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Terror Threat; Airport Safety

Aired August 11, 2006 - 07:32   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Authorities say the plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic was close to being operational, that it was in the final stages of preparation. So just how close did we come to catastrophe? How much do we still have to fear? Joining us this morning for a global perspective on the terror threat, a panel of distinguished journalists this morning.
From Washington D.C., Steve Coll. He is a writer for "The New Yorker." He's also the author of Ghost Wars, the Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden." From Manila this morning, Maria Ressa. She's a former CNN bureau chief in Indonesia, the author of "Seeds of Terror." And here in New York with me, CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen. He is the author of several books on Osama bin Laden. Nice to have you all.

We'll begin with Peter, because he's sitting right next to me. It sounds, when you listen to the president, that it's still an open question that it's al Qaeda. In your mind, al Qaeda or not?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: It looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck. In this case, I think it is al Qaeda. These guys, we're reporting that they met with an al Qaeda operative in Pakistan, at least two of the people involved. The modus operandi is al Qaeda. Certainly I think al Qaeda's looking to do -- make some kind of major statement in the run-up to the fifth anniversary of 9/11 both on the propaganda front and on actual terrorist attack front. And I would be surprised if, you know -- it's not the Animal Liberation Front; I think it's al Qaeda.

O'BRIEN: You're saying yes to that question.

Let's turn to Steve. You know, we talk about Pakistan, and we now know, or we're being told now, the United States intelligence, U.K. intelligence and Pakistani intelligence is what brought this plot to the attention of authorities who were able to nip it in the bud.

So Pakistan then played a critical role. Does that mean that Pakistan is contributing more help than they have in the past?

STEVE COLL, "THE NEW YORKER": Well, the Pakistan government has certainly been cooperative in efforts to track down foreign terrorists in Pakistan, and has contributed to a number of arrests of al Qaeda leaders in the past.

The trouble the government faces and that the United States faces is that Pakistan is host to a really complex and robust social, political and economic infrastructure for radical Islamists. And it's not just al Qaeda; it's affiliated parties and groups, and there are several interlocking networks on Pakistani soil that have safehouses, and schools and political offices to rely upon. So when we talk about al Qaeda and Pakistan, we're not talking about a small group of terrorists hiding in houses, we're talking about a movement that is embedded in a larger set of organizations.

O'BRIEN: So al Qaeda's moved essentially to Pakistan.

Let me ask you a follow question to that. We hear 24 people are arrested, Steve. Five people are, by some reports, are still being sought. Many more than that if you listening to some other reports.

The people who are missing, they say there are indications they're not ring leaders, and yet when the arrests that we talked about last week of two British nationals and a number of Pakistanis as well, is there a sense that there was a tipoff and that some of the leadership actually left before they were caught in this most recent capture of suspects?

COLL: Well, I don't know the specific answer to that question but it's clear from what investigators are saying that the most important unanswered questions about this case involve leadership and resources, and that many of those questions are located in Pakistan.

They obviously were tracking the guys for a number of months, but even as they watched them, they didn't follow them right to the heart of al Qaeda leadership.

So if there was al Qaeda involvement, it was not visible at a headquarters level. And this has left a lot of uncertainty about exactly what kind of resources and leadership this series of cells drew upon as they developed this plot.

O'BRIEN: Maria, similar plot to what was happening in Asia in the mid-'90s. We've spoken about this before. Walk us through again Yousef Ramzi. What was the plot? what happened?

MARIA RESSA, FMR. CNN BUREAU CHIEF: It was a Bojinka plot, was actually set up by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who turned out to be the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks in 1994. There was a midair explosion on a Philippines Airlines flight. That was a test run for them to put explosives, much larger explosives, on 12 flights going to the United States from Asia. That plot was foiled because of a freak fire in a Manila apartment, but effectively what we saw are the same people who were involved in that, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed primarily, and the men he recruited. Then kind of go underground for six years or so until came out back out again with 9/11.

You asked the question earlier, is this al Qaeda or not? I think part of the problem we're running into are the labels that we're seeing. What we're seeing al Qaeda has already morphed, and what we're seeing for sure is the spread of its ideology and the bomb- making technology. We had the same problem in Southeast Asia. A group that you can call MILF one day can -- that member can morph into MNLF or Abu Sayyaf. In many instances, when they move toward the radical ideology, the names and the groups don't matter as much as the destination where they're heading, their goal.

O'BRIEN: Interesting. Sort of like a virus, it sounds like.

Peter, let me ask you a question, the TSA after 9/11 strengthened the cockpit doors, went through much more aggressive screening purposes, looking for weapons, and knives and guns, et cetera, et cetera, and the terrorists, we now know, focused on chemical explosives that really couldn't be traced in their individual capacities.

Surprised that they've done that or not? I mean, it seems that would be -- you know, exploiting vulnerabilities would be very typical.

BERGEN: Well,unfortunately, you know, there's a natural human tendency to close the barn door after the horse has bolted, and so, you know, it's been well-known that terrorists have been experimenting with these chemical liquid explosives. You know, Ramzi Yousef ran a sort of a test run for this in '94. So you know, it's puzzling why there wasn't more focus on this problem until just yesterday.

O'BRIEN: Yes that is exactly -- and also because it seems to me that al Qaeda, or al Qaeda-esque, as we might be able to call them, terrorists seems to revisit the same targets, the same ideas, the same strategies, the same MOs time and time again. If they use a couple of explosives once and it didn't work, well, you can bet, they're going to come back to it.

BERGEN: Yes, I mean, these are learning organizations, and these are intelligent people, and you know, the profile of the kind of al Qaeda leader is somebody who's got an engineering background and a college education in the West. These aren't dumb people so, you know, we need to be quite creative about thinking about the things they're going to come up with, rather than just simply reacting to the latest problem.

O'BRIEN: Talk to me a little bit about -- all three of you all can sort of weigh in quickly -- the suspects. What we know is that their young, Pakistani-descent men, maybe second, third-generation British citizens, though. Motivation here?

Why don't you begin, Steve?

COLL: Well, we don't know how much about their motivation, but their profile is striking. They are quite young. The oldest of the named suspects is 29. Many of the others are in their early 20s. So far as we know, nearly all of them British citizens who grew up second generation, and third generation in London, Birmingham and other communities full of like-minded Pakistan originated families, hard- working families, and became radicalized probably on the local level.

They seem, if they are al Qaeda, it's different than al Qaeda before 9/11, and it seems likely that very few of these people would have traveled to war fronts and participated in combat before deciding to join this terrorist plot. They were rather radicalized in cities, in suburbs, in their local communities, and then made contact with the larger al Qaeda organization or movement.

O'BRIEN: Your nodding your heads, Maria and Peter. Maria, why don't you tell me a little bit more. I mean, radicalizing, and yet we know that at least one suspect had been a member -- you know, Islam for like six months. He didn't sound particularly religiously radicalized here.

RESSA: What's interesting here is that this is anything like the London bombing, the 7/7/21 bombings; it's something what one analyst called cut-and-paste Islam. They are certainly not the al Qaeda of the past, but they buy into the ideology, that radical ideology, and they go to look for mentors from that group which may be the connection to Pakistan, if at least one of them has traveled there to meet with Lashkara Toyva (ph).

You can see that if, again, if it's something like that, they're young. The London bombings earlier had a man who was 19 years old. And if you look at the personal story, radicalism and the way that the old al Qaeda model there isn't -- this isn't the profile of a man who you would think would do something like that.

But I guess we're seeing, again, is morphing of what's happening globally. There's no longer any local conflicts, particularly one that touch in the Muslim world. Local conflicts are used by the greater, more broader al Qaeda-esque and al Qaeda associate groups to spread radical ideology. They use global conflicts to fuel the anger and local conflicts, and at the same time they hijack local conflicts, local grievances to try to get more recruits.

And again, it's hard to just say this is al Qaeda. But certainly, if you look at it post-9/11, it was al Qaeda and its associate groups -- sorry, pre-9/11, al Qaeda and associate groups. Now, do we need to come up with a new label for groups like the groups who carried out the September bombings in London?

like Peter -- as Peter said, what's interesting, again, is that when they fail in an attack, it doesn't mean that you have defeated them. Looking at the lessons here in Manila of 1995. They foiled the bombing attack, and yet even though it was foiled, the group learned from it. They took out lessons from it. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed then tried Richard Reid, pushed him out after 9/11 to try shoe bombing again. They perfect the technique to try to go after the gold.

O'BRIEN: Maria Ressa, Steve Coll, in Washington D.C., and Peter Bergen joining us this morning for our roundtable. Thanks, guys. Appreciate it very much. "CNN PRESENTS" has a special titled "In The Footsteps of Bin Laden." That's going to air on Wednesday, August 23rd at 9:00 p.m.

TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And still to come on AMERICAN MORNING, confused by all of the new airport-security rules? We'll have some tips on making it as painful as possible -- painless. It's already painful, as possible. Find out which items to pack away, which ones to carry on and how early you should be getting the airport.

And next, the plight of Lebanese refugees. You will meet a woman ready to defy an order by the Israeli military in order to help.

Stay with us. We'll be right back.


O'BRIEN: Right after 9/11, security at the nation's airports very tight. Since then, it's gotten a little more relaxed, and now it looks like security may have been going in the wrong direction.

AMERICAN MORNING's Dan Lothian has our report this morning.


DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): After 9/11, the crackdown on contraband at airports resulted in boxloads of items like scissors, lighters and nail clippers. After shoe bomber Richard Reid tried to blow up a plane, screening shoes became mandatory. But over time, some illegal items became legal again and security checks appeared more random.

A practice that rankles critics.

REP. ED MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Scissors of this length are allowed on to domestic flights in the United States. If any of those terrorists today were able to get a scissors of this length into a passenger cabin, it could have helped them in their perpetration of their attacks.

LOTHIAN: Now a foiled terror attack has led to the ban on items like lotion, mouthwash, perfume. But liquids have been a known threat for years.

(on camera): While everyone is applauding law enforcement efforts and intelligence that uncovered the alleged London-based plot, some experts support a smarter, more aggressive and consistent approach when it comes to what passengers can carry onto an airplane.

CLARK KENT ERVIN, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: We need to get a step ahead of the game rather than relaxing security measures, as TSA has done. We need to be tightening them.

LOTHIAN (voice over): But at Boston Logan Airport, starting point for the two airplanes that hit the twin towers, the man in charge defends the current security strategy.

TOM KINTON, DIRECTOR, MASSPORT: We have to react to intelligence. When intelligence tells us we need to step up to prevent certain things from getting on board those aircraft, we'll do it. Where intelligence comes in that tells us we can relax that, that gets relaxed, but then we focus on other things.

LOTHIAN: TSA officials say they have pushed hard to have screeners focus more on bombs and bomb components rather than small scissors and tools. But security analysts say much more needs to be done. ERVIN: We need to literally think outside the box and think of every conceivable way that we can imagine by which would be -- we could possibly be attacked.

LOTHIAN: The difficult job of securing air travel, where the enemy's weapon of choice is always changing.

Dan Lothian, CNN, Boston.


O'BRIEN: Andy Serwer is "Minding Your Business," coming up next.

What've got for us, Andy?

ANDY SERWER, "FORTUNE" MAGAZINE: Soledad, organized labor has been on the wane for the past several second decades. So how is it fighting back? Some big new moves to tell you about, coming up next on AMERICAN MORNING.


HARRIS: What do you think? Too early to think about the weekend?

O'BRIEN: Never too early.

HARRIS: So, let's look ahead to the weekend. And the big show, "CNN SATURDAY MORNING," "SUNDAY MORNING."

Betty is in -- oh, that's fancy.

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: What do you mean too early to think about the weekend? Come on, Tony, you go to New York, you forget about us here?

HARRIS: No. No way. I'll be here. Are you kidding me?

NGUYEN: That's what I wanted to hear.

HARRIS: I'm going through security and everything else as soon as I can.

Good to see you, Betty.

NGUYEN: Hey, be careful what you pack.

HARRIS: That's right.

NGUYEN: In fact, we'll be talking about that this weekend.

So here's what's on tap? Could today's possible United Nations vote be the beginning of the end for the Middle East crisis? We're going to speak with a man who helped broker a peace deal in Northern Ireland, former international peace negotiator, Senator George Mitchell. He a man knows how to get it done. Plus, the airport security alert. Take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No liquid items, ma'am, meaning hand sanitizers, toothpaste, shampoo.


NGUYEN: Just how potentially dangerous are those common household items like hand lotion and mouthwash? We're going to talk to an expert.

Plus, what you need to do before you leave for the airport to get through security, Tony. We're going to tell you about that.

And take a look at this. Find out how this college student's invention could change the way you shop in the future. It's very interesting.

From London to Beirut, we will take you live around the world, beginning at 7:00 Eastern tomorrow, but first, Tony, you've got to get through security and come back home.

HARRIS: I look like a cartoon figure in that shot. What is going on there? You look great.


NGUYEN: Kind of like a brain, shall we say?

HARRIS: Yes, what was that?

NGUYEN: I can't tell you much more until tomorrow. You've got to come back home to learn it.

HARRIS: Sounds like a lot of show. I need to get there and do a little prep.

All right, Betty, thank you.


O'BRIEN: A look at the day's top stories right after this short break. We're back in a moment.


HARRIS: After a career in public service, he is now serving his California community from the stage.

CNN's Valerie Morris has more in this week's edition of "Life After Work."


VALERIE MORRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Seventy-one- year-old Murray Robitaille is making retirement a second act in life.

MURRAY ROBITAILLE, ACTOR/DIRECTOR: Today's a different day. Today is our first performance.

MORRIS: After a career as a deputy sheriff and crime scene investigator, his new passion is running a theater group called "Play With Your Food Productions."

ROBITAILLE: We're very selective in the work that we present, and we're very selective in the actor that is we use. We have found a little niche that we try and stick with, and basically it's farcical comedy.

MORRIS: Three years ago Murray and his wife, Laura (ph), started the dinner theater at a restaurant in Southern California. They've been successful enough to put on four plays a season. After paying for royalties, sets and actors, the Robitaille bring home about $2500 a show.

ROBITAILLE: This is just a love. If we didn't make a cent at it, and we are not in it to make a cent at it. This is something we do because we love theater.

MORRIS: Murray usually acts, but now make his directorial debut in a play called "Funny Valentines."

You've been awesome. So, go out tonight and --

ROBITAILLE: All of you, you've been awesome. So go out tonight, and...


ROBITAILLE: Live up to it. And break a leg.

It's a totally different thing to see a group of people take all of those words, and under your direction bring it to life.

MORRIS: Valerie Morris, CNN.




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