By Andrew F. Tully and Sonja Haase
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush says Al-Qaeda has suffered a serious setback with the capture of the suspected mastermind of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. But people interviewed by RFE/RL in downtown Washington say their sense of security has not changed.
Washington, 5 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The government of the United States is applauding the arrest of Khalid Shaykh Muhammad over the weekend in Pakistan, but Americans interviewed in Washington mostly say the capture of the senior Al-Qaeda operative does not make them feel safer.
U.S. and Pakistani officials arrested Muhammad on 1 March in Rawalpindi, near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. He was considered to be the third-ranking leader of Al-Qaeda, after Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Muhammad, Al-Qaeda's operations director, is believed to have been responsible for many of the network's most notorious attacks dating back more than a decade. He is also said to have personally taken responsibility for planning the acts of terror in the United States on 11 September 2001 that killed around 3,000 people.
His capture is widely believed to be both a coup for U.S. President George W. Bush and the war on international terrorism, and a defeat for Al-Qaeda. On 3 March, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer enunciated America's gratitude to Pakistan for its role in hunting down Muhammad, and he spoke of the significance of his arrest: "The president expresses his deep appreciation and gratitude to [Pakistani] President [Pervez] Musharraf and to the government of Pakistan for their efforts this past weekend that led to the capture of Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, the mastermind of the 11 September attack. This is a very serious development and a blow to Al-Qaeda."
On 28 February, the day before Muhammad's arrest, the United States lowered its nationwide, color-coded terror alert from "high" (orange) to "elevated" (yellow). The alert level had been raised because of intelligence indicating that a terrorist attack against the country -- or against its interests overseas -- was likely. The highest alert level (red) is "severe."
But despite the lowered threat level and the capture of Muhammad, Americans interviewed by RFE/RL on the streets of downtown Washington said that one way or another, they do not necessarily believe the threat of a terrorist attack against America's capital city is greater or less.
John Barlow, who lives and works near the White House, told RFE/RL that he does not feel more secure now that the security alert has been lowered and Muhammad has been captured. "Well, a threat is always a threat, and living here and working here you know that, and that's just something you live with on a daily basis. And I don't necessarily think that [raising] the level or lowering the level is that indicative of the probability that attack occurs. We know it's a real possibility, and you know it every minute you come here, regardless of what color it [the threat alert] is, orange, yellow, red. So, you've got to work, and you just hope nothing happens," Barlow said.
Peter Weitz, who lives in a suburb of Washington, sees things differently. He said his workplace, near the White House, is the best place to be at the moment because of the unprecedented security in the area. "I think I am in the safest place in the world right now. I like working near the White House, there is no safer place," he said.
Ted Galen Carpenter, who specializes in national-security issues at the Cato Institute, a private policy-research institute in Washington, agrees the overall security situation is not much changed. He told RFE/RL that in his opinion Al-Qaeda cannot be neutralized merely because of the arrests of just one or two men. "I think they can feel marginally safer. But we have to remember this is just one head of the hydra that has been cut off. Al-Qaeda is still in business," Carpenter said.
Carpenter said there is no question that Al-Qaeda's hierarchy has suffered a major setback. But he adds that the terrorist network is flexible and is not beset with a bureaucracy that would complicate a chore like replacing Muhammad.
According to Carpenter, even the capture or death of Osama bin Laden probably would not disrupt Al-Qaeda's operations for long. He says he believes the organization will continue to operate as long as it has members who oppose U.S. policies in the Middle East.
On the other hand, Carpenter says, the arrest of Muhammad is certain to provide invaluable information that will help the United States and other countries as they pursue their campaign against international terrorism.
Carpenter said Muhammad probably will not tell his captors much, regardless of the interrogation techniques they may use on him. But when they arrested the Al-Qaeda operative, U.S. and Pakistani officials also found sophisticated electronic equipment belonging to him. "I suspect we will learn more from his cell phone and his laptop computer than we're likely to learn from him. But the information that he had in his possession could be fairly valuable. It's bound to be a significant find in terms of information," Carpenter said.
Carpenter said it is unclear what kind of information the computers might contain, and theorizes that any high-level Al-Qaeda operative would be discreet about what he stores on such a device.
On the other hand, Carpenter said, the records of calls made from Muhammad's cell phones may lead investigators to other members of the terror network and perhaps even serve to prevent future attacks. But for now, he said, it is too soon to tell just how important Muhammad's capture was.