Mar 18, 2004

PB on Zawahiri, interview with Wolf Blitzer

BODY: WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Al-Zawahiri may be involved in a fierce battle that's been going on now for the past couple days. U.S. officials have told CNN that Pakistanis believe it is Ayman al- Zawahiri. U.S. officials have no independent confirmation of that right now. It's the middle of the night, 2:30 a.m., along that border right now. But by daybreak, we do anticipate that Pakistani air assault will begin against these targets. Peter Bergen is our terrorism analyst. He's an author on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and has interviewed Osama bin Laden. He's joining us now live from Washington. Peter, how significant is Ayman al-Zawahiri? PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Very. Arguably, as significant, perhaps even more significant than bin Laden on some levels. Ayman al-Zawahiri has been a professional revolutionary terrorist since the age of 15, when he first joined a terrorist cell in Egypt, in his native Egypt. He's been bin Laden's friend and mentor since the mid-80s when they first met in Pakistan and were involved in the fight against the Soviet Union that was going on in neighboring Afghanistan. Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have lots of different kinds of relationships. First of all, bin Laden has been mentored by Ayman al- Zawahiri. Secondly, Ayman al-Zawahiri has acted as his personal doctor. And I think the consensuses among people who have studied them, al-Zawahiri and bin Laden, is that he influenced him to become more radical, may have precipitated the anti-western, anti-American, the call for attacks against westerners everywhere that came about when al Qaeda was sort of formally announced in May, 1998. So vital to get him. I'm, Wolf, just a tiny bit skeptical that he's actually where he supposed to be. I know that CNN is reporting that Pakistani officials are saying there's intelligence, Ash-har Quraishi on this program, but I'm a little bit leery for the following reason. The fact that these al Qaeda people are setting up a lot of resistance against the Pakistani army is not surprising. Think back to the battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan or the battle of Anaconda ) in Afghanistan where al Qaeda also put up fierce resistance. Sometimes there were high-value targets amongst them, sometimes not. These people are going to put up a lot of resistance because they're willing to die in the struggle. They don't have anywhere to go. If they went back to their native countries, they would face trial or execution as terrorists. So they're going to put up an enormous fight whether there's a high-value target among them or not. BLITZER: There was some suggestion, Peter, that perhaps, in addition to the level of resistance that they're facing right now, suggesting that they're trying to protect a high value target like Ayman al-Zawahiri, there's also a suggestion that the Pakistani forces may have received some advance intelligence pinpointing this location, which would reinforce the suggestion by President Musharraf that someone really important is there, not just the level of resistance, but also some intelligence. That would reassure you if, in fact, there were such intelligence? BERGEN: Yes. That obviously would be quite different. So, I mean, if indeed Ayman al-Zawahiri is there, one thing that's very different from the battle of Tora Bora, where bin Laden disappeared in December of 2001, Afghan forces surrounding him, U.S. Air Force bombing his position, and he disappeared. In this case, it's quite different because you've got U.S. forces on the other side of the Afghan border, who presumably are, as we speak, throwing up some kind of cordon so these people can't disappear back across the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan. So I think if Ayman al-Zawahiri is there we're in a better posture today than we would have been back when we were fighting the Afghan war where we really didn't have quite as developed a plan, I think in terms of trying to set up this hammer and anvil approach where the Pakistanis come in from one side and the Americans come in from another and catch al Qaeda in a sort of pincer movement. That did not happen in December, 2001. It may happen this time. BLITZER: I'm also told by a U.S. government analyst who has studied Ayman al-Zawahiri for a long time just give our viewers some context and I want you to weigh on this, weigh in on this, Peter, that he doesn't necessarily have the same following as Osama bin Laden. He certainly doesn't have the charisma of Osama bin Laden, and he doesn't have the organizational ability of Osama bin Laden. Having said that, there's no doubt he's been a significant player, a real mastermind of a lot of what al Qaeda has done. I wonder what you think about that. BERGEN: I think that analysis is correct. And I think Ayman Al-Zawahri was smart enough to realize quite early on that he does not have the charisma, as you say. He's actually supposedly not a particularly likable kind of guy. People around bin Laden seem to really love him, seem to really respect him. Ayman Al-Zawahri is more the ideologue, the ideas guy, the guy in the background, Osama bin Laden more the charismatic guy, the guy with the money, the guy with the organizational smarts. So I think that analysis is completely correct. But that is not to discount the fact that Ayman Al-Zawahri came up with a lot of these ideas, most importantly, to attack the so- called "far" enemy, the United States, as opposed to simply just attacking the Saudi regime and the Egyptian regime, which had been the kind of policy of al Qaeda and its affiliates before. BLITZER: Let me just recap, Peter, for our viewers who may just be tuning in at the bottom of the hour right now, what's going on. For the past several hours, ever since our Aaron Brown interviewed Pervez Musharraf, an exclusive interview today in Islamabad, we've been reporting that Ayman Al-Zawahri, the man you're seeing right now, is believed to be holed up together with about 200 of his followers in an area in western Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan. There has been fierce fighting under way. There have been casualties on both sides. Pakistani forces preparing a daybreak, a couple or three hours from now, to launch airstrikes against these targets. The assumption is, the No. 2 al Qaeda leader is there, not necessarily Osama bin Laden, because of the level of fighting that has been going on, one U.S. official telling me earlier today that those supporters of al Qaeda are -- quote -- "fighting like hell to defend this position," suggesting a high-value target is there. Those are the words, the high-value target, of President Pervez Musharraf. We're continuing our conversation with our terrorism analyst, Peter Bergen, who has spent a career now investigating al Qaeda, investigating Osama bin Laden. Do they usually travel together or separately? BERGEN: I don't know the answer to that question, Wolf. I can tell you that their relationship is one of, you know, real friendship, and bin Laden has some health problems. Ayman Al-Zawahri is a doctor. I think that they're in communication. We've seen, since 9/11, they have been traveling together. We had pictures earlier on the program. I'm not sure when those pictures were taken, but sometime after 9/11, of them being together. But also we've seen they release audiotapes at different times, one first of all, Osama, then followed by Ayman al-Zawahri, maybe indicating that they're separate. But I do think, whether or not they're traveling together, they are so close that, if you got one of them, you would be very close to getting the other one, I believe. BLITZER: Peter Bergen, stand by. Let's bring back Peter Bergen. Peter, I got a lot of questions, a lot of e-mail from our viewers, wondering why that $25 million reward for Ayman al-Zawahri or Osama bin Laden hasn't generated the capture or the death of either of these al Qaeda leaders yet. What creates the kind of fierce loyalty that some of these tribal leaders in this area along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, creates this loyalty for them that the money may not necessarily mean much? BERGEN: Well, I think there are two factors here, Wolf. One factor is that the people who are directly around bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri, really look at them as religious figures. These are people motivated by religious beliefs who are not influenced by money. Secondly, the tribal areas in which they're sort of embedded, it appears, they're motivated by something called pashtunwali, which is the law of the Pashtuns. It's a tribal code. It puts emphasis on three virtues, as it were, revenge, the giving of hospitality, and the offering of refuge to anybody who seeks it. And these obviously really helps out the members of al Qaeda who are in these regions, because this is very deeply embedded traditions. People will even take in enemies, people they don't like, if they're seeking refuge in these tribal areas. It's sort of like a priest in the Middle Ages offering refuge to criminals. Basically, this is a tribal tradition, very hard to change that. BLITZER: And Pakistani forces and Pakistani leaders have pointed out to me over the years they themselves have been reluctant to go into this so-called tribal area, this no-man's land along the border precisely because it is so dangerous for them to go in as well. Give us a little perspective on this. BERGEN: Well, you know, the word in Pashtun for cousin and enemy is the same word, which gives you an idea how much the Pashtuns like fighting each other, even their cousins. So this is a very warlike group of people. Every male above the age of 12 is armed. Sometimes, disputes in this area are settled with artillery, rather than just small weapons. If you go into the area -- and I've been in this area many times -- people don't live in houses. They live in forts. Literally, everybody lives in a fort. And it's a walled compound. And some of these forts have artillery. Everybody is armed with at least a sort of Lee Enfield rifle, at minimum. And so you're talking about people who have lived under their own tribal code, who resist outsiders, particularly -- they see the Pakistani Army as outsiders. And that's the reason that Pakistan has been reluctant. Now, the Pakistanis are using this fight against al Qaeda also as sort of an excuse or a rationale for establishing more control in these areas they never established control before. They're offering the tribes things like more roads, more water, more money for education to try and sort of bring them into the tent and make them more part of Pakistan. BLITZER: Peter Bergen, reporting for us, giving us some analysis from Washington -- Peter, thanks very much.