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The trail of the tapes

Al Qaeda leader speaks again, this time about London

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- So Ayman al-Zawahiri has decided to weigh in on the London attacks.

In a videotape broadcast Thursday on Arabic-language TV station Al-Jazeera, Osama bin Laden's No. 2 did not exactly claim credit for the July 7 bombings, but he clearly wanted to associate them with al Qaeda. And, predictably, he laid blame for the attacks on British Prime Minister Tony Blair. (Full story)

"To the British, I am telling you that Blair brought you destruction in the middle of London and more will come, God willing," said the doctor-turned-terrorist leader.

As a psychological ploy -- aimed at fanning fears in Great Britain, the United States and elsewhere and coming on the four-week anniversary of the first bombings -- the tape may have backfired. The next morning British tabloids screamed defiant headlines along the lines of, "GET BACK IN YOUR CAVE."

But for terror expert Peter Bergen, a CNN analyst and one of the last Western journalists to interview bin Laden, the issue is less what al-Zawahiri had to say than that he was even able to say it.

"We knew bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were going to respond to this," Bergen said.

Bergen's point: If he could accurately predict that al Qaeda's leaders would issue some sort of statement after the London attacks, then the U.S. intelligence establishment should have been able to do the same.

Al-Zawahiri and bin Laden have released some 30 tapes since the September 11, 2001, attacks -- most of them airing first on Al-Jazeera. "We're spending billions on national security when we should just be staking out the Al-Jazeera offices in Pakistan," Bergen said.

Tracking the tapes

The theory is simple enough: Trace the tapes from Al-Jazeera (which has received most of the al Qaeda messages) back to their source, and you will find bin Laden or al-Zawahiri.

Bergen isn't alone in that belief.

"I think that we have long hoped that we would be able to track the movement of the audio and videotapes that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are manufacturing in their hideout," said former CIA case officer Gary Schroen.

Schroen, as you may recall from a previous column, spent years hunting bin Laden in Pakistan and Afghanistan for the CIA. He also led the team that went into Afghanistan after September 11, working closely with the Northern Alliance to topple the Taliban regime. (Column: Bin Laden's safe haven?)

More than three years later, the U.S. government is keen to get its hands on the tapes and al Qaeda's leaders, he said. Yet, while the goal is basic, reaching it can be very complex -- even something as seemingly simple as staking out Al-Jazeera's Pakistani offices in the hopes that a tape from al Qaeda's leaders will show up.

"Any Americans who were actually trying to stake out Al-Jazeera would stand out like a sore thumb," Schroen said.

"The problem is: How do you follow someone in Pakistan? It would have to be someone from the Pakistani government or military, dressed in local garb," Schroen added.

The Pakistani problem

Schroen said the Pakistanis aren't up to the job. "Inept" is a polite way he described their surveillance techniques

He recounted an attempt by Pakistani authorities to follow a journalist known to be planning a visit to bin Laden in the late 1990s.

"We asked the Pakistani authorities to put him under surveillance and follow him. They had the operation so messed up that the guy identified (that) he was under surveillance and didn't go to the meeting," Schroen recalled.

start quoteAny Americans who were actually trying to stake out Al-Jazeera would stand out like a sore thumb.end quote
-- Ex-CIA operative Gary Schroen

"It was very frustrating. If we could do it, we would have better success. But it is simply impossible that way."

While the CIA won't comment publicly -- claiming that doing so might undermine sources and methods -- it is known to be actively pursuing the tapes connection. In fact, the agency says several years ago it even may have intercepted one tape destined for Al-Jazeera.

The intelligence community, in Washington and Islamabad, believes al Qaeda employs multiple couriers, who hand off the package -- possibly even without knowing what is inside -- to get a tape from wherever bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are hiding to a major broadcast center that can air it.

Those conditions, Schroen said, make it nearly impossible to trace the tapes, especially in a place like Pakistan.

For the record, Al-Jazeera says the latest videotape was dropped off, but it won't say where or by whom.

All of which means that unless there is a major breakthrough or surveillance techniques improve significantly, messages from al-Zawahiri and bin Laden likely will continue.

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