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Airport Terrorism Warning; Hunting Osama bin Laden

Aired August 4, 2003 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Word of a discovery overseas in al Qaeda hideouts that will lead to a new advisory tomorrow here in the United States: Homeland security officials plan to warn the aviation industry and all federal screeners to beware of electronic devices that might have been modified into weapons or perhaps even explosives.
Homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve has the very latest for us this evening -- good evening, Jeanne.


Homeland security officials say the new advisory will be issued tomorrow to the aviation industry and to all federal screening personnel, directing them to pay particular attention to the screening of small electronic items. This grows out of an advisory issued to the aviation community one week ago, warning that hijackers might attempt to weaponize common items carried by travelers, like cameras.

Administration officials now say that one of the things leading to that advisory was the discovery in recent raids of overseas al Qaeda hideouts of electronic items modified to carry small weapons or explosives; the sorts of items al Qaeda was looking to weaponize, cell phones, boom boxes and cameras. Officials say tomorrow's advisory is not the result of more recent intelligence, but will be a compendium of things learned in the recent past.

Meanwhile, a Pakistani national who has been in U.S. custody for four months is expected to face terrorism conspiracy charges for alleged connections to al Qaeda. According to lawyers for Uzer Paracha (ph), the 23-year-old is suspected of arranging for al Qaeda operatives to enter the U.S. and in participating in an effort to procure chemical weapons. The information which led to his arrest was developed from the interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the captured architect of the September 11 attacks, again, that according to Paracha's defense attorney -- Paula.

ZAHN: So, Jeanne, is it likely we will see the terror alert level go up, based on what you're reporting tonight?

MESERVE: No indication that that is going to be the case. After all, this information about the weaponization of small electronics was developed more than a week ago. Federal officials were aware of it when they issued that aviation advisory last Saturday. No indication it will lead to a heightening of the threat level to orange.

ZAHN: And, as best as you understand it tonight, Jeanne, what does this mean for the average American traveling out there? MESERVE: Well, the average American is going to be advised to take their electronics off, to take it out of carry-on bags, and put it on X-ray machines. That has been the guidance in the past from airport screeners. It is going to be emphasized now. It is going to be a lot faster if you go ahead and remove that stuff and let them X- ray it separately from the rest of your carry-on bag.

ZAHN: We appreciate the update. Thanks so much, Jeanne Meserve, reporting from Washington tonight.

We're going to move on now. Over the weekend, a new audiotape surfaced with the voice reportedly of Osama bin Laden's No. 2 operative, threatening the U.S. and its allies. Tonight, we want to explore the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda cohorts.

We ask, is the technology that was supposed to make the search easy failing the U.S.? And is Osama's capture still a priority, or has it been overshadowed, at least in terms of devoted resources, by the intensifying hunt for Saddam Hussein?

I'm joined now by retired General David Grange, who has an intimate knowledge of special forces, the troops often called on to perform these duties; and in Massachusetts this evening, author Sebastian Junger, who was in Afghanistan when the hunt for Osama first began in earnest.

Welcome to both of you.



ZAHN: General, I'm going to start with you this evening. Is it your understanding that many of those special forces who were originally devoted to the hunt for Osama bin Laden have now been sent off to Iraq and that the hunt for Osama bin Laden has been compromised because of that?

GRANGE: I don't believe it has been compromised.

There was a shift of forces, I'm sure, taking forces, active duty forces, that was specialized in southwest Asia, the Middle East, this type of culture, language skills for this area, knowing how to fight in the desert, operate in those types of environments, and probably shifted to Iraq a good portion of them, because that was a priority when the war started. But I don't believe it compromised the effort, though it probably shifted priorities.

ZAHN: What did you think, Sebastian, just a shifting in priorities and it doesn't compromise the effort to find Osama bin Laden?

JUNGER: I think that the problem with finding bin Laden now is actually larger. It's more general. It took the U.S. authorities five years to find Eric Rudolph in the Carolinas, in the mountains of Carolina. I don't think lack of manpower is the problem. We should remember that bin Laden went to Afghanistan originally because it was a country in chaos. There was a civil war. And he could basically buy the allegiance of the Afghans and of the Taliban government. That situation really has not changed much.

We have put in an administration in Kabul itself, but most of the country remains lawless and chaotic. And, of course, it is exactly that kind of country that remains a threat to U.S. security. And as long as that is going on, I think, whether we have a lot of special forces or very few special forces, it will always be a very easy place for people like bin Laden to hide.

ZAHN: And, General Grange, if you would, follow up on what Sebastian was talking about in terms of the kind of technology that has been used in the region so far, with drone airplane and other highly advanced ways of trying to hone in on this guy.

GRANGE: Well, the high-technology capabilities are an advantage, but it is only one part of the equation.

You have to have the low-technology skills. For instance, both Saddam and bin Laden need local support, tribal support, places to hide. They need money to pay people off. They need guns, not a lot of guns, but just guns for close-in protection. And they have to have this low-tech communications, ability to send messages, though they may just be as rudimentary as a messenger on a donkey or a motorcycle.

So you have to combine high technology and low technology to be successful in these chaotic environments in order to find a target like Saddam or bin Laden.

ZAHN: Sebastian, you were talking about some of the challenges that U.S. troops have been up against so far. In the end, what is it that would enhance this effort the most?

JUNGER: Well, again, I think I'll have to repeat that, if we can stabilize Afghanistan, I think that will do an awful lot to fencing bin Laden out of that society. A society in chaos like that is just designed for someone like bin Laden to hide out in. You can buy allegiance. You can buy loyalty.

If we make good, if the U.S. makes good on their intentions right after 9/11 to bring and stability to that country, I think, in some ways, that would do the job of any number of special forces. Really, in a long-term sense, that's the solution for bin Laden and Afghanistan terrorism in general.

ZAHN: Sebastian Junger, General David Grange, thank you for both of your perspectives this evening.

GRANGE: Our pleasure.


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