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In the struggle against international terrorism, symbolic victories are extremely important in raising morale and demonstrating the ability of governments to cope with what world public opinion sees as the virtually unlimited capacity of terrorists to strike at defenseless targets whenever they want. The symbolic value of capturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammad is therefore no less significant than is its operational value. For it sends an unambiguous signal to Americans who have been watching the provocative media performances of Osama bin Laden, still on the loose and still threatening to inflict mass casualties, that whoever harms them will be hunted down and made to pay the price. It also signals the capability of US security forces to disrupt and respond, thus strengthening public confidence that real power and determination lie behind President's Bush's declarations of an uncompromising war against international terror. This same message is also conveyed to various terrorist organizations around the world, including Al Qa'ida, and to states supporting terrorism. Khalid Sheikh's arrest was the result of close cooperation between American and Pakistani security agencies, and that clearly points to international intelligence and operational co-operation as the only way of dealing effectively with the international terrorist threat. It is particularly noteworthy that the main American partner in the fight against Al Qa'ida and its offshoots is that same Pakistan whose previous support for the Taliban regime and Al Qa'ida make it possible for the 'Afghan' terror industry to flourish in the international arena.
For American security agencies, bogged down since 11 September in a long, exhausting and frustrating hunt for the ghosts of international terrorism, the arrest of Khalid Sheikh not only provides a major boost to morale but also constitutes a serious blow to the 'Afghani' terrorist alumni that set for themselves the objective of killing as many Americans as possible, at home or abroad. This network, under the command of Ramzi Yusif (who is Khalid Sheikh Mohammad's nephew), was responsible for the attempt to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993. In 1995, those same two conspired to plan a major campaign aimed at blowing up about a dozen American aircraft en route from Southeast Asia to the United States. They also planned to despatch a suicide pilot to crash into CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. But while Ramzi Yusif and other conspirators were arrested, Khalid Sheikh managed to get away, and since 1996, he has featured on the FBI Most Wanted List. But rather than abandoning the terror business, he studied the lessons of those failures, and in September 2001, he directed and commanded, on behalf of Al Qa'ida, the terrorist attack that combined two operations into one massive assault. As such, he is directly responsible for the death of over three thousand people. Khalid Sheikh's arrest may well help expose his organizational infrastructure, communications and operating methods. It could also reveal information he has kept to himself, and more information may be gleaned from the documents and equipment in his possession seized during his arrest. These could help preempt future terrorist attacks.
Khalid Sheikh did not rest on his laurels even after 11 September but continued to plan and direct a worldwide terrorist campaign. He was behind several particularly ambitious operations, including the abortive attack in December 2001 that intended to use seven truck-bombs to blow up the American, British, and Israeli Embassies and several American company headquarters in downtown Singapore, as well as the use of a suicide-driver of a car-bomb to blow up a synagogue in Jerba, Tunisia, in April 2002. Khalid Sheikh may also have been implicated in the October 2002 bombing in Bali that resulted in the deaths of over 200 people.
His arrest therefore constitutes a serious blow to Al Qa'ida, which has lost its most experienced operational commander and the one with the most extensive network of contacts. Khalid Sheikh's interrogation and the investigation of the materials found in his possession are likely to tighten the ring around other commanders in the organization and may even turn up information about the location of bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri - though they can certainly be expected to change their hiding place.
This event has refocused public attention on the threat posed by terrorism to the stability of the international system. That has particular resonance in an era characterized by non-conventional terrorism - that is, by terrorism carried out with conventional means but with 'non-conventional' results (such as 11 September), or even by acts of 'mega-terrorism' using non-conventional means.
However, the arrest of one senior operative, however prominent, does not constitute an end to the threat but rather just one stage in a prolonged effort to cope with a problem that has been neglected for many years. That effort now entails a worldwide, comprehensive and systematic campaign with intelligence, judicial, economic and diplomatic dimensions. One of its requirements is a reformulation of behavioral norms and rules in international relations that would permit action, not only against the terrorists themselves, but also against states supporting terrorism, whether actively or just 'passively' (by allowing terrorists to be present in or to act freely from their territory). This may well be the next challenge facing President Bush after Iraq. And to meet it, he will need the same kind of cooperation from other allies as he received from Pakistan in the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.
Yoram Schweitzer is a researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv. This article was first published in Tel Aviv Notes on 5 March 2003