Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Al Qaeda Retains Resilience ; with a Top Terror Suspect in Hand, Officials Scramble to Sift Computer Disks

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Al Qaeda Retains Resilience ; with a Top Terror Suspect in Hand, Officials Scramble to Sift Computer Disks

Article excerpt

Warning to America: You may have nabbed a key terrorist leader, but the network he helped run still exists - and has adapted to major setbacks before.

That's a key message emerging from US officials and counterterrorism experts in the wake of Saturday's capture of Al Qaeda's operational mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed in Pakistan.

Leaders of the intelligence and homeland-security communities seem to be tamping down expectations. That could be due, in part, to the euphoria wearing off over the first arrest of a high-ranking Al Qaeda member in months. But it also could signal that officials are standing back, taking stock of the bigger terrorist picture.

"Despite the arrest of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Al Qaeda is extremely adept at protecting their organization," FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday. "As they evolve and change tactics, we too must evolve."

Evolving, for now, means racing through reams of data collected from Mohammed's cellphone, laptop computer, and notebook, which were confiscated during his arrest.

And they are keeping the pressure on him 24/7 to reveal the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda members, and details of any possible terrorist plots in the works. But, despite a drumbeat of new progress on the "most-wanted" front, snuffing out Al Qaeda isn't going to be easy, and not necessarily quick, say senior intelligence officials and experts.

The Al Qaeda network has continued, over the past decade, to show great resilience. It not only has thousands of footsoldiers in place around the globe, it also has a deep bench to draw on for mid-level managers.

"If you look at Al Qaeda as a criminal organization, where you pick off one gangster at a time, then yes, maybe it will lead you to the others," says a high-level government official. "But if you look at it as a military organization, the odds are longer."

For example, he says, "When we shot down [Japanese Admiral] Yamamoto in World War II, it was nice to get rid of him. But the Japanese had others to take his place. They may not have been as skilled, but the war went on for another 2-1/2 years."

Intelligence officials say the interrogation of Mohammed - currently taking place in an undisclosed location outside the US - may be fruitful, but that it usually takes some time before an individual of this caliber begins to break and reveal anything new - or true.

The directors of both the CIA and FBI are quick to point out that Al Qaeda is still extremely dangerous. They say only one-third of its leadership has been captured or killed. That means at least two- thirds of the leadership is out there.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge tried to put the arrest in perspective. "We cannot overestimate [Mr. Mohammed's] importance to the Al Qaeda terrorist organization," he told reporters on Monday. …

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