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Details of Arrest of Top al Qaeda Operative

Aired November 21, 2002 - 14:51   ET


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR: Talking about more on this arrest that has been made of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. This is a man who is claimed to be a top operative in the Persian Gulf region for al Qaeda, which is, of course, the terrorist network.
We want to bring in CNN's terrorism analyst, Peter Bergen, to give us some insight over the telephone.

How significant would this arrest be or is this arrest, having him in custody -- Peter.

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: He's not in absolute upper echelon of al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden is number two, (UNINTELLIGIBLE), or indeed the military commander, Hamid Sheikh Mohammed (ph), all of whom are at large. But he is regarded as being below them, so he is in a sort of top of the second division, as it were. He was -- he's been linked to the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. He is also regarded as being the mastermind of a foiled plot to attack U.S. warships and British warships in the Straits of Gibraltar earlier this year, a plot that was broken up in Morocco.

So I mean I don't think it's of earth-shattering significance, but it is of some significance. And we're looking at probably somebody, if you would, to rank him in the group, somebody who is certainly in the top 10.

SAVIDGE: And what sort of impact does it have on al Qaeda itself? Does it really stump the organization, or do they carry on just as well without him as with him?

BERGEN: If they keep arresting people like Al-Nashiri, eventually they're going to run out of leaders. So I think we saw in September 11 the arrest of Ramzi Binalshibh in Pakistan, who played a very important role in the 9/11 attacks and the planning of those attack. Al-Nashiri is of a similar kind of importance. And eventually, if these arrests keep going at the rate, they will start getting some of the real top people.

SAVIDGE: What is it that U.S. officials want to know from this man right now?

BERGEN: They probably want to know all sorts of things. The question is will he speak? In the past, (UNINTELLIGIBLE), one of the officials who was captured in Pakistan, he is being quite forthcoming with American authorities. Other people have not.

The first question I guess they would want to know from him is if he knows where Osama bin Laden and his number two are actually located. He may well not know that. They'll also want to get information about the USS Cole attack that killed 17 American sailors and the foiled attack to attack American warships in the Straits of Gibraltar.

SAVIDGE: And I presume they'd also want to know if there's any other planned attacks against U.S. interests.

BERGEN: Absolutely, yes.

SAVIDGE: As far as this arrest, the other arrests that have take place, does the Bush administration feel confident that they're closing in on the top leadership?

BERGEN: You know, I don't know what their level of confidence is either way. But I mean, the fact is that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have been the subject of some intense searching, and they're still at large. And they feel confident enough to have released -- both of them have released audiotapes in the last month calling for more attacks against American economic targets. So I think that shows a level of confidence from them. So you know, this is a skirmish in the larger war; this is not -- I don't think -- it doesn't mean al Qaeda is going out of business just because this guy is being arrested.

SAVIDGE: When they have this man in custody, Al-Nashiri, why didn't the U.S. announce it right away? Why do you think that there was there this blanket of secrecy placed over the arrest? What was the purpose?

BERGEN: I think that they -- this is been sort of a pattern. There's no -- there's no bigger upside in immediately announcing that you've arrested somebody, because that tips off other people in the organization that certain operations may be compromised.

SAVIDGE: Have you heard anything from your sources as to where he might have been when he was taken into custody?

BERGEN: All I know is that he was probably in the Persian Gulf area, rather than in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

SAVIDGE: All right. CNN's Peter Bergen, who is our terrorism analyst, thanks very much for insight into the arrest of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is said to be a top operative in the Persian Gulf region for al Qaeda, now in U.S. custody.


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