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U.S. Still Uncertain if al-Zawahiri is in Battle

Aired March 18, 2004 - 16:30   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Al-Zawahiri may be involved in a fierce battle that's been going on now for the past couple days. U.S. officials have told CNN that Pakistanis believe it is Ayman al- Zawahiri. U.S. officials have no independent confirmation of that right now. It's the middle of the night, 2:30 a.m., along that border right now. But by daybreak, we do anticipate that Pakistani air assault will begin against these targets. Peter Bergen is our terrorism analyst. He's an author on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and has interviewed Osama bin Laden. He's joining us now live from Washington. Peter, how significant is Ayman al-Zawahiri?
PETER BERGMAN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Very. Arguably, as significant, perhaps even more significant than bin Laden on some levels. Ayman al-Zawahiri has been a professional revolutionary terrorist since the age of 15, when he first joined a terrorist cell in Egypt, in his native Egypt. He's been bin Laden's friend and mentor since the mid-80s when they first met in Pakistan and were involved in the fight against the Soviet Union that was going on in neighboring Afghanistan.

Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have lots of different kinds of relationships. First of all, bin Laden has been mentored by Ayman al- Zawahiri. Secondly, Ayman al-Zawahiri has acted as his personal doctor. And I think the consensuses among people who have studied them, al-Zawahiri and bin Laden, is that he influenced him to become more radical, may have precipitated the anti-western, anti-American, the call for attacks against westerners everywhere that came about when al Qaeda was sort of formally announced in May, 1998.

So vital to get him. I'm, Wolf, just a tiny bit skeptical that he's actually where he says he is. I know that CNN is reporting that Pakistani officials are saying there's intelligence, Ash-har Quraishi on this program, but I'm a little bit leery for the following reason. The fact that these al Qaeda people are setting up a lot of resistance against the Pakistani army is not surprising. Think back to the battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan or the battle of Anaconda (ph) in Afghanistan where al Qaeda also put up fierce resistance.

Sometimes there were high-value targets amongst them, sometimes not. These people are going to put up a lot of resistance because they're willing to die in the struggle. They don't have anywhere to go. If they went back to their native countries, they would face trial or execution as terrorists. So they're going to put up an enormous fight whether there's a high-value target among them or not.

BLITZER: There was some suggestion, Peter, that perhaps, in addition to the level of resistance that they're facing right now, suggesting that they're trying to protect a high value target like Ayman al-Zawahiri, there's also a suggestion that the Pakistani forces may have received some advance intelligence pinpointing this location, which would reinforce the suggestion by President Musharraf that someone really important is there, not just the level of resistance, but also some intelligence. That would reassure you if, in fact, there were such intelligence?

BERGEN: Yes. That obviously would be quite different. So, I mean, if indeed Ayman al-Zawahiri is there, one thing that's very different from the battle of Tora Bora, where bin Laden disappeared in December of 2001, Afghan forces surrounding him, U.S. Air Force bombing his position, and he disappeared. In this case, it's quite different because you've got U.S. forces on the other side of the Afghan border, who presumably are, as we speak, throwing up some kind of cordon so these people can't disappear back across the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

So I think if Ayman al-Zawahiri is there we're in a better posture today than we would have been back when we were fighting the Afghan war where we really didn't have quite as developed a pulse, I think in terms of trying to set up this hammer and anvil approach where the Pakistanis come in from one side and the Americans come in from another and catch al Qaeda in a sort of pincer movement. That did not happen in December, 2001. It may happen this time.

BLITZER: I'm also told by a U.S. government analyst who has studied Ayman al-Zawahiri for a long time just give our viewers some context and I want you to weigh on this, weigh in on this, Peter, that he doesn't necessarily have the same following as Osama bin Laden. He certainly doesn't have the charisma of Osama bin Laden, and he doesn't have the organizational ability of Osama bin Laden.

Having said that, there's no doubt he's been a significant player, a real mastermind of a lot of what al Qaeda has done. I wonder what you think about that.

BERGEN: I think that analysis is correct.

And I think Ayman Al-Zawahri was smart enough to realize quite early on that he does not have the charisma, as you say. He's actually supposedly not a particularly likable kind of guy. People around bin Laden seem to really love him, seem to really respect him. Ayman Al-Zawahri is more the ideologue, the ideas guy, the guy in the background, Osama bin Laden more the charismatic guy, the guy with the money, the guy with the organizational smarts. So I think that analysis is completely correct.

But that is not to discount the fact that Ayman Al-Zawahri came up with a lot of these ideas, most importantly, to attack the so- called far enemy, the United States, as opposed to simply just attacking the Saudi regime and the Egyptian regime, which had been the kind of policy of al Qaeda and its affiliates before.

BLITZER: Let me just recap, Peter, for our viewers who may just be tuning in at the bottom of the hour right now, what's going on. For the past several hours, ever since our Aaron Brown interviewed Pervez Musharraf, an exclusive interview today in Islamabad, we've been reporting that Ayman Al-Zawahri, the man you're seeing right now, is believed to be holed up together with about 200 of his followers in an area in western Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan.

There has been fierce fighting under way. There have been casualties on both sides. Pakistani forces preparing a daybreak, a couple or three hours from now, to launch airstrikes against these targets. The assumption is, the No. 2 al Qaeda leader is there, not necessarily Osama bin Laden, because of the level of fighting that has been going on, one U.S. official telling me earlier today that those supporters of al Qaeda are -- quote -- "fighting like hell to defend this position," suggesting a high-value target is there. Those are the words, the high-value target, of President Pervez Musharraf.

We're continuing our conversation with our terrorism analyst, Peter Bergen, who has spent a career now investigating al Qaeda, investigating Osama bin Laden.

Do they usually travel together or separately?

BERGEN: I don't know the answer to that question, Wolf.

I can tell you that their relationship is one of, you know, real friendship, and bin Laden has some health problems. Ayman Al-Zawahri is a doctor. I think that they're in communication. We've seen, since 9/11, they have been traveling together. We had pictures earlier on the program. I'm not sure when those pictures were taken, but sometime after 9/11, of them being together.

But also we've seen they release audiotapes at different times, one first of all, Osama, then followed by Ayman al-Zawahri, maybe indicating that they're separate. But I do think, whether or not they're traveling together, they are so close that, if you got one of them, you would be very close to getting the other one, I believe.

BLITZER: Peter Bergen, stand by.

We're going to take another quick break. We're going to continue our coverage. When we come back, we're also going to take a look at what U.S. policy may be, how it could be affected by all of these dramatic developments.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: He's 52 years old. He's a medical doctor, an Egyptian, and he's the No. 2 leader of al Qaeda. He may be holed up right now in an area in western Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan, Pakistani forces preparing an air assault on an area believed to be an area where Ayman al-Zawahri is now based.

Let's bring in Ash-Har Quraishi. He's our Islamabad bureau chief. He's joining us now live via videophone.

I know, Ash-Har, you're getting, collecting additional information all the time. Now, this is a major development, pretty unusual in the scheme of things, at least based on what we can tell. Give us some perspective.


For months now, particularly in the last few weeks, the Pakistan army has been making greater gains in this area in south Waziristan, in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. It is a place that had been previously inaccessible and, surprisingly, that hadn't been gone into by the army until about June of last year.

Now, this is also an area that, because of its inaccessibility, its remoteness, it's very, very difficult terrain that has been basically a safe haven for al Qaeda. And it's been criticism by the Afghan interim government and also from the United States against Pakistan over the last year or so that not enough was being done in this particular area to crack down on al Qaeda remnants that were using it as a reprieve from their attacks that were being carried out on the Afghan side of the border.

And it's something that President Musharraf has really put some pressure on in the last few months, really trying to get the local administration involved in trying to police this area, trying to police the people who are very pro-Taliban, who are very pro-al Qaeda, in terms of trying to get them not to help these al Qaeda fighters that are crossing over from Afghanistan to use their soil.

And only this week, earlier this week, President Musharraf addressing a group of these tribal elders in Peshawar, Pakistan, really acknowledging for the first time that hundreds of al Qaeda fighters are using the area in northwest Pakistan in the tribal belt as a safe haven, as an area that they've been hiding out in. So we've seen this change in strategy, this change in posture by the Pakistani government from not acknowledging the fact that this area was being used by the al Qaeda fighters, to now launching full-scale operations, as we are seeing now today, the heaviest fighting that's been reported so far since Pakistan's army has gone into this area, going after these al Qaeda fighters, and, as intelligence sources are telling us, going after Ayman al-Zawahri himself -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Is there a sense that you're getting, Ash-Har, that President Pervez Musharraf can withstand all the pressure he's under? Because he's under enormous pressure from elements within Pakistan that don't want to see that kind of cooperation with the U.S. in the war on terror?

QURAISHI: Absolutely.

And the controversy really, particularly within the religious right, the parties that are governing the Northwest Frontier Province, just outside of the tribal areas that are located there in northwest Pakistan, there's been a lot of pressure. And as far back as October, they've been saying that these kinds of operations would not be tolerated and that they were calling for a complete end to any kind of operation in these areas.

Now, there's also been controversy about whether or not U.S. forces are operating there. There are some people on the ground here in Pakistan, in the religious parties, that say that they've seen U.S. forces dropping in, in some of these areas, and that's been a very dangerous, dangerous situation for President Musharraf, who has maintained that Pakistan does not allow any U.S. soldiers to operate here in Pakistan. That's one reason there's been increased pressure on Pakistan to really take care of its own territory, to get a foothold in the tribal areas and to really, really root out these hundreds of al Qaeda fighters that are reported to be in this area.

In this particular battle, we're even told that more than 200 suspected al Qaeda fighters are protecting Ayman al-Zawahri.

BLITZER: Ash-Har Quraishi, stand by. We'll be getting back to you for more information. Ash-Har Quraishi is reporting from Islamabad.

CNN's Candy Crowley is in Washington. She's monitoring these developments as well -- Candy.


I have with me Rand Beers, who has worn many hats before. Right now, senior adviser to John Kerry on national security and homeland security.

But you have also served four presidents, Republicans and Democrats and in your most recent job, with this president as a counterterrorism expert.


CROWLEY: So I want to talk to you with that hat on.


CROWLEY: Tell me how important, if this man is here, this capture would be?

BEERS: Well, I think that it would be a quite striking development if he is, in fact, captured or killed by this particular operation. It would certainly diminish the ability of al Qaeda to some extent.

But I think, in the overall context of where we are in the war on terror, as some administration officials have already said, I think we have to recognize that there's a lot more to do, and it's going to take a lot longer time than just even a few months to do that. We have to continue this effort. Al Qaeda is no longer the sole source of the terrorism threat to the United States. They've essentially spawned a jihadist movement which is global in reach.

And CIA Director Tenet remarked about that just a couple of weeks ago, that that general threat is going to be with us for some time. We're going to have to protect ourselves at home. And we're also going to have to deal with this recruitment issue that Don Rumsfeld has referred to. We've got to be able to prevent the recruitment potential from being greater than our ability to reduce the terrorists.

CROWLEY: Let me ask you, picking up on something you said, is he more valuable to the U.S. dead or alive?

BEERS: Oh, I think that, if he could be captured alive, he would represent an intelligence source of enormous potential. If that's a possibility, that's always preferable.

CROWLEY: Yes. What does he know that we know, where Osama bin Laden might be, is that sort of the chief thing?

BEERS: Well, unfortunately, we don't know what he knows, but that would certainly be one of the key elements.

But that's certainly not the only thing that he knows. He understands the organization. He understands their operational capabilities. He understands perhaps some future operations that they're planning. All of that would be valuable information.

CROWLEY: Tell me about the risk to President Musharraf on something this visible. I mean, this is a pretty big deal, particularly if it works out the way they think it is. Is he taking a risk here?

BEERS: Well, he's taking a risk in the sense of his general association with the United States. I think you've been reporting today about the fundamentalist elements within Pakistan, and they certainly do not favor his association with the United States.

But he's been a marvelous partner in this process, and I wouldn't want to understate how valuable he's been. So we have to really appreciate that effort.

CROWLEY: I have a short question for you. I need a short answer from you. And the short question is, how likely is it that he's there?

BEERS: I think that the intelligence cues give us a pretty good sense that he's there. But the devil is in the details.


Rand Beers, thank you so much for joining us. Appreciate it.

BEERS: Thank you. A pleasure to be here.

CROWLEY: Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Candy.

Jamie McIntyre is standing by over at the Pentagon. He's got some new information on an unrelated incident unfolding elsewhere in Afghanistan -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN MILITARY AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Unrelated, Wolf, in the sense it's not happening in the same region where these Pakistani forces are operating across the border from Pakistan.

But in Uruzgan Province in central Afghanistan, two U.S. soldiers have been killed, two others wounded in a confrontation with what's being called anti-coalition forces or militia. According to a release from the U.S. Central Command, U.S. soldiers were accompanying Afghan national army soldiers on a patrol in a village northwest of Tarin Kowt when they were engaged by enemy fighters. The soldiers returned fire.

They say at least five of the enemy fighters were killed and others were wounded. But, again, two U.S. soldiers were killed in that exchange of gunfire. The two wounded American soldiers have been taken to the air base at -- the airfield at Kandahar for treatment. But, again, while this is not directly related to what's going on across the border in Pakistan, it is an indication of the ongoing war that the United States has with Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan, part of an operation called Mountain Storm, aimed at trying to, again, break the back of the Taliban and capture some of those key al Qaeda figures -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre with news of two more American soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan, two others wounded. They've been evacuated to a hospital in Kandahar.

We're going to take another quick break. When we come back, more on our top story, breaking news we're following, the search for Ayman al-Zawahri, the No. 2 al Qaeda leader. He's believed to be holed up in an area, the Pakistani forces moving in within the next couple of hours.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: There's a search under way right now, a desperate search, a manhunt for Ayman al-Zawahri, the No. 2 al Qaeda leader, holed up in an area along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistani officials believe he is there. They're waiting for daybreak to launch an airstrike.

Just moments ago, we got this videotape, a statement from a Pakistani military spokesman.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: An operation is going on. You know, you have to wait and see. And maybe there's a high-value personality there. But it's not clear yet, because there are a lot of casualties. They are resisting. They are fighting. And they are in large number, and it's evening time.

And maybe this operation continue one or two days, and there can be good news after one -- after some time.

QUESTION: What leads you to believe there might be a high-value person?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, some intelligence sources, human intelligence sources, but it's not yet confirmed. But there are some human intelligence sources that there may be some important personality.

QUESTION: New agencies are reporting this person might possibly be Ayman al-Zawahri. Can you comment on this?


QUESTION: And what's led people to speculate that this might be the person?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, whatever you said, people are, you know, rumoring this, suspected this, but it's not confirmed. You have to wait and see until the finals that come.

QUESTION: Again, how hard is Pakistan trying to catch people in this area?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know we have sacrificed a dozen people there fighting against terrorism, and we are committed against the terrorism, and we will finish all these terrorists.


BLITZER: A Pakistani military officer speaking only a few moments ago on this search that's under way, a fierce battle that's been going on for the past couple of days in western Pakistan.

We have videotape of Pakistani paramilitary forces moving out towards this area, videotape that we received from the Al-Jazeera television network, troops on the ground moving out, as well as in the air, preparing for daybreak. It's now approaching 3:00 a.m. in Pakistan right now. Once the day begins there, once there is sunlight, presumably, the airstrikes will begin to unfold in this area where many suspect now that Ayman al-Zawahri is holed up.

Jamie McIntyre, our Pentagon correspondent, is watching all of this as well, monitoring developments from the Pentagon.

Jamie, it's a very sensitive matter, how much U.S. involvement, if any, the Pakistanis want or can afford to take in this kind of operation inside Pakistan.

MCINTYRE: There's been a lot of discussion between the United States and Pakistan about -- to the extent that the U.S. military might operate on the Pakistani side of the border, particularly if they found themselves in hot pursuit of a high-value target, as we're calling it.

But, at this point, Pakistan has not granted permission to the United States to operate in Pakistan, nor has it invited the United States in. It does admit -- the Pakistani government -- admit to a small number of advisers and liaison personnel working with the Pakistani military, about a dozen or so, but no combat units, which are relegated to staying on the Afghan side of the border.

Nevertheless, the U.S. is providing significant help to Pakistan, which is its closest ally in this fight against al Qaeda and Taliban remnants, including something that the United States does very well, which is aerial reconnaissance from both Predator spy planes, U-2 spy planes, and also satellite reconnaissance, where appropriate. But, at this point, the United States is in a support role. And of course, it's ready to take action if there's any intelligence indicating that any of these people are moving across the border into Afghanistan, where Operation Mountain Storm, the anti-Taliban and al Qaeda offensive for this spring, is well under way -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jamie, I'm told the Pakistani military, in this kind of a search, they have pretty good assets themselves, both on the ground, in the air, as well as some pretty sophisticated reconnaissance assets, even though they are, as you pointed out correctly, getting assistance from the U.S. in terms of reconnaissance information. But they have a lot of experience in dealing with these areas, much more than the U.S., presumably.

MCINTYRE: Right, although these remote areas where -- the tribal areas where tribal leaders have held sway for years have typically not been under a lot of government control from the Pakistan government.

But, you know, high-tech surveillance equipment is one thing, but that can be trumped by good old-fashioned intelligence on the ground. And what the U.S. is hoping is that as Pakistani military forces have been operating much more aggressively in this area, they've been making more contacts with the local leaders, in some cases persuading them to take part in the hunt or to provide intelligence information.

And it's that kind of intelligence on the ground often that leads to a capture or a breakthrough. In fact, that was what happened in the case of Saddam Hussein. U.S. troops had been by the area where Saddam was hiding for months, but it wasn't until somebody gave them the break they needed they were able to find him.

BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon -- Jamie, thanks very much.

Let's bring back Peter Bergen.

Peter, I got a lot of questions, a lot of e-mail from our viewers, wondering why that $25 million reward for Ayman al-Zawahri or Osama bin Laden hasn't generated the capture or the death of either of these al Qaeda leaders yet. What creates the kind of fierce loyalty that some of these tribal leaders in this area along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, creates this loyalty for them that the money may not necessarily mean much?

BERGEN: Well, I think there are two factors here, Wolf. One factor is that the people who are directly around bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri, really look at them as religious figures. These are people motivated by religious beliefs who are not influenced by money. Secondly, the tribal areas in which they're sort of embedded, it appears, they're motivated by something called pashtunwali, which is the law of the Pashtuns. It's a tribal code.

It puts emphasis on three virtues, as it were, revenge, the giving of hospitality, and the offering of refuge to anybody who seeks it. And these obviously really helps out the members of al Qaeda who are in these regions, because this is very deeply embedded traditions. People will even take in enemies, people they don't like, if they're seeking refuge in these tribal areas. It's sort of like a priest in the Middle Ages offering refuge to criminals. Basically, this is a tribal tradition, very hard to change that.

BLITZER: And Pakistani forces and Pakistani leaders have pointed out to me over the years they themselves have been reluctant to go into this so-called tribal area, this no-man's land along the border precisely because it is so dangerous for them to go in as well. Give us a little perspective on this.

BERGEN: Well, you know, the word in Pashtun for cousin and enemy is the same word, which gives you an idea how much the Pashtuns like fighting each other, even their cousins. So this is a very warlike group of people.

Every male above the age of 12 is armed. Sometimes, disputes in this area are settled with artillery, rather than just small weapons. If you go into the area -- and I've been in this area many times -- people don't live in houses. They live in forts. Literally, everybody lives in a fort. And it's a walled compound. And some of these forts have artillery. Everybody is armed with at least a sort of Lee Enfield rifle, at minimum.

And so you're talking about people who have lived under their own tribal code, who resist outsiders, particularly -- they see the Pakistani Army as outsiders. And that's the reason that Pakistan has been reluctant. Now, the Pakistanis are using this fight against al Qaeda also as sort of an excuse or a rationale for establishing more control in these areas they never established control before.

They're offering the tribes things like more roads, more water, more money for education to try and sort of bring them into the tent and make them more part of Pakistan.

BLITZER: Peter Bergen, reporting for us, giving us some analysis from Washington -- Peter, thanks very much.

Just to update our viewers, we're standing by. More information, as we get it, we'll bring it to you, the hunt for the No. 2 al Qaeda leader, the mastermind, or at least a mastermind, of the 9/11 terror attack.

A special edition of "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" comes up next.


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