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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

New Al Qaeda Terrorist Warnings Issued

Aired July 29, 2003 - 20:17   ET

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

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: There is a chilling new warning from the government that sometime this summer terrorist skyjackers may strike again.
Jeanne Meserve is following the story from Washington tonight.

Jeanne, good evening.

What is your latest reporting on this new terror threat?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Paula, the intelligence from interrogations and electronic intercepts indicates that al Qaeda could be planning to carry out at least one hijacking by the end of the summer, possible venues: the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia or the East Coast of the U.S., where there is a relatively high concentration of government, military and economic targets.

An advisory to the aviation industry from the Department of Homeland Security talks about five-man teams possibly trying to take down an aircraft around takeoff or landing, so the hijackers wouldn't need flight training. It says hijackers could try to mislead passengers into thinking they're in a hostage situation, not on a suicide mission, apparently to diminish the likelihood of preemptive passenger actions, like those taken on United Airlines Flight 93 back on September 11.

The advisory says the hijackers might try to weaponize items often carried by passengers, like cameras. But it also says that no equipment or operatives are known to have been deployed to conduct the operations.

ZAHN: And, Jeanne, what are they basing all of this on and how credible is any of evidence they're pointing to?

MESERVE: They're basing it on interrogations of al Qaeda operatives, top-level operatives, I'm told. Also, there have been some electronic intercepts.

They're not at this point considerable it so credible that they have to change the threat level. But there is something mentioned in the advisory that they're going to try to address. They talk about the hole in the system that allows international travelers to travel through the United States to a destination somewhere else. For instance, if you were traveling from South America to Europe, you could stop here. You could change flights here.

They are supposed to be kept in the secure environment, but the system is not perfect. It has been exploited in the past by alien smugglers. There is fear that terrorists could exploit it as well. And so the administration is considering now requiring visas of people just traveling through, transiting through the United States. And a decision on that could come as early as this week.

ZAHN: When you say there is no plan to raise the threat level based on what we know this evening, I know a lot of people out there listening to this for the first time tonight could be very frightened by what you just had to report. Can you explain to them why the government has decided not to raise the terror alert based on what we're hearing tonight?

MESERVE: Well, it's a very careful game they play when they're dealing with the threat level, because it involves so much worry and so much expense to state and local governments and the private sector.

In this instance, they felt the information was fairly specific. It's about the aviation sector, where the threat and security situation has always been at a somewhat higher level than it has somewhere else. So they felt that issuing this advisory might be adequate to address this situation. Clearly, they want to give a wakeup call to the industry, have them be on their toes, looking for any irregularities, asking them to impose some more random sorts of security precautions than they have in the past.

But, in addition, this is a message to the terrorists to let them know that U.S. officials are on to whatever they're planning. Hopefully, that might short-circuit their plans -- Paula.

ZAHN: Jeanne Meserve, thanks so much.

For more now on this latest terror attack warning and the latest on the White House efforts to speak to a Saudi man who apparently befriended two of the September 11 hijackers, let's turn to CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, who is also in our Washington bureau this evening.

Always good to see you, Peter.

First of all, how reliable do you think any of this information is that Jeanne described as coming from some folks down in Cuba? How reliable is it?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, Jeanne talked about high-level al Qaeda operatives. And there are a number of people I have spoken to who say that the information coming from those operatives is in fact quite reliable.

And, in fact, they say the lower-level people in Guantanamo are not producing particularly useful information. Paradoxically, it's the high-level al Qaeda operatives that are doing so. Why is that the case? Because that's rather counterintuitive. There's usually one explanation that's given, ego and the desire to show that they know a lot, because there is really -- otherwise, there is really no other explanation. But we have had reliable information from top-level al Qaeda operatives. For instance, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed said that he had seen Osama bin Laden the day before he was captured in January of this year. And that information put bin Laden in Pakistan December of 2002. So these high-level al Qaeda operatives are saying things that are reliable, surprisingly.

ZAHN: So what is your assessment of the current state of al Qaeda?

BERGEN: Well, that's very difficult to know.

I think the current state of al Qaeda is that they're very damaged. We do have Osama bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahri, the two leaders of the group who are still not apprehended nearly two years after 9/11. But a lot of the higher-level people are in custody. They've been rolled up in Pakistan. Funnily enough, a lot of them are now in Iran in custody, a rather strange development. Iran has the No. 3 leader of the group, Saif al-Adel. They also have Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the spokesman, and two other fairly senior leaders that are now in Iran in custody.

So, between people in Iranian custody and people arrested in Pakistan recently, that's pretty much the entire top leadership of al Qaeda that's off the streets. So that must make a difference. On the other hand, I think the main point to understand is, al Qaeda is not only an organization. It's also evolved into an ideology. And it's easy to arrest people, but it's not so easy to arrest ideas.

And bin Laden's ideas have been disseminated very broadly as a result of the Internet and his appearances on CNN and Al-Jazeera on these audiotapes and videotapes. And those ideas of a fervent anti- Americanism and a desire to change regimes around the Middle East, impose Sharia law around the Middle East, have taken hold. And I think you'll see that, in Iraq right now, I think one of the developments we're going to see is that al Qaeda is going to be increasingly showing in Iraq, which, of course, is enormously ironic, since one of the reasons that we went to war with Iraq was the putative link between Iraq and al Qaeda.

I always thought that link was tenuous, at best. Now, in fact, we're seeing a lot of al Qaeda, I believe, in Iraq coming in across the Syrian border and attacking American troops. And I think that that will be the pattern of the future. And if you take that further out, Paula, you could imagine the situation in Iraq devolving not into a Vietnam-style quagmire, but something much more similar to Mogadishu in the early '90s or Beirut in the early '80s, where you had American troops being attacked in quite an effective way by sort of insurgent guerrilla type or terrorist activities.

ZAHN: Well, that's a frightening scenario to even think about.

Peter Bergen, thanks so much for your update today.

BERGEN: Thank you.

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