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Pakistani Military may Have Ayman al-Zawahari Cornered

Aired March 18, 2004 - 14:30   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. As we have been recapping for you, Pakistani military sources in this part of the world believe it is a high-value target. This story first came to us through the courtesy of Aaron Brown who sat down for a lengthy interview with the president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: There has been a fierce -- and I mean fierce -- artillery, helicopter gunships, fierce fight going on in this mountainous region between Afghanistan and Pakistan where the president says his forces, after having a very tough couple of days, by the way, have surrounded a group of al Qaeda fighters.

Now, why do they believe they may have a high-value target in there? This has more to do with deductive reasoning than intelligence. This is the way President Musharraf described his thinking.

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, PRESIDENT OF PAKISTAN: The resistance that is being offered by the people there, we feel that they may and high- value target. I can't say who. But they're giving fierce battle at the moment.

They are not coming out despite the fact we've pounded them with artillery. I spoke to the corps commander right now. I knew you would want ask me this question. So I (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

The net is there. They are there. They see very strong dug-in positions. The houses actually there are almost forts. They are mud forts. And all these forts are occupied. And they are dug in. And they are giving fierce resistance.

So he's reasonably sure there is a high-value target there.

BROWN: We do know that for the last several days in an area that intelligence believes is -- American intelligence believes is rich with both al Qaeda and Taliban forces, an area that has literally existed outside of the control of any government for centuries, is backward in an almost futile way, and where everyone is armed and where no one is very thrilled with any government. There is a major fight going on.

I'd add one other thing, Miles. And that is the president -- and this took me somewhat by surprise -- acknowledged that when this fight started, the Pakistani army, which he used to formally head and probably still does in many respects, miscalculated.

He says, we were careless, were his words, that they went in with too little and they were routed in the early days. They're not, in his view, being routed now. They are, as he said, pounding them with both artillery. They're using helicopter gunships to go in.

But you're talking about a wide area, a lot of land. It's very remote. Its -- there are places to run and hide. Its that he sort of Tora Bora kind of like situation up there. And it will play out over a series of days.


O'BRIEN: That was Aaron Brown on the line with us just a little while ago reporting from Islamabad just after his interview with the president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf. You can see that entire interview tonight, 10:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on "NEWSNIGHT."

Ayman al-Zawahari, the No. 2 person in al Qaeda, a friend, confidant mentor and even a medical doctor to Osama bin Laden. Hard to overstate his importance to the war on terror.

CNN's Kelli Arena joining us live now from Washington with more on that -- Kelli.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Miles, it's that pounding with artillery statement that has U.S. counterterrorism officials very concerned because, obviously in this case, alive is worth a lot more than dead.

As you said, Zawahari is considered to be Osama bin Laden's closest adviser. He has been indicted for his alleged role in the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa. He is thought to have played a significant role in the September 11 attacks.

And is also -- the intelligence community believes that if you can -- if the intelligence that led to Zawahari turns out to be credible that catching Osama bin Laden may not be too far ahead.

The two are often pictured together, as you see here, in tapes provided by al Qaeda with messages that are meant for recruitment purposes and just messages from al Qaeda to its enemies. They are never seen far apart. And it is believed that if they're not exactly in the same compound that they are probably within miles of each other. So that is also important.

Because of the indictment that the U.S. has, because he is one of the most wanted terrorists in the U.S., U.S. officials here believe that they can work out a deal with Pakistan to get him turned over to U.S. custody.

If that happens, he will most assuredly meet the same fate as other al Qaeda leaders, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Abu Zubaida who are whisked off to an unknown location and interrogated for all the information that they may have. And of course those -- there is a certain shelf life that people have in terms of the terrorist operations and plans that are currently going on. And so Zawahari, of course, would be a phenomenal intelligence coup for the counterterrorism community if this is indeed him who they have surrounded.

I should point out that U.S. officials here have repeatedly said that they have nothing definitive to -- that they have seen that says that that is exactly who the Pakistanis have. Although as we know, Pakistani officials have said to our people on the ground that that's who they believe it to be.

O'BRIEN: Kelli, what are your sources telling you about how cooperative or helpful these previous big gets have been now that they've been in custody? Do they talk to the authorities at all?

ARENA: Well, they do. Sometime it takes sometime. And sometimes, as it's been described to me, it's a long process, obviously. Months long, sometimes years long.

The terrorists are very -- are trained, usually trained to give interrogators information that they think they already know. In some cases, it's not the case. I mean they give U.S. intelligence more credit than it deserves. In other situations, they give a piece of information that they think may not be revealing a lot.

but there are so many other people that are detained elsewhere, in Guantanamo Bay, for example, that investigators are able to put pieces together and come up with a larger picture.

But there is also whatever he's found with. There may be records, documents, photographs, names, numbers, you never know what the take is along with the body count.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Kelli Arena, stand by close in Washington. We'll get back to you in just a little bit -- Kyra.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Also with us now on the line, writer for "New York Magazine" joining us live -- sorry. "The New Yorker" magazine. I apologize. He's joining us our of Dubai. Lawrence Wright.

Lawrence, you've written an lot about al-Zawahari. First of all, your reaction to the news now that's coming across the wires and coming across the airwaves?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT, "THE NEW YORKER": Well, if they do have him cornered, and they can capture him, it would be an irreparable damage to al Qaeda. He's the brains behind that organization. He's the person that has been the operative that has made that operation successful. Bin Laden wouldn't be able to pull it out without him. And so if he's captured, that would be a major blow to al Qaeda.

PHILLIPS: Obviously, 9/11 is something that we think about. We know about. Tell us about other links al-Zawahari has with other type of terrorist activity, pre-9/11. WRIGHT: Well, Zawahari came out of the prisons of Egypt after the Sadat assassination. He was rounded up in that. He went to Afghanistan specifically to find a way to take Jihad international.

And he saw it as an opportunity to spread this international terror campaign, that he then went back to Egypt in the '90s and waged a very savage campaign that the government eventually crushed. And then he turned to more vulnerable countries in the West to spread his terrorist message.

The U.S. embassy bombings, he said that it would happen two days before it happened, and it did. He was involved in the planning against -- of the attack on the American troops in Somalia. He was involved in the planning on the bombing of the USS Cole. And certainly was involved in the planning of 9/11.

And since 9/11, he's repeatedly directed al Qaeda forces at different targets. So he often speaks before an attack is made, such as...

PHILLIPS: Lawrence, I hate to interrupt you, please stay with us. We want to get to Aaron Brown real quickly who is in the region with some developing information -- Aaron.

BROWN: Well, here is what we can report. CNN can now confirm through two sources, one on the Pakistani Intelligence Service, another in the Pakistani Interior Department, that Pakistani forces believe in this group of al Qaeda fighters that they have surrounded in Western Pakistan is the al Qaeda No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahari.

They believe he is among 200 well-trained, extremely well- equipped al Qaeda fighters who are hold up in the area. There is a general plan of action that is now been put into place. The Pakistani government will try and get at them through the air, an air attack, tomorrow.

It's now coming up on 1:00 in the morning here in Islamabad. It's about quarter to 1:00 in the morning. So we're in the dead of night here. Sometime after lightfall it sounds like they will go in with helicopter gunships. But they may go in with fixed-wing and do some bombing as well.

The concern among these sources is pretty simple. You're in a very difficult terrain. And while they describe the scene as we have them surrounded, it's hardly an air-tight net. The feeling is -- or the concern is that al-Zawahari and the others -- or perhaps al- Zawahari and just a few, will try and make some sort of escape tonight. They're obviously doing what they can to prevent that.

But it is the dead of night and that is the risk that they face. The plan is to go in by air tomorrow or at least first light. It's now coming up on 1:00 in the morning Friday morning here in Pakistan.

PHILLIPS: So, Aaron, you've described this area as sort after Tora Bora-type feel. So is the fear that they could escape through underground tunnels, much like what we did see throughout the Operation Enduring Freedom there in Afghanistan? Through caves, through underground tunnels? What do your sources tell you?

BROWN: The fear is that they can escape, period. How they escape, what methods they escape, whether they have a plan to escape, whether there are tunnels, whether there are caves. The concern is that they can get out of this something less than air-tight noose.

You know this is something that is moving -- I'm not sure -- I don't want to speak for the sources beyond what the sources tell us. They are aware that it is not sealed off. They may be surrounded, but it isn't sealed.

PHILLIPS: Do you know if the Pakistani troops outnumber these 200 well-equipped...

BROWN: Well they also certainly -- yes. They absolutely, almost certainly outnumber. This operation which began a couple of days ago didn't start that way.

But the Pakistani army -- and we are now talking not about the paramilitaries that started this operation a couple of days ago, but army regulars -- can throw not hundreds, but if they wanted arguably, they could throw thousands.

But more importantly, they can come in by air. They can use heavy artillery if they want. While we described the al Qaeda operatives in the area as well-equipped, they don't have that kind of equipment. They can't match the fire power of the Pakistani army.

PHILLIPS: Do you know if there is any type of negotiation that's going on at all, Aaron?


BROWN: I know of no negotiations. I've heard of -- I've heard of no negotiations. And I think it's highly unlikely there are any negotiations going on.

I think that the way to see this is, the way these things logically play out, is if there is an escape plan, a cadre of the al Qaeda fighters and Zawahari will try and get out, while the bulk of the al Qaeda fighters will fight to the death. I think that is a reasonable speculation at this point.

But I -- as you know, I tend to be very conservative in how I report this sort of stuff. I don't want to get much into the speculation business. I think that is a reasonable speculation.

PHILLIPS: Well-equipped al Qaeda fighters. Can you describe well-equipped?

BROWN: Well-equipped includes mortars. They've been engaged in this firefight -- or this battle. I think firefight understates it -- for two days now.

In the first day of it when they were going against the Pakistani paramilitaries, they routed them. They took a number of prisoners, a number of paramilitaries were killed. A couple of -- at least a couple of al Qaeda fighters, one Chechen, one Arab of unknown nationality, was killed. There were a number of prisoners of war or captured on the paramilitary side taken.

So they've got something more than Kalashnikovs at their side and something less than helicopters.

PHILLIPS: And this region, how close were you able to get to this region or did you even get close to that area, Aaron, since you've arrived?

BROWN: No. People need to understand that right now it is virtually impossible for any of us to get to the area. This is an area that for hundreds of years has been completely isolated in many respects from everything in the world.

It is -- I don't exaggerate when I say that you're talking about something that exists in almost the 14th century. It is an area that the Pakistani government did not go into until recent months. It is a tribal area. It is futile in nature. It has its own set of laws, its own set of government.

And virtually everyone in the area, the residents, many of whom have fled, fearing what is about to happen, are all armed and are not particularly loyal to the government in Islamabad. There hardly would be called Pakistani loyalists.

They hadn't been until really even connected to the government of Pakistan until very recently when the government used a sort of carrot and stick approach to try and draw them into the normal course of business of the country itself.

But this is an area that is really -- it is beyond the word remote. If you can have another planet on the planet, this could be it.

PHILLIPS: Aaron, when you take a look at just the background and history of Ayman al-Zawahari, al Qaeda's No. 2, $25 million reward right now on him, founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, basically called the brains of al Qaeda, mentor, closest friend to Osama bin Laden.

If indeed he is brought out alive and captured, this is an incredible coup with regard to the war on terror.

BROWN: Well, if he were to come out alive, I'd be one of the most surprised people on the planet. I think, you know, captured or killed is a good way to look at this. And there are very few people that we've spoken to over the last 2 1/2 years who believe that either al-Zawahari or bin Laden himself would allow themselves to be captured.

PHILLIPS: All right, Aaron Brown continuing to report from us there. Almost 1:00 in the morning in Islamabad as right now, Pakistani troops in a severe firefight with, now we can confirm, 200 well-equipped al Qaeda fighters. We are being told now, Aaron, from his sources, that Pakistan planning a massive air attack on this area, on the Afghan-Pakistan border where al Qaeda fighters now believed to be protecting al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahari, closest friend and mentor and the brains to Osama bin Laden and the brains behind al Qaeda as described by our experts on this man.

Aaron reporting to us, as he's been on assignment there traveling with the secretary of state and also the head of U.S. Centcom, John Abizaid.

Earlier today now, White House correspondent John King spoke with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. This is what Dr. Rice had to say.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, were it true, it would, of course, be a major step forward in the war on terrorism because he's obviously an extremely important figure.

But I think we have to be careful not assume that getting one al Qaeda leader is going to break up the organization. We've always said that even with Osama bin Laden, who we'd all like to see brought to justice, that that will not be the end of al Qaeda. They have local leadership, they have other national leadership.

We have to dismantle the entire network, not just one person.


PHILLIPS: And indeed if Pakistani troops do move in and capture al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahari, it's definitely one step toward that perseverance of -- or looking for justice, rather, in this war on terrorism -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: There are no doubt many offices in Washington right now where they are very closely watching events as they unfold on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. We are also watching it very closely.

CNN's Kelli Arena is in our Washington bureau and Barbara Starr is over at the Pentagon as per usual. Barbara, let's begin with you. The question which is very difficult to pin down here, perhaps impossible to confirm, to what extent the U.S. military might be assisting the Pakistani military right now?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: What Aaron Brown just reported about the Pakistanis now planning an air assault at first light on the ground in this area will, of course, be something being watched by the U.S. military virtually through the night.

Now the Pakistani military, of course, has fought before. They have had a number of clashes, for example, with the Indian military along the border of Kashmir. But this will be a very different fight, of course. This is something that for any U.S. military, very tough to go into this kind of terrain, by all accounts, surrounded by high mountains.

It will be very interesting to see what the Pakistani military chooses to do at first light. If they go in with helicopters, and begin with a helicopter assault, the question will be will the fighters on the ground have surface-to-air missiles that could put those helicopters at risk.

If they go with fixed-wing fighters, what altitude will those fighters have to fly at to drop their bombs, again to stay out of the range of surface-to-air missiles, shoulder-fired missile, those Stinker-type missiles that may be used by these fighters on the ground? Of course, by all reports, the Pakistanis already using some of their heavy artillery guns, which often prove to be the most effective tool.

The question, of course, is going to be the next several hours of dark, Miles, to make sure that these fighters these enemy forces to the Pakistanis, don't escape.

What we don't know is whether the United States will provide some reconnaissance and surveillance throughout the night, through the hours of darkness, fly any kind of assets over the region to try and keep watch.

If they are, if anybody is providing any kind of surveillance and reconnaissance, what they're going to look for at night of course is any type of infrared signature, something that is a heat emitter, like an engine from a car that may be making a run for it.

Not likely that these people will do that. They're pretty savvy. So they're going to be very careful, likely to try and step on foot if they do away from any watchful eyes.

And as everybody has made the point, what is not being discussed at the moment is what would this mean, if it is al-Zawahari? What would this mean for locating and capturing or killing Osama bin Laden? Osama bin Laden certainly, by all accounts, has couriers, has some level of communication right now. Does he know what's going on? And also, is he now on the move?

O'BRIEN: Barbara, to what extent are -- does the desire to capture either man alive (AUDIO GAP) perhaps maybe that's a slim hope. But nevertheless that hope. To what extent is that impacting the tactics we're seeing unfold right now?

STARR: Well, certainly by all accounts, the United States would like to get whatever intelligence it could from them. I mean let's remember President Bush's very well-known, well-remembered statement shortly after September 11, "dead or alive," it didn't much matter to him. He said he wanted to bring Osama bin Laden to justice or justice to Osama bin Laden.

But clearly, the intelligence value that they could possibly get from either of these individuals would be overwhelming. No indication, of course, that either of them plan to be taken alive -- Miles. O'BRIEN: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Kelli Arena, this whole notion of having either al-Zawahari or Osama bin Laden even as a possible interrogation suspect, that's obviously something that U.S. authorities you're familiar with would -- they would love that opportunity. Wouldn't they?

ARENA: Oh, absolutely, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Do they talk much about this?

ARENA: Well, they talk about getting any intelligence they can and most of them believe that both Zawahari and bin Laden have spent most of their energy in just trying to stay alive.

We have seen some recent video -- I'm sorry -- audiotapes that have been released that U.S. continue gel against believes were voiced by Zawahari spiritual messages to al Qaeda and its followers, serving as a recruitment for new members.

But what Condoleezza Rice said earlier in her interview with John King is very important. We've been doing some reporting over the past several days about this changing face of al Qaeda. And as many terrorism experts have said, this is not like a Mafia family where if you take out those at the top of the hierarchy, that you can shut down the organization. This is a movement of ideas.

And the war in Iraq, and the aftermath there, have made for some very strange bedfellows, some linkages that terrorism experts have not seen before. You have a global Jihadist movement that is very anti- American, and a movement of ideas. As Peter Bergen, our CNN analyst has said, it's very hard to arrest -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: It's a bit like a hydra. You cut off one head and yet it lives on. And so while I'm sure it would be gratifying to authorities to make a capture, we need to put that in perspective.

Kelli Arena, we do need to take break. We'll get back with you in just a moment. Our continuing coverage of what could be the capture or the killing of perhaps a high-level al Qaeda operative in the mountainous area near the Afghan border in Pakistan. Our continuing coverage of this as it unfolds rolls on after a short break. Stay with us.



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