May 14, 2003

CNN more on Riyadh attack

May 13, 2003 Tuesday Transcript # 051301CN.V95 SECTION: News; International LENGTH: 1043 words HEADLINE: Inside Al Qaeda BYLINE: Wolf Blitzer, Peter Bergen BODY: WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: No one's claimed responsibility for the Saudi attacks, but a lot of people, including the secretary of state himself, are clearly pointing toward Al Qaeda. CNN's terrorism analyst Peter Bergen has been studying that group for many years. He wrote an important book himself, "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden," a best seller. Peter joins us now from Washington. Peter, this certainly does have the fingerprint at least, the ear markings of Al Qaeda, wouldn't you agree? PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Yes, I mean, we're looking at multiple attacks by suicidal attackers, you know, against high- value targets. That is an absolute hallmark of Al Qaeda, whether it was attacking two U.S. embassies simultaneously in Africa in '98, or attacking the multiple targets it was trying to attack on 9/11. So there is a very limited universe of groups with the capability and motives to mount such an attack, and Al Qaeda was top of the list. It would be very surprising if it was some other group. BLITZER: The -- normally, to undertake an operation like this, it takes some time. There's been some speculation given the warnings last week that Al Qaeda may be plotting in Saudi Arabia, they may have accelerated their timetable. Does that appear to be what's happened in this particular case, based on what you know? BERGEN: Well, it's possible. I think certainly these attacks might have been planned for many, -- for a long period of time. I mean, Al Qaeda spends years planning attacks. This attack may have been on the books for a long time. You know, might it have been speeded up because of the discovery last week by the Saudi authorities of explosives in Riyadh? Very possibly, if indeed that's the same cell that did this attack. So they may have speeded up the attack to coincide with Powell's visit, or they may have speeded up the attack because they thought that the cell was going to be uncovered. Or maybe none of the above. Right now, we don't know enough about it to really -- all we can do is speculate on that. BLITZER: I want to put up on the screen, Peter, and take a look at a timeline of the potential links to Al Qaeda that we've seen coordinated. Timing, as you correctly point out, often a hallmark, a trademark of Al Qaeda. Intelligence suggesting Al Qaeda was in the final phases of planning. That came out last week. And the proximity to the house where explosives were found suggesting of course, that this was a well-coordinated event. Do you find any irony, if you will, only within the past couple weeks the U.S. and Saudi governments announcing that U.S. troops would be leaving Saudi Arabia. This has been a major goal of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda for years. They've said now they are going to be pulling out of the Prince Sultan Airbase and other bases in Saudi Arabia, yet it looks as if it in fact this is Al Qaeda, they may be upping the ante, not only trying to get the U.S. military out of Saudi Arabia, but getting all Americans out Saudi Arabia as well. BERGEN: I agree with you completely. I mean, Bin Laden's principal political gripe was the seemingly permanent presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. That's basically coming to an end. The United States is withdrawing most of those troops. However, clearly Al Qaeda is also willing to attack American civilians, whether as we saw on 911, or the U.S. embassy attacks in Africa, and obviously, they're now willing to attack civilians within the kingdom. And, Wolf, one thing that I think that's very interesting, there have been a lot of isolated attacks in Saudi Arabia in the last year or two. Saudi authorities have tended to characterize those as disputes over the illegal alcohol trade. I think with looking at it through the lens of last night's attacks, you've got to look at some of those attacks and say, were those perhaps also Al Qaeda related? Because clearly, Al Qaeda is willing to attack Westerners in the kingdom itself at this point. BLITZER: I was in Riyadh in December, Peter, and the brief period of time that I was there, a few days, I was over at the Prince Sultan Air Base, security there was understandably quite intense. But in Riyadh itself, including areas where foreigners visited or Americans lived, it didn't seem to me at least to be all that significant. Were the Saudis lax in dealing with this kind of terror threat based on what you know? BERGEN: Well, I mean, let's look at it in a slightly different way. Prince Sultan Air Force Base would be an impossible target for a terrorist group. By the way, ironically enough, the Bin Laden family was involved in the construction of that base. But that base was specifically designed because of worries about attacks against military targets, which had happened before in Saudi Arabia. American or Western civilian targets in Saudi Arabia are, of course, softer targets, they are less well defended, and that's one of the reasons that we saw the attacks, because they're easier to do. BLITZER: What about this latest incident in Chechnya as well? As you know, the Russian government seems to be suggesting a link to what's happening in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. What's your read? BERGEN: Well, I mean, that's hard to tell. I mean, there are a number of people who think that Al Qaeda is, to some degree, regrouped in Chechnya. That point was made. There was a meeting of the G-8 within the last few days. Some of the ministers there said that Al Qaeda remained a threat, and actually mentioned Chechnya or central Asia as a place they're regrouping. So it is possible that there is some kind of tenuous link -- I don't think there's a direct link -- between the Chechnya blast and the Saudi blast, but certainly Al Qaeda's had a presence in Chechnya, and probably continues to do so today. BLITZER: Peter Bergen, with some good analysis for us. Peter Bergen, an expert on Al Qaeda. He wrote that important book "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden." Peter, as usual, thank you very much.