Dec 27, 2002

Peter Bergen discusses international arrests of suspected terrorists

SHOW: All Things Considered (8:00 PM ET) - NPR December 27, 2002 Friday LENGTH: 1110 words HEADLINE: Peter Bergen discusses international arrests of suspected terrorists ANCHORS: ROBERT SIEGEL BODY: ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Every few days, somewhere inside the daily newspaper, there is an account of someone being detained somewhere for some link to al-Qaeda or somebody being let go. French police arrest three men and a woman for links to a planned chemical attack. A German convert to Islam, suspected of having been in phone contact with the truck bomber who blew up a historic synagogue in Tunisia, slips out of the country while, it was reported, he was under surveillance. From this patchwork of dispatches, it's hard to figure out just how the global pursuit of al-Qaeda is going. Joining us now is Peter Bergen, who's the author of "Holy War, Inc." and also CNN's terrorism analyst. Peter Bergen, first, the recent arrests. Which, if any, strike you as being particularly noteworthy? Mr. PETER BERGEN (Terrorism Analyst): Well, I don't think any of them are particularly noteworthy to be honest. I mean, I think that so many of the top- and second- and third-tier leaders of al-Qaeda are AWOL. We haven't really seen an arrest of anybody significant for, I'd say, the last couple of months. In the larger scheme of things, the war against al-Qaeda is sort of chugging along, but there is a lot of things that we don't know, and there are a lot of people that have not been arrested. Even if you look at the arrests in this country--let's say the people who were arrested in Buffalo. SIEGEL: Mm-hmm. Mr. BERGEN: If the Buffalo five and the Oregon six are the best that the government can do, one of two things is true. Either there are real al-Qaeda members buried deeply in American communities who haven't been found, or there aren't any. But we don't know what we don't know. SIEGEL: But what about, say, the Paris four here, the three men and the woman? They were found with some canisters that supposedly implied some relationship to chemical weapons. There was a sort of chemical warfare suit, I think, that one of them possessed. And there was a link to another arrest earlier in London in that case. Mr. BERGEN: It's part of a pattern. Al-Qaeda clearly wants to mount chemical weapons attacks. It would not be surprising if this group of people were trying to launch some kind of chemical weapons attack. How effective would that be? Probably not very effective. There was a sarin gas attack in Tokyo subway in 1995 by the cult Aum Shinrikyo. While it was very worrisome, it only killed 12 people, so having these kinds of chemicals doesn't necessarily mean that you can pull off anything particularly spectacular. You can terrorize, of course, but you wouldn't kill very many people. SIEGEL: Well, when we consider, say, for example, a group like that, what, as you understand it, is the theory of intelligence or law enforcement, that, if there's a group doing something with chemical weapons, that they are in communication somehow with someone who's in communication with, if not Osama bin Laden, then somebody in the second tier of al-Qaeda, or that groups independently in various places that share a similar political agenda just cook up various terrorist schemes? Mr. BERGEN: Well, I think the latter point is actually both interesting and quite frightening. I think you're seeing a lot of people behaving like al-Qaeda, who aren't really anything to do with it. There was a couple who were arrested in Heidelberg, Germany, in September, who were planning to apparently blow up the US military base there. The fact there was a woman in this group--I mean, by definition, you can't be a member of al-Qaeda and be a woman. So I think what you're seeing is people sort of freelancing. SIEGEL: How significant do you think was the case of Mr. Christian Ganczarski--this is the gentleman in Germany, who evidently was overheard on a cell phone with the bomber in Djerba in Tunisia, right before the bombing, and his conversation was interpreted as giving the green light to this man? Mr. BERGEN: Well, the conversation, as I understand it, the bomber said, 'I'm looking for your blessing.' And then the Christian gentleman said, 'Yes.' So... SIEGEL: His name is Christian... Mr. BERGEN: Yes. SIEGEL: ...I should say. Mr. BERGEN: Yes. So, I mean, he seems very significant. And he basically packed up and got his children out of school and left Germany. SIEGEL: In Germany, that wasn't sufficient for him to be detained, that conversation? Mr. BERGEN: Well, in a lot of European countries the presumption of innocence is perhaps stronger than it might be in this country after 9/11. In Sweden, somebody going on a plane with a handgun, supposedly forgetting that he packed it in his luggage, and the Swedes basically let him go on the charges of hijacking. I think if he did that in this country, it would be rather different. SIEGEL: Did you get the impression that authorities, American or otherwise, believe that if, ultimately, there can be a capture of Osama bin Laden and Amin al-Zawhiri.. that somehow the curtain comes down on al-Qaeda at that moment, there's some finality to this war, some Normandy at least, which turns the tide of it significantly. Mr. BERGEN: Well, there is going to be no VE-Day, obviously, in the war against al-Qaeda, because I think all you can do is sort of manage the problem. You're not going to totally get rid of it. If you captured Osama bin Laden and Amin al-Zawahiri, that would go some ways to stopping their activities, because, after all, these were the people who dreamed up the whole organization. But the fact that bin Laden is now evidently alive, as we now know from the audiotape in October, surely that has been a pick-me-up for his followers. In fact, we've seen an energized al-Qaeda since October. There's been a lot of attacks. You know, whether it's killing the American diplomat in Jordan or attacking a French oil tanker in Yemen or the disco bombing in Bali or the attack in Mombasaa. It's evidence of an energized organization. They can't pull off a 9/11, but they are continuing to try to attack not only Americans, but Westerners. In fact, if you think about it: Since 9/11, al-Qaeda has killed almost no Americans. It's mostly, for now, Australians, Kenyans, other nationalities. SIEGEL: Peter Bergen, thank you very much for talking with us. Mr. BERGEN: Thank you. SIEGEL: Peter Bergen, author of "Holy War, Inc." and terrorism analyst for CNN.