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Peter Bergen: Getting al Qaeda to talk

CNN Terrorism Analyst Peter Bergen
CNN Terrorism Analyst Peter Bergen  

(CNN) -- Ramzi Binalshibh -- an al Qaeda operative who has acknowledged he participated in the September 11 terror planning -- was captured last week in Pakistan after a shootout. Now that Binalshibh is in U.S. custody, the objective will be to get him to talk about possible future terrorist plans. U.S. officials say the plan is to interrogate Binalshibh at an undisclosed location. It's the same tactic used with considerable success with another al Qaeda operative, Abu Zubaydah. CNN Terrorism Analyst Peter Bergen spoke to CNN's Connie Chung on Monday night about what information Binalshibh might provide.

CHUNG: Peter, obviously the United States intelligence would like Ramzi Binalshibh to give information about the future, any future plans. But my question is, why would he talk?

BERGEN: Well, we've seen a variety of responses from people who are affiliated with al Qaeda or members of al Qaeda once they've been captured.

Abu Zubaydah, according to people involved in the investigation of al Qaeda, has been a sort of gold mine of information. Information that he provided led to the arrest of Jose Padilla, the Hispanic American arrested in Chicago in May, who may have been coming to the United States to let off a dirty or radiological bomb. Abu Zubaydah...

CHUNG: But...

BERGEN: Go ahead.

CHUNG: Peter, what I'm saying is that these are people who are willing to die for what they believe in. So what I don't understand is how any officials can force these people to talk and if we can depend on the credibility of it.

BERGEN: Well, in the case of Abu Zubaydah, he's talking. And, apparently, most of the information is credible.

There are other examples which go sort of the flip side of that. Ahmed Ressam, who was arrested at the Canadian-American border at the time of the millennium with all sorts of explosives, remains silent for over a year about what his intentions were and who he really was working for. Facing 140 years in prison, he suddenly had a "Saint Paul on the road to Damascus" moment and decided to start cooperating with authorities and told them that his intended target was Los Angeles International Airport.

So there's a wide variety of possible responses to being captured. And we don't know what Ramzi Binalshibh is going to do, whether he'll cooperate, say nothing, eventually say something a year from now.

CHUNG: Do you know anything about the other individuals who were taken into custody in Karachi?

BERGEN: There seems to be some debate about the number of people caught and what their exact identities are. We still don't know exactly who those people are. Ramzi Binalshibh, I think, is a tremendous success.

CHUNG: All right. And what is he suspected of doing regarding 9/11?

BERGEN: Well, as a rather remarkable act of chutzpah, he did a two-day interview with Al-Jazeera, which basically revealed his role and a lot of information we didn't know about 9/11.

We now know from his information that the fourth target was indeed the U.S. Capitol. There was some debate about whether Flight 93 was going to go against the White House or the Congress. It turns out it was the Capitol. We also know from that interview that they contemplated attacking American nuclear facilities but decided not to do that because of perhaps unintended consequences they couldn't foresee.

We also know from his own statements that he was the conduit for information between Mohamed Atta in the United States and the al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan in the weeks leading up to 9/11. I think if he'd got into this country -- he failed to get in three times he applied for a visa -- he would have been more than the 20th hijacker. He would have played a major operational role.

He might have almost been more important than Mohamed Atta. He's an expert, self-confessed expert on American airline schedules. He's obviously a very bright guy. And he described himself as the operational leader of 9/11 in the course of an interview in which he was compelled to say nothing. So this is really what he believes he is.

CHUNG: Can you give us an idea? [Captured al Qaeda operative] Omar al-Faruq was able to give interrogators a good deal of information. What was he able to give us?

BERGEN: Well, the reason there was the code orange alert in the last possible days -- last few days was because of Omar al-Faruq's information. It was very specific.

It was about attacking American targets in Southeast Asia, which led to the closing of American embassies in Indonesia and in other countries in Southeast Asia. His information was very specific. And unlike other alerts we've had in the past, when the alert came out, it was very much related to attacks on -- car bombs against American targets in Southeast Asia. And that was the information that he was able to give.

Going back to your original point, he didn't say anything for three months, this al-Faruq character. So, after three months, he began to talk.

CHUNG: All right, Peter Bergen, thank you so much. We appreciate your being with us.

BERGEN: Thank you.




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