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Arrest in Jordan Possibly Tied to al Qaeda

Aired December 14, 2002 - 09:05   ET


ARTHEL NEVILLE, CNN ANCHOR: And we want to welcome our international audience now for some breaking news coming out of Amman, Jordan.

CHARLES MOLINEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, we have word of an arrest in a terrorist attack that may in fact be tied to al Qaeda.

Mike Boettcher...

NEVILLE: Al Qaeda, hmm.

MOLINEAUX: ... is with us.

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, as a matter of fact, the announcement was made just moments ago by Jordanian authorities. And they say indeed the attack on October 28 against U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley in Amman, an assassination, was carried out by two members of al Qaeda.

This is Lawrence Foley. He was head of the AID, the U.S. AID department in Amman, Jordan. These are the two suspects who were arrested. Salem Sa'ed Saalem bin Suwied, a Libyan national, and Yasser Fathi Ibraheem, a Jordanian.

Now, these two men have confessed, according to Jordanian authorities, to be members of al Qaeda. In fact, Mr. al-Suwied (ph) says he trained at a al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. They say they received directions from this man, a top al Qaeda operative. His name, Abu Mussab (ph) al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian.

Now, this is man, according to German authorities, is the head of al Qaeda operations in Europe, a chemical weapons expert. And the two suspects arrested by the Jordanians say that he had ordered them to carry out a campaign of assassination and attacks on embassies, diplomats, security offices, and other soft targets.

And, in a more alarming indication of what they had planned, Jordanian intelligence officials and authorities say that these two men were trying to obtain surface-to-air missiles, in fact had a plan to obtain surface-to-air missiles to attack targets in the Middle East.

We know we had the attack in Mombasa, Africa, by al Qaeda, according to the Israelis, against an Israeli charter jet. So apparently there is a broader campaign to attack American diplomats and also to attack coalition airliners, whether they be American, Middle East, Jordanian, or European.

So this is a very big development. The Jordanians have been probably the toughest in the coalition against al Qaeda in terms of obtaining intelligence. They were the first to identify al Qaeda many, many years ago. And they saw this as a direct attack against them.

So at this moment, they are very pleased that they have made these arrests, and they say this was a plot directed by al Qaeda against a German -- against an American diplomat.

NEVILLE: And indeed, the White House would be absolutely happy and thrilled with this particular arrest as well, because of course President Bush was accusing of them finding temporary haven in Iraq, Iraq earlier this year.

BOETTCHER: Well, that's another great point you brought up, Arthelle. They are saying that Zarqawi, and this is in President Bush's own words earlier this year, when he was trying to make a tie to Iraq with al Qaeda, said that Zarqawi -- he didn't use the name, but he said a top al Qaeda operative, and we are looking at him now, had received safe haven and medical treatment in Baghdad. Now, that is Zarqawi.

Now, there is no other direct link with Iraq that we know about. And Zarqawi, but that will be looked at very closely. But the statement was made by the president that a top al Qaeda official received medical treatment in Baghdad. And it was the man you're looking at, Zarqawi, who is the man who the Jordanians say was the mastermind behind the plot to assassinate an American diplomat.

So there are a lot of things swirling around here, very interesting.

NEVILLE: Absolutely.

MOLINEAUX: Any indications how big a blow this would be against al Qaeda's ability to carry out some of these attacks that we're hearing were in the planning?

BOETTCHER: It depends on how much the two people arrested knew. If they knew a lot about the plan, and apparently they did know specifically what they were supposed to do is carry out attacks against diplomats, against embassies, against Western targets, then that would help.

But the mastermind of this, the top-level person, al-Zarqawi, is still on the loose. So he is the one that officials in Jordan and the United States and other coalition officials, the Germans as well, are very much after at this moment. The Germans believe that this person, Zarqawi, was planning chemical attacks against subways in Europe.

So this man is someone being sought after by many coalition intelligence agencies.

NEVILLE: OK, Mike Boettcher... MOLINEAUX: Mike, stand by...


MOLINEAUX: ... a sec, Mike. For more on these arrests, security analyst Kelly McCann joins us live from Washington.

Kelly, we're hearing this again, more attacks against American targets, diplomatic targets, soft targets. Is this their strategy?

KELLY MCCANN, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this follows a pattern that's well known. First you've got to establish a target. And they do that by basically saying, you know, Who is at odds with us? And of course Mr. Foley controlled over $300 million in aid to Jordan. And we know that Jordan has increased their imports from us from $7 million in 1997 to $500 million. So they're a close ally.

He was a lynchpin. He was a soft target because he had detail on, no protective detail, and he was time and place predictable. And that was confirmed through surveillance. Mr. Foley's residence was directly across from a construction lot and an empty lot, very well easily adaptable for surveillance, where there's so many people coming and going, there's laborers, there's movement, there's equipment. So it's very easy to blend in.

And in fact, Jordanian officials had said they knew they had been watching Mr. Foley for some time because there has to be an element of time and predictability. Fully 80 percent of all attacks of this type have occurred in the morning near the residence.

After you look at that, you say, Well, we were very slow initially to attribute this to al Qaeda. But in fact the Jordanian officials had said to "The Christian Science Monitor" as long as ago as October that they believed it was al Qaeda's message that they would haunt Americans worldwide. But it was not attributed to any one official.

Now, as Mike's reported, they have obviously arrested this men, which draws the direct link. So it is directly in line with the way al Qaeda does business.

NEVILLE: And Kelly, usually these al Qaeda operatives are trained not to give up any information. So is there any likelihood that they would lead authorities to their fearless leader?

MCCANN: If you look at the training manuals as I have, and pored through them, in fact, they receive instruction on how to resist interrogation techniques. They are schooled on what interrogation techniques are known, and then methods to employ against their interrogators.

But it goes to the length of time and the effort that's put against them. I mean, good interrogation techniques are extremely hard to resist over time. It's very difficult. So it's an individualized question, Arthelle. Some people are more susceptible to it. Some people, who are just steely-eyed and hardnosed, very difficult to get into.

MOLINEAUX: Right now CNN is working on getting a response to this latest arrest from the State Department and the White House. But a question for you, Mike, Jordan has been active in the fight against terror. But this is a high-profile arrest. Could this make Jordan now more of a high-profile target for attacks against its people?

BOETTCHER: Well, you really couldn't make them any more of a high-profile target. This man, al-Zarqawi, for example, has been convicted in absentia for the plot to bomb hotels in Amman during the millennium celebration, and that was a very serious plot. Al Qaeda has been under attack from Jordanian authorities for many years. The Jordanians identified al Qaeda in the early 1990s as a group, probably one of the first countries in the world that were -- was following al Qaeda and knew abut them.

And Jordan has been a constant target of al Qaeda, number one, because of Jordan's treaty with Israel. Jordan and Israel share information, as they do with the United States. So Jordan has been a top-profile target for many, many years and certainly is at the top of the list for al Qaeda.

NEVILLE: But, of course, if indeed Iraq was providing a safe haven for these guys, and of course this also kind of hones in and brings home and drives to the point President Bush's want and need and -- to go ahead and invade Iraq.


NEVILLE: He's saying, Listen, we cannot trust them.

BOETTCHER: We have to be...

NEVILLE: We cannot trust them.

BOETTCHER: ... we have to be very careful with this. What we do know is, is that al-Zarqawi was in Iran, he was in Iraq. He received medical treatment there. He was also in Turkey, and he was in Lebanon. So he transited through these various countries. Did he receive any help or aid other than medical treatment in Iraq? We do not know that. That is something certainly we'll be working on, and I'm sure that the White House and Jordanian officials will be working on it as well.

But you can't make that direct link yet.

NEVILLE: Right, right.

MOLINEAUX: Kelly McCann, we've heard from people like CIA director George Tenet that a lot of the big leaders of Qaeda are on the run, their leadership has been disrupted. How would you place this kind of an arrest in the context of the overall war on terror? Is this a big triumph? Is it just a small step forward?

MCCANN: As Mike said, it goes to what exactly these individuals knew, because terrorist organizations are a cellular. In other words, there's very autonomous. And in fact, any control that was exercised over them from Afghanistan, of course, has been exploited, and now there is no direct link. They have very difficult methodology to communicate, things are lost in the translation, there's time lapses.

So you've got these autonomous cells out there who are probably reacting to their last orders. And, in fact, that's the problem, which is now, are they under anybody's real direct control, or are they now single actors out there with their own agenda? So it could go either way.

Suffice to say that to get in front of it, we've got to do what we said in the earlier segment, which is overall raise our national security levels, so whether it's Jordan or the whether it's a U.S. businessman traveling through country X or Z, it doesn't matter. Generally, across the board, we do this better.


BOETTCHER: A couple of things that are brought out by these arrests that I'm sure U.S. officials and other officials in the coalition are looking at. Number one, are U.S. diplomats now going to be targeted? Is this part of a larger plan to attack U.S. officials like Mr. Foley, who had no bodyguard?

The second thing is, according to Jordanian officials, these two men were also trying to obtain and felt they would be able to obtain surface-to-air missiles. Does this mean there is also a broader plot around the world to use surface-to-air missiles against aircraft?

And those are two facts brought out by these arrests that will be examined very, very closely.

NEVILLE: Indeed. Mike Boettcher, thank you very much for that breaking news.

MOLINEAUX: And thank you, Kelly McCann. Good to have you with us again.


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