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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Pakistan Believes Al Qaeda No. 2 Cornered

Aired March 18, 2004 - 15:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Closing in on al Qaeda.

Reports this hour that Pakistani troops may have surrounded Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's right-hand man and the second most important man in the terrorist organization. Hundreds of Pakistani troops are said to be involved in this operation near the Afghan border.

In an exclusive interview with CNN's Aaron Brown, Pakistani President Musharraf would only say Pakistani forces believe that they have surrounded what he calls a high-value target.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, PAKISTANI PRESIDENT: And the Army has surrounded -- they surrounded the whole area. This is a perimeter of about 25, 30 kilometers. They've taken on the hill feature. Then, they have surrounded the whole area.

And now, including this day, this was completed by early morning, today. And they asked the locals, women and children, to move out, which many did. And then they started pounding the area with artillery and helicopters also.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: This is not some small firefight. This is heavy weaponry that is being brought to bear.

MUSHARRAF: Yes, yes.

But the resistance that is being offered by the people there, we feel that there may be a high value target. I can't say who. But they are giving pitched battle at the moment. They are not coming out in spite of the fact that we have pounded them with artillery.

I spoke with the corps commander just now. I knew you were going to ask me this question. So I talked with (UNINTELLIGIBLE) The net is there. They are there. They see very strong, dug-in positions. The houses actually there are almost forts. And they are mud forts. And all these forts are occupied, and they are dug in. And they are giving fierce resistance. So, he's pretty sure there's a high-value target there.

BROWN: I'm now worried you have anticipated all my questions.

When you talk about high-value targets, you know how Americans are going to hear that. We're talking about the top one or two al Qaeda leaders, bin Laden.

MUSHARRAF: Zawahri.

BROWN: You think they're there?

MUSHARRAF: Now, I'm not going to say that, because my previous experience is, whatever I say, then headlines come that he says Zawahri is there or some other -- I can't. It will just be a guess. But we -- I think it's very likely there's a high-value target. Who, I don't know.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. Is it the...

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIPS: And, once again, you can see that rest of the interview on "NEWSNIGHT" tonight on CNN at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time.

We want to bring in our CNN security analyst, Ken Robinson. Once again, he is there in country, has been spending time with political and military forces in the region. He's been following this story, also along with us as it's been breaking within the past couple of hours.

Ken, a number of things we've been able to confirm since you and I last talked. First of all, that, right now, our sources confirming that, indeed, Pakistani troops say they are in a firefight with 200 well-equipped al Qaeda fighters right now, al Qaeda fighters protecting al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri and a plan of attack now is an air assault, once the sun comes up. Let's talk about this.

Why -- first of all, from an operations standpoint, what are these forces doing to contain their target of interest? And then how will this air assault go down once the sun rises?

KEN ROBINSON, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think one of the greatest fears on this has been touched on already by both Aaron Brown and Barbara Starr.

And that is the fear that if they went to all this trouble to fortify their position, they probably went to a lot of trouble to find an escape route. And the concern right now is, as was previously discussed, tunnels, caves, or any type of diversion. One of the things that is going to be going against them is the technology of the United States, that the United States -- and one would assume that at this point they would be providing technical assistance.

If nothing else, their thermal imaging systems, heat-sensing systems, would be able to distinguish or determine anyone trying to move through lines that have been established as they cordon around a complete 360-degree circle.

PHILLIPS: Let me ask you this, Ken. President Musharraf has made it clear, U.S. forces not to infiltrate and let the Pakistani troops command this region, specifically the situation right now. But at what point, because the U.S. is involved from a communications standpoint, a reconnaissance, surveillance standpoint, at what point do you say, all right, let's work together? U.S. forces, I would think, from just a strategic standpoint, could only help Pakistani troops in this effort to go after somebody that both of these sides want.

ROBINSON: I believe there's no question that the forces of the United States government and those of Pakistan are working together. The million-dollar question is, do they have specific U.S. boots on the ground?

As you know, if you look at this area and you look just across the border, you have areas which have been in the news for a long time, in the tribal areas. You have the town of Orgohn (ph), the town of Khost, the town of Skin (ph) on the Afghanistan side of the border, where the Afghan national army and special forces are positioned right now.

We have been working for the last few days to negotiate embeds on those locations on the front lines. So we know that for a long time this offensive operation has been discussed, the hammer-and-anvil approach where there would be synergy on both sides of the border, and we can assume that they are in communication.

The only million-dollar question is, are U.S. forces on the ground assisting with the actual combat which is going on right now? And we have heard nothing on this side to confirm that.

PHILLIPS: Now, Pakistani troops, from what you know, technologically, weaponry, manpower, does this military have the means to go up against 200 well-equipped al Qaeda fighters from the air, on the ground, and get this -- get this target, this No. 2 man?

ROBINSON: Absolutely. They have the weapons and capability to do that. This army has participated in joint operations with the United States personnel. Their officers and NCOs have attended the same schools at Fort Benning, Georgia, which train the infantry, and they have a very professional officer corps.

The issue here is going to be the law of land warfare and collateral damage on innocent civilians. And I think that's one of the things they were trying to mitigate in the last 24 hours. And now they're trying to bring to bear specific pieces of high-powered equipment that can destroy these individual homes where these fortresses are, which were described by the generals today, which were literally described as armed camps, each individual home fortified, armed with people.

The fact that they finally attributed this to al Qaeda indicates to me that potentially they are now dealing with pocket litter from the dead, as Kelli Arena had reported and discussed earlier, either through interrogation or through analysis of the bodies that they're getting right now to be able to distinguish between tribal fighters or foreign fighters or al Qaeda. PHILLIPS: Just real quickly, Ken, the relationship between al- Zawahri and Osama bin Laden, we know that al-Zawahri has been his mentor, the brains of al Qaeda, his No. 1 lieutenant. They have this relationship. He's also a medical doctor. And, as we well know, Osama bin Laden has had this medical condition, and we've talked about the fact that al-Zawahri has been helping Osama bin Laden treating him, keeping him alive. Now comes the question, is it possible that these two could be together?

ROBINSON: Well, you know, earlier tonight CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen discussed this very issue. And Peter, who has been up close and personal with Osama bin Laden, also said that he felt that it would be likely that they would be near each other because of their close relationship and because these two individuals probably won't be taken alive. That's very likely.

One of the key things our viewers should remember about Zawahri is, he's the guy who taught Osama bin Laden, it's the economy, stupid. He's the guy who, when he was with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, I was in Cairo back in October 1997, and the fall of 1997 when Zawahri started bombing buses at the Cairo Museum with hand grenades. And then later, he had 70 German tourists macheted with long machetes at Luxor, chopped to death, and the whole purpose was to deny Cairo tourism, so he would deny them dollars and hurt their economy.

And that is the genesis of the September 11 attacks, to hurt our economy. A very serious guy. And they are connected at the hip.

PHILLIPS: You've had firsthand experience from being in special operations. Ken Robinson, CNN security analyst there in country, thanks so much. Please stand by. We'll continue to check in with you -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Among the many things attributed to al-Zawahri on his attempts at terrorism were his repeated calls for the assassination of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan.

Joining us now live from Islamabad is Ash-Har Quraishi.

As, Ash-Har, as you stand there and we sort of wait for daybreak there in this mountainous part of the world for perhaps another push, for President Musharraf, this has to be in a way a very personal thing.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely.

President Musharraf saying today to Aaron Brown and to us as we were talking to him that he was 100 percent certain that two assassination attempts against him back in December were the work of al Qaeda. Now, President Musharraf as I mentioned the two assassination attempts, the first in December and then about 10 days later, a double suicide bombing attempt against him, he survived them narrowly in both instances, and some say this has become very personal for him, maybe behind the increased push, the intensification by the Pakistani army and by President Musharraf himself to resolve to go after al Qaeda. For the first time this week, President Musharraf speaking to tribal elders in Peshawar acknowledged the fact that hundreds of the suspected al Qaeda fighters are hiding in this area, the tribal area of northwest Pakistan. So it's been a long process to get the Pakistani government to even admit that this was a problem.

And for a long time they said that Pakistani soil was not being used for terrorism. They ruled out the possibility that these al Qaeda fighters who were carrying out attacks against U.S. coalition forces in Afghanistan could retreat into Pakistan, although they were acknowledging the fact that the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is very porous.

President Musharraf putting in some 70,000 troops along that 1,200 or so kilometer border with Afghanistan. Still, if you've ever been up there -- we've been up to the area of Waziristan several times. We've also seen the areas in southern Pakistan in Quetta and what they've done.

They've put up floodlights. Some of these areas are very porous and some of these troops are very few and far between. So that is a consideration, how much leeway these fighters have in terms of escape routes. And that also brings into question how tightly this cordon around the area in Kalush (ph) in south Waziristan, where the army has basically surrounded this entire village where these fighters are holed up, how much in terms of the manpower is going to be able to hold that cordon and prevent anyone from escaping from the middle of it? -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Ash-Har, let's talk just a little bit about the balancing act that President Musharraf must engage in. On the one hand, he has a very strong Islamist presence inside his country, which would be natural supporters for al Qaeda and all that they represent.

On the other hand, he has a close alliance with the United States, which was forged, of course, after 9/11. How is he handling that in the midst of all that we're watching right now?

QURAISHI: Well, President Musharraf has been in the middle of this balancing act for some time now. It's not just the religious parties here in Pakistan who are opposed to his rule, particularly holding both offices of the president and the chief of the army staff.

There are opposition parties not quite associated with the religious right that are also opposed to him. So he's got a balancing act in terms of the political situation here at home. But, of course, there's also the pressure that comes from the United States to be a coalition partner in the war on terrorism and how much Pakistan can really do. And that really is a balancing act.

President Musharraf has so far refused to allow U.S. forces to cross over from Afghanistan in hot pursuit of al Qaeda that may be crossing back into these border areas and hiding out in these very accessible areas. Basically, it's a no-man's-land in the sense that it was the perfect place for the al Qaeda fighters to go. If they carried out these operations in Afghanistan, technically, by the policies put out by the Pakistani government, if they ran across the border into Pakistan, U.S. forces couldn't follow them.

And then, on the other side, Pakistani forces just didn't have access to these areas. So it's something we've seen recently, President Musharraf really picking up the resolve to go into these areas and coerce these tribes to not support al Qaeda, not to harbor them. And now we're seeing heavy force being brought in by the army, in particular as we're seeing in this operation that's under way today -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Ash-Har Quraishi, our Islamabad bureau chief, stand by there. We'll get back to you shortly.

Let's go to Wolf Blitzer in New York -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Speaking to U.S. officials who are deeply involved in watching what's going on, and they have been getting reports from the Pakistani government, here's what they tell me, that there is, they believe, the Pakistanis, that is, based on what U.S. officials are telling me, they believe a very important figure has, in fact, been surrounded, as we've been reporting. They also say this is an ongoing operation. It's by no means over. Unclear how long it will continue.

Significantly, one U.S. official says that the forces in western Pakistan defending this high-value target are, in their words -- and this is one official's words -- fighting like hell right now to defend this entire position. Pakistani forces have amassed significant capabilities on the ground right now.

U.S. officials are providing some reconnaissance information to the Pakistanis, but this is strictly a Pakistani military operation. The Pakistanis have good capabilities, I'm told, to go in there at daybreak and see what they can do. The indications are, according to the Pakistanis and they're relaying this to the U.S. government, that Ayman al-Zawahri, as we've been reporting, is the individual who is being protected in this area right now, although they do want to be cautious, and they say it's possible that he may turn out not to be there. But they believe he is there.

They don't necessarily believe Osama bin Laden is at this position in this location. They do point out that, in the past, these two men, the No. 1 and No. 2 leaders of al Qaeda, have often traveled together. But they've often been apart from each other at various times as well, based on indications that they're getting from various sources in the area. Obviously, if they knew where they were, they would have tried to capture or kill them specifically.

But, based on what they get, very often, they do travel together, but quite a bit apart at other times. They don't want us to leap to any hard-and-fast conclusions. But it does appear to be a significant development right now that we're watching, a significant development in the hunt for not only al Qaeda leadership specifically, for Ayman al-Zawahri, who is now involved in this manhunt.

One other point, let me just make this, Miles, about the relationship between the No. 1 and No. 2 leaders of al Qaeda, yes, Ayman al-Zawahri is the No. 2 leader of al Qaeda, but we shouldn't necessarily jump to conclusions that if something were to happen to Osama bin Laden he would emerge as the No. 1 leader for the specific reason he doesn't have the same following as Osama bin Laden. He doesn't have necessarily the charisma of Osama bin Laden. And he certainly doesn't have the organizational ability, according to U.S. government analysts, that Osama bin Laden has. He's the former leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

But it doesn't mean, necessarily, he would take over for Osama bin Laden if, in fact, Osama bin Laden were captured. No indication that is anywhere near. But they do suspect they're making some significant progress against a high-value target, as President Musharraf told our Aaron Brown earlier, and that the man at the center of this manhunt right now, Ayman Al-Zawahri -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Wolf Blitzer in New York, thank you very much.

All throughout Washington, all throughout this country really people watching very closely at events that are unfolding as we speak along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, rugged mountainous terrain, Waziristan, they call it, and no doubt inside the White House Situation Room, the National Security Council assessing what might be happening, trying to gather whatever intelligence they might have in real time to indicate what is happening.

Daniel Benjamin, our next guest, has been on the inside of all that as a National Security Council staffer from '94 to '99. He's also the author of the book "The Age of Sacred Terror." He joins us now.

Mr. Benjamin, good to have you with us.

DANIEL BENJAMIN, FORMER NSC DIRECTOR: Thanks for having me.

O'BRIEN: All right, First of all, give us a sense of how people in the National Security Council will be monitoring such a thing and what role they might play, especially given the ticklish political situation with Pakistan in this case.

BENJAMIN: Well, at the NSC right now they're relying I think on information that they get through military and intelligence channels, thus, from DOD, from the Department of Defense, and also from the CIA, to hear exactly what's going on. The information is being routed through the Situation Room.

And my guess is it's a wait-and-see thing. I imagine that the arrangements regarding what assets can be deployed to assist the Pakistanis with regard to surveillance reconnaissance have long been settled and they're probably, you know, hanging on the events on the ground just as we are.

O'BRIEN: And, Mr. Benjamin, is it fairly accurate to say, do you think, that more than meets the eye here as far as what the U.S. is doing?

BENJAMIN: Well, it could very well be. There's certainly lots of different means of assistance that the U.S. can render. If there are U.S. forces in the region, we're not going to hear about it for a little while, because, under the agreement between the U.S. and Pakistan, as I understand, we're not supposed to be operating on Pakistani territory. But there are a lot of other ways that we can assist. And that includes with a lot of overhead reconnaissance and other kinds of intelligence gathering.

O'BRIEN: Now, you were on the inside of the National Security Council as al Qaeda really emerged in many ways as a global threat. Give us your take on the significance of capturing the No. 1 or the No. 2 person, bin Laden or al-Zawahri. Given the nature of al Qaeda and the fact that it's kind of a movement of ideas in some respects, kind of franchised, if you will, what impact would it have?

BENJAMIN: Well, today, it has to be said that the impact would be somewhat symbolic, in the sense that if we got either bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahri then it would show that the United States ultimately does track down and get its enemies. And it would deflate the bubble a bit, the sense that bin Laden and his followers have the divine wind at their back and that they really are carrying out heaven's mandate.

As a practical matter in terms of the war on terror, I think that the effects would probably be somewhat limited. In many ways, the war on terror has moved away from what was the core of al Qaeda. Bin Laden and al-Zawahri have been spending the last couple of years principally attending to their personal security and have not been able to take part in the planning and the logistical work and target setting that they used to.

And now we've seen the emergence of networks such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's both in Iraq, but also in Europe. Other groups which were part of the larger network have become more active groups that hither to had no relationship with al Qaeda have become more active. Al Qaeda is still very much there. But in a sense we're witnessing a new generation of jihadists come to the fore.

O'BRIEN: Now, Mr. Benjamin, as we've been talking, we've been seeing this tape we've been playing quite a bit which shows the two men together. And we have been told repeatedly by experts who have studied this group that they are inseparable in many ways, friend, confidant, mentor. As a matter of fact, as a medical doctor, al- Zawahri attends to Osama bin Laden and his medical needs we're told as well.

Is it likely from your take on all of this that the two would be in close proximity right now?

BENJAMIN: There's a good chance, but it's impossible to say with any certainty.

I was under the impression that they've probably been traveling together a fair bit in the last couple of years. On the other hand, given the pressure that Pakistani troops have been putting on them from one side and American forces from the other, it's entirely possible that they split up to increase their security. It's just very hard to say. It would be pure speculation.

O'BRIEN: Daniel Benjamin, formerly of the National Security Council staff and the author of "The Age of Sacred Terror," thanks for being with us. Appreciate it -- Kyra.

BENJAMIN: My pleasure.

PHILLIPS: Once again, we continue to follow the breaking news coverage.

If you're just tuning in, intelligence indicating that the al Qaeda figure surrounded by Pakistani troops near the Afghanistan border right now is Ayman al-Zawahri, al Qaeda's No. 2 leader. We are told through our Aaron Brown, who is there in country, that more than 200 al Qaeda fighters, very well trained, very well equipped, trying to prevent his capture at this time. Pakistani ground forces and air forces pounding that area according to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who did a sit-down interview with Aaron Brown. Although he did not name the al Qaeda figure believed to be surrounded, other sources confirming that indeed it is al Qaeda's No. 2.

Let's take you to the White House. Kathleen Koch standing by with reaction from there -- Kathleen.

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, it goes without saying that President Bush, who right now is in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, visiting with U.S. troops, is being kept very, very closely informed, well informed of the developments in Pakistan right now.

Now, the president was there meeting with some 20,000 members of the 101st Airborne, the Screaming Eagles, who have just come back from Iraq. So the fight against terrorism was very much on the president's mind today. He thanked the troops for what he said was delivering justice to many terrorists and keeping the rest on the run.

But, interestingly, he sent a very clear message to allies like Spain not to try to craft a separate peace with terrorists, saying that there was no safety in that, that there was no place to hide from the bombs and the other weapons that the terrorists were devising. There was basically one path to safety. And that was to stay united. And the president said that the United States and its allies would fight until this enemy is broken.

Our senior White House correspondent, John King, had a chance to talk with the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, just a few minutes ago, as this news was breaking, and she spoke about how the U.S. was following the breaking developments.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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 to 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KOCH: So at this point the White House being very, very cautious, not popping any champagne corks here by any means, being very careful until this high-value target, whoever it is, is caught -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Well, do U.S. officials believe that bin Laden may be side by side with his No. 2 man or possibly within miles?

KOCH: Kyra, it has always been assumed, both here at the White House, at the Pentagon, that Ayman al-Zawahri, that Osama bin Laden was most likely somewhere along that Pakistani-Afghanistan border. But no one obviously could say for certain. And the assumption was that perhaps they were together. But the sands are always changing on this information. And, again, they're waiting to comment on it until they get some substantiation.

PHILLIPS: Our Kathleen Koch live from the White House, thank you so much.

About 30 minutes ago, I had talked with our Aaron Brown. He's in country and has been reporting throughout the day for us on this developing story. He had a sit-down, actually, with President Pervez Musharraf, who indicated from the very beginning that they were monitoring a high-value target. Well, the news has now developed into that high-value target believed to be al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al- Zawahri.

Let's listen to what Aaron reported from the area just a little while ago with me.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: 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-Zawahri.

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-Zawahri and the others -- or perhaps al-Zawahri 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...

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIPS: Let's take you now to the Pentagon. Jamie McIntyre is standing by.

Aaron talking about this air assault, this air campaign that should take place as the sun rises there in Pakistan. What kind of role could the U.S. play maybe in support of that mission, Jamie? We know already the U.S. providing communications, surveillance, reconnaissance for Pakistani troops. What do you know?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN MILITARY AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, the U.S. has a very small number of personnel in Pakistan.

In fact, the Pakistani government is careful to say that they don't have any U.S. troops there. And we're told that what military personnel are there are just a small handful providing a liaison or in some cases an advisory capacity. But the U.S. is providing some intelligence information. And, of course, they have the capability of overhead satellites.

But the U.S. is very sensitive to the fact that Pakistan, which is its closest ally really in the fight against al Qaeda and Taliban, along the Pakistan-Afghan border, is very sensitive to the idea that this is not a U.S. operation and that U.S. troops have not been invited across the border to take part in it. It is run by the Pakistani military, along in close consultation with the United States.

This is an operation which the U.S. is operating on the Afghan side of the border. And Pakistan has maintained that it needs to maintain control on its side of the border. So, the U.S. is going to be providing advice, some communications support, certainly overhead imagery from satellites or perhaps other means as well, as they try to watch, monitor this area during the nighttime to see whoever this high-value target is doesn't slip away.

And, again, officials here at the Pentagon are careful to say that they really have no idea who is in this area. They are taking the Pakistani the Pakistani military assessment at face value, that because of the nature of the fighting there, that it's likely that a high-value target is there. The most likely person is Ayman al- Zawahiri, the number two to Osama bin Laden. But nobody here has any confirmation of that, so they're being very cautious in what they're saying -- Kyra. PHILLIPS: Let's talk about the relationship between Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, Jamie. We've established that Zawahiri is Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, confidante, mentor, basically the brains behind al Qaeda. U.S. officials now coming forward saying they believe bin Laden may be within miles of Zawahiri. What are you hearing there at the Pentagon?

MCINTYRE: Well, if Zawahiri is captured or killed, it would be a significant blow to al Qaeda. He is considered to be the number two behind Osama bin Laden. As you said, the brains of the operation.

He's one of the most wanted figures in al Qaeda. But the Pentagon is also careful to note that, even if he's captured or killed, that will not put al Qaeda out of business. In fact, they say even if Osama bin Laden himself is captured or killed, it will not put al Qaeda and al Qaeda groups that sympathize with al Qaeda out of business.

In fact, they cite the latest violence in Iraq, also the attacks in Spain, as evidence that smaller groups that may not be under the direct control of bin Laden or Zawahiri are also able to strike blows against the United States and friends of the United States. So the point they make here is that the capture of a single individual is not going to end the fight against al Qaeda even if it's the number one or number two. But it will be a significant blow both practically and also symbolically.

PHILLIPS: And, of course, the question comes up, if, indeed, he is captured, what happens next, Jamie?

MCINTYRE: Well, if he's captured by Pakistani military forces, he would be held by Pakistan. And that's the presumption, anyway. If he's captured, of course, by American forces on the Afghan side of the border, for instance, he would flee into Afghanistan, where, of course, the U.S. has amassed a number of troops watching just for that possibility -- you know, belief, by the way, is that both bin Laden and Zawahiri are in Pakistan. But that this action by the Pakistani military could force them to flee back into Afghanistan.

That's why the U.S. has mounted this operation Mountain Storm on the Afghan side of the border. So if the U.S. gets him, they'll hold onto him. If Pakistan gets him, the presumption is Pakistan will maintain control over them.

PHILLIPS: Jamie McIntyre live from the Pentagon. Thank you -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Just to recap for you, it is now apparent that the Pakistani military is in the planning stages right now for an air assault on a region in western Pakistan up along the Afghan border. Waziristan it is called, where, as we speak -- and, of course, it is nightfall there in that part of the world right now -- they believe to have a high-ranking member of al Qaeda surrounded.

We don't believe it's an airtight news. But nevertheless, the Pakistani military believes there are few means of egress from this part of the world, about a 35-kilometer diameter area in this very mountainous region.

Good possibility that at the center of that circle is Ayman al- Zawahiri, who is al Qaeda's number two leader, an Egyptian who is a medical doctor, a mentor, a close confidante and friend to Osama bin Laden. As a matter of fact, according to many experts we've spoken to thus far, it is very likely the two men would not be too far apart, if not together outright. It is also very likely, according to many experts we've spoken to, that these two men would be prepared to fight to the death.

In any case, we're watching as this whole process unfolds here. And the possibility that as day breaks the Pakistani military will begin some sort of air strike campaign to try to bring this to a resolution and to either capture or kill the high-ranking official, the high-value target, as it is termed, at the center of this news.

Joining us on the line right now from Tel Aviv is Major General Don Shepperd, our military analyst.

And General Shepperd, let's talk for a moment about tactics in that very rugged part of the world. Of course, the Pakistani military certainly is well familiar with it, isn't it?

MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, they really are, miles. Waziristan is a really wild and difficult area. Also, the Pakistani military does not have either the intelligence nor the sensors and the equipment to attack at night that the United States does. That's why they're waiting for tomorrow. They're still a very good military.

Their involvement in this is a major, major advance for the United States in this operation that Jamie McIntyre just described. So it's a difficult area, and, again, you're going to have to be careful building up hope, saying that someone is surrounded in that area, because there are many ways, mountain passes, valleys, et cetera.

O'BRIEN: Well, and that is something we should be underscoring perhaps a little bit more, that certainly given the experience of Tora Bora, the firepower that was leveled in that part of the world during the Afghanistan campaign was really overpowering in so many respects, wasn't it?

SHEPPERD: It was, indeed. And, of course, bombs are one thing, but it's usually the infantry soldier at the end that does it. And this is a Pakistani show within Pakistan right now. And, of course, the people that are surrounded could escape into Afghanistan.

Then it might become more of a U.S. and Afghan show. But right now it's a Pakistani show.

O'BRIEN: Walk us through the sensibilities, though, as long as you put the U.S. and Pakistan in the same sentence there for just a moment. For now, the U.S., at least publicly, is staying out of this and letting the Pakistanis take the lead on all of this. But there are some very fragile political sensibilities that President Musharraf has to respect.

SHEPPERD: Well, not only in Pakistan, but elsewhere. I'm at a dinner right now with (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the head of the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism. I just got out of a meeting with General Yossi Cubervauser (ph), the head of military intelligence in Israel.

We've been discussing the events in Europe, the delicacy of the events in the Middle East and how they're perceived by the Arab world. General Musharraf has been a supporter of the United States' position, but he's on delicate ice within his own country on support for the United States versus the desire to put down terrorism.

The major thing that's made a difference in Pakistan has been the attempted assassinations of Musharraf. That has been responsible for him being able to turn around and take these military actions within his own country. But at the same time, that it appears that the United States is being abandoned in Spain, and much of western Europe, with the exception of Britain, Pakistan has remained a loyal and valuable ally. And if this proves to be successful, we can chalk up a success and a long range of some tough stuff lately.

O'BRIEN: All right. Major General Don Shepperd, we're going to ask you to stand by there. Sorry to interrupt your dinner there, but we do appreciate your insights.

Unfortunately, we have to take a break right now. We'll bring him back and others. Ash-har Quraishi in the region there has a little bit of news to share with us. A quick break. Back with more continuing coverage of all of this in just a moment.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PHILLILPS: We continue to follow our breaking news story. And that is that a top al Qaeda leader could be cornered just at this moment in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Pakistani intelligence sources telling CNN they believe they have al Qaeda's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, surrounded at this point. As you know, he is Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant, mentor.

Pakistani officials say there's a fierce fight going on along the Afghan border. Al-Zawahiri is believed to be right in the middle of it.

Let's go back now to Islamabad, where our bureau chief there, Ash-har Quraishi, has been following this story throughout the night.

Ash-har, what are the new developments? What can you tell us?

ASH-HAR QURAISHI, CNN ISLAMABAD BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Kyra, speaking to some of the military officials, military sources we have very close to this operation say they have a concern about how tight the cordon around this area is, considering that it is dark now in south Waziristan as this operation is ongoing. They say it is very difficult, it has been very difficult for them to completely seal off the area.

They say that's impossible. It's very, very difficult terrain. No indication as to how many soldiers are there on the ground. But we do understand that they do outnumber the some 200 al Qaeda fighters that are holed up in this area in south Waziristan.

But there is a concern about the escape routes. Possibility that a small number of these al Qaeda fighters could get out.

Now, these sources also tell us that they are very, very confident that al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is inside. And they're saying there are indications that maybe he's been injured. But they have no confirmation on that yet.

But also, there are others who say that, right now, it's too early. It's really too early to say what's going on.

We're also getting some reports that this has been going on in the operations previous to this one even, is that these al Qaeda fighters, as soon as their colleagues are being killed, they are burying them. They're trying to hide the bodies. They're trying to destroy the bodies.

That would be one way to make it difficult to identify Dr. Zawahiri if he is even in this area, as our intelligence sources are telling us. That's another thing they say they're seeing and they're very concerned about at this point in the middle of the night. It's about 2:00 a.m. almost here in Islamabad, Kyra, as this operation is still ongoing.

O'BRIEN: Ash-har, what can you say to U.S. officials that are coming out, saying that they believe that possibly Osama bin Laden could be miles away from the same area that al-Zawahiri is believed to be? Or they could possibly be together. What do you know?

QURAISHI: Well, nobody we've spoken to has gone so far as to say that Osama bin Laden himself is someone believed to be particularly in this area, in this -- in the middle of this fight. We have heard Ayman al-Zawahiri's name particularly, possibly other al Qaeda leaders. But nobody is saying Osama bin Laden himself.

Now, of course, whenever these kinds of operations are launched, particularly in this area, where there is a lot of suspicion that Osama bin Laden himself may be hiding, there are the expectations or the heightened sense that maybe he is in this area. Some people say that he does travel quite often with Dr. Zawahiri, but it's not clear at this point.

And sources we've spoken to say that there's no indication that suggests he might be there right now. But, of course, there's still a lot unfolding at this point as this firefight, as this battle really rages on between paramilitary forces, Pakistani forces, and these al Qaeda fighters holed up in this area. PHILLIPS: And, Ash-har, you talk about at nightfall the concern that he might be able to escape. Tell us about the possible escape routes. Is this like a Tora Bora-type feel, where there are underground caves, tunnels, that it's easy to move around in darkness without being seen?

QURAISHI: Well, take into consideration this area, south Waziristan, the tribal belt of Pakistan. It's a place that the government and nobody really has been able to go into for more than a century. The Pakistani government only in the last six months, last year or so, being able to go in here, get some sort of a foothold in the area.

It's very, very difficult, very treacherous terrain. It's a place where everybody carries a gun. The tribesmen are heavily armed. And not only are they heavily armed, but they also keep arsenals of more heavy equipment to be used in clashes with other tribes, maybe.

And also, there is very much a pro-Taliban, pro-al Qaeda sentiment in the area. So it's very difficult for the government to try and get some sort of a political hold on the area in trying to get these people on board to convince them that they should harbor al Qaeda, that they should not help them.

But it's also a custom. It's also an ethnic custom in the tribal areas. Even if your enemy comes to your house asking for refuge, it is a custom that you should take that person in and you should give them refuge.

So aside from that, also, we understand from our sources in the tribal areas that the al Qaeda fighters that are going into these areas, like south Waziristan, are paying hefty sums to the tribesmen in the area to give them shelter. So along with the monetary, there's also the custom of giving refuge to anyone that asks for it in this area. And that has been a problem for some time now. President Musharraf saying that they believe hundreds of suspected al Qaeda fighters are hiding in this area -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Islamabad bureau chief, Ash-har Quraishi, thank you -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Ayman al-Zawahiri perhaps at the center of this cordon in this very rugged part of Pakistan near Afghanistan. Once again, waiting for daylight to break in that region. The Pakistani military planning perhaps some sort of aerial campaign to root him and his followers out.

Joining us now to talk a little bit more about some of the tactics that might be employed is General David Grange, retired U.S. Army. He is with us out of Washington this afternoon.

General Grange, good to have you with us.

GEN. DAVID GRANGE (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Good to be with you, too.

O'BRIEN: If it is your mission, your task to try to set up the tactics in this particular campaign, what would you do? How would you go about it?

GRANGE: Well, the first thing is obviously, as I just stated before, you've got to tighten the noose. You've got to make sure there's no way to have the adversaries get out.

They have the advantage, they know the terrain. They've been there for a long time. Government forces have not been allowed in the area.

They have the support of the local people. So they have networks established. They have rehearsed, probably, and planned for a situation like this.

O'BRIEN: OK. So how do you guard against all of that? Is this a matter of technology, or is this just a matter of brute force, having lots of people on the ground, or both?

GRANGE: It's both. Obviously, the advantage of having good surveillance and reporting, part of that will probably be supplied by the U.S., as I'm sure it is. And the other is having a sufficient amount of force to not only take care of the 200 hard-core fighters who will fight to the death, I'm sure, but those that are the outer ring that support those 200 hard-core fighters.

And so, it takes a pretty good amount of force, even in the mountains, where you maybe only have narrow areas to move in. You still have to clear buildings, huts that are dug into the sides of hills and things like that. Not an easy task.

O'BRIEN: Well, and when you hear the prospect of the Pakistani military going in there, using either helicopters or fixed-wing in broad daylight, it raises the specter of what was witnessed during the Afghan campaign against the Mujahadin against the Soviets, where simple rocket-propelled grenades were able to pluck down helicopters very simply. What are the tactics used in that case to protect a helicopter, say?

GRANGE: Well, depending on where the fortified structures obviously are located within the undulations of the terrain, some approach routes for strike aircraft have to go low and slow. To get in between, sometimes flying below ridgelines in order to get an attack angle that's necessary to make an effective strike.

Consequently, they're vulnerable to small arms fire, RPG, and just regular KA-47-type fire. So very difficult to do that. And again, what's the proficiency level of those particular Pakistani crewmembers compared to, say, U.S. or others.

O'BRIEN: Well, in many cases, given the mountainous terrain, they have perhaps easier shots. Let me ask you this, clearly the U.S., if it was in a position politically to do so, could -- would not have a problem engaging in some sort of aerial campaign right now under cover of darkness, would it?

GRANGE: Well, if they had the permission. I think it may be easier to get permission to move a few special operators into the area support, provide high altitude surveillance-type assets than it would be to actually bomb the other side of the border. It may be more difficult to gain (ph) permission.

O'BRIEN: So perhaps unmanned drones, those predators, that sort of thing, training cameras, infrared devices on this part of the region?

GRANGE: Things that are not quite as obvious, right.

O'BRIEN: Yes. And so, given all of that, is there any way we sitting here, can we speculate on a time frame for all of this?

GRANGE: Well, as some of the comments were made -- and the danger is they make comments on success prematurely before they, in fact, have a good feel on, one, that they have the high-value targets they want, and, two, that they're going to be successful. Because, you know, in combat, as we've talked about in the past, it's pretty hard to predict the outcome. A lot of things influence that outcome. And so, hopefully the success that is -- we're all hinting on is not premature.

O'BRIEN: OK. I guess we can all agree on that one. General David Grange, retired Army, joining us from Washington on the line. Thanks very much.

Our continuing coverage of this assault on what appears to be a high-value target within the al Qaeda organization continues after a short break.

Stay with us here on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Continuing coverage. Just to bring you up to date, Pakistani military officials, intelligence officials are telling us they believe they have Osama bin Laden's right-hand man cornered in a mountainous region of western Pakistan called Waziristan. Apparently surrounded by upwards of 200 very well equipped al Qaeda fighters offering very stiff resistance to Pakistani military forces in the region there.

The Pakistani government indicating to CNN that at daybreak, some hours from now, they will engage in some sort of aerial campaign to try to root out this group, and perhaps get their quarry, which in this case might very well be Ayman al-Zawahiri, a medical doctor, a mentor, a friend and confidante of Osama bin Laden. And one of the people key to the planning of the 9/11 attacks, we're told, has a long pedigree of terrorism in his background. An Egyptian medical doctor who became a fierce Islamist, and in his past has been convicted of murder on at least one occasion.

Joining us now on the line is Major General Don Shepperd, retired U.S. Air Force. He happens to be in Tel Aviv. That dateline has nothing to do with this story. He just happens to be there.

General Shepperd, we were talking just a little bit about those tactics that might be employed in this case. Let's get people familiar once again with this region. We talked so much about this region immediately after the 9/11 attacks. To call it mountainous and remote is perhaps not -- well, that's putting it lightly, isn't it?

SHEPPERD: Yes, it doesn't do it justice. You remember the views of the Khyber Pass that we looked at, Miles, during the war in Afghanistan. Well, this is -- you know, it's not the Khyber Pass, it's the areas surrounding the Khyber Pass in Waziristan.

The mountains there go up in most cases. And I'm not sure exactly where this is going on because I don't have a map. But they'll go up to as much as 3,000 meters in the particular area, I believe, that they're looking at.

This is also spring runoff time. It's early spring runoff.

Yesterday, I was on Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights looking into Syria and Lebanon. And it's snow covered, still. So I suspect this area has a great deal of snow, mud. Very difficult rocky terrain with caves.

And that is good and bad in that it limits the area that people can operate. And it limits the area that they can exit an area. But it's still -- if you want to pick an area you wouldn't want to fight, this would be pretty close to the one you would pick.

O'BRIEN: Well, and it also limits the performance of any aircraft that you would employ. They're operating at a much higher altitude, the air is thinner, there's -- the capability is less. And, plus, given the mountainous terrain, there's many ways to snipe at those kinds of aircraft as they come in through there, correct?

SHEPPERD: Yes, especially if they're helicopters. And I suspect helicopters will be employed in this.

But what we use in the U.S. military is targeting pods. But you still have to have someone on the ground marking the targets for you in some way, either with lasers or GPS -- relaying GPS coordinates to you. We have those sophisticated sensors and targeting pods and the precision weapons to go with them.

So the point is, it's a combination of knowing what's on the ground that you're after, marking exactly where it is, and relaying those targets to someone that can hit them. The Pakistani military is a good military and a good air force, as well as army. But it doesn't have all the technical capability we have.

So this will be tough. And you're going after people, not vehicles.

O'BRIEN: Is it possible, General Shepperd, that, for example, those targeting pods might be employed in kind of a quiet way by the Pakistani military? Will they use the U.S. capability there?

SHEPPERD: Well, they won't use the U.S. capability. You have to train with these things. The airplanes have to be equipped. They will use what they have. And I'm not sure exactly what they have.

I doubt seriously that they will employ U.S. forces in their own country. They may employ the sensors that we have. For instance, we have predators, armed predators, that type of thing, that could be operated. But I would seriously doubt the U.S. forces, other than liaison forces that Jamie McIntyre described, would be operating within Pakistan.

O'BRIEN: Major General Don Shepperd, retired U.S. Air Force, joining us from Tel Aviv on this evening. Thanks very much for your insights. Appreciate it.

PHILLIPS: Well, once again, al Qaeda's number two and best friend of Osama bin Laden believed to be cornered in Pakistan. A firefight taking place, an air assault expected tomorrow morning. Forces, Pakistani forces hoping that he doesn't get away.

O'BRIEN: CNN's continuing coverage rolls on. We will take a break. When we come back, Wolf Blitzer.

Stay with us.

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