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Al Qaeda in Mali; Syrian Prime Minister Flees the Country

Aired August 6, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

Since the death of Osama bin Laden, U.S. officials have been saying that Al Qaeda is greatly diminished, on the run and that defeat is in sight. And that is mostly true about Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

But as we know, it is mutated to Yemen, Somalia and it's back in Iraq. And now the terror group has a new place to fester: Mali in West Africa. Al Qaeda has laid its seed there in the fertile ground of yet another failed state after a recent coup ended 20 years of Mali's relatively stable democracy.

The United States and its allies are trying to figure out how to reverse this tide. And in a moment, I'll get the harrowing story of a Canadian diplomat who came face to face with this new and dangerous threat.

But first to Syria and my brief tonight. When your own prime minister calls your administration a terrorist regime, and then flees the country, it may be time to take stock. That's how Syrian prime minister Riyad Hijab described Bashar al-Assad's nation today after he defected.

In a statement, the Sunni prime minister said that he was, quote, "joining the revolution."

And with more high-level defectors crossing Syria's borders into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, along with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been in the region, talking to those allies about managing Syria after Assad's downfall, which they all fully expect to happen.

In a moment, I'll speak to Barbara Starr, CNN's Pentagon correspondent, who's been traveling with Panetta. But first, a look at what's coming up a little later in the program.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Bloody civil war and sectarian killing in Timbuktu and when the smoke clears over Mali Al Qaeda might be the winner.

Then imagine a world where the winners finish last. For some Olympic athletes, victory is just getting to the starting line.


AMANPOUR: We'll get to that in a bit, but first, the Syrian conflict is spilling over and threatening stability in neighboring states. Barbara Starr looks at life for refugees at a camp in Jordan just over the Syrian border.


BARBARA STARR, CNN REPORTER (voice-over): For these Syrian refugees, the choking winds, the swirling sands, the heat, now everyday life at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in Jordan, a short drive from the Syrian border, long walks across the camp for food and supplies. The camp has been open just one week. A water pipe provides a cooler moment, even as the girls do the family wash in a bucket.

Thirteen-year-old Amani (ph) has been here just a few days, escaping from her home in Daraa with eight other family members. We learn her heart is broken when she tells us, "My mother was martyred. She was outside, we were inside, and there was a bomb. She was hit by shrapnel."

Amani (ph) simply says, "She was everything to me. She brought us up and died. She would take us wherever we wanted to go. I was the one most attached to her. What else can I tell you?"

The Jordanian government says more than 140,000 Syrian refugees are already in Jordan. The United Nations is prepared to house another 100,000 here. It's trying to improve grim conditions.

It's a terrible situation. But the question is, would you want to put your family in a place like this? No. But we're in emergency operations. People are being bombed. They're running away. They're losing family members in Syria.

STARR (voice-over): For some children, there are moments just to be a kid again and play with new friends.

For many, like Amani (ph), childhood seems gone, dying with her mother.


AMANPOUR: And Barbara is in Amman, the Jordanian capital, and she joins me now.

Barbara, thanks for joining me. That's a powerful story about the human fallout, really, of this conflict. But what has Secretary Panetta, the king of Jordan, what have they been talking about in terms of hastening Assad's downfall or planning for a post-Assad period?

STARR: Well, it's both of those, Christiane. In fact, the U.S. line is this now: they're taking a line Assad is essentially gone or going to be gone. They say he's not going to survive this; he's going to go sooner rather than later and they are moving ahead with planning.

Secretary Panetta told me they have learned the lessons of Iraq. They want to keep Syrian security forces intact as much as possible. They think that's a key step. They want to start really upping the game, if you will, with the Syrian opposition forces, get some political consensus going and be ready to help or assist in some way in forming a new government.

But here, inside Jordan, it may not look quite so easy. The Jordanian government, King Abdullah, very concerned about maintaining a secure border on the northern border with Syria. As you know, it's a very remote area.

The Jordanians are now getting maybe 600 to 1,000 refugees coming across that border every single night, making that dangerous journey. The Jordanians want to see this resolved, and they want to make sure they can keep that border secure, keep Hamas and other militants out of their country.

AMANPOUR: Barbara, we know from reports that the CIA is already on the ground in the bordering areas, particularly in Turkey. What is their prime mission? And have they identified an opposition, a Free Syrian Army group, who they feel they can trust and that they can help and enable?

STARR: You know, Christiane, by all accounts, what the U.S. intelligence community is doing is exactly what you said, on the ground, in Turkey, talking to the opposition groups, trying to identify people that they can work with, that they feel are reliable that are not part of some other militant organization, that they can send back into Syria.

The official word is that the U.S. is giving no arms, only nonlethal assistance, communications gear, advice, that kind of thing, how to plan. They think that that will be the beginning of being able to form a nucleus, essentially, of stability and some kind of political organization that can rally around when Assad falls.

But you know, here's the problem. Nobody can predict, of course, when he falls or how it will happen. It could happen at any moment. There could be massive instability, civil war, sectarian violence, or he could hang on for several more months. Nobody can really predict it at this point.

And if the U.S. and the allies are thinking they're going to be able to have a controlled transition in Syria, there's an awful lot of people in this region who say don't count on it just yet.

AMANPOUR: You know --

STARR: Christiane?

AMANPOUR: -- Barbara, from all your reporting and being so close to the Pentagon, and knowing, you know, the sort of decision-making process, do you think that this so-called non-lethal help that they're giving now is going to translate or mutate into military assistance?

And I ask you because, clearly, in Somalia, they are helping whatever they might call it. They're helping turn the tide against Al Qaeda in Somalia. Are they going to try to help militarily in Syria?

STARR: Well, you know, there's assistance and there's assistance, isn't there? You know, they say humanitarian assistance, communications gear, that sort of thing.

But let's be clear. U.S. intelligence satellites have been monitoring Syria for weeks, months now, around the clock, mainly looking at the chemical biological weapons site, looking at Syrian military formations from above, seeing how the Syrian military is moving around, where they're positioning their heavy weapons, their artillery, their tanks.

And if that word is getting to the opposition, so they can plan better, well, so be it, because of course in the last 6-8 weeks or so, we have seen the opposition really take hold, not just to engage in these running gun battles, but be able to take some territory and hold onto it by all accounts. And that's going to be a key.

Can they take -- can they take ground and can they hold onto it? When they can do that, they can begin to make a real difference and put a picture together of an opposition that possibly -- just possibly -- can begin to take control of parts of the country, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Barbara, always great to talk to you. Thanks for joining me from Amman.

And Syria isn't the only country in the midst of a civil war. When we come back, a chilling first-hand look at Mali in West Africa, where Al Qaeda is poised to seize power, possibly. But first, here's a picture of yet another defector from the Assad regime.

It's Syria's first astronaut, General Mohammed Ahmad Fares. He was part of a Soviet space mission back in 1987. But here he is, on Sunday; he's the man in the blue shirt, going over to the rebels in his hometown of Aleppo. One small step for a man, one giant leap for the Free Syrian Army that Barbara was just talking about. We'll be right back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. For more than 20 years, the African country of Mali has been an anomaly, a stable democracy despite a long history of poverty and drought. And then this spring, Mali imploded. A military coup overthrew the elected government just as rebels took over the northern part of the country.

As the nation sank into chaos, AQIM, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, took control of the northern part of Mali. AQIM instituted sharia law and immediately set about destroying many of the priceless items of heritage of Timbuktu, a cultural landmark and a tourist destination. AQIM is well funded, well armed and fully committed to dying for its cause.

That's the assessment of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, who was held captive by AQIM for 130 days in 2008. Bob's written about his nightmare experience in a book called, "A Season in Hell."

Welcome to our program. Thank you for being here.

ROBERT FOWLER, AUTHOR AND CANADIAN DIPLOMAT: Thank you, it's good to be here.

AMANPOUR: It really does sound hellish, all the things that I've read from the excerpts of your book, and I've been reading about who you came face to face with.

We've been talking about Al Qaeda in general. So just tell me before we get into your story how big a threat is AQIM, the very people who kidnapped you and held you.

FOWLER: Well, Christiane, they've been fighting for 20 years, under different names. They took up the Al Qaeda franchise formally in January of '07. But they've been the Islamic Front; they've been the Group Alamaise Dynique (ph). They've been the group for preaching and combat, but they're all --


AMANPOUR: People who want to take over?

FOWLER: No. They're celibates. They don't want to govern. They want God to govern. They don't think men should govern. And they hate all our favorite terms. They hate democracy. They hate liberty. They hate freedom. They hate human rights. These are all things they believe are the province of God and not of man.

AMANPOUR: So as the United States and its allies, Europe and others and other African neighbors try to figure out how to push back AQIM from the north, are these people who can be negotiated with?

FOWLER: No, absolutely not. They would insist to me repeatedly, as I was representing the U.N., they hate the U.N. with a passion. They insisted we were prisoners of war. They would fight the U.N., the great powers, aid workers, we're all trying to subvert young Muslim minds. They believe the war on terror is a war on Islam. And they would say it again and again.

They don't -- they formed this strange alliance with Tuareg nationalists to take over the northern 65 percent of Mali, an area the size of France and Belgium combined. They now control it. For the first time, Al Qaeda has its own country.

AMANPOUR: Which is very, very significant. The last time was in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

FOWLER: Yes, precisely. And we seem to be paying obviously it's my view relatively little attention to it.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you, you know, whether you agree with this.

General Carter Ham, who's head of the African command for the United States, "We missed an opportunity to deal with AQIM when they were weak. And now the situation is much more difficult."

FOWLER: I agree with him 100 percent.

AMANPOUR: And what will it take to push them back?

FOWLER: The reason that AQIM has split with the Tuaregs, because the Tuaregs --

AMANPOUR: Those are the rebels.

FOWLER: Yes. Well, they're all rebels, in a way. The Tuaregs wanted a homeland. They wanted Tuaregistan in the desert. The reason they've split is because the AQIM guys and their clones -- there are two other movements that are the same thing -- don't want a homeland.

They don't want a Tuareg homeland, they don't -- they want a place where God's law is supreme, where sharia is everything, where there is no government of men, and they told me repeatedly they wanted that to extend from Nouakchott in Mauritania on the Atlantic to Mogadishu on the Indian Ocean.

AMANPOUR: Well, let --

FOWLER: Seven thousand kilometers.

AMANPOUR: Which is obviously a huge space of very important real estate. But let's look at this map that we have on our table. You mentioned Mauritania, which is obviously next door to Mali. Let's go to your story. You were in Niger as representative of the United Nations Secretary-General to try to bring some peace to that region. How is it that you ended up in the hands of AQIM?

FOWLER: Well, you're absolutely right. My mission -- there was a low-grade Tuareg rebellion in Niger, which had locked down the upper 80 percent of the country, the third poorest country in the world. My mission was to get the rebels and the government to talk peace. I got the rebels to agree. The government didn't want to agree.

I was on my third trip there and on a Sunday afternoon, 35 kilometers from the capital of Niger, we were grabbed by that guy right there on the screen. We called him Omar 1. I saw him on the Internet the other night.

AMANPOUR: What did it make you feel to see him?

FOWLER: Rather -- quite an emotion, to suddenly see these guys in real life. And that was the face that I remembered very well for 130 days. He was effectively the sort of hostage liaison officer, if you will, of the AQIM group of 30 that held us.

So we were taken 35 kilometers from the capital and we were driven more or less due north into the middle of the Sahara Desert. It is almost exactly the middle up here --

AMANPOUR: That's a massive distance.

FOWLER: -- (inaudible). And it was all, except for 20 minutes, it was all off-road and very, very rough. And we were bound. It was very unpleasant five days.

AMANPOUR: Did you think that you were going to die?

FOWLER: Yes, I thought it would -- most of the time I thought it would end in a tent with a knife like Daniel Pearl in Karachi in '02. And every time --

AMANPOUR: He was our colleague, the journalist from "The Wall Street Journal".

FOWLER: Exactly. And every time I went into a tent like that, we only went to tents to make videos, I looked -- first thing I did was look on the ground to see if there was plastic, because I figured they wouldn't want blood all over their rugs in the middle of the desert where there's no water.

AMANPOUR: So that's what led you to determine that they weren't going to kill you, because you saw no plastic?

FOWLER: They wouldn't kill me that day.

I'm -- Louie (ph) and I had a --

AMANPOUR: Louie (ph) was your partner, the diplomat there.

FOWLER: I'm sorry; Louie (ph) was assisting me in this mission. He was a Canadian diplomat, loaned to me from the Canadian foreign ministry. He's a wonderful guy and I was very lucky to go through such a thing with him. But the biggest debate we would have is how, of course, how are we going to get out of here.

And between us, we had 75 years of geopolitical analysis, and we kept coming up with bad answers. And we kept trying again and coming up with bad answers. So he would say, well, eventually, they'll, in a humanitarian gesture, they'll let us go. And I would reply, these guys are Al Qaeda, and they don't do humanitarian gestures.

AMANPOUR: How did you know they were Al Qaeda? How did you know?

FOWLER: They told me.

AMANPOUR: They told you?

FOWLER: The first video that -- you had a shot of it up a moment ago -- was a proof-of-life video, a pretty classic step --

AMANPOUR: Of you sitting with them, you and Louie (ph).

FOWLER: And that guy, who is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was the, quote, "emir of the southern Sahara," according to many sources, he runs a katiba or a battalion of Al Qaeda. They said, we're going to film this.

We're going to send it back to Canada and the U.N. and just tell them who you are and who we are. And I said, well, if I'm going to do that, you better tell me who you are. And they said, "We are Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb."

AMANPOUR: So what did you think when they told you that?

FOWLER: I thought my chances were pretty poor, frankly, A, because I'm a diplomat and I'm a Westerner and I'm -- was working for the U.N. and those are all bad things in their view.

These guys are the most focused group of young men I have ever seen in my life. They're -- if you look at them, they're dressed in rags. Their clashes are not nickel-plated. There are no women. There's no slinking off for R&R on the weekends.

They are totally focused to jihad, to dying in the -- in their cause. They believe that the prophet said that 99 out of 100 shall not pass, and but if you die in jihad, you get a free pass to those rivers of milk and honey. And that's what they want.

AMANPOUR: How did you cope?

FOWLER: Well, we had -- we were bureaucrats, so of course, we had rules, right? So we -- our rule, first one, was sort of healthy mind, healthy body, and we exercised. So we walked and walked, before dawn and after sunset. The only -- it was so hot it was the only time you could possibly move.

And we -- if one of us got into a kind of depression, the other one had to pull him out. We had -- our most wonderful rule was no talking about bad stuff after lunch. And the theory there was if we got wrapped around the difficult discussion, we wouldn't sleep. And if we wouldn't sleep, we'd get more depressed. So it was trying to keep hope alive. It never totally eluded us, but it came very close.

AMANPOUR: It's an incredible story to come face to face with these people who everybody is now trying to figure out how to push back.

FOWLER: There's nothing you can say to these guys that would change their mind, nothing.

AMANPOUR: Robert Fowler, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

FOWLER: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Amazing story.

FOWLER: My pleasure.

AMANPOUR: And he was kept for 130 days, and his belt has the notches to prove it. We'll be right back.



AMANPOUR: And finally, imagine a world where just getting to the starting line is Olympic gold. Many athletes say it, but some actually live it, like Mirsada Buric. She's a runner I met during the Bosnian War.

In 1992, I reported on her determination to represent her brand-new country at the Barcelona Olympics, dodging snipers and shells, to train on the streets of Sarajevo. I caught up with her again in Sarajevo four years later as a fragile peace ushered in a new year.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): Tracers streaked through the night. Machine gun fire and Beethoven play in a new year and perhaps a new era. Sarajevo has never abandoned its culture nor its sense of style.

MIRSADA BURIC, BOSNIAN OLYMPIC ATHLETE: Doesn't matter how much that they destroyed this city, they did not destroy the people and their souls and their high morale.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Mirsada Buric has been watching from afar. Her marathon began in the summer of '92, when she was dodging danger, training on Sarajevo's empty streets, to become Bosnia's only Olympian at the Barcelona Games. She lost the race, but she won a husband and a new life. Eric Adam (ph), an American, tracked her down after seeing her on television.

And we started letter writing back and forth with her, and we kind of fell in love through long distance.

BURIC: They were lifelike (ph).

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Peace has brought Mirsada home again. New Year marks her wedding anniversary. She's celebrating by introducing Eric to her family. But it's not the same family she left.

Her 20-year-old cousin, Arna, is smiling now. But sitting in America, watching news of home, this is how Mirsada saw Arna (ph) six months ago, screaming and covered in blood. A shell had hit their building and killed her 12-year-old brother.

Mirsada is showing Eric Sarajevo, but it's not the same city she left, either.

BURIC: I mean, I feel, just feel (inaudible) -- I just can't believe that they had to do all of this to us. For what reason? What did we do to them?

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Taking in the sights, wandering through the ruins, seeing all that has happened since she's been gone, Mirsada is almost a tourist in her own town.

BURIC: She went to my school.

ADAM: Really? You know her?


AMANPOUR (voice-over): An old acquaintance renewed with another familiar tale, every family has a story here. Mirsada's friend, Anisa (ph), lost her brother and father on the bridge. A shell landed and killed both of them six months ago.

Mirsada and Eric visit the small shrine to one of Sarajevo's worst shellings, the one that killed and wounded scores of people this summer, the one that finally got the world to say just how much it was willing to tolerate in the heart of Europe at the end of the 20th century, the one that started the NATO bombing that stopped the Serbs. Eric, the American, wishes his country had stepped in sooner.

ADAM: That's just proved that all along we could have done it the entire time. I mean, that put an immediate stop to the aggression.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And led the way to peace, through the graveyard of people, principles and ideals.


AMANPOUR: What an amazing story. And that is it for tonight's program. In the meantime, check out our website for two other Olympic athletes who've risen from the ashes of war in their homeland to compete in the London Olympics. That's at Thanks for watching. Goodbye from New York.