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Analyzing al Qaeda's Chemical Tests

Aired August 19, 2002 - 11:23   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Turning now to CNN's exclusive look inside al Qaeda's archive of terror. The 64 videotapes obtained by CNN correspondent, Nic Robertson, shed some new light on the workings of Osama bin Laden's terror network. These tapes contain revealing, and we must say, chilling images of chemical gas experiments on dogs, lessons on making explosives, as well as some previously unseen images of bin Laden.
Now, in this report, Nic gives us the inside story on getting these tapes.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I had over the course of the last year or so developed other contacts inside Afghanistan who have been very helpful to me in the past. I was more focusing on the new political contacts that I wanted to make, but it was actually one of my older contacts that approached me and said look, I've got some videotape, I think you'd be interested in it.

He came to me in my office in Kabul and offered to show me some of this material. He said he had one tape with him. So I asked him to show me. And I could tell right away that this was something we were going to be interested in. However, he said all the other tapes were somewhere else and that I would have to go and see them. Would it be safe to go and see it or was I being set up here in some way?

We arranged a meeting place and I began the journey at about four o'clock in the morning, got in the car just as the first light was beginning, left Kabul, headed south and then kept going from there. I was riding down with one of our translators and one of drivers and I knew that I was going to meet my source there, that he had told me, my contact had told me that we would be seeing Osama bin Laden's video library.

At that stage I had no idea of everything that was contained within there. I had no idea of some of the compelling, never seen before material, no idea whatsoever.

And we were just going down a maze of back streets. The car stopped outside one tiny little door. We went in through that door, up a steep flight of stairs and into a small room. It must have been maybe about eight feet across by about 14, 15 feet long, red carpet on the floor, no furniture, just cushions around the walls. We sat on the cushions. We were given a cold soda to drink and we started looking at the tapes. We saw, for example, what appeared to be chemical tests being done on dogs where gases were released into the room where dogs were and then the dogs died. I knew nobody had seen this material before.

There were training tapes that, some of them dated 1998, training tapes of al Qaeda going through very precise training, again, not the al Qaeda promotional type training tapes where you see them going under razor wire and firing in the air.

This was training, specific training no ambush techniques. There were training tapes there that showed what I initially thought were some kind of chemical tests being done and I initially associated this with the tests we had seen done on the dogs. I subsequently learned, by showing this material to experts, that this, what we were seeing was pure TNT being made, but not just pure TNT, the fuses, the detonators. And not only that they were being made and manufactured on a training tape, but that there was an associated al Qaeda list that goes with this training tape that shows how you can pick up these chemicals almost from a grocery store in any country.

Beyond that, there was material there of Osama bin Laden I'd never seen before and I felt certain that other people hadn't seen. It was dynamic. I mean you're just sitting there thinking what am I going to do with all this? What does it all mean? How am I going to get it out? And there's so many thoughts that are rushing through your mind. But break it down step by step by step. Get back to Kabul. Step two, show it to some close colleagues. Step three, dub some of it down. Step four, get back to Atlanta.

Every moment driving back to Kabul, have I done the right thing? Is this material what I think it is?

We're going to see Osama bin Laden as we've never seen him before. We're going to see his security detail. We're going to learn things about him that we've never been able to learn before and we're going to expose the way that he operates. We're going to expose his mind set. We're going to expose how he's collected people.

What we have learned here is that the threat from al Qaeda is huge. It's bigger than it was before. It is important for the world understanding that al Qaeda still represents a very, very big threat.


HARRIS: Well, the portions of these tapes showing the chemical gas experiments on the dogs are some of the most disturbing images that we have uncovered in these videotapes.

And joining us now to talk about them and what they may reveal about al Qaeda is CNN terrorism analyst, Peter Bergen, and our national correspondent, Mike Boettcher, who lives, eats, sleeps, drinks and breathes this stuff, as he said earlier this morning.

Glad to have both of you in here in the studio with us to talk about this morning. I want to know from both of you, first of all, what it is that we have seen and heard so far on these tapes that tell you exactly what they were testing, where they were testing it, and how much they may actually have?

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what it tells us is by little evidence, like you hear a slamming -- a heavy slamming door. That matches testimony given in interrogations of al Qaeda prisoners about a heavy slamming door, a heavy door, a sealed door at the compound called Abu Khabab in the Darunta complex of camps, which is just west of Jalalabad.

What's basically happened is, is that there has been satellite imagery of dead animals around this compound. It was assumed there was chemical testing going on. We knew al Qaeda had a chemical and biological manual, but for the first time, al Qaeda's own cameras have taken us inside those walls to see what's going on.

HARRIS: What does it tell you -- what does it tell you, Peter, about what was going on? Does it tell you anything specific about what was being tested, or who it was that was doing the testing?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, I am not a chemical weapons expert, but we know from trial testimony that cyanide gas was being used against dogs, and also a combination of cyanide and sulfuric acid. We know that from the testimony of a terrorist who was -- last year.

And we also know that in February of this year that an attempt was made allegedly to poison the gas -- the water supply of the U.S. Embassy in Rome with a cyanide-like compound by a group of al Qaeda- linked Moroccans.

So I think that in the videotape, there is confirmation of a lot of things that we already know, but it's a very dramatic confirmation. I mean, it's evidence, as opposed to what Mike was saying about, you know, the fact that we have had interrogations in the past that have said this was going on. But now, we see it for ourselves.

HARRIS: What does it say, though, about the sophistication -- the level of sophistication? Perhaps a level of being actually able to weaponize this?

BOETTCHER: Well, you actually see them doing it. I have been told very reliably from a coalition -- more than one intelligence source, that they were able to put a chemical weapon on a mortar round. Now, what we can also tell, by the accents of the people speaking, that everyone except one on the tape is Egyptian. There is one Saudi accent on the tape. What we know about the person who ran al Qaeda's chemical and biological program -- basically chemical, they dreamed about biological, but basically chemical -- was a man named Abu Khabab al-Masri -- his nom de guerre, so to speak, and he was an Egyptian. He only trusted Egyptians. He had eight people working closely with him. Six were Egyptian, one was Algerian, and one was Saudi. So the tape is also consistent with that as well. What we are trying to find out is, was Abu Khabab in that room, since you hear the voices and only at one point do you see a face go by.

HARRIS: Well, you mention the fact you are able to discern that much from listening to the accents. Let me ask you about whether or not there is an Iraqi connection here.

Many people have been asking this administration to come and prove whether or not there is any sort of a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Do these tapes prove whether or not there is or is not one?

BERGEN: Well, they certainly don't prove that there is one. I mean, one of the things -- one of the most interesting tapes to me that was recovered was a documentary about Saddam Hussein, and it criticizes Saddam Hussein for a wide variety of issues, including gassing Kurdish civilians in Iraq. But it is not only a sort of Western critique of Saddam, it is actually an Islamic critique of Saddam, calling him sort of a bad Muslim. So this videotape, to me, kind of confirms my general view that al Qaeda was, in fact, rather anti-Iraqi throughout its history.

BOETTCHER: Yes, I would agree with exactly Peter's analysis of this. There is -- let's say there is a lot of circumstantial evidence of ties and meetings that occurred back in the mid-1990s between al Qaeda and Iraqis. But does that constitute a real tie that exists to this day? There is simply no evidence there that we know of. There may be evidence there, but I don't know of it, that would make that definite tie.

HARRIS: Well, there is some videotape here of some never before -- never seen before scenes of Osama bin Laden himself. Did we learn anything new from that particular part of the videotapes?

BOETTCHER: Well, the interesting thing are the people around him, the way he traveled with his bodyguards. Now, I'm told in that particular tape in '98, one of the most interesting facets, which you will see later in the week in Nic Robertson's reports, is when Osama bin Laden is actually leaving this press conference, there is an unexpected explosion, and he flinches like this. There is a sense from people I have talked to who have analyzed the tapes that he was in an unfamiliar area, not in his home territory, because then they tell them to stop firing, stop firing. It was a salute. The belief is he may, in that tape, be in a similar area where he is right now, which is in that frontier area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now that is purely a hunch right now, but that is what they are working on.

HARRIS: Very interesting. What does this tell us, Peter, about our estimations of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Does this trove of tapes prove that we were underestimating him then, and are we underestimating al Qaeda now? What do you think?

BERGEN: I think it is difficult to underestimate al Qaeda after 9/11. I think the tapes simply confirm what we already know, in a sense. This group had an active training program. It was very serious about it. We see the TNT -- making TNT, firing SAM-7 rocket propelled grenades. Clearly, they were trying to educate people in these areas. I think we knew that, but the point is now we see it, which is quite different from just simply knowing from testimony or from documents recovered.

HARRIS: What is also sobering here is the whole prospect -- the videotapes we saw before, the ones that have been released before, seemed to be sort of just recruiting tapes. These are instructional videos, and there is no way right now, at least, that I know of, that we can find out for sure how many other people have actually received those tapes. What do we know about their tape distribution?

BOETTCHER: Well, we know that a lot of material has been distributed through the Internet on streaming video. Cassettes have been passed around the world. What you see a lot with this library is that the fact -- and I'm told by my sources, that bin Laden was very fastidious about keeping track of his operations all around the world, the training in Afghanistan, and the experiments, and that he wanted to see videotape, and it is likely that this came from his personal collection of videotapes, or Mullah Omar's collection, because copies were made for him.

Now, it tells us that there was an attempt to distribute instructional videos around the world. How much, we don't know. We do know that their manuals on chemical, biological, and their weapons training and training in assassination and intelligence have been distributed widely via the Internet. But it -- you know, one thing about the SA-7 is -- to me, that's a very scary section of the tape where they are holding this surface to air missile, this SA-7, they are Russian made -- I'm told by my sources that an SA-7, or several SA-7s were at the Abu Khabab camp, at a camp right next to it, actually, to guard that facility. Now, if they have those things, those things can bring down aircraft and, you know, that's a dangerous thing. They had gone to the extent of producing a how-to with an SA- 7. Why would they do that if they didn't already have SA-7s?

HARRIS: Let me ask you this finally, if I can, to wrap things up. We understand there were some 250 tapes, Nic only brought back 64. What do we know about the other tapes, where are they, what's on them? Do we know?

BERGEN: I don't. I'm sorry.

BOETTCHER: You will have to ask Nic that, I'm not into it -- no, we don't know.

HARRIS: All right. Let me ask this to wrap things up. Is this unequivocal proof that al Qaeda has developed a system of weapons of mass destruction.

BOETTCHER: I would say on a crude scale, that -- but the thing with weapons of mass destruction is -- if you look at the Tokyo subway attacks, you don't have to use a whole lot of it to really, really disrupt society. And so, even if they have, and we can see by the tapes, they do have, and they have tested it, we have seen for the first time in history a chemical test on a living being.

HARRIS: There is a difference, though, between disruption and destruction, however.

BERGEN: Right. The anthrax attacks only killed five people, but they caused a lot of panic.

BOETTCHER: That's why they call it terrorism.

HARRIS: There you go. Exactly. In a nutshell. Mike Boettcher, Peter Bergen, thank you very much. Appreciate the insight and the expertise. We will talking with you quite a bit throughout this week no doubt.




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