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Terror on Tape: Look at Road Traveled to Obtain Al Qaeda Tapes

Aired August 19, 2002 - 08:05   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: OK, on to our series now, Terror on Tape.
In our five part series beginning today, CNN's Nic Robertson reveals some frightening new video of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terror network. The tapes show disturbing images, including experiments with poisonous gas and lessons in bomb making.

The road Nic Robertson traveled to obtain these tapes is compelling in itself. He joins us now to describe the journey -- good morning, Nic.


ZAHN: How did you find out about these tapes?

ROBERTSON: A contact came to see me, somebody I'd known for a number of months in Afghanistan. He turned up unexpectedly at our office in Kabul and began to explain to me what he had.

ZAHN: When he told you where these tapes were, how concerned were you about your own personal safety?

ROBERTSON: Traveling around Afghanistan, and it did mean traveling a long way, you do have to be concerned. There is some security from the international peacekeeping force in Kabul, but once you get outside of Kabul, it is relatively lawless. So whenever you leave the capital, you do have to be concerned about your security en route.

ZAHN: We're going to take a look now at what you were up against as you tried to get a hold of these tapes. Let's watch.


ROBERTSON (voice-over): 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.


ZAHN: And Nic Robertson joins us now to talk a little bit more about this.

One of the most chilling things I heard you say when you referred to the threat of al Qaeda is that the threat is bigger than it was before. What evidence do you have of that?

ROBERTSON: The sum of the knowledge that experts have explained to us from this material is much greater, the knowledge of how sophisticated al Qaeda has become in its training, how it's aiming that training at taking it into an urban environment, that it has made training tapes to disseminate its information.

And in the chemical tests on the dogs, the degree of skill that they now, that they demonstrated in these tests, the degree of skill they have controlling these chemical agents shows information that wasn't there before. So it means that knowledge about al Qaeda and what they're capable of and how they'll operate is much more detailed. And in that detail we see that there is a very, very real threat.

ZAHN: Does anyone have any clue as to how widely disseminated these tapes were?

ROBERTSON: No. That's one of the things that confounds the experts we've talked to so far. Some of the material, the training material we have was recorded maybe four years ago. The chemical testing on the dogs, we're not sure exactly when that was recorded. So how much more have they developed? How much more have they refined and how many people have they been able to send this material out to? That's unclear.

ZAHN: In the next hour you're actually going to take us inside a room where experiments were done no dogs. Just a quick recap so people understand just how potent this video is that they will see about an hour from now.

ROBERTSON: We're going to see there are some, what appear to be al Qaeda trainers or experimenters testing chemical agents on dogs, three dogs. And during that process we're going to see, it appears that the dogs die during that process.

ZAHN: And this, once again, is the only direct evidence that anybody has as to the level of sophistication al Qaeda has dealing with what is believed to be a chemical agent?

ROBERTSON: We're told no intelligence agency has ever seen this before. This is the first documentary evidence on film, on tape, that's been seen.

ZAHN: Fascinating, chilling, disturbing, all of those things.

We'll see you in the next hour, Nic.

Thanks so much for bringing that to us.

Coming up, how do these tapes relate to the way al Qaeda operates today? That's the question we're going to put to CNN correspondent Mike Boettcher, who joins us with some insights into the workings of al Qaeda. That's straight ahead here on AMERICAN MORNING. We'll be right back.


ZAHN: The first part of our exclusive reporting on the al Qaeda tapes appears to show the terrorist organization's experiments with deadly chemicals.

CNN's Mike Boettcher has been covering al Qaeda for many years and he's here now with some additional perspective.

Good morning.


ZAHN: If you could read some of our e-mails today, you no doubt would tap into the level of fear Americans have as they watch this videotape and they wonder what the level of threat is out there of a potential chemical attack against Americans given what is being revealed here on tape for the first time.

BOETTCHER: Well, you know, I live, eat, breathe, sleep this all the time. I've seen material on paper, written down in the manuals talking about this and when I saw this, it took my breath away. Because you're actually seeing it.

What we do know is that there is an active current threat by al Qaeda trying to use this somewhere in the world in an urban area. And...

ZAHN: Do we know where?

BOETTCHER: We don't know where exactly. But there is an attempt to do this. And there have been past attempts. There were alleged al Qaeda people caught with cyanide in the underground systems near the U.S. Embassy in Rome who had plans to do this sort of thing.

We do know from coalition intelligence sources that al Qaeda was able to weaponize chemical agents in a mortar shell. We do know that. How much more advanced they are we're not sure. But it does indicate what we've talked about in the past when al Qaeda has tried to construct a dirty bomb. I mean they had plans, Ingrid Arnesen, our producer in Kabul, managed to obtain what was called the super bomb document, where they were trying to strengthen their explosives in order, it is believed by experts, to build a dirty bomb, which is a device that would spread radioactive material. And they go step by step by step trying to increase their knowledge. And that is the amazing thing. And that's what this videotape shows that Nic Robertson got.

ZAHN: The other thing that is shocking, particularly in the piece of videotape that our audience will see in the next hour, is -- I know there's no consensus on exactly what the chemical agent was that was used, there are any variety of agents that might have been used -- But the fact that some of these agents are readily available and pretty easy for a neophyte to mix.

BOETTCHER: Yes. One of the things al Qaeda has done, and done with their manuals that they've sent out across the world to their various cells, is try to explain to them how to make a weapon of mass destruction or an explosive using materials that are readily available in any country on earth. And they done that.

But, as well, there's another level. We do know, through our coalition intelligence sources and other experts around the world, that al Qaeda has been actively trying to purchase and has been successful in trying to purchase chemical agents in order to build a chemical weapon. And they have tried to really emphasize this on the former republics of the Soviet Union like Ukraine, Georgia, Chechnya. And in those areas they have made a concerted effort to try to get their hands on materials that were in the former Soviet arsenal.

ZAHN: Nic said, based on the 64 tapes that he obtained out of the 251 tape library, his thought is that the threat of al Qaeda is even bigger than before. Just a quick analysis on what you think the impact is of these tapes, what they reveal.

BOETTCHER: You know, I traveled thousands of miles in the last week talking to people who fight this war for a living and they were astounded by it. They thought the impact would be that, you know, here is video proof, folks, that this is a war, that this isn't just on paper, that this is a real war and they tangibly have this material. You can see that dog, those dogs die. You can see them practicing with this.

And you can write a million words about it, but if you see one videotape like that, the videotape that Nic Robertson got, it brings it home, Paula.

ZAHN: I'll tell you one thing, I had much the same reaction you did. I got physically sick the first time I looked at that tape.


ZAHN: There's no way of comprehending this until you see it.

BOETTCHER: I mean I've talked to some pretty hardened guys, I mean, who are the best in the world at this. That's their whole job is to chase al Qaeda. And they were visibly sick by it. I mean they couldn't watch it over and over. They could watch it one time and didn't want to see it again. ZAHN: And what Mike's referring to is a piece of tape that you will see in our next hour, literally about 40 minutes from now, where Nic Robertson will take you inside a room where it is believed that al Qaeda operatives are experimenting with gas agents. And you'll see the impact that it has on several dogs that are victimized by the experiments.

Mike Boettcher, good to see you in person.

BOETTCHER: Good to see you.

ZAHN: Thanks for joining us this morning.


ZAHN: This morning we've heard several comments about the importance of the new al Qaeda tapes. But how significant are they from a military perspective?

From Washington, we're joined by retired general and CNN military analyst Brigadier General David Grange.

Good morning.


ZAHN: So, how many of these tapes have you seen?

GRANGE: I've reviewed about a dozen.

ZAHN: And what did you think?

GRANGE: Well, I just, you know, images are very powerful and I think that we realized a lot of the stuff that al Qaeda and the terrorist network was up to. But when you see pictures of it, it kind of brings it to home and you don't forget it.

ZAHN: What impact, if any, does this have on the current strategy in the war on terrorism?

GRANGE: Well, I just think it'll reinforce it. First of all, what's key to the success of the strategy of this country and our allies that fight terrorism is that I think it'll help enhance the will, the resolve to carry the fight forward because we're, these are very dedicated enemies that we face.

It also shows, if you look at the different tapes, besides the different tactics that the terrorists are using, look at the ethnic representation in some of the film clips and you really get a feel for how worldwide this enemy effort is.

ZAHN: Let's talk a little bit more about your very personal reactions to certain parts of the tape. Is there one thing in the many hours of viewing you did that struck you most?

GRANGE: Well, I think that you don't have to be very sophisticated to be deadly. A determined enemy that has rudimentary resources, that is innovative is quite dangerous. And I think that you can't underestimate how some of these enemy soldiers are trained. You know, they're trained not only in camps, but it appears to me that the tapes were used for what we call distant learning. In other words, they're exported around the world as a how to demonstration to conduct terrorist acts.

ZAHN: I don't think we want to panic anybody out there either by talking about the level of sophistication, but the bottom line is, too, didn't the tapes also reveal that there were some simple agents that were mixed together that could have deadly consequences?

GRANGE: Simple agents, some of your guests have already talked about possibly an intent to use those in Italy against Americans there. But, yes, items that can be found quite easily around the world, especially in the United States of America. So, again, it's not to say the sky has fallen, but the awareness that you have trained and innovative enemies out there that wish us harm is not to be taken lightly.

ZAHN: But I guess what many Americans are wondering this morning is, as they see this very vividly of how powerful an enemy al Qaeda is, just how successful the military can be in stopping these folks if, in fact, these techniques have been exported to many different countries and it doesn't require a lot of people power to pull these attacks off, if they are able to weaponize this stuff.

GRANGE: Yes, the chemical attacks, it would be very difficult to track them down in certain areas, but it can be done. If you take the military side of it, looking at some of the other things besides the chemical tape, the development of chemicals, is that's the tactics of assassinations, kidnappings. A lot of those can be countered and our people are trained quite well at counter-terrorist techniques to do that.

But, again, it depends on where you are, what kind of security you have, you know, where you're operating, whether you can be successful in that or not, because they received some very good training.

ZAHN: David Grange, thanks for your insights this morning.

As always, good to see you again.

GRANGE: My pleasure.

ZAHN: And now that some of you have had the opportunity to see parts of the tapes, have your opinions changed? We want to know what you think about this al Qaeda library that has surfaced. You can link to our e-mail on our home page at or e-mail us directly at We'll be reading them in a few minutes.




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