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Background: The Threat of al-Qaida

September 10, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Today’s new warning about the al-Qaida terrorist network. It came from Attorney General Ashcroft as he announced a terror alert this afternoon.

JOHN ASHCROFT: The U.S. intelligence community has received information based on debriefings of a senior al-Qaida operative of possible terrorist attacks timed to coincide with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States. Information indicates that al-Qaida cells have been established in several south Asian countries in order to conduct car bomb and other attacks on U.S. facilities. These cells have been accumulating explosives since approximately January of 2002, this year, in preparation for these attacks.

The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that the most likely targets of al-Qaida attacks are the transportation and energy sectors, and facilities or gatherings that would be recognized worldwide as symbols of American power or security. Examples of such symbols are U.S. military facilities, U.S. Embassies, and national monuments. In addition, U.S. intelligence has concluded that lower level al-Qaida operatives may view the September 11 anniversary as a suitable time to lash out in even small strikes to demonstrate their worldwide presence and resolve. Accordingly, widely dispersed, unsophisticated strikes are possible, as well.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes the al-Qaida story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: Within days of last year’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush pointed to the al-Qaida terrorist network and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: There is no question he is what we would call a prime suspect. And if he thinks he can hide and run from the United States and our allies, he will be sorely mistaken.

MARGARET WARNER: Before a week was out, the President had made his intentions about bin Laden abundantly clear.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, “wanted: Dead or alive.”

MARGARET WARNER: Bin Laden founded al-Qaida– or “The Base” in Arabic- – in the late 1980s, from the ranks of Muslim militants drawn to Afghanistan to fight the occupying soviet army. During the Gulf War, bin Laden expanded their mission to include jihad, or holy war, against the West. In subsequent years, western authorities linked al-Qaida to the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the 1995 truck bombing of U.S. Barracks in Saudi Arabia., The 1998 U.S. Embassy attacks in Africa, and the 2000 bombing of the USS “Cole.” One of the Bush administration’s first steps after September 11 was to enlist U.S. allies in trying to shut down al-Qaida’s financial support.

PAUL O’NEILL, Secretary of the Treasury: If you have any involvement in the financing of the al-Qaida organization, you have two choices: Cooperate in this fight or we will freeze your U.S. assets. We will punish you for providing the resources that make these evil acts possible.

MARGARET WARNER: Two weeks after that, the U.S. launched its war against Afghanistan, whose ruling Taliban government continued to provide safe haven to bin Laden and his fighters. That same day, a videotape of a defiant bin Laden was broadcast on the al-Jazeera Arabic Television Network. Bin Laden lauded the attacks on the United States. By early December, the U.S.-led assault had toppled Afghanistan’s Taliban government and captured hundreds of al-Qaida fighters, but the pursuit of bin Laden and his top commanders in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan came to an inconclusive end. In late December, a gaunt bin Laden appeared in a another videotape on al Jazeera, calling for young Muslims to “continue the jihad” against the United States. But it wasn’t clear when the tape had been made. In the nine months since, there’ve been conflicting intelligence reports on bin Laden’s fate.