Mar 25, 2003

Orlando Sentinel on al Qaeda 2.0

Channel expands meaning of news By Hal Boedeker | Sentinel Television Critic Posted March 25, 2003 In becoming a television network tonight, The New York Times isn't delivering all the news that's fit to air. Rather, it's launching the Discovery Times Channel with two striking documentaries. At 8, the excellent Al Qaeda 2.0 examines the terrorist group's move to the Internet. At 9, the wrenching Terror's Children profiles Afghan youngsters who struggle in Pakistan refugee camps. "We're a documentary network with a journalistic flair," says Vivian Schiller, the channel's general manager. "The point of the network is not to take Times reporters and turn them into TV stars. It doesn't mean turning stories into television." The channel is available in about 29 million homes through digital cable or satellite dishes. The channel, previously known as Discovery Civilization, is a 50/50 venture between Discovery Communications Inc. and the Times. The channel has cross-promotional benefits to the newspaper, which will highlight the next day's edition in a three-minute segment called Page One at 10 nightly. Columnist Thomas Friedman appears tonight in short segments that preview his special, Searching for the Roots of 9/11, airing at 10 p.m. Wednesday on the flagship Discovery Channel. Discovery Times' availability might be limited for now, but Al Qaeda 2.0 is a program that should have wide interest. Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc., serves as writer, correspondent and producer. "One of the themes is al-Qaeda is as much an ideology as a group," Bergen says by phone. "Web sites are updated regularly with the thoughts of leaders of al-Qaeda. There are manuals on how to make explosives. That's a new development: the increasing virtuality that allows al-Qaeda to function anywhere." The documentary finds that the December 2001 battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan was a missed opportunity because only 23 al-Qaeda fighters were captured. Cofer Black, the State Department's new counterterror chief, gives his first television interview and assesses the progress. "More than 3,000 al-Qaeda and their supporters have been arrested and detained," he says. "The odds are with us, we will be victorious, no question about it -- you can quote me. However, between now and then, we are very concerned about the losses we risk." The war on terrorism scored a major victory this month when Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was apprehended in Pakistan. Yet al-Qaeda is reorganizing itself into a less-centralized group. "There is an impending attack coming, and this attack is immense, huge, either as big or even bigger than Sept. 11," says Saad al Fagih, a London-based opponent of the Saudi kingdom. The program points to Karachi, Pakistan, as the new center for al-Qaeda since it was pushed from Afghanistan. The terrorists have built partnerships around the world, especially Southeast Asia: A plot on Singapore was stopped, but an October strike on Bali in Indonesia killed more than 190. According to an FBI report, the terrorists aimed to attack "soft" spots like bars and nightclubs. The code phrase for their main target was "white meat," a reference to Americans. That revelation caused the audience to gasp at a screening last week, Bergen says. The documentary suggests that al-Qaeda could turn to Bangladesh, because it's a large Muslim country with many militant Islamists. It appears that terrorists have migrated from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Bangladesh, Bergen says. But wherever they are, they are linked through cyberspace. In promoting an October program for MSNBC, Bergen discounted a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. He, as CNN's terrorism analyst and one of the world's top al-Qaeda experts, hasn't changed his view. "There's not a lot of there there," he says. "Colin Powell gave the best presentation of links, but even people in U.S. law enforcement and European intelligence discount a lot of that. It's a reach." As for the progress of the war on terrorism, Mohammed's arrest March 15 "probably made all of us a lot safer," Bergen says. The war on Iraq, however, will boost al-Qaeda's recruitment efforts, he adds. "It plays into al-Qeada's view that America is at war with the Muslim world. If the war is conducted with lightning speed and there are limited casualties, those concerns could disappear. If it doesn't, it will serve as a recruiting tool." With the war, the United States is testing the strength of al-Qaeda, Bergen says. "The next three weeks will tell us if al-Qaeda can pull anything off," he says. "If they can't, it's a real sign of weakness on their part. If nothing happens, we can say al-Qaeda appears to be severely impacted."