounted in the past when we were looking for Soviet agents hiding in the United States.

This is a different type of thing. And we have to do it very carefully, because we don't want to compromise the liberties that define us as who we are.

GIBSON: All right, former CIA Officer Michael Swetnam. Michael, thanks a lot.

SWETNAM: Thank you.

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