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High Value Target Being Fiercely Defended in Pakistan Believed to be al-Zawahiri

Aired March 18, 2004 - 14:05   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get back to our top story here. As we told you, Pakistani forces believe they have surrounded a "high value target," namely they believe it is the number two person in al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, don't know that for sure just yet.
But we do know this that Pakistani forces have surrounded a region right near the Afghanistan border and they're meeting with some heavy resistance, which would indicate that the al Qaeda fighters there are protecting somebody of high value.

Let's go right now to CNN's Ash-har Quraishi live now from Islamabad for some further details -- Ash-har.


We're just getting confirmation now from intelligence sources that Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri is among those being hunted at this time. He is surrounded right now by Pakistani paramilitary as well as army forces in the area known as South Waziristan. Now this is an operation that's been ongoing for a couple of days now. They've been met by heavy resistance.

Now let's just go back a little bit, Miles. Back on Tuesday, paramilitary forces went into an area known as Kalusha (ph) in South Waziristan. They were basically ambushed there with the gunfire from all around, which ended up killing about 50 or so paramilitary troops and more than two dozen other suspected terrorists were killed.

Now the operation was re-initiated and pushed on early in the morning. Pakistani military forces aided by helicopter gunships called in and they went after this area. They surrounded it, cordoned it off, basically a 360-degree perimeter has been set around this 20 to 30 kilometer area that they have basically surrounded this area.

They are pounding it with artillery, heavy artillery and they are being met with heavy resistance from these fighters, which is why Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, earlier this evening talking to Aaron Brown, said that the corps commander on the ground believes that they have a high value target in the area which would explain why they are being met with such intense resistance and strength at this point.

Now we are getting confirmation from intelligence sources here in Pakistan that Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's number two, is within these fighters and is also fighting with them. O'BRIEN: Ash-har you say there's a 360-degree perimeter around there. This is very rough terrain, difficult country, a country that is well known by al Qaeda and its operatives. Are your military sources fairly certain that they have this area tightly sealed off?

QURAISHI: Well, they do. Now, President Musharraf earlier speaking to Aaron Brown said that it was foolish for the Frontier Corps to go in by themselves. Now what's been going on here is the tribal elders have been brought in earlier to try and negotiate peaceful surrender of these al Qaeda fighters and the tribesmen who are harboring them in this area of Pakistan.

So, that is the first line of defense. Now after the that frontier going in and now the heavy duty army has come in. Now there's a quick reaction force here in Pakistan that's been put into place specifically to respond to these kinds of situations. They go in with helicopter gunships. These are specially trained commandos who go in. They drop in. They pound the area. They take who they can alive and they get out.

So, the feeling right now is that they've been holding this area for quite some time now. They have put a -- they cordoned the area off. We don't have an indication as to how many soldiers are on the ground but the indication is that it's very tight. It's become very difficult for these fighters to get out.

Before they began the fight now, Miles, I have to point out that they did evacuate the area. Women and children were brought out of the area so that the intensity of this fighting would not sustain a lot of collateral damage and that they wouldn't have to be too careful in what kinds of tactics they were using on the ground there -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: So, Ash-har is the sense from the people you talked with in the Pakistani military that it's just a matter of time then?

QURAISHI: That's exactly what we're hearing. Now, this evening speaking to senior military officials they say that it's very difficult to get into this area now because they have cordoned it off. The fighting has been going on for sometime.

We expect there will be quite a large number of casualties. They haven't been able to get into this area yet. They are still holding their positions. This operation is ongoing and it may be days before they're able to get through the casualties and get an idea of what kind of damage was really done in this area and who exactly was in there.

And, as we understand it right now though, they say that Ayman al-Zawahiri is inside this area in South Waziristan where this heavy operation is taking place -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Ash-har Quraishi, live from Islamabad, thank you very much -- Kyra.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Now we want to go to the Pentagon, Barbara Starr also following this story from there. What do they have to say at the Pentagon, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, here the Bush administration not saying much but everybody across Washington now watching the situation very closely.

The expectation is if the Pakistani forces do capture Ayman al- Zawahiri in the next several hours or at any point there will be a phone call to Washington, possibly President Musharraf to Secretary of State Powell or directly to President Bush.

Officials across Washington now watching the situation closely waiting for confirmation, but as Ash-har Quraishi just reported it's the indicators that are being so closely watched right now.

The level of resistance that the Pakistani military is reporting on the ground is perhaps the clearest indicator that there is some sort of high value target, if you will, in this very isolated area basically surrounded by heavy forces from the Pakistani military and, if they do have someone surrounded, it will in that rough terrain be very difficult for them to escape.

So, this is something now being watched quite closely. It should be underscored that there has been a specific Pakistani military strategy evolving over the last several weeks as we have seen the Pakistani military move into this tribal area in a way that they never have before.

This is remote mountainous terrain. These are very remote villages, people that have supported al Qaeda and by all account sheltered Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants for some time now.

The Pakistani military has moved in in the last several weeks, not in a random fashion it should be said, but because they have a plan to move through the villages, encourage the tribal elders to basically give up the people they are sheltering by one account as many as 600 Islamic fundamentalists, if you will, in this area.

They have been moving through the area. They have been giving them money to give up the people that they have been sheltering and if the people in the villages that are believed to be sheltering people have not obeyed, there have been confirmed reports by the U.S. military that the Pakistanis have gone in and destroyed houses.

So, for the last several weeks this has been a very well- coordinated, well thought out plan by the Pakistani military to move through this region and make real progress against the al Qaeda remnants and the al Qaeda high value targets that are there.

Now we have spoken to some officials, some intelligence analysts in the government, if you will, who have said there is also quite a U.S. plan that is unfolding in tandem with the Pakistanis.

The U.S. military, U.S. intelligence officials, operatives of U.S. intelligence agencies also moving in this general region, mainly on the Afghan side of the border but also providing communications, surveillance, reconnaissance, other assistance to the Pakistani military as they move through this area, all of this an effort, if you will, to put a fence around the area on the ground, put a surveillance network in the air overhead and, as they say, once and for all get the top leaders -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Barbara, you've mentioned this relationship between the Pakistani military and U.S. troops and U.S. troops providing communications, surveillance, reconnaissance, if indeed this turns out to be al Qaeda's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, what are the rules of engagement?

I mean as we all know, U.S. troops would want to get at this guy just as much as Pakistani troops, so how would this operation be carried out and at what point could U.S. troops have an opportunity to get involved with the capture possibly?

STARR: Well, we don't know the answer to that question clearly. By some accounts there are -- there is intelligence support that continues to be given to the Pakistani military as they move through these very delicate operations in the tribal areas.

The question is going to be up to General Musharraf, the president of Pakistan. Publicly for weeks now, if not months, he has said that U.S. forces will not be permitted to operate on the ground inside Pakistan on that side of the border inside the tribal areas.

Now there is some thought that that is for domestic consumption inside Pakistan. Of course the population there would probably not be very receptive to the notion of it being publicly known that there were U.S. troops on Pakistani soil.

So, for public consumption there is absolutely no acknowledgement that there is any U.S. military or any U.S. intelligence involvement on the Pakistan side of the border.

But the reality is that the U.S. intelligence community, the U.S. military is providing support to them. The question will be if a high value target is captured, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden, what will happen next? Will President Musharraf have that person maintained in Pakistani custody or in some fashion would they be turned over to the United States?

PHILLIPS: And obviously that decision has not been made.

STARR: That's right, Kyra. General Musharraf in a very tough spot right now, in a very sensitive situation wanting to show his independence of the United States with his own people but let's remember General Musharraf has also been the subject of a number of recent assassination attempts that he has said he believes is tied to the al Qaeda.

He knows he's a marked man and he is also going to be very sensitive to any capture of these people in his country and any ability of the Pakistani government to deal with them through their judicial process, so all of this very, very sensitive at this hour.

PHILLIPS: Our Barbara Starr live from the Pentagon, thanks Barbara -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: And let's just recap for our viewers. We do know this that Pakistani authorities, as a matter of fact not just authorities, the president of Pakistan Musharraf in an interview with our own Aaron Brown confirmed to us that the Pakistani military has apparently surrounded what they believe is a high value al Qaeda target in the rugged, mountainous area of Pakistan which borders Afghanistan.

They do not know this for a fact except for the fact that they're being met with tremendous resistance as they cordon off this area of 35 kilometers. There is some reason to suspect, according to several accounts we have that it is this man at the center of that cordon, Ayman al-Zawahiri the number two man in the al Qaeda organization who is a medical doctor, an Egyptian, and a person with a long rap sheet, if you will, in the world of terror.

And joining us to talk a little bit about that is one of our terrorism analysts Peter Bergen. He's on the line with us now. Give us the nutshell biography, resume, whatever you want to call it, Peter, of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

PETER BERGEN, TERRORISM ANALYST (via telephone): Ayman al- Zawahiri is a very smart guy. He speaks several languages. He's a surgeon. He joined a terrorist group in Egypt as early as age 15. He's bin Laden's mentor. He's his closest friend. He acts as his doctor. He's absolutely critical to the thinking of al Qaeda. He is somebody who would be very, very important to capture.

Just last year he was calling for assassination attempts against President Musharraf himself. Those attempts may have -- as a result of those statements there were attempts made on Musharraf subsequently.

Ayman al-Zawahiri is as important or perhaps even more important that bin Laden in terms of the ideology of al Qaeda, its desire to attack the west. This guy is a very serious individual who would be very important to catch.

O'BRIEN: That's a fairly strong statement, perhaps even more important than Osama bin Laden himself. Why would you say that? Is he perhaps maybe the driving force and Osama bin Laden is the financier, if you will?

BERGEN: Part of it is age, Miles. I mean bin Laden is now about 48. Ayman al-Zawahiri is a few years older. He's sort of an older guy who met bin Laden when he was in his mid-20s. At that time, in the mid-'80s, they met in Pashara (ph).

He influenced bin Laden. He's been sort of a mentor to him and I think that most people who are experts on al Qaeda would agree that Ayman al-Zawahiri radicalized bin Laden, made him more anti-American, made his more anti-western.

But I would add one note of caution here, Miles. The fact that we're encountering -- the Pakistanis are encountering fierce resistance from al Qaeda is not surprising. I mean I don't, obviously I'm not in Pakistan but if you go back to the battle of Anaconda where there were no high value targets in the Afghan war, there was fierce resistance there.

Go back to the battle of Tora Bora, there was a high value target there, bin Laden, but there was fierce resistance, so fierce resistance doesn't necessarily mean anything. These people are going to fight to the death come what may. They have nowhere to go. They want to martyr themselves and the fact we're encountering fierce resistance may mean, it may mean nothing.

Unless they brought specific intel that Ayman al-Zawahiri is actually there, I'm somewhat skeptical that it actually means that there's a high value target there.

O'BRIEN: OK. Let's talk for just a moment about the possibility, if it is in fact Zawahiri or for that matter another high value target of al Qaeda, what is the likelihood that these men will be in one location?

BERGEN: Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri?


BERGEN: I think the likelihood is reasonably good. They're at least somewhat in close proximity. Certainly they're in, you know, these guys are the best of friends. They've been together one way or another since the mid-'80s.

As I mentioned, there is a mentor relationship. Bin Laden had some health problems. Ayman al-Zawahiri is his physician, if not together, certainly in communication. If you've got one, you would I think very quickly get to the other.

O'BRIEN: All right, CNN's Peter Bergen.

We're going to take a break. We'll get back to you in just a few moments as we flush out this story.

But just to recap for you, Pakistani military sources telling us that they believe they have a high value al Qaeda target cordoned off in the mountains of Pakistan right near the border with Afghanistan. It could very well be the number two person in al Qaeda, the person closest to Osama bin Laden -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: We're going to bring in our Security Analyst Ken Robinson. Once again, he's been spending time in the area right there in Pakistan, been working with military forces, also meeting with government officials there.

As this news continues to come down, Ken, you sort of gave us a heads-up that things were intensifying there in the region. First of all, set up this area for us by the Afghan border where this operation has been taking place and where this fighting is taking place.

ROBINSON (via telephone): The fighting is taking place in the northwest frontier province area. If you go to the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and work your way down from that federally administered area, you'll find northern and southern Waziristan.

This is a tribal area that's been knowledge to the central government for decades and in this area, it's a very mountainous area. There are valleys and this specific location is kind of a bowl type of valley with a village in it, which is highly defended right now by a very determined force which has used extreme tactics to protect its force with mortar rounds, artillery, with long range 7.62 Kalishnikov rifles, and has got a very defendable position.

The government officials said that they had taken each of these homes in this village and fortified them to the point that teach of them was an individual fortress, well armed and well equipped and it looks like a pretty strong standoff is in the making for the next few days.

PHILLIPS: Has this area been known to protect known terrorists, known al Qaeda members? Or is this just something that's sort of become a fortress type area since this operation has begun?

ROBINSON: We have to really be careful when we describe this area because there is some cultural differences between the tribal areas and, say, the large cities in Pakistan.

This group of people have exerted enormous independence for decades. They are all a well-armed and well-equipped group of tribes. They maintain their own armories. They do this to defend themselves because this is a lawless area where the trade routes, where the opium routes have occurred.

President Musharraf himself described that the population in this area -- that he anticipated there was probably 10 percent to 25 percent who would be sympathetic toward the cause of former Taliban and possibly harboring al Qaeda.

But that he was insistent that the entire population was not representative of that. But there is a very powerful, vocal, angry minority there and that's who they're targeting right now.

PHILLIPS: As I read through a number of the wires here -- of course this has not been confirmed -- but I'm reading that possibly there are a number of al Qaeda fighters that are taking on the Pakistani troops in this area.

Can we confirm that, Ken? Or do we need to stick with various tribal members that are protecting their area right now up against Pakistani troops?

ROBINSON: Well, they -- they believed that they were dealing with foreign fighters, that there were militia members of these tribes who they encountered.

But in terms of the actual analysis of the body count and who is from what country, they've not been specific on that yet. And we have one of our own people hopefully we're going to be on a helicopter heading that way very soon to try to get first-hand reporting independent of the government. But right now, we can't know for sure.

PHILLIPS: Our Ken Robinson, security analyst for CNN. Ken, we'll ask you to stay with us.

If you're just joining us, once again, all eyes on the Afghan- Pakistani border as troops believe that they have surrounded an area here where al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahari, could possibly be hiding out.

An operation under way here on the Afghan border. We're starting to get more information and bringing a number of experts to you as we try to understand more of what's taking place.

Once again, $25 million reward, as you know, on the head of this founder of the Egyptian Islamic jihad.


Believed to be al-Zawahiri>

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