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Leading Osama Adviser Possibly Killed; Does Bin Laden Have Nuclear Weapons?

Aired November 16, 2001 - 11:01   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to turn our attention back in this country to the possible death of a leading adviser to Osama bin Laden, national security correspondent David Ensor. He talked to us on this story about 60 minutes ago.

Now what more do we have, David?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATL. SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Bill, Mohammed Atef is the military commander of Al Qaeda. As such, he is in the top three of the Al Qaeda organization. And if he has indeed been killed, it is a serious blow to that organization. U.S. officials, informed U.S. officials say they have credible information that Atef killed in airstrike by United States warplanes south of Kabul.

Now Mohammed Atef is on the FBI's most-wanted list. There's a $5 million reward for his capture, alive or dead. He is wanted for the 1998 attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa. He moved with Osama bin Laden from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996, has had a key role in organizing a number of the attacks on U.S. targets, according to U.S. intelligence officials, and may have played a key role, in fact, in the planning of the September 11th attacks.

This is a picture of him here on the left, you see at a wedding, the wedding of his daughter to the son of Osama bin Laden, who is also in the middle of the picture here. He also has ties, family ties, with the leader of Al Qaeda. He's described as being about 6'4. He's Egyptian origin. He started his adult career as an Egyptian policeman, in fact. But he became a key member of Al Qaeda, worked, according to U.S. officials -- and in fact according to the words of Osama bin Laden -- in Somalia. Al Qaeda played a role in trying to organize some of the forces that attacked Americans there, and he was involved in that as well.

So his loss will be a serious blow to Al Qaeda, which obviously is reeling at this point from the series of rapid setbacks that their host, the Taliban government in Afghanistan have been suffering -- Bill.

HEMMER: David, how would the U.S. verifying this? They have people on the ground, obviously, but do they have people specifically designed to go in and check out the airstrikes and the casualties that follow there? ENSOR: There are a lot of Americans on the ground, not all of them in uniform, Bill. I understand that U.S. officials do not feel at this point they can with 100 percent surety say that Mohammed Atef is dead. That suggests that no Americans have actually seen his body. However, there is a credible evidence and a fair amount of confidence that he may well have been killed in this airstrike south of Kabul.

HEMMER: All right, David, thanks. David Ensor in Washington.

Also in Washington, to the Pentagon, we want to check in now. The Pentagon making very clear today that special forces in aggressive combat now in Afghanistan. To Bob Franken, again.

Again, we will probably hear more about this Mohammed Atef story a bit later, Bob.

But what do we know about the combat the U.S. troops have been involved in?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What's going on the last couple of days, Bill, is the Pentagon, through a variety officials, has let slip out the fact that U.S. special operations troops in Afghanistan have been involved in combat, even as they slip into the country. The number keeps going up. There's about 200, maybe a few less than that now. They've been there for quite some time, we are now being told by the head of the central command, and we keep on getting more graphic descriptions about what they're doing. We heard first that their mission was -- if they didn't get cooperation from their adversaries, they were to -- quote -- "destroy them."

Now the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld flying from Chicago telling reporters -- and I quote -- "They are killing Taliban that won't surrender and Al Qaeda that are trying to move from one place to another." So they are being quite specific now about the fact that they are involved in shooting with the adversaries on the ground.

Of course, early on, special operations troops we were told were being used for advisory purposes, for reconnaissance, for bomb spotting and that type of thing. Now we're hearing that as the situation moves more toward a ground presence as opposed ultimately to the aerial campaign that the special operations forces are involved in a shooting unconventional war.

As they chase down Taliban leaders, and of course as they join the search, Bill, for Osama bin Laden.

HEMMER: All right, Bob, thanks, Bob Franken at the pentagon. We'll be in touch a bit later.

Overseas, Afghan clerics signaled the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan today. We have talked about it for weeks, and today it started.

CNN's Satinder Bindra reports now from the northern town of Taloqan.


SATINDER BINDRA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): I'm joining you from the main Mosque in Taloqan where thousands of Muslims have already started observing the holy month of Ramadan. Many people here are fasting from dawn until dusk.

So for the moment at least it appears that religious ceremonies and prayers are taking precedence over the fighting in nearby Kunduz, but the fighting there has by no means been forgotten. People here want the Northern Alliance to engage the Taliban there. It is believed that thousands of Taliban fighters are trapped in Kunduz. They're believed to be very heavily armed. They have about 100 artillery guns and 60 tanks.

Now commanders here expect the fighting in Kunduz to be the heaviest of this campaign so far. What's happening at the moment is Northern Alliance commanders are in touch with some of the Taliban fighters there. They're trying to engineer some defections, but it's still not clear if the hard core Taliban fighters, the Uzbeks, the Pakistanis, will accept any surrender terms.

Reporting from Taloqan, I'm Satinder Bindra for CNN.


HEMMER: Also in the capital city of Kabul, the nuclear question. Osama bin Laden claims he has nuclear weapons, but CNN's Christiane Amanpour uncovered details that give Bin Laden's claim a bit of degree of credibility.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): We've been scouring all sorts of homes in what used to be diplomatic quarter of Kabul. Under the Taliban, this quarter was handed over to the many of the Arab guests, they called them, who came here to fight alongside them, and many of these Arabs were also linked with the Al Qaeda network.

In some of the houses we found all sorts of documents, papers, letters and materials that indicate a very active interest in acquiring knowledge in all sorts of terrorist activities. In one house, we found this letter. It looks like a ragged piece of paper, but it's addressed to Abdul Habab (ph). Abdul Habab happens to the name of one of Osama bin Laden's top lieutenants. He is also believed to be responsible for training in chemical and other kinds of weapon production.

This letter says, "I am sending some companions who are -- quote -- "eager to be trained in explosives, or whatever else they want." It was signed January of the year 2000. This group of papers here is signed also, and written here it says "The Biggest Bomb."

When you open it and look at the documents inside, all sorts of references which appear to be detailed research into nuclear weapons capabilities. We have references to uranium 235 and to TNT, used in trying to make a nuclear bomb. We also have references in English to the words "nuclear bomb," another paragraph which says "how to make a nuclear bomb."

Another document that we found here is 82-page manual. Again, what's written here published by the Al Qaeda world committee for recruitment and training. So an incredible number of possibly incriminating documents are being discovered in homes that have been abandoned by these people as they left ahead of the fall of Kabul, as they left when the Taliban made hasty retreat out of Kabul.

We also saw documents that showed how to make explosives, all kinds of explosives, and how to bomb all manner of facilities, from airplanes to bridges and towers, railways and ships and things. We don't know exactly why these documents were left here in these houses.

But what we do know is when these houses were vacated. Residents in the neighborhood said the occupants of these houses brought many vehicles, put a lot of equipment and information and material into those vehicles, and left as quickly as they can. Perhaps these are the only things that they didn't have time to take.

I'm Christiane Amanpour, CNN, reporting from Kabul.


HEMMER: Back in this country now, as we've been reporting throughout the morning, there are significant details to flesh out now, the potential for a key loss for Al Qaeda. U.S. special forces on the ground and Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban soldiers continue to gain ground in Afghanistan. A lot to talk about.

CNN's Donna Kelley with the latest on the military maneuverings.

Donna, good morning.

DONNA KELLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Bill, and good morning to you. Lots of talk about indeed.

Let's get our retired CNN military analyst General Wesley Clark with us to help us understand a little bit more about this.

General, nice to have you join us, thanks.


KELLEY: If Mr. Atef has been killed, and he was the number two official, how much would that disrupt the organization?

CLARK: Well, it would depend on precisely what his duties were. But we can count on some disruption.

And by the way, it's apparent that Mohammed Atef wasn't killed by himself, but he was with a group of supporters in one or two of these houses. And that means that the effects will be magnified. In military organizations, sometimes it's not just the number one or two person, but it's the supporting staff that have all the details on how to make the contacts and to how to make the plans work, and so we've probably made a very significant impact here.

KELLEY: And our David Ensor and Mike Boettcher were reporting that he was in fact responsible for supervising the training of operatives and even mentioned as a possible successor to bin Laden. So even long-term, that could have a fairly large effect, couldn't it?

CLARK: That's exactly right.

KELLEY: All right well, let's go on and talk a little bit more about the special forces fierce fighting we hear between Taliban and Northern Alliance in Kanduz today, and Kanadahar as well. We heard from Secretary Rumsfeld that there are actually U.S. special forces in combat, fighting on the ground. What stage are we in on the operation? How is that changing?

CLARK: Well, clearly, we've got our special forces teams more up front. They're calling in airstrikes. They're probably intercepting some vehicles on highways. They're observing, their coordinating, they're trying to bring together these disparate elements and get them focused on the mission, which is to go after the Taliban. So I would suspect in the Konduz area, also in Kandahar, we've got the men on the ground in close contact with the enemy. These are some very brave, tough people, because they're in conditions of a very highly fluid battlefield, you never really know who you're working with, you're out there in a small group, you've got radio communications, you've got laser designator, and you've got yourself protection capability. But the bulk of the fighting is probably being done by calling in airstrikes on the enemy.

KELLEY: And certainly, shifting from the air campaign to the ground campaign, particularly, as we understand it, around Kandahar. How tough is that, when you have your ground troops on the ground to coordinate this now as you get into this stage?

CLARK: Well, you really couldn't do it at this point without troops on the ground to coordinate it, and it's the right thing to be doing at this point, and I'm sure that behind these special forces spotting teams, there are others who are doing more strategic reconnaissance.

We probably have people up in the hills, starting to look for hiding places. We're certainly trying to exploit an information that may be made available, and it would surprise me if we didn't have some quick reaction forces ready to go, ready to get on the ground and take advantage of any sudden breakthroughs and gaining some key information on Al Qaeda's whereabouts.

KELLEY: I know you and I talked a little bit earlier in the morning, and I you were hope able to hear Christiane Amanpour report just a moment or two ago. And we've heard that maybe some documents were found about nuclear and chemical weapons, and certainly there have been threats from Osama bin Laden. How seriously do you take the threats? And what happens if you get a dirty weapon, one that's had a nuclear capability, even if it's not high grade? CLARK: Well, I can't take seriously the threat that he could destroy America, but I think we do have to take seriously the threat of some kind of nuclear device. We know for a decade that there have been efforts made to purchase highly enriched uranium and plutonium from the former Soviet Union states and from other sources. Many of these efforts have been foiled. But its only reasonable to believe that maybe one or two were successful, and with the added information that's come out now, we know they were very serious about putting together a real nuclear weapon. Maybe that haven't done that yet. Maybe it's not in Afghanistan. Maybe it's somewhere else. We don't know.

But the key indicators here will be sources of radiation and some kind of a vault that's protected to store radioactive materials, so our people will be looking for that on the ground in Afghanistan, I'm sure.

KELLEY: And a problem, even in addition to of course the death, but it's the cleanup afterward, when you have a dirty weapon.

CLARK: That's exactly right. It's something, if explosives were to be combined with radioactive materials in some kind of a -- it's not exactly a high-quality nuclear weapon, but some way to produce some kind of nuclear fission with a conventional explosive to spew radioactive materials over a large area, it could be devastating for that area. We could have a Chernobyl-type accident.

KELLEY: Right, even if they're not sophisticated. Even if you get to a point where, you and I were talking about this, full yield, it still could be devastating.

CLARK: Exactly. The effort here probably wouldn't be the explosives that we're after, but it would be the contamination with radiation. Now they are going to have some enormous delivery problems with something like this. They certainly don't have intercontinental- range ballistic missiles. They don't have any aircraft that can deliver something like this, so far as we know, but it doesn't mean that it couldn't come in some other way, so we have to take the concerns for nuclear terrorism seriously, and I'm sure our government is doing exactly that.

KELLEY: Our CNN military analyst retired Army General Wesley Clark, thanks as usual. Appreciate it.




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