He was captured without a fight as dawn broke over Rawalpindi, near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, and Washington immediately trumpeted the arrest of suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Speaking a couple of days after the nabbing of Osama bin Laden's operations chief, Attorney General John Ashcroft had no hesitation in proclaiming that the "United States of America is winning the war on terrorism with unrelenting focus and unprecedented cooperation."
As far as the Bush administration was concerned it had every right to crow. After all, many experts consider 38-year-old Sheikh Mohammed a bigger prize in practical counterterrorist terms than bin Laden himself. He is alleged to have played a personal role since 9/11 in planning missions and recruiting and building up terror cells in Southeast Asia and the Arab Gulf states. And he is thought to carry in his head detailed knowledge of the strategic operations al-Qaeda has pulled off in the past and of the major missions it hopes to activate in the future.
As U.S. intelligence bosses emphasized, Sheikh Mohammed is the al-Qaeda leader most likely to know the whereabouts of the other top 20 terrorist bosses on the FBI's "most-wanted terrorists" list. And in an added bonus U.S. and Pakistani authorities also netted in the raid Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, a Saudi native thought to have overseen the financing of the 9/11 hijackers, using bank accounts in the United Arab Emirates. Some intelligence sources say al-Hawsawi also has details of the al-Qaeda financial networks in Europe.
The arrests of Sheikh Mohammed and al-Hawsawi come on top of the February conviction in Germany of Mounir al-Motassadek, the first person to be tried in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. The arrests and the seizure by authorities of a claimed treasure trove of valuable material--including a laptop computer, mobile phones, CDs, lists of telephone numbers and other documents--deserved the plaudits of lawmakers such as Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, who dubbed this success "a giant step backward for al-Qaeda."
Other lawmakers on the congressional intelligence panels pointed out that even if Sheikh Mohammed and al-Hawsawi resist efforts by interrogators to extract information about imminent attacks, or where the network's other top leaders are hiding, their terrorist associates will have to assume they are spilling the beans. That in turn, sources say, will force top terrorist leaders to move to new hideouts and compel the terror network to suspend or even cancel some operations in the works. In short, the disruption of al-Qaeda will be enormously high.
But while terrorist experts, both within the Bush administration and overseas, acknowledge that Sheikh Mohammed's arrest represents a major setback for al-Qaeda's fugitive top leadership, they are not as ready as Ashcroft to talk of winning the war on terrorism. Underscoring such worries, a powerful bomb ripped through an airport in the second-largest city of the Philippines, killing 21 and injuring 148, including three Americans, just hours after Ashcroft offered his confident pronouncement.
On the bright side, about 2,700 al-Qaeda-linked suspects have been rounded up in 98 countries, and some senior leaders have been captured and interrogated, including the so-called 20th hijacker Ramzi Binalshibh (who was seized after a dramatic shoot-out in Pakistan) and financier Abu Zubaydah. In Europe--and particularly in France, Britain and Italy--some significant arrests apparently foiled well-advanced terror plots, including a planned bombing attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris over Christmas by a team led by a French-Algerian named Marwan Ben-Ahmed [see "France Uncovers Al-Qaeda Bombers," Jan. 21-Feb. 3]. The FBI says that more than 100 terrorist attacks have been thwarted since 9/11, including 20 planned for the United States. …