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Dec 06, 2004

Late Edition, Hunt for Bin Laden

Welcome back to “LATE EDITION.”

Terrorism fears are running strong with the ongoing violence in Iraq and Osama bin Laden still very much on the loose.

Joining us now to help sort out where the war on terror stands, four guests: Michael Scheuer, he’s a former high-ranking CIA analyst, also the author of the best-selling book, “Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror,” as Anonymous.

Reuel Gerecht is a former CIA Middle East specialist, now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington.

Hamid Mir is a journalist who was the last person to interview Osama bin Laden.

And Peter Bergen is a CNN terrorism analyst. He has also interviewed Osama bin Laden.

Gentlemen, thanks very much for joining us.

And let’s go around the table. Reuel, I’ll start with you. We just heard from President Musharraf of Pakistan. Do you believe the government, the military, the intelligence services of Pakistan, are doing everything they can, realistically, to find Osama bin Laden?

REUEL MARC GERECHT, FORMER CIA MIDDLE EAST SPECIALIST: Probably not. I mean, I think Musharraf is in a very difficult position. I think the Pakistani military and intelligence services are probably split on the issue. Bin Laden is somewhat of a cult figure inside of Pakistan.

I think it’s certainly true that since the recent assassination attempts on Musharraf that he has become much more focused on the issue. But I doubt if he is behind a full-court press.

BLITZER: Hamid Mir, what do you think?

HAMID MIR, PAKISTANI JOURNALIST: I disagree with my friend, because Pakistan is the only country in the whole world which has achieved maximum breakthroughs in war against terrorism, arrested more than 600 al Qaeda fighters from Pakistan. And Pakistan army is doing a very good job in South Wiziristan. They have lost hundreds of their soldiers and officers in South Wiziristan. BLITZER: But, Hamid, you will acknowledge there are elements within the Pakistani military and the intelligence service that probably are sympathetic to Osama bin Laden?

MIR: You see, you are questioning the authority of President Musharraf by raising this question. If they are still very powerful, then how Musharraf is cooperating with the international community in war against terrorism?

I’d repeat it, that Musharraf and Pakistan have this real, you see, success in the whole world, that they have arrested all of the important figures of al Qaeda from Pakistan.

And on the other side, the U.S. troops are present in Afghanistan, and you have not arrested any important figure from Afghanistan.

BLITZER: Michael Scheuer, you ran the Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda desk at the CIA, the analytical part of it, for a long time. What do you think?

MICHAEL SCHEUER, FORMER CIA AGENT: I think the beginning of wisdom on this, Mr. Blitzer, is that the Pakistanis, under General Musharraf, have done more than anyone really had a right to expect them to do.

Too often in Washington, we assume that our national interests are identical with all the other countries of the world. And certainly much of what President Musharraf has done has not been in his country’s interest: creating a destabilized area in the Pakistani border areas, taking out the Taliban government, which was government- friendly to Pakistan.

I think what we really are at a point now is where we can’t expect others to continue to do our dirty work.

I would agree with Mr. Hamid Mir that, in Afghanistan, the bulk of the war has been fought by American special forces and by the U.S. clandestine service. Despite leaks by the Pentagon, there was no major U.S. military activity in Afghanistan in 2004.

BLITZER: So the Tora Bora adventure that General Tommy Franks and General John Abizaid and others have spoken about, a major U.S. military offensive, you don’t buy that?

SCHUEUR: I haven’t seen one this year, in 2004, sir. I…

BLITZER: What about earlier, 2002, 2003?

SCHUEUR: Well, we missed at Tora Bora. Bin Laden probably was there, and we chose to use surrogates who were long-time friends of Osama bin Laden. Notwithstanding what the military has said, they simply chose to use — the generals chose to use surrogates.

BLITZER: Peter, what do you think of this decision by the military, the Pakistani military, to remove 7,000 or 8,000 troops from South Wiziristan, an area, these tribal regions where there was widespread speculation that Osama bin Laden or other high-ranking al Qaeda operatives could be hiding out?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, there seems to be a certain amount of confusion, which General Musharraf tried to clear up in your interview with him. But I mean, I think a factual statement is none of the senior leadership of al Qaeda have been found in the tribal areas, whether it’s Wiziristan or somewhere else. They’ve all been found in Pakistani cities.

And so, really, it seems to me, given this record of high-level al Qaeda leaders, who keep getting arrested in Pakistani cities, that it may well be possible that bin Laden is in a town or in a small city somewhere. There is no reason to presume that he isn’t.

BLITZER: You mean like Karachi, where there’s been several arrests.

BERGEN: Yes, which is a city of 15 million. I think that’s unlikely. But certainly, the notion that — there is a conventional wisdom he is in the tribal areas. But despite this big operation we’ve had this year with the Pakistani army, there is no evidence we’ve found of senior members of al Qaeda being arrested in the tribal areas.

BLITZER: What about that, Osama bin Laden, Hamid Mir, hiding out in some town or city in Pakistan?

MIR: I cannot reject this possibility, but if he is hiding in some small town or city, this small town or city is definitely on the border of Afghanistan, because bin Laden is different from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, he is different from Abu Zubaydah. Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah can move individually in a bus or in a vehicle, but bin Laden cannot move without more than 60 to 100 security guards. And in a city like Karachi or Lahore or Rawalpindi, he cannot move with a big convoy.

So, definitely, he is hiding. I agree with Peter Bergen, that maybe he is hiding in a town or city, but that town or city is closer to the Afghan border.

BLITZER: All right. What do you think, Reuel?

GERECHT: I mean, I think Afghanistan is the mothership for bin Laden. I think that’s where he is most comfortable. I would be surprised if he would stray too far. I think his men, that’s something else. And I think bin Laden had long-standing networks in Pakistan, but I would be surprised if he ran too far from the border.

MIR: I would like to add a very small thing, that I was there in Afghanistan, in south and east, in October this year. I was there to cover the election, and I got that opportunity to visit different parts of Afghanistan.

And I can claim here, with full confidence and authority, that I counted 15 districts in south and east of Afghanistan are still in the control of Taliban. It was very difficult for me to move there because I am without beard. So these cities in the east and…

BLITZER: So, that reinforces what Michael Scheuer was saying, that not enough is being done on the Afghan side of this border. Is that right?

SCHEUER: I think so, sir. I think, you know, you can’t expect the special forces and the clandestine service to secure a whole country, and right now that’s about what we’re expecting.

BLITZER: So, before they start criticizing Pakistan, U.S. officials, they should take a look at what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan. Is that fair, Peter?

BERGEN: I’m going to have to disagree with my friend, Mr. Scheuer. You know, if the Taliban were that strong, why didn’t they intervene in the election, which, after all, is the most important event in recent Afghan history? It was a dog that didn’t bark.

SCHEUER: But that was also a Western expectation to think that any Afghan was going to gun down people at the voting booth.

BERGEN: Well, they certainly — the Taliban repeatedly said they were going to do that.

(CROSSTALK)

MIR: I have talked to some Taliban leaders in the southern part of Afghanistan, including Mullah Abdul Salam Rakti. He was the corps commander in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) when Taliban were in control. And he was encouraging Pashtuns to vote for Karzai. And he told me that we are supporting Karzai because he is a Pashtun. We would not like to vote for Yuna Scanony (ph) because he is a Tajik and he belongs to Northern Alliance.

BLITZER: All right, we’re going to continue this conversation and also broaden it. Is there a possibility, a possibility, Osama bin Laden may be hiding out right now in Iran?

More with our panel on who has the upper hand in the war on terror. Much more coming up when we come back.

BLITZER: Welcome back. We’re talking about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Richard Miniter, the author of the best-selling book, “Shadow War,” suggests that Osama bin Laden may be hiding out right now in Iran. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD MINITER, AUTHOR, “SHADOW WAR”: Those robes are very similar to, if not identical to, those worn by Shia clerics. That is to say, not the Sunni — the version of Islam followed by bin Laden, but the majority version of Islam followed in Iran. Shia cleric from the Mashad region. That’s in northeastern Iran.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Let’s talk about the yellow robe that Osama bin Laden was wearing on that most recent videotape. What do you make of that?

GERECHT: Well, I don’t have enough sartorial expertise to judge his whereabouts by his clothing. I mean, I think it’s unlikely that he’s in Iran.

If you would ask me his number-two, Ayman Al Zawahiri, might he be there? I would have a hard time answering that one, because Zawahiri has been sort of a poster boy for the Iranians for quite some time.

But I’m skeptical that bin Laden would want to entrust his fate to the clerical regime.

BLITZER: Hamid Mir, there are other bin Laden relatives hiding out in Iran right now, aren’t there?

MIR: According to an Iranian newspaper two years ago, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri was arrested in Iran mistakenly. And when they realized that he’s Ayman Al-Zawahiri, he was released.

And according to some other reports, Saad bin Laden, who is the son of bin Laden, he is also hiding there. And Salman Jasim Bugat (ph), who was the spokesman of al Qaeda three years ago, he’s also hiding there.

These are the reports…

BLITZER: Do you believe it’s possible that Osama bin Laden is hiding out in Iran?

MIR: You see, I was contacted by some people in July 2002 in Karachi. And they offered me an interview with a very important person in the Iranian territory. And they offered me that you should go with us to Quetta and then slip inside Afghanistan without passport, and then we will manage your meeting with a very important man.

BLITZER: Who was that very important man?

MIR: They didn’t tell me but these people were from al Qaeda. So maybe…

BLITZER: So you thought it was Osama bin Laden?

MIR: Maybe it was Osama bin Laden.

BLITZER: And they said this interview would take place in Iran?

MIR: Yes. And they said, “But you should not disclose the location of your interview.” So I said this is very difficult for me because I am not an American journalist. I’m a Pakistani journalist. An American journalist will not be questioned by the FBI or CIA. So if I travel to Afghanistan and Iran without passport, this is in violation of international law, so I should not do it.

BLITZER: All right. Michael Scheuer, what do you make of all this Iranian discussion?

SCHEUER: I think it’s probably a figment of the neoconservatives’ imagination, sir. Osama bin Laden is somewhere along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. He’s comfortable there.

He’s under no pressure from either side really, even the strenuous efforts that the Pakistani army made in what Waziristan — Waziristan is a small port, part of a huge border.

He’s not going to move around. He’s only in danger when he moves. And certainly he’s not going to put his future viability in the hands of the Iranians.

BLITZER: Have you looked into this issue that Richard Miniter talks about, that the yellow robe is consistent with some garments worn in certain parts of Iran?

SCHEUER: Sir, the robe he wore in the latest video was the same robe he war at the wedding of his son in, I think, April or May of 2000. It’s not at all unusual for him to wear that particular robe.

BLITZER: Peter?

BERGEN: I mean, I’m deeply skeptical of the notion that bin Laden’s in Iran. Certainly, the Iranians have said we’ve got people from al Qaeda. People in the U.S. government have told me that Saif Al-Adel, the military commander of al Qaeda, is in Iran; Suleiman Abu Gheit, as Hamid just indicated, the spokesman of the group. There are senior al Qaeda guys in some form of custody in Iran.

What the Iranians are doing is, no one can really tell. Are these guys sort of on ice? Are they going to be used in bargaining chips for some future…

GERECHT: I mean, I think I’d just add to what Peter said, not only in custody, but have on occasion been caught through intercept communicating with people outside of the country.

BERGEN: Yes.

GERECHT: So I think one has to be careful.

Speculating, I think it is fair to say that there are very suspicious activities going on in Iran with al Qaeda. Jumping from that to believing that bin Laden is there is a different issue.

MIR: If you analyze the Iranian strategy, they always play double games. Previously, they were supporting both Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. They were enemies of each of them, but they were using them in Afghanistan.

Then they also used the same strategy in the Middle East. They were supporting Hamas on one side and secretly supporting PLO on the other side.

So maybe they are playing the same double game again. And you see in Iraq, there is lot of violence.

BLITZER: On the latest videotape that we saw of the number-two al Qaeda leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, did you see anything in that videotape that jumped out at you giving clues as to the strategy, the tactics of the al Qaeda leadership?

SCHEUER: The Zawahiri tape, Mr. Blitzer, was simply closing the loop on a conversation bin Laden has been having with the American people for the better part of two full years, saying, “We don’t really care who your leader is. You’re responsible for your policies.” And what Zawahiri said was, “This is the final time we’re going to talk to you about this.”

And what I took it to be is a reiteration of their effort to make sure that the American people are adequately warned about the next attack that’s going to occur. They’re playing to the American people, and they’re also playing to the Muslim world, where warning before an attack is a religious requirement.

BLITZER: Are you convinced that al Qaeda will try to launch a major, spectacular terror strike against the United States any time soon?

SCHEUER: “Spectacular,” I think, sir, puts too much of the media flavor on it. What they’re looking for is a strike that will hurt our economy and kill people. Yes, I do think they’re capable of that, and I think they intend to do it.

BLITZER: That sounds spectacular to me.

SCHEUER: Well, spectacular, yes, but not — too often Hezbollah- type attacks are spectacular without any real long-term consequence. That’s not what al Qaeda is after.

BLITZER: Peter?

BERGEN: I’ll just second what Mike said.

BLITZER: Reuel?

GERECHT: I’m skeptical. I mean, I think they certainly would want to. I think, if al Qaeda were capable of it, it would have struck us by now.

I think they’ve had a real hard time implanting cells inside of the United States. I think the unsung hero, really, in the war on terror is the American Muslim community. You have not seen the response inside the American Muslim community that you have seen in Western Europe or the Middle East.

I also think the actions in Western Europe, the Western Europeans, particularly the Western European security services, have gotten a lot more serious about Islamic extremism. And that’s the likely launch platform for another attack.

So I’m skeptical.

BLITZER: All right. We have to leave it, unfortunately, right there. An excellent discussion, four good panelists. Thanks very much, Reuel Gerecht, Hamid Mir, Peter Bergen, Michael Scheuer, also known as “Anonymous,” but no longer.

SCHEUER: Yes. No longer.

BLITZER: He’s come in, come out, come in, whatever.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHEUER: I’m here.

(LAUGHTER)

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