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New Tapoe Clear Reminder Third al Qaeda Remains Loose

Aired September 10, 2003 - 14:48   ET


HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Mike, every time I hear from Osama bin Laden or possibly from Osama bin Laden -- of course, that's still to be determined, very cryptic. But this is the way he always speaks.
MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He's speaking the theology of jihad, the theology of holy war. And that is the way he's trying to convince his followers to stay with the fight, and those who are sitting on the fence, trying to convince them that keeping hands off, living in peace is not the way to go, that this must end in jihad. And that is what he's saying. That is the message he's giving in the very kind of soft, gentle way that he is prone to do when he speaks in these sermonettes. And this one is going on for quite some time, it appears.

COLLINS: Yes, we were learning an hour, hour and a half of tape that the government officials, of course, will have to file through as they try to determine the authenticity.

We have Kelli Arena -- Justice correspondent Kelli Arena standing by in Washington, D.C. to provide a little bit more perspective from where she is today -- Kelli.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Heidi, I can tell you I just spoke to two counterterrorism officials who say that the one stark thing we need to remember here, that despite proclamations that -- by the administration there are two-thirds of al Qaeda leadership in custody, this a clear reminder that a third remains on the loose, and that is not even to talk about those that the intelligence community is unaware of.

Obviously, they have known for some time that Iraq would be a target. They have suspected al Qaeda involvement in some way. Not necessarily direct members of al Qaeda, but, as Nic said, perhaps people who have been trained by al Qaeda have been involved in recent attacks in that area. But when I ask, Well, do we breathe a sigh of relief and figure that the focus is now on Iraq and not the United States, they say absolutely not.

There continues to be a mountain of information that comes in suggesting that al Qaeda is planning multiple attacks against the U.S. and U.S. interests. They do believe that an attack on U.S. soil remains one of their top priorities. And again, as we've all heard before, that commercial airlines as a part of that equation remains a top priority.

They said they believe that al Qaeda and its members are determined to prove that despite increased security, despite changes that have been made since 9/11, that they are still capable, that they are still potent and believe that would be the best way to get the message across is to attack on U.S. soil.

And nothing specific, Heidi, and this is what's always so disconcerting, is that is nothing time specific or target specific but a lot of general information coming in suggesting that something is up.

BOETTCHER: Kelli, it's Mike Boettcher. Do you think this will put more pressure on now that we're on the anniversary and the videotapes are out, put more pressure to raise the threat level above elevated?

ARENA: You know, Mike, privately many officials have said that there is really a resistance to doing that. As you know the director of Homeland Security came out and said there would be no increase in the threat level. We've heard that repeated since. They kept saying if there was something specific and credible to hang their hats on that they would.

Raising that threat level costs money, plain and simple. We are not in the greatest economic cycle right now. Local and state governments can not afford right now to up that threat level unless there's a significant reason to do that.

And so it's as much a political decision as it is a security decision as we all know. But there doesn't seem to be any indication. Now if there's something on this tape that suggests something specific in any way, then obviously that is something that they reassess each day.

But the resistance against raising, at least from where I'm sitting, seems to be greater than any momentum to raise it just in case. They don't want to confuse the public with raising it and lowering it every time an anniversary comes up.

So I don't think so, I haven't heard anything to change my opinion yet, Mike.

COLLINS: All right, Kelli, thanks. Also want to ask you in talking a little bit more about the information that's coming in through your sources and they tell you about the information they're hearing. Are we calling this chatter? I mean we have hear that...

ARENA: No, chatter means something specific, Heidi. Chatter are electronic intercepts. And when that word is used and a source uses that word, they are speaking specifically about electronic intercepts.

And as David Ensor said earlier, al Qaeda is not using communication methods that can be tracked by the intelligence community right now which is a more laborious and cumbersome process, but it definitely means more security and secrecy to what they're doing.

Information is coming in from detainees, it's coming in from sources in the field, it's coming in from documents that have been gathered as the U.S. continues to conduct raids in Afghanistan and Pakistan and so on. So it's information coming in from a variety of levels, which is why I specifically did not use the word chatter. That's a term that's been thrown around way too much.

But it's information from a variety of sources that has been corroborated on many levels. Again, nothing specific, so when you hear corroborated you may think, Oh my gosh. Do we have a date or do we have target? No, we don't. At least not that they've told me.

And we definitely keep in touch with a variety of people at different levels. And if there was something specific, I'm sure that there would be extra precautions taken on a certain level.

But information coming in suggesting -- and this is the same type of information they had that came in prior to the first September 11 two years ago. There was some very unspecific information that something might have been up, then everything died down. It died down around the end of July, and it was a very quiet August. And then all of a sudden we got hit in September.

So whenever counterterrorism officials see this, they get, now, of course, get very uneasy, and draw parallels, although there's not an exact parallel to be drawn, but they do draw parallels with what happened two years ago.

COLLINS: Right, and, Kelli, if you don't mind hanging around just for a moment just to discuss this a little bit further. I do want to put it out there is information that we are just getting in through the Associated Press.

Explosions heard in the southern Gaza strip. Unfortunately, this is all that we know at this time. But once again, explosions have been heard in southern Gaza strip. That source at this time, Associated Press. We of course will have our people on that and try ti determine what is going on there at this time.

Just want to talk more a little bit more about tactics. We have been discussing about if this does become an authentic piece of tape, an authentic piece sound that we are hearing from possibly Osama bin Laden and his No. 2 man, what sort tactics are they talking about? What would they do?

BOETTCHER: The concern is by security analysts in the anti- terror coalition is that in an effort to keep up as they have with ever-escalating attacks and to make a big impact they will move to weapons of mass destruction.

There was some intelligence out there that they're still trying to check and confirm that bin Laden is really determined to try to use some sort of chemical or biological weapon or perhaps a dirty bomb. And that is the real concern.

Now tactically they have spread around the world, they're operating in a regional centers of gravity in Southeast Asia, there have been successes there, though. And the reason there have been success is for the very reason that we really can't track precisely bin Laden because he's staying off the electronic net.

Those operators out there who are trying to conduct terrorist attacks against the West and against Asian countries, they do have to communicate and have used the computers and the Internet and electronic communication, and that has been the downfall for many of them.

If you look at that tier of leadership, Ramzi Binalshibh, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Hambali, for example, as well, Abu Zubaydah early on. All of those people became vulnerable because of electronic intercepts.

COLLINS: Want to go ahead just in case, Mike, people are just joining us now and wondering what it is exactly what we're talking about. Want to take a listen to some of the tape that we had been hearing earlier today. This possibly could be Osama bin Laden. You'll hear his voice in the background with a translator talking over it. Let's listen to that.


OSAMA BIN LADEN (through translator): Those who would like to learn loyalty and generosity and victory to support the religion, then let them learn from the sea, from the ocean of Saeed Alghamdi, Mohammed Atta, Ziad al Jarrahi and their brothers. May mercy of God be on them, those learned from the history of the prophet Mohamed.

He was the most honest of people and the most brave of people. He said, You will not find me miser, not a coward and not a liar. I would say to those who has not picked on these features, those who don't agree with killing, then let them step out of way. I'll say to them, those who don't -- who are afraid of climbing mountains, then they will live in pits and holes.


COLLINS: Once again the words quite possibly of Osama bin Laden through the voice of a translator. This audiotape that you are listening to and the video that you see here, we've been talking about it now for quite some time. It will now go to the hands of the CIA and the FBI, and they'll try to analyze it, and figure out whether or not this is his voice.

BOETTCHER: Well, in the past, consistently when audiotapes have been released, it is his voice. And just looking at the videotape, the actual images of the two men, it looks like them to me.

The interesting thing that comes to mind is how different they appear in two years' time. They appear much older, frailer. Bin Laden's beard continues to become more and more gray.

But, here they want to show them like they're out on a volks march (ph) somewhere in the mountains in central Asia. And they want to show them -- to the world and to their followers that they are in good shape. And that seems to be the intense. COLLINS: And they're navigating those rocks and that terrain that we have learned through many your reports as so treacherous in Afghanistan.

Mike Boettcher, we certainly appreciate your time today. You've been covering Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda for very long time. Appreciate you being here.


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