How Big Is the Capture of No. 3 in Al Qaeda?

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," May 4, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

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SHEIKH RASHID AHMED, PAKISTANI INFORMATION MINISTER: It's a big catch. He was the most important man in Pakistani terrorist activity. He was the mastermind. He was involved twice assassination attempt on President Musharraf. And he knows so many hideouts and so many things, which nobody else knows.


BRIT HUME, HOST: Officials in both Pakistan and the U.S. say the capture of al-Libbi is a big deal. How big? For answers, we return to Richard Miniter, author and investigative journalist, formerly with The Wall Street Journal and the Times of London. He has been writing articles and books about the war on terror since the 9/11 attacks.



HUME: This guy, is he more of a threat in that region over there to Pakistan, and friends of the U.S., and perhaps to U.S. interests there, or is this guy somebody we have to worry about in terms of an attack on the American homeland?

MINITER: He would certainly have knowledge of attacks on the American homeland. Remember, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was number three, just like this guy was, was captured, it led to arrests around the world, arrests in London, Paris, Italy, across the Middle East, even in Southeast Asia.

So one of the ripple effects of an arrest of al-Libbi today, or the last few days, may well be arrests around the world. Plots stopped. We may never know the full impact.

But we do know that when his predecessors were arrested in that position, what they had in their rolodexes, what they had on their documents, the knowledge they have of various cells and various ongoing plots, led to arrests around the world.

HUME: There's sort of an ongoing sense you picked up today that the guy is talking. How much does that have to do with the fact that the Pakistanis have him and can deal with him however they see fit, unrestrained by the regulations that govern American forces and American intelligence agent?

MINITER: Well, the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, is known for its very hard methods. They certainly, unlike our intelligence services or the Israelis, don't have lawyers reviewing their interrogation techniques.

That's one reason why I think the FBI and the CIA are not in the room. They're passing written questions to the ISI but not in the room or part of the process, because it would actually be illegal for U.S. intelligence officials to be involved.

HUME: To be even present in the room while some guy is getting the thumbscrews or whatever it is applied to them?

MINITER: That's correct.

HUME: So we don't really know, and probably will never know, exactly how they're getting the information out of this guy?

MINITER: That's right. And the Pakistanis have almost certainly signed the document that most of our allies have signed, saying they don't torture. Well, they probably do.

HUME: All right. Now, this guy's job exactly — I mean, within the structure of Al Qaeda, you hear about someone being operations chief. You think of him having an office just a few steps down the cave from Usama bin Laden (search) or something like that. That obviously isn't how it works.

Can you describe how a guy like this would actually operate and what the lines of communication would be like, what the sort of the operational details of his work would be?

MINITER: Well, he would be at the top of the pyramid, because even though Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number-two, and Usama bin Laden, the number-one, run the organization, they do big picture strategy stuff. They approve plots, but they don't refine them and they don't supervise them.

The number-three position is kind of like the chief operating officer of Al Qaeda. He's the Mr. Inside Guy who makes things work. So as a result, he knows about a lot of plans even before Usama does, before they're approved. He also manages those plans at some level after they're approved.

He also disperses money, so he has access to bank accounts. He has knowledge of where the various cell leaders are. He doesn't know each individual cell member.

For security reasons, that knowledge is not passed up. They learned their lesson the hard way after the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed when the Pakistanis, and the Americans, and other intelligence services ended up with hundreds of names. They're not going to let that happen again. We may get dozens of names from him, which would cripple Al Qaeda further.

HUME: How likely is it that he would know the whereabouts of Usama bin Laden? We heard U.S. officials quoted today as saying, well, he would know how to communicate with him. I suppose from what you're saying he would have to. But how likely is it that he might know where Usama bin Laden is?

MINITER: It's possible, but I would not say it's likely.

HUME: Because even if, once he's captured, Usama's not going to stay where he is, I would presume.

MINITER: No, and probably Usama doesn't stay in one place for very long anyway. He moves constantly. It's what Saddam Hussein did. It's what anybody who is a target of a global manhunt by a superpower does, if they're at all intelligent.

The couriers that — remember, there's no phone communication that the U.S. intelligence or any of the people I've talked to is aware of. This is all messages by courier.

HUME: Because they can hear it, see it, know about it?

MINITER: Right. The U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on satellites, and on phone intercepts, and other things to listen in to any electronic communication.

HUME: Now it was said, by the way, that U.S. human intelligence was responsible for the information that led to this guy's capture. What do you know about how that might have come about?

MINITER: I know very little. But I'll tell you what little I know. My understanding is that the initial clue that Abu Farraj al-Libbi (search) had become operations chief was a result of a piece of code in a computer that was captured. And that code was analyzed, that computer was analyzed by American intelligence forensics experts. But the other piece...

HUME: So that's how he found out who had filled the job?

MINITER: That's right. And that's my understanding, anyways.

HUME: Right.

MINITER: And it's impossible to know all of this stuff. But the actual location of where he was, was when a villager approached a Pakistani policeman who then passed it onto Pakistani intelligence. So this is where signal intelligence and human intelligence work together.

HUME: It was supposed to be U.S. human intelligence. Apparently not, though, from what you've heard, right?

MINITER: Well, from what I've head. But I mean, you know, this stuff gets fragmented and lots of people claim credit in different ways. And it's a murky picture, Brit. It's hard to really know.

HUME: In your estimation, knowing what you know about the structure of Al Qaeda, how easy would it be to replace this man, for someone of comparable ability to step in?

MINITER: Hard to say, but I mean, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was operations chief, captured in 2002. He was replaced by Binalshibh captured at the scene here. Abu Zubaydah took the position, captured in 2003.

Nobody in this position lasts for long. Al Qaeda almost certainly, like any organization like this, has plans in place for who to replace him with and has probably already moved to that person.

HUME: All right. Glad to have you. Thanks very much, Richard.

MINITER: Thank you.

HUME: Good to see you.

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