Run and Gun
Al Qaeda arrests and intelligence hauls bring new energy to the war on terrorism
Only a few months ago, it seemed like the war on terrorism was going nowhere. The air was rife with confusing reports on whether Osama bin Laden was dead or alive, whether al Qaeda's money had dried up, and whether Muslim nations like Indonesia were being cooperative. But talk to counterterrorism officials these days, and many are unexpectedly upbeat. After a year of chasing an elusive prey, following thousands of leads, and enduring blame games and bureaucratic turf wars, they finally see real progress.
That progress was marked by an impressive spate of arrests in recent weeks. Consider who has been nabbed: In Pakistan, a pair of raids netted 10 al Qaeda operatives, including two big fish: Ramzi Binalshibh, thought to be a key figure in the 9/11 attack, and another man, tied to the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. In Singapore, authorities grabbed 21 militants tied to plots against the U.S. Embassy and other American targets. Italian officials seized an additional 15 suspected al Qaeda members from a cargo ship in Sicily. Here at home, the FBI collared six Yemeni-Americans living near Buffalo, who allegedly trained at an al Qaeda terrorist camp in Afghanistan. Other suspects were captured in the Philippines, England, Germany, and the Netherlands.
No one is prepared to declare victory in the war on terrorism, but some experts now say that after a year's work, it feels as if America is winning. "It's like a basketball game in which the U.S. sat out the first half," says former State Department counterterrorism official Larry Johnson. "Finally, we've had a full court press, and they're having a tough time scoring."
One reason for optimism is obvious: Despite its myriad plots and threats, al Qaeda has failed to mount a single attack on U.S. soil in the year since 9/11. The group's headquarters and training camps have been destroyed. Its leaders are in hiding, its finances under assault, its communications disrupted.
Another reason is more closely held: America's terrorism fighters are exploiting a windfall of intelligence gleaned from interrogations, seized documents and computers, and a growing bank of informants. American Taliban John Walker Lindh, for one, is "singing like a bird," says a top lawman, and his tips helped lead to the arrest of those Yemeni-Americans--who attended the same Afghan training camp. Also talking is Omar al-Faruq, a key al Qaeda operative in Southeast Asia, who, after months of interrogation, revealed plots against U.S. embassies in the region.
Each arrest brings in a new terrorist, fellow traveler, or associate to interrogate. Because officials can use information gained from one suspect to question--or vet--another, the arrests are bringing payoffs of expanding proportions. The bigger knowledge pool has also helped run a growing bank of informants. Once thought nearly impossible to penetrate, al Qaeda is proving no tougher a target than the KGB or the Mafia--closed soci-eties that took the U.S. government years to get inside. "We're getting names, the different camps they trained at, the hierarchy, the infighting," says an intelligence official. "It's very promising."