The Blog

Who Will Interrogate Top Terrorist?

9:20 AM, Mar 31, 2011 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

An American intelligence official based in South Asia recently told me, “It has been a long time since we captured a senior al Qaeda leader.” His point was transparent: Without detaining and interrogating terrorists who know what is going on inside the clandestine al Qaeda network, American officials are blind to much of the terrorists’ designs. It is an important point that Marc Thiessen has correctly and repeatedly made.

Umar Patek

Now, this doesn’t mean that the U.S. must subject newly captured al Qaeda terrorists to harsh interrogation methods (e.g. waterboarding), as the CIA has in the past. But without any unilateral questioning whatsoever the U.S. finds itself at the mercy of foreign intelligence services, which have their own interests and are oftentimes duplicitous in the fight against terrorism. (Think Pakistan.) 

All of this came to mind when media outlets began reporting in the past twenty-four hours that Umar Patek, who is wanted for his role in the 2002 Bali bombings, was captured in Pakistan. (International authorities are currently trying to confirm the arrest.) 

Patek is a member of the al Qaeda-affiliated Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which is based in Southeast Asia. His career demonstrates the degree to which many jihadist organizations cross-pollinate and ultimately end up serving al Qaeda.

Patek was reportedly first trained in an al Qaeda camp in the early 1990s. He then returned to Southeast Asia, where he joined JI. Patek has also reportedly set up a training camp under the auspices of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and worked with Abu Sayyaf (AS) in the Philippines, both of which are affiliated with al Qaeda.

Patek is a JI leader who replaced a long line of other JI leaders who were either captured or killed. He worked for a terrorist named Hambali, who was al Qaeda’s chieftain in Southeast Asia until 2003, when he was captured in Thailand. Hambali was involved in not only the 2002 Bali bombings (which killed more than 200 people), but he and his network also provided logistical support for the 9/11 attacks and were involved in planning al Qaeda’s so-called “next wave” of attacks on the American homeland as well. Hambali was involved in al Qaeda’s efforts to acquire weaponized anthrax, too. The details of Hambali’s plotting, as well as the identity of his replacement, were found out during the U.S.-led interrogations of senior al Qaeda terrorists, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Umar Patek is no Hambali, but he is an important capture (assuming press reports are right that he was in fact captured).

The most important questions are: Where will he be held? Who will be leading his interrogations? And what role will American intelligence officials play in those interrogations? Are we relying on the Pakistanis to lead Patek’s questioning?  

None of these questions have an obvious answer at this point. Perhaps we will learn the answers in the coming weeks.

The Obama administration was content to shut down the CIA’s interrogation program, which led to Hambali’s demise, but has not formulated clear policies for detaining and questioning senior terrorists.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers