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Key Suspect in 09/11 Attacks in U.S. Custody

Aired September 16, 2002 - 11:04   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: A key suspect in the September 11th attacks is in U.S. custody this morning.
CNN State Department correspondent Andrea Koppel is tracking the story for us. She joins us now live from New York.

Good morning, Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CNN STATE DEPT. CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Leon.

That's right, Ramzi Binalshibh, the name we heard last week, is now in U.S. custody. He was captured, as you know, in Pakistan last week, in a combination raid involving both Pakistani and American agents.

He, at the moment, is not talking however. One senior state department official saying, however, when you get someone who is at this level, who is one of the dedicated guys, it is not uncommon for it to take quite a while for them to spill their guts in this official's words.

Having said that, Binalshibh is a major guy for the U.S. To now have in custody. He is believed to have realtime information as to what Al Qaeda operatives may be planning again -- we now are planning against U.S. interests overseas.

So at the moment, they say that talk of extradition overseas to the United States is really six of one, half dozen of another. He is in U.S. Custody. That's what matters. U.S. officials are talking with him.

Now in addition, Leon, I have been able to confirm through a senior State Department official that there is yet another Al Qaeda operative who is also -- who was nabbed along with Binalshibh and is in Pakistan right now. He is believed to have been involved in the October 2000 attack against the USS Cole in Yemen. Now it's not clear as of this moment whether this nameless Al Qaeda operative is in U.S. custody, but presumably, he is at least having -- U.S. officials are getting access to him in Pakistan.

The State Department, Secretary Powell have been extremely grateful and have been very public in their thanks to the Pakistani government, who they say has been very, very cooperative in the war on terrorism -- Leon.

HARRIS: Andrea, let me ask you something, using the words of David Ensor, our correspondent in Washington, moments ago. How big a fish is this particular person that you're talking about here, this case of the Cole attack?

KOPPEL: We don't know. We actually have a discrepancy. Some U.S. officials are telling us, that he is not that big. Others are saying in fact that he is a senior operative. So at the moment, it is -- I don't think U.S. officials are quite clear yet just how high up on the hierarchy within the Al Qaeda chain of command this official is.

Nevertheless, it is significant that he was captured. This is someone who obviously is a wanted man, responsible for the deaths of many American sailors.

HARRIS: Very interesting. Andrea Koppel in New York, thank you very much

The headlines this morning filled with stories of Al Qaeda members being arrested. The FBI has arrested a sixth person in connection with a suspected terror cell near Buffalo, New York. The arrests are part of an investigation that began early last summer, before September 11th, and intensified in recent weeks.

CNN's Jeff Flock joins us live from Buffalo. He's got more on this.

Hello, Jeff.

JEFF FLOCK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Leon.

No one is suggesting, by the way, that any of these guys are big fish, to use Secretary Powell's terminology. The thing that makes this interesting, though, is that they are on U.S. soil. Six people now. We have just got word that at the courthouse, the federal district courthouse behind me, the sixth will have his initial court appearance in a little bit more than two hours, 1:30 Eastern Time for his first court appearance. They are charged, not specifically now, with being part of an Al Qaeda cell.

This is the 12-page criminal complaint against them. And though an agent, at least one agent has said it is an Al Qaeda cell, a so- called sleeper cell, others pulled back on that. And we should report that in this criminal complaint, what is alleged is that they went to Afghanistan and got training at an Al Qaeda terror training camp, one that at least two of the September 11th hijackers attended, and also one that was attended by John Walker Lindh. That is the crime they are alleged to committed. There was no evidence that they were planning any specific activities, any terrorist activities in western or upstate New York or elsewhere in the U.S.

So to be clear about, no direct planning or indication that even Al Qaeda even controlled the cell, but apparently, at least according to the federal government, participating in terror training would be enough to violate the statute and perhaps bring them 15 years in prison each. We will see how this all plays out, Leon. Perhaps on Wednesday, we will get more details, a bonds hearing for the first five of them on Wednesday, and then we will have to give them more details, the government will have to, about just what they were up to.

HARRIS: Got you.

Jeff, in the time that you've been there, have you heard any reaction from the community there, or any surprise by these arrests or any indication that perhaps people should've seen something there that they should have noticed earlier, or what?

FLOCK: It is interesting you bring that up, because the federal government says they got cooperation from the community in seeking these men.

However, in the Yemeni community, which is in Lacawana (ph), the south of where we stand in Buffalo, which has about 20,000 people in Lacawana (ph), about 2,000 people of Yemeni descent, no one we have talked to said they cooperate with the government, and everyone we talked to say they are shock and surprised. They are largely family men, pretty well-known, good members of the community, and almost to a man, people saying they don't understand it, this does not compute for them.

HARRIS: Jeff Flock, reporting live from Buffalo. Thanks, Jeff.

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