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Interview With Dan Klaidman

Aired June 16, 2003 - 20:01   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Our top story, however, ever since September 11, 2001, discussions of terrorism in the U.S. have been dominated by two troubling questions. Just how deeply was al Qaeda embedded before the 9/11 attacks, and how much of that network remains intact and dangerous in this country even today? The new issue of "Newsweek" magazine looks into those questions. One of the authors of that report joins us this evening, "Newsweek" Washington bureau chief Dan Klaidman. Dan, thanks for being with us.
It's a fascinating article, terrifying at the same time. We've all heard about these sleeper cells here in the U.S., but you talk about direct operatives. What is that?

DAN KLAIDMAN, "NEWSWEEK": Well, you know, the $64 million question has been, as you pointed out, have there been actually cells of al Qaeda operatives in this country? And what we learned was that there was at least some presence of al Qaeda in this country post- September 11. And the really significant thing here is these were not just wannabe terrorists, people who may have passed through some of these camps in Afghanistan or who had loose ties to al Qaeda. These were hardened al Qaeda soldiers who were being directed and supervised by the very top leadership of al Qaeda, and these were people who have had long ties to the United States. In some cases they have citizenship, in other cases they're married to American citizens. And so it is quite disturbing.

COOPER: Now, in some cases also, these are people who -- I mean, they don't fit the traditional profile of what we think of as an al Qaeda operative. These are people who, as you said could be American citizens, could be married to someone here.

KLAIDMAN: Well, that's exactly right. And what happened after September 11 is Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is essentially the chief of operations for al Qaeda and the number three terrorist in that organization, had a shift in tactics. From infiltration to what is called in-country recruitment. So instead of sending in terrorists from abroad, as was the case with the September 11 hijackers, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed looked for operatives who were already in this country, or perhaps people who are outside of the country, but had ties to the United States. Those people would be able to elude security much better than people who came out from the outside and who might stand out more.

COOPER: And the concern is that they are scoping out bridges, they are scoping out other kinds of targets. What are some of the targets they may be looking at? KLAIDMAN: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was absolutely fixated on attacking the American economy. He was looking for sites that would then have collateral effect on the American economy. So, for example, he wanted to attack the energy sector. He had an operative in Baltimore, Maryland, whose family owned gas stations in that city, and he wanted to attack gas stations simultaneously. That might have an impact on insurance prices.

COOPER: Right, you're talking about by blowing up like the underground storage tanks which hold gas.

KLAIDMAN: That's right. This particular operative, a man by the name of Majid Khan (ph), posed as a businessman looking to buy a gas station, and in that process he would look for vulnerabilities, security vulnerabilities at various gas stations.

COOPER: So then let's just talk a little bit about how the FBI is dealing with all of this. I'm going to put something on the screen. I want to read it to the audience. This is from your article. "Many of the al Qaeda operatives have not been arrested or charged with the crimes. Some of the terror plotters confronted by the bureau have been secretly squirreled away in hotel rooms, living around the clock under FBI surveillance, working with the authorities to identify other al Qaeda plots inside the country." It is kind of this weird legal limbo that you're talking about. They haven't been arrested. This is kind of new territory.

KLAIDMAN: It is. It is a fascinating and I think controversial element of the FBI's strategy here. These are people who have been confronted by the FBI, persuaded in some cases not to hire lawyers. The fear among law enforcement is that some of these people will, if they're charged with crimes, they'll have access to the criminal justice system, they'll have access to lawyers. They will assert their constitutional rights. And that can tie prosecutors up in knots, and the real fear is that they'll end up with a case like the Zacarias Moussaoui case, the alleged 20th hijacker who was charged with a crime and has gotten counsel and is now trying to get access to the main al Qaeda witnesses against him, Ramzi Binalshibh, who is in ...

COOPER: And that whole trial is now moving incredibly slowly. He's been able to use the system ...

KLAIDMAN: It is moving slowly, and it's turned out to be a disaster for the government. They don't want that to happen again.

COOPER: There are a growing number of skeptics out there who say, look, we've heard about these sleeper cells for a long time. Now, you're talking about these direct operatives. There have not been any other incidences here in the U.S. Why?

KLAIDMAN: Well, that's a good question. One of the things that is frustrating to law enforcement is after they have found these people, they were hoping they would lead them to other al Qaeda cells. So far that hasn't happened. Now that may be because al Qaeda is so well compartmentalized that these operatives don't know about other cells. It may be that these people want to talk, and the most hopeful possibility is that the cells don't exist.

COOPER: You also bring up a thing in your article, which is basically you sort of hint at at the end, that maybe the good life in America has kind of gotten to some of these people and they're kind of liking it here and they're thinking, well, why should I start blowing stuff up? My life is actually much better than it used to be?

KLAIDMAN: That's exactly what some officials suggested to us. They've been here for so long. America is a pretty great country, pretty free. They've gotten fat, happy, lazy and maybe lost their jihadi spirit, as one of the sources put it to us.

COOPER: Let's hope that's true. Dan Klaidman, appreciate you joining us. It's a fascinating article in "Newsweek" this week. Thanks a lot.

KLAIDMAN: Any time.


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