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Background Briefing on the Al Qaeda Terrorist Network

Background Briefing on the Al Qaeda Terrorist Network

Source: News Transcript from the United States Department of Defense. DoD News Briefing Defense Official, Tuesday, February 19, 2002 - 1:30 p.m. EST.

Staff: Good afternoon. Today we will have a background briefing to update you on the situation with al Qaeda and the threat that it poses. Just a quick reminder about the ground rules -- or to put it another way, the way we define the word "background." It's on the record, meaning all the words that are said can be quoted directly, and we will post a transcript. And the attribution should be "Defense official." And no cameras or, you know, recording for broadcast. If you want to record for your reporting purposes, that's fine, but not for broadcast.

Question: So this is not a "senior Defense official"?

Staff: No, this is a "Defense official," that's right. We had this big discussion. This is a "Defense official."

(Cross talk.)

Staff: Of course. I'm about to do this, okay? So here's a little information about the Defense official who is going to be briefing you today. We have about a half hour for this, unless we run out of questions earlier.

Question: Not possible.

Staff: Not possible? Okay, well, we'll see.

Defense Official: Good afternoon. Basically, what I would like to do, before I start answering your questions, is kind of give a summary of how we see the al Qaeda network, how it's changed, basically, since the coalition strikes in Afghanistan.

We believe, basically, that bin Laden made a strategic mistake when he did his attacks. I don't think he expected us to respond the way he did; basically come to his home turf with the forces and the technology that we did. Basically, the coalition military strikes, along with the arrests around the world, the intelligence support from around the world, has basically had a dramatic impact on the al Qaeda organization.

That said, the organization still survives, is still active and still a threat. It's changed, however. But any time you take away its primary safe haven, which was Afghanistan, it was the one place it could do basically all the business it wanted to do in one safe, controlled spot; that it had freedom of action, freedom of training, freedom of movement, freedom to meet.

Once you take that away from them, and they no longer have that -- and it's irreplaceable; there's no other country now like it. They have not found a spot that would give them the same support that they had in Afghanistan, which they had since, basically -- if you go back to when -- bin Laden arrived in '96, so you're talking several years to build that infrastructure up and, basically, work the system for several years.

The network continues to pose a threat, though, and a global threat. We have -- bin Laden basically always thought three steps ahead -- would have plans in the works -- multiple plans; not just one. Some of those plans, we believe, are still out there. Some of them could be quickly implemented, possibly, or at least reconstituted. We've seen actions in the several months after 11 September that have seemed to indicate that there are still players out there in varying degrees of sophistication -- most notably, the Malaysia/Singapore network in Southeast Asia, which we, basically, found a lot more evidence that we knew -- we knew a little bit before but not as much as we thought -- the extent of the network.

We also have Mr. Reid and the plot to bomb the aircraft over the Atlantic. Basically, what al Qaeda has lost -- again, it's lost its center of gravity. It's lost its safe haven and its common meeting place. The benefits of Afghanistan cannot be underestimated. Again, it was the one state sponsor they had. Bin Laden himself, obviously, and his organization, his key lieutenants, being on the run, moving, not having a safe haven, clearly cannot operate the way they did before. They cannot communicate the way they did before. They cannot, basically, control the organization the way they did before.

Senior leaders and other officials have been on the run, have been killed, captured. All adds to the pot of the disruption of the organization -- hasn't shut it down, hasn't -- and hasn't killed it, and I think, as a -- you'll see that most senior officials believe this is a long-term process. It's not going to be done in a month or two months.

Basically, the worldwide arrests -- Mr. Tenet, I think, put the number at roughly a thousand in 60 countries -- each one of those, obviously, has some impact in the host countries and maybe connections to other countries. So every little bit adds to that.

Also, the impact of the military coalition and the basically shutting down of the Taliban -- and to some extent the al Qaeda still has remnants in Afghanistan -- I'm not going to say they don't; they do -- but it's also put on notice certain countries that may have been in -- at least in the thinking process of supporting al Qaeda, whether it be as a temporary safe haven, allowing transit, and it's put those countries on notice that basically it's not a good idea. So they have certain countries that may have been more willing a year ago, two years ago, to support al Qaeda, to a degree, thinking twice about it.

It's also -- al Qaeda has sort of lost its aura of invincibility. It basically had successes in 1998 in the East Africa embassy bombings, the Cole attack, and 11th September -- all basically tactical successes, as they viewed it, with very little serious ramifications for the organization, at least in their eyes. However, after 11th September and the coalition military actions in Afghanistan, the effectiveness and how quick it happened, it basically knocked them down a peg or two, at least as far as -- also, you know, this goes back to the recruiting of new recruits. If you have an organization that has basically won every victory, and all of a sudden they have at least a loss to some degree, the ones that are borderline thinking of joining the organization may back off a little bit, saying, "I don't want to end up in Guantanamo Bay. I don't want to end up in, you know, a body bag. I don't want to end up, you know, trucking off to some jihad that may not work out for me."

So -- that said, al Qaeda -- you know, it's been disrupted. However -- and we believe that the leadership is probably going to go more decentralized. It's going to be more of a franchise-type thing.

There are several operatives that have already had proven operations under their belt -- East Africa embassy bombers. Some of the two key -- two of the key individuals are still on the loose. We believe they could, you know, easily reconstitute an operation. They're well disciplined, know how to plan an operation. They're still out there, and there are several others.

We believe that some of those more operational-focused activities will be basically geared more towards them to have independent action rather than a centralized command and control, again, which is difficult right now in these times for the organization.

Some of the organization -- again, when you leave Afghanistan, some of these people came with their families, too; they didn't just come by themselves, they brought their whole families with them. So, obviously, a logistic problem they have to do to relocate their families, move them, get passports, bring them to a safe place, whether it be back to their home countries, which can cause problems, or back to other countries that may -- they may feel would harbor them. Some of these individuals may go off to other places where there's jihads in Chechnya, other places, to continue the fight in those environments.

We believe that al Qaeda will try to reconstitute their organization, but the problem is they have -- as far as we know, there's no centrally located place they can do this, at least not without the scrutiny of law enforcement, intelligence, the worldwide net. It will be hard for certain people, key individuals -- bin Laden and some of his key deputies -- to basically hang their hat anywhere and operate the way they did in Afghanistan. So it's not going to happen.

Basically, you know, we view al Qaeda as still a very potent threat. However, as time goes on, if the operations continue, each little bit will degrade the organization, at least the way it operated before with a centralized planning node that would plan spectacular attacks, such as the East Africa embassy bombings, 11 September. It may go more towards, again, the franchise, which is basically the operatives and the people out in the field make their choices what they want to go after, how they want to fund it, you know, whether they want to rob houses to fund. You know, there's all different methods they can use. But sometimes those operations are not as effective, not as large, not as competent.

So, you know, it will be harder for bin Laden to basically control the way he did before with some of his key lieutenants. Mohammed Atef, one of his key lieutenants, obviously is -- we believe is dead. If that's the case, then obviously he was a key planner and operational thinker for the organization. So he's down.

I think with that, I'll open up for questions.


Question: Do you have any idea where the senior leaders are now -- the ones who are remaining?

Defense Official: Do we know where they are?

Question: Right. Are they gathered in any particular country, or are they --

Defense Official: No, not that we can say for definitively now. Obviously, we're keeping an eye out for the senior officials. But no, no.

Question: Do you believe he's still in Afghanistan?

Defense Official: I don't know. I mean, the intelligence is, you know -- all over the map, you know. I couldn't say for sure right now.

Question: You said two operationally functional al Qaeda operators are at large. Who are you thinking of?

Defense Official: Basically, two of the ones involved in the East Africa embassy bombing is Abdullah Abdullah, basically -- also known as Saleh -- he was the mastermind -- and Abdel Rahman, who is the bomb-builder, basically -- you know, just those type of individuals. I'm just citing those two out, but they are not the only ones. But they are two guys that have experience under the belt to plan a well-orchestrated double-attack on the same day. And they're still out on the streets, you know. Where they are, we don't know. However, you have that expertise out there, and obviously, that's a threat.

Question: Could you trace for us how al Qaeda works -- how many people were at the top and how they got their orders out? We have yet to see anything that really shows that flow.

Defense Official: Probably because there is no real -- it's not like a real good line-and-block chart like the military or anything; they didn't work that way.

Question: How did they work?

Defense Official: It was more of a network. You know, there was a senior leadership element. You know, obviously, I don't think they had, like, president, prime minister or that kind of thing -- secretary of defense -- but they had key functions within this organization -- intelligence -- again, some of the key people he -- bin Laden surrounds himself with, Muhammad Atef being one -- were with him for a long time -- years -- and you build up the trust. It's not just what they know but how they can be trusted.

Again, certain operations filter directly from Afghanistan out -- East Africa embassy bombings, I believe, it was that way. Other operations that are basically more indirect control -- you know, there's an operation that somebody brings to their attention and, basically, it's up to that cell or that entity to go out and basically do the footwork for it -- plan the operation, fund it if even possible. I mean, I think the idea that bin Laden funds, you know, out of his pocket, every operation, isn't -- is not accurate.

Question: I have one about financing, since you're doing that. There was one article in the Washington Post Sunday, which I'm sure you saw -- a detailed article talking about before the victory in Afghanistan -- or what seems to be a victory -- the Taliban and the al Qaeda smuggled gold bullion and currency out of the country via -- (inaudible) -- to Dubai and then on to various cells across the country.

All right. In short, really, two bottom lines. One, the implications were that the al Qaeda is fat financially and has plenty of money to do what it wants. And secondly, the implication, though not spoken, was that if that's true, that all this money has gone out and they still have it, that the Bush economic warfare on terrorism is so far a failure. Would you comment?

Defense Official: I'm familiar with the articles, and I think -- the way al Qaeda financed itself was multifaceted. I mean, I don't think they relied on one single source. In some respects -- I wouldn't say they're fat, but I wouldn't say they're lacking in funds to conduct operations either. Basically -- and that's why I get back into some of these more franchise operations. You know, if you look at the millennium plot, the operatives were supposed to finance some of their activities through basically burglary. I mean, it was basically get your own money to finance what you need. Some of the more sophisticated operations -- obviously, there's more of a pool of money.

You know, terrorism is not a very expensive thing to do. When you really get down to it, I mean, you know, to conduct an operation -- and again, it varies on the sophistication of what you need, but it -- for the bang for the buck of what you get, it's not the most expensive. It's not like a large program of missile technology and all these things that you have to put billions of dollars into. It's relatively cheap. Some of the operatives and the entities support themselves, you know, with criminal activity or falsifying documents, things like that, you know, they can move around.

But I think, you know, when it comes down to it, I wouldn't sit there and say, "Well" -- I believe the actions taken by the government to shut down certain avenues of money is good, and I think it will -- they will hurt. And you know, this is -- again, it's every tiny little bit helps. Whether you're arresting someone here, shutting down a money source here, basically taking out a training base here, it all adds up to where the network has to keep rethinking how it does business and where it's going to get its money from, where it's going to get its training centers from. It all adds up to keep them off-balance.

Question: When you talk about --

Question: It's been said that al Qaeda moved into Iran, across the border. Can you shed any light into the numbers and what kind of support they're getting from the Iranian government?

Defense Official: I can't get into numbers. Numbers isn't a good thing anyway, because they're never accurate. What I can say is -- and I think the secretary of Defense said -- is, we believe the Iranians did help al Qaeda members into -- from Afghanistan to Iran. I think I can stick with that.

Question: Iranian -- you mean the Iranian government?

Question: Yeah, at what level?

Defense Official: Yeah.

Question: At what level?

Defense Official: Sorry, I can't get into that right now.

Question: You mean their intelligence, their Revolutionary Guard --

Defense Official: Well, there are certain entities that are involved in the Iranian support for terrorism. You know, there's certain entities within the Iranian government -- the Minister of Intelligence and Security, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qods Force -- those are the primary entities that have historically been involved in support for terrorist groups across the board. So those would be the entities that would, you know, have some role in that type of activity.

Question: And are they helping them move to other places, and if so, where?

Defense Official: That I don't know.

Question: On this issue of decentralization, to what extent is Abu Sayyaf in any way linked, an offshoot of al Qaeda, and to what extent is it just a totally independent operation?

Defense Official: Well, I think Abu Sayyaf has that context, and there's been elements that have trained in Afghanistan. But it's probably one of the more -- you know, it's an independent organization that has ties to al Qaeda. There's numerous organizations like that that have -- you know, whether they're connected with funding or whether they're connected with training. But it's not a, basically -- take its marching orders from the leadership in Afghanistan by any means.

A good example is, you know, some of the Egyptian groups, in particular the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group, under Zawahiri, was basically an independent group that was closely tied to al Qaeda. However, it eventually merged into one. I mean, basically it became part of al Qaeda officially, which is basically where you would say Zawahiri gave the orders to elements that used to be EIJ and continue to be thought of as that, to conduct operations or do whatever they're doing. That was more of a direct line, line (bloc ?), whereas Abu Sayyaf is tied to, it has contacts with the organization, but as far as a direct chain of command, it's not like that.

Question: And what about money? Did it get money from -- (off mike)?

Defense Official: I believe so, I but wouldn't -- yeah, I wouldn't be able to get into how much or how little, quite frankly.

Question: To follow up on that same region, you were talking about the network in Malaysia, the Singapore network that more has been learned about, that you knew a little bit about. What's the relationship of that to al Qaeda? Is that a branch of al Qaeda?

Defense Official: Well, I think we're getting more and more informed on the extent of the connections. What you have there is more like a franchise type entity where you have elements that are tied to, have traveled to Afghanistan, basically met with Afghanistan leaders. Again, the (fah ?) process of going after U.S. interests is basically in both minds.

But I think we're -- obviously, it's an ongoing investigation. It just happened, basically, in December, really -- where it's really getting to be -- to see the extent of the network, how many people we're dealing with, running the trail from a -- from an intelligence and law enforcement perspective, I think we're basically seeing that it's a lot larger and more robust than we thought.

Now, that said, again, it's the -- did senior leaders of that organization sit at the right of bin Laden, you know, throughout Afghanistan and plan these things? Not that we're aware of.

(Cross talk.)

Question: As you -- as they get more decentralized, how does it make it harder, from a law enforcement standpoint, to follow these different threads, to prevent their actions or catch them?

Defense Official: In some respects, it makes it a lot harder, I agree, because you don't know as much, you don't have the key individuals, sort of the middleman, that you can monitor to see who they're talking to and where they're going when you're trying to monitor the organization -- the independent players. And I said they were less dangerous, but in some respects they're harder to follow, but their operations tend to be a little more sloppy, not as effective, you know, not as well planned.

You know, the -- bin Laden likes to plan for years on operations, to make them work. I mean, he will sit back and -- after a failed attempt or something that's not going right, he will sit back and be patient. At least that's the way he did his operations. I mean, if you look at East Africa, the Cole, 11th September, I mean, they took years to plan, where some of the more franchise-type operations tend to be a little more knee-jerk reaction -- you know, "let's do something quick."

But again, it gets -- whenever you have players you don't really know as well -- and I've seen now, I think, with the law enforcement and across the globe tapping into the resources of those countries to make them aware that there are potential threats -- you know, Singapore's a good example. You know, how many people really thought there was a major threat down there? And some of the governments down there are obviously being, you know, a little more in tune to what is the threat and what do they need to look for.

Question: Operationally --

Question: Can I follow up on that real quickly? What is the state of the communications network? Are you still picking up intercepts and chatter? Are they still talking to one another in any way?

Defense Official: I can't really get into that.

Question: Do you have a working number on how many al Qaeda people have been killed and how many captured? And was there an expectation at the beginning of the campaign that more would have been killed or captured?

Defense Official: No, we don't have an exact number, and no, I don't think there was an expectation of, you know -- again, it's -- it was -- our job and, I think, the government's job was basically to cease Afghanistan as a safe haven for these individuals and basically capture or put out of commission as many people as we could.

I don't think -- the numbers -- you know, when you get into numbers, you know, I would say several hundred, you know, across the board. But you know, we're learning every day, you know, who's al Qaeda, who is Taliban, who is these other individuals. Sometimes it's kind of a hard mess to work through.

And obviously, we're getting there.

But if you look at the expectations -- I think, in some respects, you know, certain people didn't think it would happen this quick -- the Taliban wouldn't fold this quick. But I think, you know, quite frankly, the organization has been hurt more seriously than they thought they would be. And I think that's the key -- is they thought -- I think they really believed that we would come in plodding, almost like the Soviet Union did, if we came in at all. And that was another question: whether we would come in. You know, past responses -- you know, to their eyes, wasn't very effective. So clearly, they crossed over that line, and they didn't realize the extent that we would come in and how we would do it.

Question: If I could follow up on Abu Sayyaf just for a minute, in the Philippines. The Philippine ambassador to the United States told me a couple of weeks ago that the Abu Sayyaf was about 1,200 a month or so ago and now down to about 100. One, is that a fairly correct number? And if so, why do we need 600 Special Forces-plus trained in the Philippines in jungle warfare, other kinds of warfare? Some people feel it's like training Annie Oakley to shoot.

Defense Official: I think --

Staff: I don't think (you can answer ?).

Defense Official: Okay.

Question: Operationally, does al Qaeda -- you said they'd obviously planned for years for different events. Is it your belief that there were cells out there that waited for some trigger from or some signal to carry out specific missions that they had planned? And do you think that there are still cells out there with motive, if you will?

Defense Official: Well, I think we've said all along that there's -- that we believe that they planned several operations at once, some of them in different stages, obviously, of maturity. But we believe they usually, in the past, have had multiple operations going on at the same time, so if you shut one down, there's still two or three more. And I can't say, the ones we don't know about, obviously. Would I say there's still al Qaeda cells out there? Yes.

Question: Actually, following that, walk us through a specific event, like September 11th, if you can do it, or if you want, walk back through the Eastern Africa bombings. Who planned it? How did the orders go out? We'd love to hear an example of how these things happen, and especially if you have it for September 11th.

Defense Official: Well, I think if you look at -- and you can get a lot from, quite frankly -- from the East Africa embassy-bombing- trial transcripts, quite frankly. There's a lot of good data in there. Obviously, from the lower perspective, from some of the operatives that were picked up -- but we believe that, again, that plotting took place well over several years to basically do surveillance. You know, all the things a group does -- collect intelligence, basically move explosives into the region if they have to -- sometimes -- you know, that's why -- when you see elements and groups that try to get locally acquired fertilizer products that they can easily build their own bombs, like the Timothy McVeigh bomb -- you know, sometimes they can do that. Sometimes they can't. Sometimes they'd rather ship it in. But the planning stages, obviously, are all pretty much the same.

And it's -- basically, you get back into your question of, you know, is there something that triggers it. Sometimes what triggers it is they're ready to go, and it's at their time and convenience, it's not at ours. You know, if we go into a heightened state of alert for whatever reason, you know, we may temporarily disrupt their plans but, you know, they will execute and attack when they feel it will be successful, and especially the significant operations. And they -- they're -- again, they're very patient. They will not hesitate to hold off for six months to a year. If you look at the -- you know, the -- and I'm sure you've all seen the Cole bombing, you know, the thoughts that they were going to do a bomb attack the year before, you know, and then they basically went back to the drawing board almost and, you know, started again.

Question: A follow-up on that question. You had said earlier you had seen some activities and there are still players out there with various degrees of sophistication. I mean, can you -- can you elaborate on that statement? Do you believe that there are al Qaeda cells that have -- essentially have a plan in some form, in some stage of planning, that it's just -- they're waiting to be activated?

Defense Official: Well, I think we do believe that. The problem is we don't have the fidelity of where and when and how. I mean, I think that's what it comes down to. You know, we -- and we're also going on the historical, the way they've operated in the past. You know, they usually have been involved in several operations at once. You assume and you believe that they probably have done the same thing sometime -- and again, the extent of how the worldwide crackdown has affected those, you know, stopping certain operations or making people get cold feet, or putting people on hold, you know, you're not going to know, we're not going to know the extent of that in some cases.

Question: What I guess I'm asking, do you believe that there are other plans out there waiting to be launched simply because that's what they've done in the past or because we have some evidence, some indication, some activity, some indicators that point us in that direction?

Defense Official: Well, I mean, I think we believe that they have other plans out there that have been on the books. Where they stand now, you know, is -- right now is the one issue we're not too sure about.

You know, what I want you to take away, obviously, is they remain a threat. I mean, if anybody basically tries to say that, you know, oh, the successes in Afghanistan have basically shut the organization down and they no longer can operate, that's not the case.

Question: A follow-up -- not a follow-up, but separate question, since I got your attention. The connection between al Qaeda and Iraq -- is there any talk about that?

Defense Official: I think, like -- al Qaeda has had contacts with numerous groups and states to varying degrees, and Iraq is one of them. But the extent of it, I can't really go into right now.

Question: But again, similar to Jeff's question back here, are we talking about Saddam Hussein, are we talking about something in the intelligence service, are you talking about --

Defense Official: When you look at -- again, Iraq, just like Iran, just like some of the other state sponsors, the entities that deal with these groups, these intelligence organizations, tend to be their intelligence services, their covert military operational guys, again, the IRGC Qods Force is one. So it usually tends -- the lead tends to be there; it doesn't tend to be at the government, the president-to-president level. Or, you know, a president is not going to sit down with a senior terrorist and have dinner with them and talk about plans and plots.

Question: But are you -- to ask the question very specifically, are you telling us that you believe al Qaeda leadership had contact with Iraqi intelligence services or military operatives or --

Defense Official: Well, again, I think -- and the DCI said it in his opening statement. The al Qaeda has had contacts with Iraq entities, just like theyve had contact with Iranian entities.

State sponsors have contacts with a lot of different groups to varying degrees of where -- where they fit in. Sometimes, you know, these groups -- and al Qaeda's a good example; it's made up of so many different types and nationalities of individuals, and they each have contacts within their own realm. Algerians have contacts with groups in Algeria, you know, that aren't al Qaeda per se, but they can tap into their connections that they have there. So you can work it that way, too. It's almost like a spider web, rather than, you know, having a big delegation going and sitting down and meeting sometimes.

Question: You've talked about the threat of reconstitution. To what extent have you in fact seen efforts to reconstitute? For example, Abu Zubaydah -- has Abu Zubaydah gone out and tried to rally the troops? Are you seeing any sign of, at any kind of al Qaeda leadership level, a reconstitution?

Defense Official: Not to that extent, no. What we have is elements that we believe could that. Right now I think they're still in the process of trying to relocate, to find themselves safe places to operate. That may take them months, if not years, and hopefully we'll stop them from doing it. I mean, that's the key. But I don't think we've had somebody show up in a certain country and say, "Everybody come here." No, we haven't had that. You know, that's -- and I don't think we're going to get that, quite frankly. I don't think -- and that's why I stress, with Afghanistan, I don't think there's one spot where they're all going to be able to gather the way they did in Afghanistan. It's just not going to happen. There's --

Question: Not Somalia?

Defense Official: No.

Question: Can you explain why not Somalia?

Defense Official: Because basically -- for a couple reasons, I think. You know, Somalia, you know -- small elements may go there, but as far as being, you know, a state haven where they'll all be accepted, I don't think the -- they're on -- you know, governments are on notice that that would not be a good thing. To have the extent of the network that they had in Afghanistan, with numerous training bases, thousands of people, freedom of movement, you know, there is no state out there that we know of -- or even a non-state, quite frankly -- that is willing to do that or have the groups wanting to go there -- has another --

Question: A clarification question, if I could. You used the number 200 earlier. Was that captured and killed in --

Defense Official: I didn't say 200. I just said there's several hundred -- you know, if you talk about a rough number of people that have been captured, killed, you know -- and I'm talking about, too, you can go into, you know -- it's the degree of, you know, who they are and where they fit into the mix --

Question: Several hundred al Qaeda captured or killed?

Defense Official: I would -- I would say yeah. I mean, I would say that.

Question: And might -- excuse me, and I had a question, if I could. Earlier you were trying to describe the hierarchy of al Qaeda, and you said it was difficult. Yet you just talked about their intelligence gathering, their ability to be patient, to move finances.

Aren't attributes those of an insurgency, of a guerrilla group, of a militia, of a mafia? Give us -- we're trying to understand how it works.

Defense Official: If you look at al Qaeda, the vast majority of people that came to Afghanistan to train, the vast majority of them made their way up into the north to fight the Northern Alliance in what was a guerrilla operation -- you know, it was basically a military on military, if you want to call it that. Where you get live-fire training, I mean you're getting real training where guys are firing back at you instead of just going through the training mode. These guys train in varying degrees. If you look at the types of training they've done in Afghanistan, it goes the gamut from basic military stuff -- how to handle and AK-47, fire an RBG -- to very complex kidnapping operations, you know, how to kick in doors and take down buildings for a hostage barricade situation. And we've seen video tapes of it; this is no surprise.

So you know -- and that gives you some insight into at least where they're thinking of where their potential operations, you know, could be. Clearly, you know, the captured documents that we're finding and the captured videos is giving clear insight into -- and giving more insight into what we already had as a baseline on what type of activities they were involved in, the extent of those activities.

Question: Has your picture of al Qaeda filled in more from the documents and the stuff gathered in Afghanistan or from the questioning of detainees?

Defense Official: I think it's a combination of everything. I mean, it's -- you know, as an intel person, every little bit helps to fill in this puzzle, and whether it's a document that has a little snippet here, and an interrogation of someone here, and a video, you know, it all adds up into adding to your baseline knowledge of what that group is all about, who the key players are in some extents (sic), where they're headed, where they've been. So I think -- you know, I think the intelligence gathered from Afghanistan has been great from an intel point of view. It's -- overall to add to that baseline and give us better insight than we've ever had, I think. It's a clear winner, in my eyes, anyway.

Staff: Just a couple more.

Question: Could you just give us a personal sense of what it's been like sitting there as a terrorism analyst to have this -- you know, reams of information now coming in from Afghanistan, what your personal response has been to it? Was it like: "Wow, we really had no idea" or "This is scarier then we thought" or "We're on top of things"?

Defense Official: No, I think certain -- in most cases, it's, you know, right on track with what we were thinking. In some cases it gives you -- you know, they're two steps ahead of where I thought they were, or they seem to be more interested in this. Or it gives a context into operations we thought they could be planning or any terrorist group would think of, and you'll find something that gives a little more weight to it -- "Hey, they were really thinking of doing this" or at least trained for it. And that gives you, you know, more insight into, "Yeah, we were thinking along the same lines" or "Hey" -- you know, this is something new that we didn't know about."

I mean, there's still -- and obviously, it's an ongoing process that we're still getting more information in. We're exploring that information. I think as time goes on, we'll find other nuggets and other pieces of information that will clearly give the analysts in the intelligence community greater insight into where that organization is headed and, hopefully, again, be used to stop further attacks.

Question: What are you saying about their effort to acquire WMD capabilities, and are you seeing any evidence that they've gotten any sort of cooperation from foreign governments?

Defense Official: I think the al Qaeda -- we always believed that they were interested in weapons of mass destruction. I mean, bin Laden himself said, you know, "It's the duty of all Muslims to follow through with this." I mean, he's made no bones about it that if he could get it, you know, it would be a good thing. And we definitely believe they were interested. I think what we're finding in Afghanistan may seem to indicate that we were right on the mark with that and they were very seriously interested in acquiring chemical weapons, biological weapons.

But as far as having, you know, found a large device or something, no.

Question: But I mean, what evidence do you have that they were interested? I mean, what did you find?

Defense Official: Well, again, it's things that I really can't get into as far as detail, but -- I think it basically tracked with our assessment of where they were headed. And it's one -- al Qaeda is one of the groups that we were more concerned about, because it's one group we believe, if they acquired it, they would use it or at least think of using it. Other groups, that have a state sponsor behind them, would think twice about it or the state would put -- you know, put restrictions on its use or have second thoughts about it. Al Qaeda really didn't have that -- you know, that state that would stop them from doing that.

Question: Did they have a state that would help them, though?

Defense Official: Not -- not that I'm aware of, no.

Question: When you mentioned the several-hundred number, is there a working number for top leadership of killed or captured? And an additional, secondary question is, other than Atef, who would be the most senior person that was killed or captured?

Defense Official: I mean, there is no, like, working number of -- exact-numbers-type thing. I mean, Atef is the only one who jumps right out at me -- put it that way. But, you know -- with -- again, the bombings, the arrests, the detainees, you know -- the guys that are in various stages in detention -- you give that number, "several hundred." Now again, some of them are low-level, you know, guys who came to fight the jihad and work with al Qaeda to do a variety of things. And you know, our thought is, you know, it's -- you know, these guys are not nice people -- I mean, it doesn't matter whether they're going to, you know, fire an AK-47 at the Northern Alliance one day and then come after us another day because they want to do something better.

Question: I have a quick follow-up and then my question's going to be on the millennium thing. But on Jim's question on WMD, I think Director Tenet talked about last week or the week before, on biological weapons, that they had a sophisticated R&D program. And it was unclear whether this was a plan to do research or whether they were actually handling agents.

Defense Official: I think the DCI basically said -- I mean, there was -- they were interested in them. I wouldn't go past that, as far as how far --

Question: And then, on the millennium thing, from our perspective, from the outside, it seems like it was sort of a big bust -- you know, it was people getting arrested on the Canadian border and Keystone Kops kind of quality. But would you say that this was an example of a franchise-type of operation? Why did it -- what could it have been if it had worked out and why didn't it work? Was that more things that we did to stop them or just incompetence or what?

Defense Official: I think it was a combination. I mean that, you know, if you look at the Jordanian -- the Jordanian intelligence service did a great job of shutting that down. And it's across the board.

You know, the way I look at it, too, is if you have 10 operations going on and varying degrees of control, some of them may get botched and they're not as professional. Others may get through the screening process to a certain point, where they'll get caught at the border or caught somewhere else. And others are the ones that are going to make it through. If you're throwing enough darts at a board, eventually you're going to get something through, you know, that's going to hit the board. And I think that's the way al Qaeda looks at it, too. You have multiple plans, not just one, don't put all your eggs in one basket, and eventually you're going to get lucky -- by their minds, anyway -- to be able to pull something off.

I think the millennium was a combination of good work, good intelligence work, good -- you know, sometimes it's luck. You know, I think you've heard -- all heard that before, and it does come down to it, to some extent.

Question: Okay. Thank you.

Defense Official: All right.

This transcript was prepared by the Federal News Service Inc., Washington, D.C. Federal News Service is a private company for other Defense related transcripts not available through this site, contact (202) 347-1400.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).