Jan 31, 2002

Peter Bergen: Clues lie in list of hijackers

January 31, 2002 Posted: 7:32 PM EST (0032 GMT) Peter Bergen is a terrorism expert and consultant for CNN. He is the author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden," and he was recently a journalist-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. He was interviewed shortly after the list of suspected hijackers was released by CNN. CNN: Have you had a chance to look at this list yourself? BERGEN: A quick review of this list with somebody familiar with certain Middle Eastern names, particularly Saudi names, reveals that about half of the people on that list have distinctive Saudi tribal names, a lot of them are from the southwest area of Saudi Arabia, a part from Yemen. As you undoubtedly know, (Osama) bin Laden is not only a Saudi citizen, but his family originated in Yemen. A lot of Yemenese moved from Yemen to Saudi Arabia in the past century. So you're seeing that probably about half the people on this list are Saudi, you're seeing a couple of Yemenese. And then a further thing which I think is important, (is that) a source familiar with the bin Laden organization told me just recently, in fact a few weeks ago, that bin Laden veterans returning to Saudi Arabia from Afghanistan have been talking about some big action that was planned in coming weeks. At the time, my source felt that it might be in Saudi Arabia, now it appears, of course, that it was in the United States. CNN: If people were hearing that weeks ago, why wouldn't U.S. intelligence forces pick up on it as well? BERGEN: Well, U.S. intelligence forces did sort of pick up on it, but like every human being, we always tend to see things in the prism of the last event that happened. There were warnings in Saudi Arabia. For instance on July 18, the (U.S.) State Department released a warning of imminent and specific threats against U.S. targets in Saudi Arabia. There was also a closing of the embassy in Yemen. In June there were also arrests of people in New Delhi. So there was attention in the Middle East but not in the United States. CNN: You pointed out that you think some of the names on this list are Yemenese. Yemen brings to mind the attack (October 12, 2000) on the USS Cole and I can't help but make the association between that attack and what has now happened here in the U.S. BERGEN: Well, indeed. Of course the Cole was an unprecedented attack, the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa were also unprecedented. This organization does the unexpected. It's not where the United States thought the attack was going to come. Clearly, as I mentioned, there were indications that an attack was in the offing, the United States government was prepared for it in the Middle East, but obviously not here. CNN: I think we're learning slowly, as we follow this story, not to see things in black and white. One point does not necessarily lead to another. When you look down a list like this, and you see what you say are Saudi names or Yemenese names, does that or does that not necessarily mean a particular link with those countries? Or do you have to be careful not to make that association? BERGEN: Well, I think there are various countries in the world where it's a lot easier to get a false passport. I'm not very familiar with how easy it is to obtain a Saudi passport, but I would guess it's fairly difficult. Some of these passports may be faked, some not. The point is that many of the names on these passports are at least Saudi tribal names, which does seem to bring it back again to Osama bin Laden. CNN: Understanding the world of terrorism as you do, looking at this list, with as little information that is (available) on it so far, what would be the next bit of information that you would like to see to help put this picture together better? BERGEN: I'd like to find out the two closest friends of each of the people on the list and find out what they have to say. CNN: And where those people might be -- that would be a good question as well, I guess. BERGEN: Indeed.