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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Released Audiotape May Be of al-Zawahiri

Aired May 21, 2003 - 10:02   ET

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

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get right now to that breaking news of this new terrorist message that was just delivered moments ago. Arabic network Al-Jazeera this morning had an audiotape that is purported to be coming from Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant. Senior al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri issues yet another call to arms against many nations.
Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, has listened to that tape here in Atlanta. Nic is joining me here on the set to talk about what it is he has gleaned from what he's listened to on the tape.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Leon, I think one of the first things we need to do is analyze whether or not this is Ayman al Zawahiri, and the people we have had listening to the tape who have listened to his voice before say this voice sounds much younger. It may not be him. There's a lot of noises in the background, there is a lot of editing on this tape. The accent, the Arabic accent, however, is an Egyptian accent, which is consistent with Ayman al Zawahiri.

What he says in this message is that it is essentially a call to arms for Muslims in many other countries around Iraq. He says the United States and the coalition was going to war not only in Iraq but in the whole region, and that the leaders in those countries around such as -- and he names Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, saying that they all supported using their airports, using their seaports, allowing troops to pass through their territories. What he says to the Muslims of those countries is, look, your leaders said that they opposed this war in Iraq, but look at their actions. Look at what they've done.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): ... look at these disbelievers (ph) offering services and bases, letting ships go through their canals and waters and they let planes go through their airspace. Not just that, but also they can offer them their airports and also letting their army go through their land to attack Arab lands. In Saudi Arabia, you can see, and Kuwait, you can see planes taking off and army taking off from Kuwait and Qatar, letting this happen (ph) and Bahrain, allowing troops and boats going through it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTSON: In this call to arms, Leon, it is not a call to attack the leaders of these countries, but very specifically he goes on to call on these followers, to attack the interests of the United States, of Great Britain, of Australia and of Norway. Interesting, because we haven't heard Norway lumped in with these countries before.

HARRIS: That's what jumped out at me at first. It has got to be some sort of reference to Norway's participation in the war in Iraq. But what I am also not hearing is anything that seems to be a reference to any of the recent activity that we've seen happen around the world, particularly the terrorist strikes of last week in Morocco as well. Anything like that on the tape?

ROBERTSON: Nothing that we've heard so far. Again, it's been edited quite heavily. It lasts a little longer than four minutes. Perhaps there's more of a tape somewhere else that we've yet to hear. But no references, recent time references. References, yes, certainly it appears to have been recorded after the war in Iraq or maybe in the closing stages.

The references to those events in Morocco, the attack in Saudi Arabia last week, no. None of that. So, difficult to give it a specific date, and difficult to know if if is al-Zawahiri. But certainly for security intelligence chiefs around the world, this has got to be a worrying moment. Al Qaeda, often, in the past when it puts out messages like this, follows up with some sort of attack.

HARRIS: Then how would you read this, then, if it is not al- Zawahiri, and perhaps if it is issued under his name by someone else, what do we read in that at all?

ROBERTSON: Other elements in the al Qaeda movement deciding to take, perhaps, a leadership action on their own part, perhaps trying to dupe the al-Jazeera television network, perhaps trying to raise already -- when the terror threat level is already being raised in the United States and around the world, concerns are very high in that region at this time, perhaps trying to up the ante a little bit more. Difficult to give it a better analysis than that at this particular stage, but certainly it will be taken very seriously.

HARRIS: What is Al-Jazeera saying about how they got this tape, and if this actually is from al-Zawahiri, as they are saying, what does it saying about where Osama bin Laden is?

ROBERTSON: Very difficult to say. What it says about where the tape was recorded, there was background noise, unusually. And in that background noise, you can hear a child crying, even, which adds, perhaps, to the information that may be able to be gleaned from it. But does it tell us where Osama bin Laden is, does it tell us where al-Zawahiri is? Apparently, not at this stage, but I would imagine every bit of background noise will be analyzed, scrutinized very carefully.

HARRIS: But see, the very fact that there is background noise is something that's remarkable. The other tapes that have come out in the last six months or so, they didn't have any kind of identifiable noise on them whatsoever. It was believed to be by design.

ROBERTSON: Absolutely. Interestingly, again, that it is an audiotape and not a videotape. Perhaps the faces of these leaders -- they don't want to be easily made recognizable by the way they may look today. Perhaps this is why it's an audio tape. There's a lot to be learned, and a lot of studying to be done on that tape, but it doesn't provide us with that really critical information, and it doesn't provide intelligence agencies either with that critical information. Where these people might be, and certainly, Ayman al- Zawahiri, there have been rumors within the Middle East that perhaps he may have been recently -- that perhaps he may be dead. It certainly doesn't clear that up either. So many questions unanswered.

HARRIS: Very interesting. Very interesting. Thank you, Nic. Nic Robertson joining us here on the set. Nice to have you with us here in the flesh for once, my friend.

ROBERTSON: Nice to be here. Thank you.

HARRIS: All right. Joining us now on the phone is your colleague Sheila MacVicar. Sheila is right now in the Middle East, and Sheila has been following the story of these attacks, and has been following the investigation into al Qaeda and its whereabouts for quite some time now.

Sheila, I want to know what it is that you've been able to learn about what is on this tape and what any of this may mean.

SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think there's some things that are very interesting, will clearly be very disturbing to governments and intelligence agencies around the world, and, indeed, perhaps disturbing to people in countries like Saudi Arabia, which is still, frankly, in shock from last week's triple bombing attack.

The notion that there is, again, essentially what may appear to be a call to arms to people who are either followers of al Qaeda or supporters of al Qaeda to go out and carry out renewed terrorist attacks, it would seem -- we know in the past, Leon, that al Qaeda detainees, some of them very senior detainees, have told U.S. intelligence agents that when questioned about tapes like this, that it was their view that tapes like this were issued at times when they knew that there was a plan in place, when they knew there was something about to happen. Essentially, if you will, a kind of pre- justification for whatever took place.

You may recall last fall, there was a tape that time, an audiotape of Osama bin Laden which was released and we then saw very quickly after that a series of incidents: an attack on a French tanker off the Yemen coast, gun attacks against U.S. servicemen based in Kuwait. And, of course, the terrible Bali bombing.

Again, al Qaeda detainees have told intelligence agencies that they think that these tapes act as go signals, that's their interpretation, kind of a green light if you will. But, of course, what is not known is how much information senior leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri would have of what might be in the pipeline of the planning stages, if you will -- Leon.

HARRIS: And that is a very interesting point there, Sheila, because the experts that we have been talking to have all been saying that al Qaeda seems to have splintered off now, and you may have independent cells working on maybe, perhaps, similar types of missions, but not with any real cohesive communications in between all of the cells. And if that is the case, it's interesting to see -- it would be interesting to see if al-Zawahiri actually did know about any of these attacks.

But Sheila, one other thing. In the past, you mentioned the fact that there is a directive like this that is issued by videotape or audiotape or whatever, and then a spate of attacks has followed. In this case, haven't we seen a spate of attacks first, and then delivery of this tape? What do we read in that?

MACVICAR: There is two things. One is we don't know when the tape was recorded. The tape may have been circulating around for some period of time until it ended up in the hands of the Arab language broadcaster Al-Jazeera. So we can't -- and we can't actually date the tape from what is apparently said on it. I think as Nic has previously said, it would appear to have been recorded at some point, perhaps, towards the end of the Iraq war, but that is not certain. There is no specific reference, and certainly no reference to the attacks which took place in Casablanca and Riyadh last week. That would make -- that would be one of the puzzles that intelligence agencies will try to sort out, when was this recorded?

Now the second part of that may be that it may be that al Qaeda leadership wants to reassert itself, having seen what has happened or having had knowledge, perhaps, of what was about to take place recorded this tape in order, if you will, to sort of assert that al Qaeda was still cohesive, the leadership was still intact. There still was a kind of, if you will, organizational structure that had some control or some say over what was taking place. That is, again, one of the questions that intelligence analysts will want to take a look at.

HARRIS: Well, Sheila, let me ask you about another story, and let me ask you if there's any connection here, or if you think there may be between this message coming from al-Zawahiri. There is a story that came out this morning out of Saudi Arabia about a plan that was thwarted to crash a plane into a building in Jeddah. Do you think there's any connection there? What do you know about that?

MACVICAR: Well, a number of things. CNN has been told by a Saudi security source that these three men, who were intercepted by Saudi authorities at the airport in Jeddah on Monday night, it now turns out that they believe that their plan was to hijack a Saudia Airlines plane and fly it into a building in downtown Jeddah.

Now, that's a terrible scenario, and it is a scenario that is all too familiar from 9/11. We know that Saudi authorities found knives on the men. We know also that they're having difficulty in ascertaining precisely what their identities and nationalities are. We do know that Saudi authorities believe these men are linked to al Qaeda. We have been told that they are members of the same cell which carried out the attacks in Riyadh last week. It would appear that al Qaeda, again, given the heightened state of alert here in Saudi Arabia, given the kind of warnings that we have heard coming from the U.S. embassy and others, Saudi officials here in the kingdom, it would seem that there is a grave concern. We know there is a grave concern that more attacks may be in the planning stages, and they may be moving again to target unspecified targets. Again, the language that is used there is imminent. So it does seem as though there is something afoot, that there are clearly operational cells which are in the process, perhaps, of finalizing plans. That is what is of great concern to officials here.

HARRIS: Thank you, Sheila. Sheila MacVicar reporting live for us from Riyadh by telephone.

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