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Record of Terror

August 19, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: The al-Qaida tapes. Government intelligence officials, terrorism experts, and others are now analyzing the first of 60 videotapes obtained in Afghanistan by a CNN reporter, Nic Robertson. Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: In the words of one al-Qaida expert, these tapes amount to Terrorism 101, a video war manual for al-Qaida recruits.

So far, CNN has only released small segments of the videotape collection that it says was smuggled out of Afghanistan. According to correspondent Nic Robertson, his source for the tapes took them from a house in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden once stayed.

NIC ROBERTSON: It represents a chilling reminder of the preparation and commitment of al-Qaida.

RAY SUAREZ: One section shows new footage of Osama bin Laden and his bodyguards. Almost all the pictures were filmed before the September attacks, the network says, although one tape is a recording of TV news segments from September 11.

Some of the more grisly footage is of chemical gas experiments on dogs. This sequence begins with men hurrying to leave the room as the gas is released. Within minutes, the dog staggers and collapses, and then dies. According to experts interviewed by CNN, the gas is possibly the nerve gas sarin, or cyanide. A third sequence covers bomb- making– more specifically, making a pure form of TNT from scratch, says the Cable News Network.

Later this week, CNN plans to air footage of assassination instruction, hostage-taking drills, and bin Laden declaring war on the West in the late 1990s.

And for more, we go to New York Times correspondent Judith Miller. She’s the coauthor of Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War. Judith what do the tapes tell us about al-Qaida’s level of training, sophistication, threat?

JUDITH MILLER: I think the tapes really indicate a lot about the organization that we had read before. But here you see it in black and white and color. Their enormous ambition, not only for unconventional weapons, like chemical gases, but also their determination to pass along their knowledge through these instructional videos, in a perhaps post-Afghanistan world in which they wouldn’t have the huge training camps and the base, the geographic base that they had come to depend on there.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there any way that we have of knowing yet whether in fact these tapes were widely reproduced, distributed to other places in the world?

JUDITH MILLER: You know, we really don’t know that. My impression from having watched several hours of them was that these were tapes that were meant to be shown only to the initiated, to those who had already become converted to al-Qaida’s cause. These are very different from the recruitment tapes that had popped up occasionally on the Internet or in DVD form. These are, if you will, the greatest moments, the historic achievements of an organization which the film makers clearly thought would be triumphant.

RAY SUAREZ: And having looked at the material that was brought out of Central Asia by CNN, you at this point have no doubt in your mind that this is the real thing?

JUDITH MILLER: Absolutely none. In fact, one of the things that really struck me as interesting is that the journalists who were permitted to interview Osama bin Laden were actually being photographed and recorded by al-Qaida as part of the kind of media operation, the propaganda operation, the propaganda arm; it’s vintage al-Qaida. The determination, the attention to detail, the need to chronicle what they regarded as the birth and the development of their movement — it’s definitely genuine. I’m not a video expert, perhaps someone’s fiddled with them, I don’t know that. But what I saw was very much the people that I had been studying for about a decade.

RAY SUAREZ: And you were referring to one of the few times when Osama bin Laden spoke to western reporters in the late 90s?

JUDITH MILLER: Well, he actually spoke to quite a few reporters over time. But in 1998 in May, he had what we called a coming out party. And that is that not only he, but Iman Zawahari, of one of the Egyptian affiliated groups, and Mohammed Atta also appeared together, the three of them, as the leadership of al-Qaida for the first time. And they met with several foreign journalists, none of them American, to discuss their program and they were very open about the need to kill Americans wherever they could find them.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, you’re a person who’s studied and written a lot about biological and germ weapons. What can you tell us about the level of sophistication of what you saw in those gas tests?

JUDITH MILLER: Well, here I’m going to have to rely on the experts that I spoke to, because I’m not a chemical weapons expert. And I was struck by the fact that even the experts that I talked to could not agree on what the chemical was that seemed to kill these puppies. They were three different dogs, and they seemed to be killed by three different agents, but we’re not really sure what it was.

You know, before, I and other reporters had reported in our newspapers and on television that al-Qaida was developing a crude chemical and even biological capability. I think what we’ve seen in these tapes is a demonstration that that in fact was the case, and that they were able at least to kill a dog. And if they’re able to kill a dog, they are probably able to kill people using the same agents. And that of course is something that will be of great concern to the intelligence agents who undoubtedly will be studying these tapes very, very carefully.

RAY SUAREZ: But nothing emerged from the tapes that would demonstrate that the movement at the point that the tapes were made had any particular means of delivery, of distributing this material over an area larger than a room in a house.

JUDITH MILLER: We don’t know that, and we also by the way don’t know when the tapes were made. Some of the tapes that I saw were dated. These shots of the demonstrations of the killing of the puppies were not dated. And I also don’t know, for example, what the delivery vehicle was. In one of the first tapes a man enters the room who, by the way, is not wearing protective clothing, he seems to drop a canister on the floor and then exit quickly. And then a liquid oozes across the floor. But in the other tapes, the dog is killed through a fine mist. And in the third he’s placed in a box in which he’s exposed to something, we don’t know what it is.

But, you know, as the anthrax letters should have taught us, delivery is not that crucial. It’s crucial if one wants to kill mass numbers of people. But if one wanted to kill people in a room, or in an office building, most of the experts that I talked to were afraid that al-Qaida had come very close to developing that kind of capability at the time that the Americans decided to invade Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: Along with these nerve agents, whatever they were, you’ve mentioned archival footage, how-to, instructional footage; you even mentioned that this will confirm a lot of things that western intelligence has said. Is there anything that struck you as new– things that hadn’t been talked about before, as being part of the abilities of this organization?

JUDITH MILLER: Well, I had always heard about the attention to detail and the attention to the need to conceal a lot of their materials. And yet here I was struck by the fact that one of the bomb making videos was actually embedded in a cassette that seemed to be an ordinary movie of “Lion of the Desert,” which was one of those Hollywood movies about a decade old, I guess, maybe even older. So that I think if a person was stopped carrying that video at an airport and the video was played, he would be seeing an ordinary American movie. You would have to go about ten or fifteen minutes into the tape to begin to see the deadly instruction on bomb making.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you know if there are any plans to turn this material over to intelligence agencies, or for the moment will western governments have to simply watch TV to gather this intelligence?

JUDITH MILLER: Well, CNN has been a little reluctant to discuss the extent to which it has shared the information with the U.S. Government or other governments for that matter. What they did tell me was that they had shown portions of the tapes to Pentagon and State Department officials, both because they wanted to verify the authenticity, and secondly because they wanted some guidance, on for example what chemical agents were used in these demonstrations of the puppies. They said they would not turn over material, that is all of the tapes, until it had been broadcast. I don’t know whether or not CNN will turn over all or only a portion of what they have taken out of Afghanistan. I do know that what I saw is hugely impressive, and I’m sure that intelligence analysts would love to have a look at it.

RAY SUAREZ: And demonstrate links with other groups in other places in the world?

JUDITH MILLER: Well, that was the amazing part is that this carefully cataloged material included large amounts of tape that had been sent in from al-Qaida want-to-be’s, these affiliated organizations that were carrying on their own jihads in Kashmir, in Sudan, Somalia – there were contributions from all over the world. They wanted to be included in this al-Qaida connection, and I think some of the most stomach churning and difficult material I saw came from Chechnya and Bosnia where the Jihadis were engaged in civil strife against the Russians, and some of that may in fact be too difficult for CNN to broadcast.

RAY SUAREZ: Judith Miller of The New York Times, thanks for being with us.

JUDITH MILLER: Thank you.