Feb 12, 2003

The meaning of most recent OBL audiotape

February 12, 2003 Wednesday HEADLINE: Is There Any Meaning in Timing of Tape's Release? GUESTS: Daniel Benjamin BYLINE: Paula Zahn, Peter Bergen HIGHLIGHT: Among the many questions posed by the new terror tape, is there any meaning in the timing of its release? Could it mean an attack might be close at hand. BODY: PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: The tape which U.S. officials believe was recorded by Osama bin Laden. Among the many questions posed by the new terror tape, is there any meaning in the timing of its release? Could it mean an attack might be close at hand? Joining us from Washington now, Daniel Benjamin at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen. Good morning, gentlemen. Glad to have both of you with us. Daniel, I want to start with you this morning. What do you think is the worst piece of news in this tape for America and its allies? DANIEL BENJAMIN, CTR. FOR STRATEGIC AND INTL. STUDIES: I'm not sure any piece of information in the tape is worse than any other. This is exactly what we would expect bin Laden to be doing at this moment. It's a time of unprecedented tension between the West and particularly the United States and Iraq, and he is moving himself to center stage to show that he's the true leader of the Muslim world. This is perfect stagecraft for bin Laden. KARL: Do you agree with that assessment, Peter? PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Yes. The tape had a number of worries. It's more evidence bin Laden is alive and doing all right, although he is probably in some state of poor health. Clearly, his voice is strong. The audio recording was well made. It's a coherent presentation. He's calling for suicide attacks against Americans. He is aligning himself with the Iraqi cause, although not necessarily with Saddam Hussein, who at one point he says, it's all right if Saddam disappears, which is hardly a ringing endorsement of the Iraqi regime. KARL: Let's talk about the specific threats, Peter. We'll put up on the screen something he said about the possibility of suicide attacks, when he said we also stress the importance of suicide operations against the enemy, those operations that cause so much harm to the enemy in the U.S. and Israel. What are you reading into that threat? BERGEN: Well, I mean, Al Qaeda's modus operandi is suicide attacks, whether it's the attack on the U.S. embassies in Africa in '98, the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, obviously 9/11. That is the secret weapon in a way; the fact they have people willing to die in the cause means they can do a lot of damage. And you know, in the past we have seen audio tapes and videotapes from bin Laden. Earlier, you had John Miller was on, pointing out these other attacks. And I agree with Daniel, in that if bin Laden didn't come out with a tape now, it would be very surprising. After all, this is most important event in the Middle East in the past decade. So bin Laden wants to be part of that. I thin this tape represents very, very disturbing news in coming weeks. ZAHN: Daniel, let's talk about the specific message about the Middle East. We'll put up the screen now, when bin Laden warned Muslim countries against siding with the U.S. He said, "Anyone who assists the U.S. should know that they in infidels deviating from their religion, Islam, and their blood is sanctioned." What do you think he has choreographed here? BENJAMIN: Part of the bin Laden agenda, really at the very heart of what al Qaeda is about, is undermining support for the moderate Muslim regimes in the world, whether it's in the North Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and bin Laden is again stirring the pot here. His hope is to drive a wedge between these governments, which tend not to have a lot of support or a lot of legitimacy, and the populous. And by saying, you know, here I am standing up for the rights of Muslims, here al Qaeda is conducting a true defense of Islamic interest, what are your governments doing? He's twisting the knife one more time. And this is the sort of message that causes great unease in the region, and for those people in the government. They know that bin Laden is their mortal enemy, and this has to cause them a great deal of discomfort. ZAHN: Peter, yesterday on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Powell saying this tape basically strengthens the U.S. case against Iraq because of what he described as a firm Al Qaeda-Saddam Hussein link. Do you buy that link? BERGEN: I think for people looking for that link, the tape will be ammunition for their cause. I think for people who are doubting the link, the tape will be ammunition for their cause. Bin Laden only mentions Saddam once on the tape. He says in the context of if Saddam disappears and his communist, socialist, Baathist Party, so be it; the important thing is to have a jihad. It is not a ringing endorsement. I don't think, in my view, it does not really augment the view there's a strong Al Qaeda/Iraq link.