May 09, 2003

CNN discussion of latest al Qaeda threat

The big question we can pose tonight: Is al Qaeda back stronger than ever, planning more attacks on the United States? Well, that possibility is being raised tonight. An Arab weekly magazine based in London is quoting a purported al Qaeda spokesman who says the organization has regrouped and is planning a new strike on the U.S. as big as the 9/11 attacks.

Terrorism analyst Peter Bergen joins us from Washington now with the very latest.

First of all, Peter, what do we know about this spokesman?


This is the first time that this guy has come forward presenting himself as a spokesman. We have, in the past, seen somebody called Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti, who was the spokesman after 9/11. This man is a different person. It's really hard to know if he really speaks for the organization or not. This Arabic magazine believes that he does at least speak -- that he has some relationship with al Qaeda.

He's saying that al Qaeda is regrouping and that there are new leaders coming up and that the arrests haven't disrupted them of their senior leadership, for instance, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the military commander who was arrested recently. They're also talking about spectacular attacks on the scale of 9/11, which is basically what you would expect them to say. They're not going to say: Hey, we're out of business. We're severely disrupted. The war on terrorism has been a tremendous disaster for us, which, obviously, I think is really the case.

They have been disrupted. They weren't able to pull off anything during the Iraq war, which was clearly their intention. Bin Laden made a couple of statements before the war calling for jihad and attacks against Western targets. Those just didn't really happen. There was a surprising absence of terrorism during the war. It's too early to write, Paula, the obituary of al Qaeda. I wouldn't be doing that.

On the other hand, clearly, they've been disrupted and that is a good thing.

ZAHN: But with the organization degraded, there's still a fear when you talk with members of the administration that they are a very patient group.


ZAHN: They take many, many years to plan operations. No one should be breathing a sigh of relief here.

BERGEN: I couldn't agree with you more.

It took them five years to plan the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa in '98. It took them two years to plan the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. It took them 2 1/2 years to plan 9/11. We're only 18, 19 months past 9/11 now. Just because we haven't seen a serious attack doesn't mean that they're not planning them. This is not a group that sort of -- I don't think Osama bin Laden is going to suddenly retire and stop his war against the United States.

You can't compromise with this group. You can't negotiate with them. They are very intent on killing Americans. It was a mistake to underestimate them in the past. Perhaps we are overly worried about them now, but that is an appropriate response to what happened on 9/11. And I don't think we can write their obituary. Maybe if we're having this conversation, Paula, three or four years from now and we haven't seen a serious attack against an American target, you'd say, hey, this group has really been out of business, but it's too early to have that conversation yet.

ZAHN: Finally, tonight, before we let you go, could you link two contradictory reports coming out of Saudi Arabia for us tonight? On one hand, there is a report that there may be as many as 19 men wanted on terrorism charges connected to al Qaeda. And then you have a member of a royal family of Saudi Arabia coming up out at the same time saying al Qaeda is nonexistent.

BERGEN: Well, the latter statement is absolutely ridiculous. The largest number of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are Saudis. And Saudis play a very important role in this organization.

And to say that al Qaeda is nonexistent is completely ludicrous and very irresponsible, particularly for somebody in the royal family. And, as you say, 19 people have been arrested in Saudi Arabia just in the past day or two. And these people had 55 handmade bombs. They had 400 kilos of explosives, three machine guns. These are not the kinds of things that most people have in their houses. And this group was clearly planning to attack targets within Saudi Arabia.

The United States government recently issued another travel advisory for Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda obviously exists in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And it's very irresponsible for leading members of the royal family to make these kind of statements.

ZAHN: Peter Bergen, we are going to have to leave it there tonight. Thanks so much.