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Tracking Terrorists

October 10, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Life signs from al-Qaida. Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: Last night’s FBI warning of another possible terrorist attack on the U.S. follows several signs this week of a resurgent al-Qaida. They include an audio message from Osama bin Laden broadcast by al-Jazeera on Sunday, warning that "the youth of Islam" are preparing to target key sectors of the U.S. economy.

Also Sunday, an unexplained explosion on a French supertanker off the coast of Yemen. Then a second audio interview broadcast Tuesday from bin Laden’s chief deputy, Ayman al- Zawahiri, threatening continuing attacks on "America and its allies," and also Tuesday, the killing of a U.S. Marine on exercises in Kuwait by two gunmen who trained at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan. A string of coincidences, or part of a pattern?

We talk to three reporters covering different parts of this story– Christopher Cooper covers the Pentagon and State Department for the Wall Street Journal; Walter Pincus covers intelligence for the Washington Post; and Eric Schmitt covers the Pentagon for the New York Times.

Welcome to you all.

Christopher, I gather that late this afternoon, the Pentagon has essentially come to some new conclusions about the super tanker explosion off the coast of Yemen. Tell us about that.

CHRISTOPHER COOPER: Well, it’s my understanding that they got access to the ship, went inside the tanker, found some pieces of fiberglass, some small engine parts including a spark plug that you wouldn’t normally find on a tanker, and that’s led them to conclude that there was a small ship colliding with a tanker, and usually the tankers win those things, but this time it didn’t.

MARGARET WARNER: So in other words they’re concluding that it was a terrorist attack in the same manner as the attack on the USS Cole.

CHRISTOPHER COOPER: It seems very similar, that’s what they say.

MARGARET WARNER: So Walter Pincus, when intelligence officials look at these various developments over the last week, what do they see?

WALTER PINCUS: Well, I think they have to take it cautiously, but also they see what appears to be the possibility of a pattern of resurgence of al-Qaida. And it’s heralded by two tapes, one of them clearly by Zawahiri was done in recent weeks. So there’s been a pattern of warning and a pattern of activity. And also they see a possibility of their giving out word to their spread out groups in the field who fled Afghanistan, that they’re still alive and that there could be additional actions in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Eric Schmitt, what would you add to that in terms of what intelligence and Pentagon officials think they’re seeing here?

ERIC SCHMITT: I think you need to recall, Margaret, the anniversaries that we’ve recently seen. We’ve got the October 7th anniversary, of the American-led attack on Afghanistan, next week you have the two-year anniversary of the bombing of the Cole.

So you have these anniversaries that are significant. But as some of my colleagues have pointed out, you have al-Qaida here looking to make a statement — a statement that it’s still alive and kicking, if you will.

Now, whether these actions that we’ve seen in recent days are coordinated, or more the work of local groups, perhaps inspired by these tapes, inspired by these actions is yet to be seen and something investigators are looking into right now.

MARGARET WARNER: So Walter, tell us more about the tapes. What is it that makes intelligence officials believe that the al Zawahiri tape is fairly recent, but they can’t say that about the bin Laden tape?

WALTER PINCUS: The bin Laden tape has no sort of identifiable information that tracks to anything that took place really since December when bin Laden put out a tape in which we saw him.

The Zawahiri tape, on the other hand, does indicate recognition that the U.S. is on the verge of doing something with Iraq, it refers to that.

It also refers to two attacks that took place earlier this year, one in April, one in May, to which he’s taking credit, which he may, which had been attributed to al-Qaida, and now you have the French oil tanker and he speaks specifically of doing an attack on both the French and Germans. German tourists were involved in the bombing in Tunisia.

MARGARET WARNER: And Walter, how sure can they be that the voice they’re hearing, I gather these are audio tapes, is let’s just take al Zawahiri, I mean, how do they actually know that, that this isn’t a fake?

WALTER PINCUS: Well, they have, you never know for sure, but they have previous tapes, and using a lot of the technology that we’ve developed, you can play one against known tapes and make a finding that they’re so close it has to be the same person.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Christopher, talk a little bit more about what’s on the tape in terms of this warning about Iraq. Do U.S. officials think that somehow the prospect of impending war, U.S. war against Iraq, is giving rise to these, or that al-Qaida is somehow responding to this?

CHRISTOPHER COOPER: I don’t know that it has anything to do with the war in Iraq per se. You know, they’re allied in their hatred of the U.S., I suppose.

MARGARET WARNER: No, I just meant that there are some lines on the tapes talking about warning about the U.S. is trying to carve up the Arab world, and so on.

CHRISTOPHER COOPER: The tapes mention Saudi Arabia and I believe Iraq, and so yeah, that would, that would be the purpose, to incite, I suppose.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Tell us a little bit more about the French super tanker explosion, and why when it happened on Sunday both the Yemeni and U.S. officials were saying they couldn’t conclude it was terrorism. Why did it take so long to get to this conclusion?

CHRISTOPHER COOPER: Well, this is a lot like the Cole, which was bombed in 2000, October, in a port also in Yemen. But the Cole was moored, and it was full of soldiers who immediately dropped boats over the side and secured the site. They were able to get anything that fell to the bottom. This tanker on Sunday was under power, it was moving, slowly perhaps, but it was moving. And then it was hit. And then it caught on fire, and then the pilot backed it out of the flames. So the investigative site is several miles long.

MARGARET WARNER: And it took quite a while for Americans to get access didn’t it?

CHRISTOPHER COOPER: Well, that was the other thing, they didn’t have permission to go aboard initially.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, Eric, tell us a little more about the attacks on U.S. soldiers and one Marine was killed, in Kuwait, what was the circumstance, how could these gunmen get so close and how strong do officials think the link is between these gunmen and al-Qaida?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, Margaret, that’s really what is puzzling investigators. Here you have Kuwait, perhaps the staunchest American ally in the Persian Gulf since the end of the 1991 war, we have, the United States has more than 9,000 troops based there, warplanes fly out from Kuwaiti air bases to patrol the no-flight zone in southern Iraq right now. And these Marines are part of 150 or so Marines on a small island off the Kuwaiti coast who are practicing some urban assault drills. This is an island that’s tightly controlled by the Kuwaiti government, and it’s supposed to be secured from anybody straying onto this.

So how two young Kuwaiti gunmen somehow got on this island, obtained a pickup truck, drove into the middle of this exercise and opened fire with their AK47′s is something that both American and Kuwaiti investigators want to know more about.

Now, we’ve learned a little bit more about who these two gunmen were. They apparently were cousins, apparently had done some training in Afghanistan in some of the al-Qaida-run camps there in the last couple years, and there are also reports that they may have relatives, Kuwaiti relatives, detained at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

So, again, it’s one of these situations where it could well be a vendetta against American forces, wanting a little payback here, or it could possibly be something a little bit larger.

MARGARET WARNER: Walter, back to the tapes and who the U.S. Government thinks is sort of running the show, have they concluded now then that al Zawahiri is alive and well and he is, at least he if hot bin Laden is running the show?

WALTER PINCUS: Well, I think to be cautious they have to. And the truth of the matter is that even starting in Sudan, he has been essentially the chief policy maker and as somebody who ran the Egyptian Jihad, he also helped fill the sort of military wing, the military committee of al-Qaida with Egyptians, Mohammed Atta was killed in the November bombing, was an Egyptian, former Egyptian officer, and a number of other, the main sort of military people, operations people, are also Egyptian.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, but I guess what I’m asking is, if al-Zawahiri as we all know has been this very powerful figure in al-Qaida, has not surfaced publicly until now, I mean I, I’m asking you to tell me what intelligence officials are at least speculating and I know they don’t know. But what’s their thinking?

WALTER PINCUS: Well, their thinking of course is that he’s been a powerful figure in the operations and policy from the beginning. If you go back and look at almost every tape except a few in which bin Laden appeared alone, Zawahiri was always with him.

Even a tape that was released just a few months ago, it had the two of them sort on the banks of the river talking, with an attempt to show they were both alive, but everybody looked at the tape and found out he clearly had been shot at some earlier time. But even that tape, when there’s speculation that bin Laden may or may not be alive, it was Zawahiri who was with him.

MARGARET WARNER: And Chris, finally on this FBI warning that went out last night, one of the things it says in the FBI statement is that they think these two tapes are a warning in part because some high level detainees said to them, I think the quote is, one senior detainee maintains that al-Qaida would only release such a statement, meaning Zawahiri’s, after approving a specific plan for attack.

Are these detainees giving useful information, do they trust this information that they’re getting from them down at Guantanamo and elsewhere?

CHRISTOPHER COOPER: Oh, I think they have a big problem with the detainees and the things the detainees tell them. A Pentagon official told me yesterday that they’re trying to come up with a reward system for these people to reward the ones that cooperate, and to somehow punish the ones who don’t. They claim they don’t punish the ones who don’t at the moment, although I guess there’s no way of really knowing that. But they’re right, I mean, Zawahiri likes to warn people when he does something big, he did that in East Africa during the bombings in ’98, and that would be his modus operandi, I would think.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you all three very much.