Dec 08, 2002

Abu Ghaith statement: CNN Interview

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: An audio statement attributed to a known associate of Osama bin Laden reportedly threatens more attacks on Christians and Jews. The statement on al-Jazeera TV purportedly by Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, says quote, "The Jewish crusader alliance will not, God willing, be safe from attacks anywhere. We will attack strategic interests with every means we have." end quote. CNN cannot confirm the identity of the voice on that statement. CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen joins us for a look at the meaning behind this statement, and a little bit more about who this person just might be. Good to see you, Peter.


WHITFIELD: All right. So he is purportedly a good friend of Osama bin Laden, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith,. Who is he?

BERGEN: Yes. Well, he emerged relatively recently. He's a Kuwaiti who was involved in teaching school. He became involved in the radical Kuwaiti Islamist groups. About six months before 9/11, he traveled to Afghanistan. The first that the world had ever heard about this guy is on October 7, 2001, where you may remember when bin Laden made his first statement after 9/11. He was flanked by the top leadership including Abu Ghaith, who was described as a spokesman for the group. That's the first time that we'd -- that anyone had ever seen this guy. He then pops up in another -- a number of other statements he's made in the past year. Probably, I don't know, five or six public statements, calling, telling Muslims not to take airplanes or live in high buildings, calling for more attacks against the United States, and the western allies.

WHITFIELD: Is he considered a lieutenant or is he considered just a trusted friend? And is there a difference?

BERGEN: Well, he's described as a spokesman of the group. So he's the Ari Fleischer, if you will, of al Qaeda. So I don't think he's the most important member of the group certainly, but he is certainly somebody with some public profile. And I think the fact that al-Jazeera has a statement from him, al-Jazeera has a good track record of confirming the identity of these statements. And I take his threats at face value, that he's part of the leadership of the group.

WHITFIELD: As I say, CNN is unable to confirm whether the voice is indeed that of this man, Abu Ghaith. But at the same time, does this message, at least the scripture of what we're reading in this message to be sound like a credible threat coming from a source just like that?

BERGEN: Well, it's part of a pattern of a whole series of statements we've had. We've had an audiotape from Osama bin Laden, in early October, another audiotape from Ayman Al-Zawahiri in early October. We also have a six-page letter purporting to be from Osama bin Laden laying out -- and so this is part of a pattern of increasing crescendo, calls for attacks against American targets, western targets, and Israeli targets. And we've seen some of those things happen, in Bali, killing a lot of Australians, also the attacks in Kenya, aimed at Israelis. So I anticipate a lot more of these low-level attacks.

WHITFIELD: What does it say to you, if anything, about any possible change in strategy in terms of communication from that terrorist group, and Americans, or Israelis, other westerners?

BERGEN: Well, certainly the target, if you will, the number of targets has increased a lot. Al Qaeda tended to attack American military or governmental targets in the past. I think now it's going to attack all sorts of western targets, and economic targets, and softer targets. They are much easier to do. They are ubiquitous. They're everywhere. And I think that the statement we have from Abu Ghaith is just one more indication that this group is planning to do these kinds of attacks pretty much around the world. Unfortunately, they can be anywhere at any time. I don't think they're going to be anything on the scale of 9/11 but they're still going to be reasonably significant.

WHITFIELD: If Osama bin Laden is still alive -- and I still say if -- why wouldn't a message like this come from the horse's mouth, and why instead from this good friend?

BERGEN: Well, the spokesman has been releasing quite a lot of statements. Bin Laden, I think, is indeed alive. The last four- minute audiotape from him referenced the Bali attacks. And it's been authenticated by the U.S. Government as being his voice. Bin Laden may be in kind of poor health. That may be why he is not producing -- making more of these statements, but he's also pretty security conscious. The more statements he makes, there's a chain of custody that gets this thing to al-Jazeera television. That's a chain of custody that surely a lot of intelligence agencies are looking at, to see how these messages from the top leadership get to al-Jazeera. And I think that they're quite careful about security. So they're not going to release multiple messages from Osama bin Laden himself.