Arresting questions

Seven al-Qaeda suspects captured in America and Pakistan straight after the 9/11 anniversary - strange coincidence or major breakthrough?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘Hunted down one by one’ says the front page of today’s UK Sun, hailing the arrests of al-Qaeda suspects in Pakistan and New York state over the past week as ‘stunning triumphs in the war against terror’ (1).

President Bush, in a special statement issued on 15 September 2002, celebrated the arrests by declaring: ‘We are relentless, we are strong – and we’re not going to stop.’ (2) For the Sun, Bush’s ‘stranglehold on Osama bin Laden’s henchmen [has] clearly tightened’, while the Daily Telegraph describes the arrests as a ‘major prize’ (3).

There has certainly been much heated anti-terror action in recent days. On 11 September 2002 Ramzi Binalshibh, described by some US officials as a key ‘9/11 mastermind’, was arrested in Karachi, Pakistan – and on 13 September 2002, five alleged al-Qaeda members were arrested in New York state, with US officials claiming that an ‘al-Qaeda-trained cell’ had been smashed (4).

But does this add up to a ‘turnaround in the war on terror’s fortunes’, as one commentator claims?

The alleged dismantling of an ‘al-Qaeda cell’ in New York state raised more questions than answers – the first being: why were the five men arrested just days after the 9/11 anniversary when the US authorities have known about them for over a year?

‘[T]his was not a sudden discovery on the part of the authorities’, reports the UK Guardian. ‘The five men had been under surveillance since well before the 11 September attacks last year…. None of the officials explained why the arrests were delayed until the weekend, three days after the anniversary.’ (5)

The five New York men, all American-born of Yemeni descent, seem to have al-Qaeda sympathies. Over 18 months ago, each allegedly travelled to Afghanistan to receive Islamic training from Taliban, and possibly al-Qaeda, sources. But there is little evidence that they were an active al-Qaeda cell. FBI officials claim to have found ‘no weapons’ in the men’s houses, while the Sheriff of Erie County, who coordinated the 20 agencies that ‘smashed’ the alleged cell, admits: ‘We have no evidence that anybody or anything within the US was ever in danger of these individuals.’ (6)

So where’s the evidence to back up the New York Post’s frontpage boast, ‘Al-Qaeda cell busted in NY’? ‘They worked together, they socialised together, they lived within blocks of each other; it’s a group of individuals that were trained in Afghanistan; it’s an al-Qaeda-trained cell’, said one FBI agent (7). This sounds more like joining-the-dots than a convincing argument that the five men were ready and willing to launch attacks on America.

As a result of serious gaps in the authorities’ claims, some have raised questions about the ‘anniversary link’. One reporter slyly writes: ‘At the end of a trying week, which went off without a repetition of last year’s catastrophes, US law enforcement officials deserved a moment of triumphalism. It came at the weekend….’ (8)

For some, the symmetry of the whole thing was a bit much, with an allegedly dangerous al-Qaeda cell being arrested in ‘western New York’ exactly a year after dangerous al-Qaeda cells caused havoc in central New York. But then, the five men lived nowhere near New York City – they lived in the furthest reaches of New York State. Despite a US official’s claims that the arrests in ‘western New York will please many New Yorkers’ – as if the alleged cell had been flaunting their hate in the faces of grieving NY residents – in fact the five men were arrested in Lackawanna, just outside of Buffalo and over 400 miles from Manhattan.

The detention of Ramzi Binalshibh in Pakistan looks like being a much more significant breakthrough for the US authorities, with Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice hailing it as ‘extremely encouraging’. According to one report, Binalshibh is a top ‘9/11 mastermind’, who was central to the planning and execution of the 11 September attacks (9). ‘The US has caught a big fish’, writes one reporter.

Binalshibh certainly seems to be a keen al-Qaeda member. The German authorities have had a warrant on his head since the 11 September attacks, alleging that he was a member of the Hamburg cell that included Mohammad Atta and some of the other hijackers. Binalshibh also gave an interview to al-Jazeera TV in early September 2002, in which he claimed to be a leading al-Qaeda figure.

But if Binalshibh is really a central ‘9/11 mastermind’, why doesn’t he feature in the FBI’s ‘22 Most Wanted Terrorists in the World’ – which is described as ‘the starting point for the FBI’s worldwide search for those terrorists believed to be responsible for the 11 September attacks’? (10) The FBI’s list includes bin Laden, Muhammad Atef (possibly dead), Ayman Al-Zawahiri and the other al-Qaeda bosses whom US forces have been desperately seeking over the past year, but no mention of Binalshibh. The only place that Binalshibh gets a look-in on the FBI’s website is twelfth in its list of ‘people’ that it is ‘seeking information’ about (11).

According to the German authorities, Binalshibh was meant to be one of the actual 9/11 hijackers, but he continually failed to get a visa for entry to America. As a result he was, according to one German paper, ‘reduced to organising passports’ and travel arrangements for the others. Yet now some are hailing him as a ‘key logisitics man’ for the 11 September attacks.

So who says Binalshibh is the ‘9/11 mastermind’? Himself, as it happens. In early September 2002, Binalshibh and fellow al-Qaeda cohort Khalid Shaikh Mohammad (who is on the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted Terrorists’ list) gave an interview to al-Jazeera TV, in which they boasted that Binalshibh was the ‘coordinator of the Holy Tuesday [11 September] operation’ (12). Maybe he did play a key role in planning 11 September, or maybe these are the deluded boasts of a man in a broken organisation – who knows? But many now seem to have taken his claims at face value. As the Washington Post reminds us, Binalshibh is only ‘the self-described planner of the 11 September attacks’ (13).

(The UK Guardian speculates that a second al-Qaeda member caught alongside Binalshibh is Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, Binalshibh’s fellow al-Jazeera interviewee and alleged bin Laden aide – though the US authorities haven’t released a name yet.)

It was also as a result of Binalshibh’s al-Jazeera interview that the US authorities finally caught up with him. After the interview aired, US intelligence officials used sophisticated voice recognition technology to try to match Binalshibh’s voice as heard on TV with voices recorded on tapped phones throughout Pakistan.

As one report points out, Binalshibh lived in a new block of flats in a relatively well-off suburb in the bustling city of Karachi, not ‘in the inhospitable mountain ranges’ while ‘moving around on horseback after dark’ – the image many people have of al-Qaeda members’ lifestyles post-11 September (14). Yet it still took Binalshibh’s appearance on the Arab world’s biggest TV station before US forces could track him down. His capture seems to reveal more about al-Qaeda’s increasing incompetence (despite some people’s belief that al-Qaeda is a coherent organisation), than it does about the brilliance of the US intelligence services.

The recent ‘gains and successes’ in the war on terror seem to have been blown out of proportion. And they seem to be more the result of ‘anniversary symbolism’ in the USA and a case of getting lucky in Pakistan, rather than representing a significant breakthrough in America’s war on terror.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

In pursuit of the unknowable, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Hunted down one by one, Sun, 16 September 2002

(2) Hunted down one by one, Sun, 16 September 2002

(3) See The wrap, Guardian Unlimited, 16 September 2002

(4) FBI crows over New York ‘terror cell’ arrest, Guardian, 16 September 2002

(5) FBI crows over New York ‘terror cell’ arrest, Guardian, 16 September 2002

(6) FBI crows over New York ‘terror cell’ arrest, Guardian, 16 September 2002

(7) FBI crows over New York ‘terror cell’ arrest, Guardian, 16 September 2002

(8) FBI crows over New York ‘terror cell’ arrest, Guardian, 16 September 2002

(9) Hunted down one by one, Sun, 16 September 2002

(10) See Most Wanted Terrorists, Federal Bureau of Investigation

(11) See Seeking Information, Federal Bureau of Investigation

(12) Al-Jazeera reporter: al-Qaeda mulled attack on US nuclear facilities, Fox News, 8 September 2002

(13) Focuses increases on Yemen in effort to break up suspected terror rings, Washington Post, 16 September 2002

(14) See The wrap, Guardian Unlimited, 16 September 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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