Articles

Aug 10, 2003

CNN panel on terrorism news of the week

BLITZER: Turning now to two deadly bombings this past week, one at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Indonesia and another at the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. These attacks are raising fresh concern that the United States and its allies are still easy targets for terrorism. There’s also questions about whether al Qaeda is behind both of these attacks.

Joining us now to discuss these issues, three special guests: Skip Brandon is a former deputy assistant director of counterintelligence for the FBI. Retired U.S. Army Colonel Pat Lang is a former top Middle East analyst with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. And Peter Bergen is a terrorism analyst here at CNN.

Gentlemen, welcome to LATE EDITION.

Let me begin with you, Pat, and talk about the Jordanian embassy, a soft target, presumably, in Baghdad. When you heard about that, and since then, what have you concluded? Who is responsible for this?

PAT LANG, FORMER MIDDLE EAST ANALYST, U.S. DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: Actually, it isn’t all that soft a target. It is in the middle of town, and it was under guard, so if you were the people planning the operation, in fact, you’d have to figure you’d have to get through all the traffic, all the U.S. Army forces in the city, and then deal with, you know, whatever guard force there was.

So my conclusion is that what you see is you see part of the gathering assembly of forces that want to fight us in Iraq. These particular people probably have an Islamic terrorist connection and probably are linked in some way to al Qaeda overseas.

BLITZER: Skip Brandon, it looks like, based on the eyewitness accounts, that someone drove a car, parked it on the boulevard in front of the embassy, and then these two guys inside the car ran away and it was remotely triggered to blow up, and it caused this huge devastation.

There are FBI agents now either on the way or already on the scene to investigate. What are they going to be looking for?

SKIP BRANDON, FORMER FBI’S DEPUTY ASSISTANT DIRECTOR OF COUNTERINTELLIGENCE: Well, the first thing they’re going to looking for is physical evidence. There’s no question about that. But they’re also going to be working very closely with the authorities in Jordan to try to do the shoe-leather kind of investigation, to be doing interviews, trying to find sources of information, trying to track it back to whoever is responsible for it. It’s going to be a hard, long haul.

BLITZER: When you saw this, Peter, does this have the markings of al Qaeda, the fingerprints, if you will, of al Qaeda, or one of the splinter groups, the associated groups of al Qaeda, all over it?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: One thing is, Wolf, which I haven’t really seen people identify, but on August 7th of 1998 was the embassy bombing attacks in Africa, so five years later to the day we have this attack on the Jordanian embassy.

It’s also the anniversary of the introduction of American troops into Saudi Arabia 12 years ago for Operation Desert Shield, which, of course, is an al Qaeda obsession.

So to me it’s a very high level of coincidence. You also have a bombing against an embassy in a place where we know al Qaeda is now coming back into, in Iraq. So to me it seems that, you know, al Qaeda, or a group like it, as you say, a splinter group makes a lot of sense.

BLITZER: But do al Qaeda bombings, terrorist actions, normally have some sort of symbolic anniversary date attached to them?

BERGEN: In the case of August, in the case of the ’98 embassy bombings attacks, very much so, because it was the anniversary of the introduction of American troops into Saudi Arabia. So, again, this happened on, again, on an August 7th. So I think that’s something to take into account.

The other thing also, I think, is that we have seen jihadists coming into Iraq over the northern border from Syria. You know, whether they’re al Qaeda or something like it, that’s something that remains an open question.

BLITZER: So if you’re Ambassador Paul Bremer, the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, or the generals, the U.S. military generals, the coalition generals who are there, what do you draw from this, the conclusion you draw from this attack on the Jordanian embassy?

LANG: Well, if I was one of the intelligence analysts set up in Iraq right now, I would say that what you have here is yet a further expansion of the kind of attacks you can expect to see, and that the alliance of Jordan with the United States contributed to this very markedly. It’s a clear message there to the Jordanians and other Arab countries in the region.

And that, you know, when you add this all together with all the other activity over the last week or so, what you see is an escalating pattern of violence. It doesn’t seem it’s going away anytime soon, and I think we ought to be prepared for the long haul.

BLITZER: Seventeen people were killed at the embassy, at least 17 people at the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. Another 14 were killed at the J.W. Marriott Hotel, Skip Brandon, in Jakarta, Indonesia.

That seems to also have fingerprints of an al Qaeda- associated group all over it. I assume that FBI personnel are going to be investigating that, as well.

BRANDON: Oh, absolutely. And I think you’re absolutely correct. al Qaeda is not monolithic, but there are ties throughout Indonesia. We know that.

J.W. Marriott is a relatively soft target, and there are a lot of them around the world, where they can really hit and hit rather easily. It’s something to be concerned about.

BLITZER: When I covered President Clinton on his trip to Indonesia a few years back, I stayed at that J.W. Marriott. And all these hotels, American-managed hotels, if you will, around the world, Peter, are very soft targets. What do you do about this kind of business?

BERGEN: Well, that’s not so much my area of expertise, but I do think that — I mean, we saw in Karachi, Pakistan, last May, at a Shearton hotel an attack that killed French defense contractors.

So, any significant American hotel chain that is, you know, in a country where al Qaeda has a presence, I think, has to be very, very worried at this point.

BLITZER: And this notion that one of these Islamic groups in Indonesia, Gamal Islamia, may have been responsible, what kind of relationship do they have with al Qaeda?

BERGEN: I’d say they’re a franchise of al Qaeda in the sense that some of their people went to Afghanistan, trained with al Qaeda. Their sort of philosophy is similar, but they are not al Qaeda itself. I mean, they are based in Indonesia, although they also have offshoots in Malaysia, Singapore. So, I think a franchise group is the best way of naming it.

BLITZER: And Ansar al-Islam, this other group that may be pouring terrorists back into Iraq right now from Iran — there is some suggestion along those lines — what connection does it have to al Qaeda?

LANG: You have to remember, you know, in the West, we think in terms of these kind of Christmas-tree-shaped structures of organization. Islamic organizations are not set up like that. In fact, they are network groups of semi-independent modules of various kinds of groups that have ties involving training and financing and similar ideology, things like this.

So they’re not subordinated to al Qaeda any more than Gamal Islamia is in Indonesia, but they’re allies of theirs in the same cause.

BLITZER: Is it your sense, Pat Lang, and you studied this for a long time, that Osama bin Laden himself is at least partially coordinating these strikes?

LANG: His organization was originally created as a kind of a computer list of personnel assets for the world of Islamic, Wahhabi, you know, Deobandi (ph) kind of terrorists, and he’s provided — used a lot of money for supplies and training, all that kind of stuff.

But my own sense is that he is not in any real sense the commander of this network of more or less independent Islamic terrorist groups. I don’t think that’s true.

BLITZER: If you were still in the FBI right now — you’re retired from the FBI — what would you draw as far as the conclusions, the security threats out there to Americans in the United States and around the world, based on these most recent incidents this past week?

BRANDON: Obviously I don’t want to sound foolish, but I think the threat level is probably, to Americans, is still higher abroad, and I think we’ll start to see an escalation of it.

In some ways, the war in Iraq, right or wrong, no matter what you think, drew down on resources across the board: law enforcement, intelligence, everything. It’s drawn down and has allowed the — as Pat has described very, very well — the rather loose confederation, the franchises, to become revitalized. And I think we’re going to likely to see a lot more of this until we can return and push hard on it.

BLITZER: Well, let me press you a little bit. What do you mean, it’s drawn down the law enforcement capabilities in dealing with these kinds of threats, the war in Iraq? It’s undermined that capability?

BRANDON: We can only do so many things at a time. Resources are not without limit. There’s no question about that.

So when you go to war like we did, you have to look at certain things: law enforcement, protecting U.S. interests in the United States against terrorist threats coming out of Iraq. Certainly the military and military intelligence special forces operation which were so critical in Afghanistan, as we saw, had to be brought into Iraq.

The intelligence community has to be stretched thin. You can’t do it all a thousand percent.

BLITZER: On that point, though, Peter, the administration insists they can do it all, they are doing it all.

BERGEN: Well, I mean, I was in Afghanistan relatively recently, and obviously, the Taliban is somewhat resurgent in, at least, the south and east of Afghanistan. We’ve only got 8,500 American troops there. You can’t — it’s a country the size of France.

So, obviously, you can’t do it all. I mean, that’s just impossible.

BLITZER: You wanted to weigh in, Pat.

LANG: Well, things are coming together, interestingly, you know. I hear people in Washington saying that if the Jihadis and the Arab nationalists and everybody wants to come to Iraq to fight us, you know, let them come. We will fight them here.

Actually, they feel the same way. It’s my impression that if there is a battlefield on which they can fight us and to prove that we are willing to back away, they will accept that. So I think that’s why you see this continuing growth in Iraq.

BLITZER: The suggestion that I think you’re making, Skip, is that, since security levels have been beefed up here in the United States, it’s much harder for them to do another 9/11 or something similar in the United States, but there are a lot more soft targets, including U.S. targets, outside of the United States.

BRANDON: Yes, I don’t discount the fact that there’s certainly a threat in the United States. They would like to bring home another 9/11. But it is harder for them. It’s always been hard. It’s much harder now.

Our soft targets, American targets, are abroad. There’s no question in my mind.

BLITZER: When you saw that Bali bomber who was convicted, sentenced this past week in that courtroom in Indonesia, stand up and smile and look at the families of the victims — and I want to show our viewers that once again — what does that say about these kinds of terrorists?

BERGEN: Well, there’s the picture. I mean, he’s delighted. He’s delighted that he’s being sentenced to death. I mean, so you’re dealing with something with a rather different kind of world view than most other people.

BRANDON: It’s an otherworldly view.

(LAUGHTER)

LANG: He thinks he’s going home…

BERGEN: Right.

LANG: … so he’s celebrating to his friends the fact that they’re going to let me go home. That’s his…

BLITZER: He doesn’t fear death, in other words?

LANG: He does not fear death.

BLITZER: Is it fair to say he’s looking forward to death?

LANG: Probably.

BLITZER: How has he been brainwashed to believe that? LANG: Well, there’s a long process involved in getting yourself hooked up with the right kind of mosques, the right kind of ulema, who tell you over and over again that, when you die in the cause of Islam, you will not really die, this is shihadah (ph), you will go directly to your reward. And it is a worthy thing to expect, and he believes that.

BLITZER: The African embassy bombings, fifth anniversary this past week, as Peter pointed out, the U.S. embassies. A lot of people were killed, obviously, including many Americans, in those bombings.

Are you confident right now, Skip, that the FBI and others have taken the kind of measures, have learned the lessons from what happened five years ago, to protect U.S. installations around the world, diplomatic installations around the world since then?

BRANDON: They know the lessons. The question is whether our installations are fully protected, and I think that we find that some of them remain relatively vulnerable. That’s pretty sad.

BLITZER: It’s in part a result of money that…

(CROSSTALK)

BRANDON: Absolutely, resources.

BLITZER: … the State Department budget has not come up with the kind of resources to build new embassies, to move them off of main thoroughfares, where they might be easily targeted.

BRANDON: It’s easy to talk the talk.

BLITZER: And more difficult to walk the walk?

LANG: Oh yes. And hotels, in particular, are very vulnerable overseas, because they have to receive guests, and they have to have a lobby. I remember the incident in which — in the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo, 30-some tourists killed, lined up to register in the hotel.

BLITZER: This past week, we also got word that there — the U.S. law enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security is getting indications that terrorists are learning to use like cell phones, cameras, even remotely controlled keychains, to weaponize them, if you will, and get them on planes and can cause enormous damage.

It sounds like this is a serious problem.

BRANDON: It does. That’s been there for a long time. The real experts have known for a long time that, just with a really small amount of explosives, you can bring down a plane. All you need is a bit of electric current and a detonator of some kind, and you can do it.

I think this is a preemptive sort of thing that we’re doing right now, is we’re saying to the other side, we know you’re out there, we’re going to stop it.

BLITZER: We’re going to take a look at all the stuff that you hand-carry on top of a plane.

Let’s take a caller from Florida.

Go ahead, Florida.

CALLER: Yes. Here in the United States, are safeguards being taken to prevent privately owned planes from being used by terrorists to carry explosives or even biological weapons?

BLITZER: That’s an excellent — that’s a good question. We know about the commercial, but the private jets, you can get on one of those pretty easily without going through much security.

BRANDON: That’s been a tremendous area of vulnerability. The private jets, or the nonpassenger-carrying, even the commercial freight haulers, large jets that could be hijacked…

BLITZER: Why don’t they bolster them? Why don’t they beef that up?

BRANDON: It’s a matter of resources and money. It’s a matter of will, Wolf, it’s a matter of will. I think we’ve gone halfway in some of these areas.

BLITZER: The whole notion of these color-coded charts, there’s a report now from the Congressional Research Service that it’s become so vague, the various colors, yellow and orange and red, that there’s a question whether they even have any credibility, any authenticity.

What do you make of that?

LANG: I don’t think the general public ought to pay any attention to it at all, to tell you the truth. It’s an internal device in the government, for the federal government to make some indication to the states and people what, generally, they think the situation is like.

A lot of these things get attention in the press that don’t deserve it, like the deck of cards in Iraq. I mean, this is a mnemonic device to give to soldiers, so they might recognize these pictures, in the belief that soldiers won’t throw a deck of cards away, which they likely do with almost anything else.

And so, you know, this has gotten a big play, and it probably doesn’t deserve it, I would…

BLITZER: All right. Unfortunately, we’re out of time, but we’re going to leave it right there.

Pat Lang, thanks very much.

LANG: Sure.

BLITZER: Skip Brandon and Peter Bergen, as usual, thanks very much for joining us.

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