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Nerve-racking trip brings terror tapes to light

Nic Robertson
Nic Robertson  

By Nic Robertson

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- What worried me from the moment I first saw the tapes was whether I would be able to get them out of the country.

Despite the presence of international peacekeepers, Afghanistan is still one of the most lawless regions of the world, and I was hundreds of miles from help. I had what I thought was the biggest story on Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization since September 11, and no safe passage to tell it.

As we left behind the fetid, labyrinthine back streets of the town where we had come to see the tapes, I was desperately suppressing the urge to turn back and somehow get a guarantee I had not been taken for a fool. I wanted to know I wasn't the focus of some elaborate hoax that would somehow wind me up in hot water.

I was about to drive across country overnight -- about the most dangerous thing you can do in Afghanistan -- and for the sake of what? Material that might already be in the public domain, but might also shed unprecedented new light into the inner workings of the terrorist network: a trove of al Qaeda videos purporting to be bin Laden's own collection.

But I had trusted my contact so far; I had to trust him now.

He'd turned up unexpectedly at our Kabul office a few days before with videotape he said I should see. He told me he had many more, and that I should come to his hometown to see them. Thoughts of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was viciously murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan earlier this year, did cross my mind. My contact had earned my trust over the many months I had known him. I had always thought he would come through for me. He had, and now -- more than ever -- I was hoping he wouldn't let me down.

My uneasiness continued even after I had gotten the tapes. On the overnight 17-hour drive back to Kabul, the car pitched and rolled on the heavily rutted dirt track. I lurched between spasms of fear: fear that I'd been duped, layered between the more-usual Afghan fear of being held up by armed bandits and having everything taken from us. If that happened this time, the material would be gone, as well.

In the dark, guards at one friendly roadblock stopped our car, warning us there were just such bandits ahead. As we huddled in the car, waiting for daybreak, I continued to mull over the likelihood of having been double-crossed. That prospect began to seem less likely, the farther we got from the guys we had got the tapes from.

But I was still hundreds of miles from Kabul and I 'd yet to figure out how I was going to get this scoop back to CNN's headquarters in the United States. The preview of the tapes that I had been shown was horrifying. The images swirled around in my mind: Chemical-gas tests on dogs. Video lessons on making pure TNT. Outdoor instruction on assassinations and hostage taking. Also festering in the frightening mix of images were never-before-seen shots of Osama bin Laden and his security detail firing wildly in the air as they made their way to announce their new jihad against Americans back in May 1998.

I couldn't tell anyone what I had until the tapes were safely in the hands of our analysts in Atlanta. My fear that competitors at the other American networks would hear about the material before we could get it on air prevented me from telling all but a couple of my closest colleagues. In the ultra security-conscious environment of Kabul, I didn't even dare talk about it on the phone to my wife back in London. All the time, the feeling of potential failure gnawed inside my gut, tying my stomach in knots. Eating ceased to be a pleasure, and became only possible when my tummy relaxed enough to distinguish gnawing hunger from gnawing fear.

As I waited to leave Kabul, the horror of what I'd seen and what it all meant was beginning to take hold. I was fighting the natural journalistic impulse to broadcast from our satellite dish right there and then. I knew, however, that I needed to get the tapes in the hands of experts who could fully explain the chemical agents involved. They would also be able to confirm whether what I feared most was true -- that the tapes I had were proof of the opening of a frightening new chapter in the book of al Qaeda's relentless anti-American inspired terror campaign.

Getting the tapes required a 17-hour drive from Kabul, through dangerous territory.
Getting the tapes required a 17-hour drive from Kabul, through dangerous territory.  

Arriving in Atlanta, I joined forces with our groundbreaking al Qaeda coverage team. As I put the first tape in the VCR, I felt the moment of truth had arrived. Either there would be a collective sigh as they realized the images had all been seen before, or there would be a gasp of surprise.

Instead, there was stunned silence.

I had warned them of what they could expect to see. Like me at my first viewing, no one quite knew how to react. One of our group left the room. I played more of the tapes. Silence soon gave way to a cacophony of ideas. Names of the world's leading experts and analysts, and ideas for programming poured out. From being fearful of their reaction to the material, I had gone, in one quick leap, to facing the serious new concern about the amount of work that lay ahead.

In trying to get revelatory stories to air, we could not afford to miss important details or overlook the implications of what this library of tapes told us. E-mails started flashing around the globe as we grappled with the task of bringing in the best minds to explain what we had. As I shared more of the tapes with my colleagues, however, I soon found we had many of the answers already. The bomb-making tape with its step-by-step chemical cookery class was a video version of documents already discovered by CNN in Afghanistan. Likewise the urban assassination and hostage-taking video and the pistol training information, all of which was replicated in boxes of al Qaeda papers we had filed away. But now we had the pictures to prove how the training was put into practice.

It's easy now to think back to how I felt the day I first saw those pictures: of my shock, and the feeling of needing to bring them to the world's attention. Of my fear that somehow I was mistaken or that I would be thwarted before I could broadcast the gruesome new truth about al Qaeda.

For that is the point of making this material public: not to frighten the public, but to make clear the scope of al Qaeda's evil plans.

-- Nic Robertson is a senior international correspondent based in CNN's London bureau.




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