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Sources Report Death of Mohammed Atef

Aired November 16, 2001 - 10:31   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: The story of the moment, though: the sources and the reports we're getting on the life of Mohammed Atef. Want to go to Mike Boettcher, sitting right next to me this morning, about the significance, indeed, of this man and his connection with al Qaeda.

Mike, good morning to you.


HEMMER: We've described him as a leading adviser. Is he the top guy to bin Laden, or just one of them?

BOETTCHER: He's one of them. But it's important to look at the distinctions in the al Qaeda power structure. In the power structure of al Qaeda, Mohammed Atef is No. 3. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who is the ideological leader of al Qaeda, was No. 2 and, of course, Osama bin Laden, No. 1. But in terms of succession, if Osama bin Laden was killed, or died of natural causes, Mohammed Atef, we are told by intelligence sources who are part of the anti-terror coalition, that Mohammed Atef would have succeeded Osama bin Laden.

And that was actually sealed earlier this year by blood -- by the wedding of Mohammed Atef to Osama bin Laden's daughter. Now that was sealed by that wedding; it was called the big wedding. And so that is the distinction between the lines of succession and the lines of power in al Qaeda. It's a very minute detail, but something very important.

What it will do, is throw everything up in the air, because they thought that they had the lines of succession really planned out, in terms of this. We are told by coalition intelligence sources that Osama bin Laden was ready to martyr himself, and that Atef was ready to take over. So now the question is: Who will take over?

But a few weeks ago we put together a story that we called the third man, Mohammed Atef. Let's take a look at that now.


(voice-over): He is the third man, the man seen alongside Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Like them, he is wanted by the U.S. government, indicted for his role in the 1998 embassy bombings. And like them, he is believed to be directly behind the September 11 attacks. Little is known about Mohammed Atef. Like Bin Laden, he's tall. One of his many aliases includes the Arabic term "el Kabir," the big guy. He holds an Egyptian passport, was once a policeman there. How he went from that to being military commander of al Qaeda is something of a mystery.

MAGNUS RANGSTORP, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: He was really no one. And he was propelled into someone who was tremendous importance in the organization as the head of the military command, military operations for the organization.

BOETTCHER: At some point during the 1980s, Atef went from Egypt to Afghanistan, where he met Osama bin Laden. Then fighting against the Soviet occupation. This man, Jamal al-Fadl, testified recently that Atef was one of the founding members of al Qaeda, along with bin Laden and Abu Hubeta al-Banshehri (ph). Al-Banshehri was actually military commander, but when he drowned in a 1996 ferry accident, Atef took over.

Even before then, al-Fadl testified, Atef was in Somalia, helping warlords like Mohamed Aidid, train main to fight against the American troops there. According to al-Fadl, Atef said everything happening in Somalia, it's our responsibility.

In an interview with CNN, Osama bin Laden claimed credit for helping in the Somali attack on U.S. Army rangers in 1993 that killed 18 of the rangers. Testimony also linked Atef to the embassy bombing in Kenya, placing him there as early as 1993, five years before the bombings.

Atef helped set up cells in East Africa and then communicated with operatives for the next five years, according to wiretaps and phone records. Months before the embassy bombings in 1998, Atef surfaced publicly. He was at bin Laden's side during a press conference announcing a fatwa against the U.S.

The truest sign of Mohammed Atef's importance to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda comes from this video taken this January in Kandahar, when Atef's daughter married one of bin Laden's sons.

RANSTORP: There are few that bin Laden can trust in bringing in, in terms of family, but it serves to reinforce loyalty. And it creates an intricate web in which he can then insulate any defections.

BOETTCHER: In the two most recent videos of bin Laden, Atef is also visible, showing his central role in al Qaeda's high command. U.S. intelligence sources believe it was Atef, along with Ayman Al- Zawahiri, who did the actually planning of the attacks on New York and Washington.


BOETTCHER: Now, intelligence sources close to the -- or working as part of the anti-terror coalition say they are certain that Atef was part of the planning for the September 11 attacks. The U.S. and the coalition has stated one of their objectives was to go after those who planned the attacks, the top leadership. If they did, indeed, kill Mohammed Atef, they accomplished those goals, at least in this regard.

HEMMER: So it's my understanding -- clarify me if I'm wrong -- but Atef would be the guy, at one point, in Afghanistan who actually would greet new recruits, direct them to training camps, and off they'd go, correct?

BOETTCHER: That was the way it worked in the early days. Now, he has been succeeded in that role. And that department is called the immigration and foreign coordination department of al Qaeda. That is run by a man named Abu Zubaidah (ph). He rose in the ranks, and he rose rather suddenly and quickly in the al Qaeda ranks to be the military commander.

And the question is now: Who would take over as military commander? And we are told, again, by intelligence sources working with the coalition, that it would be, Mohammed Al-Hadi, is the man's name, who is an Iraqi who is now the No. 2 person to Atef in the military hierarchy -- and that he would be the successor to Atef.

The question is, though, who would take over for Osama bin Laden? Right now I guess, you'd have to say would it would be Ayman Al- Zawahiri if bin Laden was to be killed as well.

HEMMER: I'm curious about this, and I don't know if your sources have informed you on this or not, but what was it that allowed Atef to basically assume the rank of succession to succeed Osama bin Laden in this? You talked about the wedding, you talked about the blood bond; what was it that was special about him?

BOETTCHER: What was special is the whole concept of Afghan Arabs. These are Arabs who fought in Afghanistan; the bonds were very tight there. And as we said in the report, Mohammed Atef and Osama bin Laden met in the '80s in Afghanistan, were part of that struggle against the Soviets. And those bonds lasted for a long time -- still last. Those were the seeds of the al Qaeda movement, the Afghan Arabs. And this is a close-knit organization. They don't trust a lot of people. But Osama bin Laden felt that he could completely trust Mohammed Atef, and they were very close.

HEMMER: Quickly talked about the evidence -- the 1998 bombings in eastern Africa. What did they have on Atef that they believe tied him to that?

BOETTCHER: They had wire taps and phone records that tied Atef to communications with cells in east Africa. They believe he was there in the years of east -- there in the years before the east African bombings, setting up those cells and maintained telephone communication with those cells. And they were able to establish that with wire taps and phone records.

HEMMER: And at the end of your piece, Mike, we saw where U.S. officials believe they had evidence on him, too, for the attacks of 9/11. Where did they get that, and what were they saying? BOETTCHER: I have -- I was asked not to tell the source on that, so -- but I believe the source on it. I know how it was obtained, and I believe it to be very, very credible. And that's all I can say, because it could jeopardize...

HEMMER: Well understood. I don't want to put you in an area that's...

BOETTCHER: Could hurt some people.

HEMMER: Understood. Quickly here, overall, in a general sense if, indeed, this report is true, that Mohammed Atef has been killed, ultimately to al Qaeda the impact could be measured how?

BOETTCHER: The impact could be measured in terms of future operations. Atef was very key in planning these operations, in saying how they would be constructed, what the targets would be, how they would conduct surveillance. And it could have a very dramatic impact on that.

Now, before 9/11 there was a trend that was being seen, that there was decentralization of the al Qaeda network; that they tried to structure it so that cells were already out in the world (sic) could operate without instructions from the top. So if the head was cut off, al Qaeda could continue to operate because, it is belief of these intelligence sources I've been speaking to, that they pretty well knew what the reaction of the United States would be after September 11, and knew that those cells would have to operate independently.

Whatever is in place is in place. But after that, future operations and leadership -- that will dramatically impact al Qaeda.

HEMMER: Got it Mike; good reporting. Mike Boettcher, thanks.