A Big Bust


WASHINGTON, D.C.—When the U.S. announced the capture of Abu Farraj al-Libbi on May 8, the Daily News called it a “Qaeda Bust ‘Bigger Than Bin Laden.’ ” Quoting Time, the New York Post called him Al Qaeda’s No. 3 man and claimed, according to what the paper said was a counterterrorism official, that he was “training and supporting people and planning to send operatives” into the U.S. Here in D.C., President Bush said the capture of Abu Farraj al-Libbi “represents a critical victory in the war on terror,” and he praised the Pakistani government and its president, General Pervez Musharraf, for the arrest.

“Al-Libbi was a top general for bin Laden,” Bush said. “He was a major facilitator and a chief planner for the Al Qaeda network. His arrest removes a dangerous enemy who is a direct threat to America and for those who love freedom.”

After a couple of days al-Libbi dropped out of the media spotlight, and with good reason, because it looks as if he is a nobody and wouldn’t be much help in the search for bin Laden. In the first place, as Asia Times Online points out in an instructive article, since al-Libbi was a target for many months, it seems unlikely that Al Qaeda would let him get close to its top leaders. Most likely he had been removed as operational commander in South Asia.

Moreover, it has become more and more difficult to keep tabs on Al Qaeda, because the group not only keeps its cells separate from one another, but doesn’t use electronic means of communication. Messages are thought to be given by hand from one member of a network to another. The people who are part of the message chain are watched on a daily basis. The system is complex, and seems arcane. But when someone in a network disappears or goes missing for awhile, he is cut out, until it can be decided that he’s not being watched or hasn’t become a pawn in the net of some intelligence agency.

Anyhow, if al-Libbi knew where bin Laden was, Western intelligence would have tracked him down by now, because al-Libbi was arrested and probably interrogated weeks before the arrest was made public. “Pakistani intelligence agencies are tight-lipped,” according to Asia Times Online, but the news service’s D.C.-based sources “maintain that al-Libbi has revealed only his immediate contacts in Al Qaeda who passed on his messages. Of course, this chain might still be under investigation.”

Al Qaeda’s Pakistan operations were set back last September, when Amjad Hussain Farooqi, one of its key operatives, was killed in a shootout and several other operatives were arrested. There’s been little evidence of any planned Al Qaeda operations in Pakistan as of late, and it may be that al-Libbi and others were moving around just trying to keep their heads above water.

Al Qaeda is sometimes compared to Palestinian groups, but there is one big difference: The Palestinians go in for leaders, while Al Qaeda picks unknown figures for an attack, after which they are dropped into the wastebasket.

Additional reporting: Natalie Wittlin and Christine Lu