Terrorism: April 26, 2002


: One caveat of intelligence is to always to "consider the source." Al-Qaeda lieutenant Abu Zubaydah (also known as Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn), captured in Pakistan on 28 March and still recovering from three gunshot wounds received during that raid, has been the primary source of most of the FBI's most-recent warnings on potential terrorist activity in the United States.

These include the following:

25 April: The FBI quietly warned its agents nationwide of unconfirmed information that terrorists may be planning attacks against supermarkets or shopping centers

23 April: Abu tells his interrogators that the terrorist organization knows how to build a nuclear "dirty bomb" capable of dispersing radioactivity over a wide area. Information is released to the press and one unnamed official says "it could be he's not being truthful, it could be that he's boasting."

19 April: The FBI and Attorney General John Ashcroft issued an afternoon warning to more than 1,200 banks in a dozen states and Washington, D.C., referencing an unspecified threat from ...you guessed it! - Abu Zubaydah.

None of these warnings included specific information about possible specific targets, timing, numbers of people involved or any particular method of attack. However, none of Zubaydah's revelations were news to American authorities. U.S. intelligence already had obtained similar nonspecific threats to banks and bin Laden's quest for weapons of mass destruction is well-known. Yet America can't really afford to totally ignore Abu Zubaydah. 

Zubaydah ran the Afghan camp where many of the 11 September were hijackers trained and is thought to have overseen several other al-Qaida terrorist operations, including the plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport in late 1999. 

Undoubtedly a key player, the 31 year old Abu Zubaydah is also wily enough to be able to continue the fight from his hospital bed and tell his interrogators enough tales to keep the FBI looking like the Three Stooges by issuing hollow alerts. Since his arrest last month, he has been kept at an unknown location and theoretically should have no idea that his words led to these recent alerts. 

However, western civilization and the current international crop of journalists are nothing if not predictable. Zubaydah is playing them both in a game of manipulation, hoping to cause panic (or at least economic uncertainty, doubts in our leadership and a lessened confidence in the FBI) throughout the infidel's society while simultaneously burning up investigators' hours by creating false leads. 

The irony of this situation is that the 300 Al-Qaeda prisoners in the detention center at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba have only been "interviewed" only once apiece. This potential goldmine remains untapped because of a lack of Arabic-language translators and bungled prisoner handling.

While the safest arrangement was to house the detainees together in large groups that could be monitored closely, this gives the prisoners ample opportunities to create cover stories, bolster one another's morale and monitor wavering al-Qaeda members. 

The Southern Command (which has control over the base at Guantanamo Bay) refused to relinquish authority over prison arrangements to Joint Task Force-170 (a coalition of FBI, CIA and military interrogators).

Ultimately, Zubaydah is doing an excellent job screening the remaining terrorist cells from being swept up. The American law enforcement and intelligence community must recognize this, avoid self-induced tunnel vision and concentrate on those prisoners who will crack easier. - Adam Geibel


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