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Reports Say Muhammad Atef May Have Been Killed

Aired November 16, 2001 - 10:02   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: In a moment, to the Pentagon and Bob Franken. First though, to Washington and David Ensor with some late developing news on leading al Qaeda members.

David, what do you have for us, good morning?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Bill.

Well, U.S. officials say that they have credible reports suggesting that Muhammad Atef, one of the very most senior of the al Qaeda leaders, may have been killed. Officials say that it appears -- intelligence information suggests that Muhammad Atef, considered the number two man in the al Qaeda structure, the military commander, may have been killed in an air strike to the south of Kabul. Now officials stress that they haven't seen the body, they don't know 100 percent that Atef is indeed dead, but they believe that he is.

Muhammad Atef was -- started his career as an Egyptian policeman, but become in the al Qaeda group it's leading military strategist. His daughter is married to the son of Osama bin Laden. They had a very fancy wedding that was videotaped and that videotape was shown to the world some months back. So this would, if true, be a very serious blow to the al Qaeda organization, a loss of one of its key strategists.

Muhammad Atef, as I say, an Egyptian, a key or one of the two top people underneath Osama bin Laden. He had been talked about as a possible successor to bin Laden in the case he was killed or captured. So U.S. officials saying they have credible information that suggests the Egyptian may have been killed in an air strike south of Kabul -- Bill

HEMMER: David, we have some videotape that crossed through Al- Jazeera back in early September -- mid-September, actually, if I remember correctly. There was a scene of leading members, Muhammad Atef, Osama bin Laden, standing in an open desert area. We're going to roll that when we find it. But as we continue to talk about this, specifically within al Qaeda and his relationship with Osama bin Laden, do we know where that was fostered and what role specifically he has played lately?

ENSOR: I don't know where it was fostered. There may be those who do. But in terms of his role, it has been a critical role. He has been accused of masterminding some of the most recent and most devastating terrorist attacks on U.S. targets. There was talk that he might have actually been the mastermind of the World Trade Center attack on September 11. So he was one of the brains of the operation, so to speak. Both he and Ayman al-Zawahiri, also an Egyptian, were considered the two sort of top strategists of al Qaeda. And if he has been lost, as appears to be the case according to these credible intelligence reports, it is a devastating blow to the al Qaeda organization, Bill.

HEMMER: All right, David, thank you. And when you get more information, come on back, OK? David Ensor, working that story in Washington for us.

Want to go now to the Pentagon. Again, we're getting word just about an hour ago from the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that U.S. special operation forces on the ground have been involved in ground combat.

To Bob Franken to flush this out for us.

Bob, good morning.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Bill.

And they've been making that clear for the last couple of days that as more special operations troops from the U.S. go into the area, they estimate now about 100 or 150 are in the country, that they are not involved in the advisory capacity that they had been. They are now involved in very aggressive special operations kind of combat. We've described in the last couple of days how they are searching for Osama bin Laden, how they are going after some of the other Taliban forces, that they're very aggressive.

And we had the Secretary of Defense, as he talked to reporters on the plane to Chicago today, becoming even more explicit when he said they are killing Taliban that won't surrender and al Qaeda that are trying to move from one place to another. That was the comment from Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He's holding a news conference in a short while in Chicago and certainly will be asked about that.

But that kind of description of the special operations forces, as I said, has been made clear now for several days, most recently by the man who is the commander in chief of the central command that is running the entire military operation at a briefing at the Pentagon, General Tommy Franks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GENERAL TOMMY FRANKS, COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: Their rules of engagement are the standing rules of engagement that we use with our -- with the -- with all of our forces. When they're threatened, when property is threatened, when they come in contact with enemy forces identified as enemy, they destroy those -- they destroy those forces.

(END VIDEO CLIP) FRANKEN: And so what we've heard, Bill, is perhaps a slightly more explicit description of the same kind of comment from the Secretary of Defense which is that the special operations force, who are described as those that engage in unconventional warfare, are very much engaged right now in unconventional warfare -- Bill.

HEMMER: And, Bob, he used the word "hundreds," that come as a surprise at all?

FRANKEN: No, as a matter of fact, a couple of things. No. 1, General Franks made it clear that they've actually been in the country for quite some time. Of course, we haven't known about that. They made it clear that we wouldn't know about that. And they've gone over 100 now, and there are going to be more going in doing a variety of things. They've been seen on the ground by many CNN reporters involved in a variety of activities. Anytime they see reporters or cameras, they get away real quickly.

HEMMER: All right, Bob, thanks.

Bob Franken at the Pentagon, when it moves, let us know.

Bob will be back shortly.

Again, David Ensor reporting from Washington that Muhammad Atef, a leading adviser to Osama bin Laden, the U.S is now saying they believe he was killed in an air strike at some point over the past two days. We'll continue to track that story as we move again throughout the morning here.

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