Aug. 27, 2007 – Al Qaeda has an active plot to hit the West. The United States knows about it but doesn’t have enough tactical detail to issue a precise warning or raise the threat level, says Vice Admiral (ret.) John Scott Redd, who heads the government’s National Counterterrorism Center. In an interview at his headquarters near Washington, D.C., Redd told Newsweek’s Mark Hosenball and Jeffrey Bartholet that the country is better prepared than ever to counter such threats. But he also believes another successful terror attack on the U.S. homeland is inevitable. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: People in various agencies have said that since Tora Bora in 2001, they at no time have had even 50-percent confidence that they knew where Osama bin Laden was on any particular day, and therefore they have been unable to mount any operations to go get him. Is that wrong?
Redd: What I’ll tell you about bin Laden is if we knew where he was, he’d either be dead or captured. It’s that simple. [He’s] obviously a tough target. That whole area is a tough target. And my standard answer on OBL is: remember [convicted Atlanta Olympics bomber] Eric Rudolph. Nobody likes to hear it but, I mean, here’s a guy [who was on the run] in the United States of America. We had unlimited access—the FBI, local law enforcement—and the guy hid out for an awful long time just by keeping a low profile. One reporter said the other day, “Well, gee, you’ve got all this great overhead stuff and various surveillance things.ï¿½? I said, “Yeah. I’d trade those for about three great human sources.ï¿½?
Why do people believe bin Laden’s still alive?
Well, I guess the question is, why do you believe he’s dead? I think we’re into the longest period we’ve gone without hearing from him, but we’ve done this before. Back in ’05, I think [the length of time we didn’t hear from bin Laden] may have been a week shorter than [the period of his silence] now. So, yeah, we haven’t heard from him [since spring 2006]. People are starting to say, “He’s dead. He’s dead.ï¿½? Quite frankly, we think that if he had died it would have become known. It would be very hard to keep that from leaking out.
Also, there are periodic rumors about him suffering from this disease or that disease, needing dialysis, having to get some exotic drug. Is any of that credible?
The short answer is, we don’t know. There are those sporadic reports indicating illness, indicating incapacitation, but nothing firm.
Ayman al-Zawahiri seems to have much more freedom of expression, as it were, which implies more freedom of movement. His tapes now are reasonably well produced.
We saw almost a 300-percent increase in media stuff in 2006 out of all of Al Qaeda, and I think this year we are heading toward that mark already, or getting ahead of that. They are becoming more sophisticated. They are not relying on Al Jazeera or you folks to get the message out. They are using the Internet. They’ve got a fairly well-oiled, if you will, media group. They are doing things like going after a different audience or going after a larger audience, by using subtitles.
German, Italian, a number of different things. So they have become more sophisticated.
So they actually upload this stuff on the Internet directly?
Well, Ayman al-Zawahiri doesn’t sit there and say, “Press and upload.ï¿½?”¦But you know, what you see is sort of a desire to put themselves on the map. So Zawahiri, I think he had 15 videos last year—and he’s almost there [this year]. He’ll certainly get there this year, if not more, but you’re also seeing a broader spectrum of [Qaeda] people talking about subjects. To be crass about it, it kind of reminds me of a CEO in a start-up company in Silicon Valley. What do you want to do? You want your name out there. So you put out press releases. It helps your funding base—in that case, capitalists, in this case, people who fund Al Qaeda.
While we’re on this topic, what can you tell us about Pakistan’s release of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, who allegedly was a top Al Qaeda communications and computer guy and is now roaming free?
Obviously, we’re not exactly happy about that. We have a legal system, and the Pakistanis have a legal system, which was designed for a different era. I won’t go into their legal system because I am not an expert on it, but the [Pakistani] Supreme Court said, “You’ve got to release this guy,ï¿½? and, you know, he’s out for a variety of reasons.
What does the progression of terror cases in Britain tell you? Two years ago terrorists actually managed to kill some people. This year it’s these two clowns in Glasgow. They were doctors and engineers who seemed to have some connection to Pakistan and/or Iraq, yet they couldn’t build a bomb. What does this tell you about the evolution of the organization, the evolution of the front-line terrorists?
It shows you the advantage of having a safe haven—a place where you can take someone and not just say, “Here is the formula. Godspeed and go do something,ï¿½? but rather, “Let’s [try] it. Let’s make it. Let’s see it go bang.ï¿½?
Iraq is a giant university for bombmakers.
But, see, they don’t have to [make] it there. They just buy the explosives. It’s HBX or C4. There’s so much explosive material around there.
But if they wanted to teach people, they certainly could.
But you don’t have to make C4. You put a detonator in it with a 99-percent likelihood that sucker is going to go off. And they are very good at that.
Is there evidence, though, that they are training people in Iraq to do operations abroad?
AQI has done—certainly under Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi—”external operationsï¿½? [in Jordan]. I am not going to comment on the most recent U.K. thing and whether there was a connection.
The Europeans have been concerned about traffic between Iraq and Europe.
There’s always a concern. Frankly, with what is going on inside Iraq right now, it is probably fair to say that Abu Ayyub al-Masri [the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq] pretty much has his hands full, although not completely.
Tell us about the threat that emerged earlier this year.
We’ve got this intelligence threat; we’re pretty certain we know what’s going on. We don’t have all the tactical details about it, [but] in some ways it’s not unlike the U.K. aviation threat last year. So we know there is a threat out there. The question is, what do we do about it? And the response was, we stood up an interagency task force under NCTC leadership. So you have all the players you would expect: FBI, CIA, DHS, DIA, DoD, the operators—the military side comes into that—participating in an integrated plan, but integrated in a much more granular and tactical way than we’ve ever done before. This is my 40th year in government service, 36 in uniform and almost four as a civilian. This is revolutionary stuff, and it is affecting the way we do business.
Earlier this summer, there was talk that people were picking up chatter that reminded them of the summer before 9/11. The Germans basically said this is like pre-9/11. They said, “We are very worried.ï¿½? What do you make of this?
We have very strong indicators that Al Qaeda is planning to attack the West and is likely to [try to] attack, and we are pretty sure about that. We know some of the precursors from—
Well, they would like to come West, and they would like to come as far West as they can. What we don’t know is”¦if it’s going to be Mark Hosenball, and he’s coming in on Flight 727 out of Karachi, he’s stopping in Frankfurt, and he’s coming on through with his European Union passport, and he’s coming into New York, and he’s going to do something. I mean, we don’t have that kind of tactical detail. What we do have, though, is a couple of threads that indicate, you know, some very tactical stuff, and that’s what—you know, that’s what you’re seeing bits and pieces of, and I really can’t go much more into it.
But this did not affect our threat level. We didn’t change our code.
We’re pretty high-threat right now. Until you know something that is going to make a difference, you know, you don’t necessarily change the threat level. What that does is really stir a lot of people up and get them ticked off, but it probably doesn’t accomplish very much.
And you don’t as of today see any particular reduction in that threat?
It’s still there. It’s very serious, you know, and we’re watching it. We’re learning more all the time, but it’s still a very serious threat.
Last thing: Are we winning or losing the war on terrorism?
This is a long war. People say, “What is this like?ï¿½? I say it’s like the cold war in only two respects. Number one, there is a strong ideological content to it. Number two, it is going to be a long war. I’ll be dead before this one is over. We will probably lose a battle or two along the way. We have to prepare for that. Statistically, you can’t bat 1.000 forever, but we haven’t been hit for six years, [which is] no accident.
I will tell you this: We are better prepared today for the war on terror than at any time in our history. We have done an incredible amount of things since 9/11, across the board. Intelligence is better. They are sharing it better. We are taking the terrorists down. We are working with the allies very carefully. We are doing the strategic operational planning, going after every element in the terrorist life cycle. So we have come a long way. But these guys are smart. They are determined. They are patient. So over time we are going to lose a battle or two. We are going to get hit again, you know, but you’ve got to have the stick-to-itiveness or persistence to outlast it.