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Al Qaida: Resurgent or on the Run?

Aired November 12, 2009 - 15:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, 11 suspected terrorists go on trial in Spain. Are Al Qaida and its allies staging a resurgence in Europe and North America? Is this their new frontline?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

The killings at the U.S. military base at Fort Hood by a Muslim major, as well as the ongoing debate on Afghanistan, have put Al Qaida back in the headlines and in the minds of counterterrorists. In Spain today, 11 accused Islamic extremists went on trial, charged with planning suicide bomber attacks on Barcelona's subway system on orders from the Taliban in Pakistan, according to Spanish prosecutors. It's an eerie reminder of the Madrid train bombings of 2004 that killed nearly 200 people and of the so- called 7/7 suicide bombings on the London transit system, which killed more than 50 people.

Now, authorities in the United States are saying that a suspect they arrested in September was planning similar attacks here. He, too, is accused of receiving instructions from Pakistan.

We focus this half-hour on Al Qaida. Is it weakening, or does it have a new lease on life? We start with this report from CNN's Nic Robertson in London.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They are an angry minority. Their goal: nothing short of Muslim domination of the United Kingdom, if not the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This poster is basically showing how we will transform Buckingham Palace into a local mosque for the Muslims.

ROBERTSON (on-screen): And what happens to the queen?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, the queen, she has a choice. She can either become Muslim or she can leave the country.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): This man, Anjem Choudary, is their leader. He demands Islamic law, known as Sharia, to be the law of the land.

ANJEM CHOUDARY, ISLAM4UK: Drugs will be banned. Pornography will be banned. Gambling will be banned.

ROBERTSON: Choudary's strategy is to pit Muslims against everyone else to create tension.

CHOUDARY: We do expect to enter into a struggle, if you like, of words, and maybe even more than that, before we can see the fruition of the Sharia, really, on state level.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Muslims are here to stay!

UNIDENTIFIED MALES: Muslims are here to stay!

ROBERTSON: Like Muslim radicals, Yousef Khattab and Younes Abdullah Mohammed in New York, Choudary supports Osama bin Laden and justifies the 9/11 attacks. In fact, Choudary claims he was spreading the message of jihad, or holy war, even before 9/11.

CHOUDARY: I've been to New York a couple of times before 9/11, and even to the -- to the Bible Belt -- I think they call it the Midwest. And, you know, it's about propagating Islam. I do believe that the Muslims in America are possibly 5 or 10 years behind in terms of the struggle that they're engaging in.

ROBERTSON (on-screen): What Choudary is implying is that how radicalization evolves here in Britain and in Europe will, in some part, be a model for what the United States can expect. Here, terrorism officials say they're tracking about 30 serious terror plots.

(voice-over): In the weeks after the London subway terror attacks in 2005, Choudary's co-leader, Omar Bakri, fled the U.K., fearing he would be arrested for his radical views. Now he's in Lebanon, broadcasting his message over the Internet. He describes the 9/11 attackers as the "Magnificent 19."

And in Europe, it appears that message is turning into action. Last year, Belgian police busted a group alleged to be using chatrooms to recruit young Muslims for Al Qaida training in Pakistan.

GLENN AUDENAERT, DIRECTOR, BRUSSELS FEDERAL POLICE: We knew we were in the presence of an organization that is part of Al Qaida. We knew that these people were in contact with the highest levels of Al Qaida in Afghanistan.

ROBERTSON: One of those arrested was this woman, Malika el Aroud. Her Web site praised Osama bin Laden.

MALIKA EL AROUD, SUPPORTER OF OSAMA BIN LADEN (through translator): Most Muslims love Osama, like I love him myself.

ROBERTSON: Now she's in jail, charged with taking part in the activities of an Islamic terrorist group. She denies the charge.

ALAIN WINANTS, DIRECTOR, BELGIAN STATE SECURITY SERVICE: She is, in fact, one of the leading jihadist person on Internet. Her site on interests -- Internet attracts very much interest from other persons.

ROBERTSON: Now, intelligence officials tell CNN, that a French atomic scientist charged last month with associating with terrorists was participating in Malika el Aroud's Web site.

Back in London, Anjem Choudary says, that's the point.


You can be anywhere to recruit people to radical Islam.

CHOUDARY: So it's very easy nowadays for people to build up links and communication very quickly, and, then, after that, you know, to disappear and to go off, you know, wherever they want to go.

ROBERTSON: And where they want to go, intelligence services worry in increasing numbers, is into violent jihad around the world.

Nic Robertson, CNN, London.


AMANPOUR: So what are we to make of all of this? Joining me now, Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's ambassador at large for counterterrorism. He's in Washington. And here in our studio is Karen Greenberg, an expert on Al Qaida and the executive director of New York University's Center on Law and Security. Also, Thomas Hegghammer, who's been tracking global jihad for years, he's a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment in Oslo.

Welcome to you all.

I want to start with you, Ambassador Benjamin at the State Department. Because of the Fort Hood killings, because of the suspicions that there may be something other than just religious fanaticism involved, can you tell me what the United States believes to be the motivation and what you're tracking in that case?

DANIEL BENJAMIN, U.S. COORDINATOR FOR COUNTERTERRORISM: Well, Christiane, it's a pleasure to be here, and particularly a pleasure to be on with Karen and Thomas, who for both of whom I have the greatest respect.

As for the Fort Hood case, you know, there is an ongoing investigation, and it is a law enforcement matter, so I -- I really can't comment on anything beyond what has already been put out there. Major Hasan, the principal -- the only suspect in this case has been indicted today, I believe, with 13 counts of premeditated murder, and I believe that the various investigating bureaus have said that they have seen these e- mail messages to a radical cleric, but that they were not a sufficient concern to open up an investigation, and there doesn't appear to be any linkage to any outside group in terms of the operation itself, in terms of the -- the tragic events at Fort Hood, so that's really all we've got.

AMANPOUR: All right. Well, let me ask you, Thomas Hegghammer. Not necessarily an actual instruction from an outside group, but tell me -- you're tracking these jihad groups. This apparently was a -- a cleric in - - in Yemen that he was exchanging e-mails with. Where is the center of concern right now about Al Qaida? And we have this map. You can -- you can draw on it, illustrate it, and let us know.

THOMAS HEGGHAMMER, INSTITUTE FOR ADVANCED STUDY IN PRINCETON: Well, I think it depends on what you mean by -- by Al Qaida.

AMANPOUR: Well, what do you mean by Al Qaida?

HEGGHAMMER: Al Qaida is -- is three things. First of all, it's an ideological movement of people who share Al Qaida's vision of global jihad against the West, and this movement is everywhere. It's online. It's -- it's -- it's global.

Then it's -- there is -- Al Qaida is also a franchise of regional organizations, in Iraq, for example, in Yemen, and also in Algeria.

AMANPOUR: North Africa here.

HEGGHAMMER: And then, finally, Al Qaida is also a core -- very tightly organized organization in Pakistan. And this group, which we call Al Qaida central, is constantly trying to mount operations in the West.

AMANPOUR: But here's the thing, Karen. Over the last few years, we've heard one thing and then another, first that they were all powerful, then that they started to split, but they were still a big, amorphous organization and a network, then that actually they were being weakened, the drone attacks were killing off, I don't know, something like 40 of their leaders, spreading the message here. What is the situation now? How is thinking evolving over the last year?

KAREN GREENBERG, EXEC. DIR., CENTER ON LAW AND SECURITY: Well, I think it's -- the question is, how is it evolving over the last couple of years? You're right. After 9/11, the United States' incursion into Afghanistan did a lot to disrupt training camps and the network itself. There are -- our policies around the world have pushed back against Al Qaida.

So there have been a number of factors that, you know, diminished, I think, their -- their activity and their -- their recruitment. However, in the -- the -- the National Intelligence Estimate has paid attention to this and in the past couple of years has said, look, they may be quieter, but they're shifting, they're changing. And the question is, how are they regrouping? What is happening?

And I think that's still where we are. We're trying to see how they're regrouping. And one of the reasons that -- that Fort Hood caused such -- got such attention was that it was maybe the 10th alleged Al Qaida maybe related activity or arrest in the past -- in September of this year. And so the question is, for this country and elsewhere in Europe, where England has had a number of incidents that they've stopped recently, what - - what is happening? Is there a new strategy that is smaller target, smaller activities that may coalesce at some point? And so I think we're in -- in the questionable period.

AMANPOUR: So we don't really know the answers, any answers at the moment?

GREENBERG: No. And I think we also need to -- to go back to Afghanistan.


It's something that Daniel and Thomas can talk about much better than I can, which is the relationship between Al Qaida and the Taliban.

AMANPOUR: Well, Daniel, let me ask you. First of all, I want to know, do you think that there is an Al Qaida front in the United States?

BENJAMIN: I'm not sure I'd use the word "front." We do know that Al Qaida senior leadership in Pakistan, in the -- in the tribal areas has consistently sought to create conspiracies and to plot against Western targets, including the United States. That has been a constant in their activity for a very long time, certainly from before 9/11, and I don't see any reason why we should think that has changed. That is really a constitutive element of what the group is all about.

Having said that, I think we should note that we've done quite a good job at stopping them whenever they have tried to do that thus far.

AMANPOUR: For instance, the Zazi case?

BENJAMIN: The Zazi case is an excellent example. We know that there was a connection between Zazi and -- and the tribal areas. And, you know, I think it's, in many ways, a -- a good news story, because our intelligence tripwires found it. And as a result, law enforcement could do its job.


BENJAMIN: The same...

AMANPOUR: I just want to get to the point of Afghanistan, which Karen mentioned, Thomas. So is Afghanistan Al Qaida-free? Should the world worry about Afghanistan becoming yet another place for Al Qaida to regroup and recruit?

HEGGHAMMER: Definitely. One of the reasons why Al Qaida became so strong and why it was able to carry out 9/11 and so on is that it had big training camps in Afghanistan. So that is definitely something to worry about.

And -- and right now, the majority of the core Al Qaida leadership is based in Pakistan by ratio of some three to one.

AMANPOUR: But that's because they've been kicked out of -- of Afghanistan by the U.S. forces.


AMANPOUR: With this debate going on about what to do in war strategy in Afghanistan, do you think a small footprint is beneficial to reducing Al Qaida?

HEGGHAMMER: It's a very complex question that's being debated very intensively at the moment. And...

AMANPOUR: I'm not asking you about the policy debate. I want to know what you think in terms of -- of Al Qaida regrouping. If only a small number of American troops go, is that more likely that Al Qaida could regroup and recruit?

HEGGHAMMER: I think so. I think that if we have a situation where the Taliban comes into power in Afghanistan, it's going to be very difficult to deter them from somehow hosting Al Qaida elements, because they can very easily establish what you call plausible deniability. They say -- they can -- they can say that, well, we cannot stop Arab preachers or humanitarian workers from entering the country, and so on and so forth.

AMANPOUR: And -- and, Karen, you track a lot of ongoing things, whether they be trials, whatever it is, the Internet. What are we missing? What are law enforcement or policymakers missing? You're always on the lookout for what people are missing, right?

GREENBERG: I'm always trying to find what Dan and people like that are missing, but they're actually pretty good. And I just want to -- I don't think it's what they're missing. I think it's we're always -- you know, what -- what can we have paid attention to last week?

One of the things that Dan said that I think is very important is that there has been a consistency. Yes, our law enforcement has been good about stopping things, deterring crimes, identifying who might -- but -- but the idea of Americans, people in the United States being here and then going to Pakistan currently to train, or perhaps even to Somalia, if you wanted to take this further, is something that we've been -- we're always watching. I think there's a sense now that it's gotten more the case.

It's -- it's not necessarily true. Of the over 800 cases since 9/11, there have been at least 60 cases where there have been proven some kind of training within some kind of camp situation. And so it's not that things are getting more dangerous; it's just that we're getting more attentive, because the level of threat in the cases that we're stopping is worrisome at this point, and that's what's happened.

AMANPOUR: We're going to be right back with all three of you. Stay with us. We want to know -- and we're going to ask -- whether, in fact, the U.S. and Europe know their enemy. Stay with us.




MOHAMMAD SIDIQUE KHAN, LONDON SUICIDE BOMBER: Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our targets.


AMANPOUR: So that was Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the London suicide bombers. And we bring it up because it goes to the heart of the matter. So many questions about why, often, it's middle-class, educated, people who've even had some secular education, who commit these crimes.

So joining me again, Daniel Benjamin at the State Department, Karen Greenberg at New York University, and Thomas Hegghammer, who's been tracking the global jihad movement.

I guess the question I want to pose to you, Daniel Benjamin, is, do you, even after all these years, understand the complications in so much of this modern Islam? For instance, the kind of grievances that somebody who is educated like Mohammad Sidique Khan took upon himself to the point of becoming a jihadist?

BENJAMIN: Well, it would be foolhardy to claim to know everything about this movement, but I don't think we should be surprised that it's the educated who are often leading this effort. I mean, revolution has historically been the -- revolutionary movements have historically been the -- the domain of the educated and -- and the intelligentsia. They've often looked to poorer individuals to be their foot soldiers, but this is entirely consistent with revolutionary movements for -- for several centuries.

AMANPOUR: Except that Sidique Khan was a foot soldier. He's dead. He was a suicide bomber.

BENJAMIN: Yes, but he was the leader of his own cell. And, you know, Mohamed Atta also was a very educated person. He had, I believe, a master's in urban planning.

In fact, almost all of the senior leadership and the -- and the major activists in this group have had Western-style educations, and they've developed critical faculties, and they are very much the ones who are most likely to feel acutely what they perceive as a kind of grand humiliation, civilizational humiliation, and that's what motivates them.

AMANPOUR: Is there, Karen, therefore, a way -- I don't know -- to have a campaign of hearts and minds? Somehow, there's this local, personal humiliation feeling that they then combine with this global jihad. Is there a way to crack that?

GREENBERG: Good question. Let me just expand a little bit on what -- what Dan was saying. It's -- it's complicated. Yes, maybe the leaders are the most educated, but currently, in a lot of the arrests here and elsewhere, it hasn't just been the educators, and they're not just -- you know, the educated, and they're not just foot soldiers, so we're -- we're seeing it sort of move to people who are on the fringes, et cetera.

So this question of humanitarian may come in economically, as well, socioeconomically, as well as elsewhere. And I think it's an important trend to look for.

And I think the other thing -- and I just want to bring this up with - - you know, you talk about hearts and minds. Let's look at the U.K. The U.K. just has been trying this airline plot case. They tried it once; the results were insufficient. They tried it again; they -- the results were somewhat in insufficient. It's being tried a third time.

This is not playing out well with the Muslim community, and they're letting that be known, in some cases by silence, in some cases by protest, as you see.

AMANPOUR: I want to ask you, Thomas, something. This whole notion about drone and drone attacks, there have been, obviously, many complaints on the ground that drone attacks are radicalizing the population on the ground.


Others are saying that actually the benefit is that it's killing a lot of the leadership. There is a professor at NYU who says -- rather, Columbia, who says that, in fact, Al Qaida should not be destroyed, it should be weakened, but don't destroy it, because otherwise you won't know where all those people go. They'll -- they'll -- they'll seep out into other organizations. Is that reasonable? Should one keep it weakened and in your sights?

HEGGHAMMER: No, I -- I disagree with that argument. I think that it's true that, if you decapitate Al Qaida, then it will spread out in smaller pieces, but I think that ultimately that threat is smaller than the one where you have a structured organization. History shows that organization increases the efficiency of terrorist attacks.

AMANPOUR: And, Daniel Benjamin, another incredible statistic that we saw from the McChrystal report, basically, looking inside every jail and you'll find a population of willing recruits. Apparently, the statistic from elsewhere I found, in the U.S. jails, there's an 80 percent conversion to Islam. And yet, in European jails and in European penal measures there, they can counter that.

Does the U.S. have to figure out how to counter the recruiting that's going on in jail?

BENJAMIN: Christiane, first, let me -- if I could say a word about the hearts and minds issue, it -- we shouldn't think that we're going to change anyone's mind who is already committed to violence, but what we really do need to do is a better job at creating an environment in which those people very much under threat and -- and unable to trust anyone, unable to operate.

We need to do a better job at -- at preventing radicalization itself. And I think that's really what the task is.

As for prisons, there's no question it's a big problem. I don't know what an 80 percent conversion rate means. It is certainly true that in prisons around the world, the spread of -- of radicalism is an enormous -- is an enormous problem, and there's an awful lot of work going on, a lot of innovation going on with different kinds of counter-radicalization programs to stop that.

But it is still early days in this regard. And that is one of the challenges we face.

GREENBERG: Just -- I want to just clarify the 80 percent. I think, when I read this, it was that 80 percent of the religious conversions that take place in U.S. prisons are to Islam, but there is no correlation to radicalization on that level at all. In fact, quite the opposite, that the -- the conversions don't line up as we've seen yet to radicalization. So it's not...

AMANPOUR: But, apparently, it is happening in Afghanistan?

GREENBERG: Yes. And there's worry about it here, and there's worry about it in the U.K., where it's -- it's -- where there is, you know, a lot of distrust of the authorities. And this is a good place to spread that.

AMANPOUR: So final question to all of you. Daniel Benjamin, is Al Qaida stronger and more effective right now or not than a year or two ago?

BENJAMIN: Than a year or two ago? No, I don't think so. I think the senior leadership is under considerable pressure, but at the same time, I think we see a number of places around the world where it has worrisome strength. Yemen is one place. Somalia, East Africa is another.

You know, it's -- it's constantly a changing picture. And as the other participants have said, it's -- it's complicated. I think we are doing better, but we're certainly not out of the woods on this.

AMANPOUR: Thomas, is Al Qaida stronger, more effective?

HEGGHAMMER: I think it's about as effective as it was one or two years ago, but -- but it's fairly clear that it's weaker than it was five or six years ago. And that has to do with the massive counterterrorism effort that's been mounted against them.

AMANPOUR: And as I ask you the same question, also to note that, if you go to Afghanistan or Pakistan, for instance, the level of support for extremism is, in fact, dropping. Do you think that Al Qaida is stronger or weaker?

GREENBERG: It's stronger in the Western headlines these days. It's weaker in its ability to carry out attacks. We're thwarting it again and again. It's a presence that isn't going to go away the way we wanted, and we just have to keep ever vigilant.

AMANPOUR: Karen Greenberg, Thomas Hegghammer, Daniel Benjamin at the State Department, thank you so much, all of you, for joining us.

And learn more about these issues that we've been discussing. Go to our Web site,, where you can watch "Generation Islam." And also, next in our "P.S.," we'll tell you who's fighting to take back Islam. You might be surprised.



AMANPOUR: And in our "Post-Script," we have a story about some new comic book superheroes. Their creator is Dr. Naif al-Mutawa from Kuwait, and he calls them "The 99." He said they are the militant busters, and they take their inspiration from the Koran. They include Jabbar the Powerful, who has superhuman strength, and Noora the Light, who can see the light of truth in others. And Batina the Hidden, a female superhero who covers herself up under the veil. But their mission is to attract children and to teach them a tolerant and peaceful face of Islam.

And before we go, a quick programming note. Hear tennis great Andre Agassi answer your questions about his new book and his startling confession. He is CNN's Connector of the Day, which is coming up on "Connect the World" 30 minutes from now.

But that's our report for now. And we'll be back tomorrow with some unusual perspectives on the Middle East conflict. For all of us here, goodbye from New York.