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Peter Bergen: Bin Laden has aged 'enormously'

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen  

(CNN) -- On Thursday night, CNN aired parts of an interview with Osama bin Laden that the Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera recorded in late October.

Al-Jazeera said it didn't air the tape because it wasn't newsworthy, and announced Thursday it was severing its relationship with CNN, claiming the interview was stolen and aired illegally. CNN disputes that.

CNN's Paula Zahn discussed the tape Friday with CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, who has been studying bin Laden and his operation for several years.

CNN: Before we talk about the substance of this tape, let's once again talk about Al-Jazeera. At first, Al-Jazeera .... denied that it even existed. Then they came out and said they never aired it because it wasn't newsworthy. Well, you've seen this tape. Is maybe a more rational explanation that they didn't want to air this because it was so indicting?

BERGEN: You know, I'm frankly very puzzled. This was the only television interview that bin Laden ever gave and, frankly, if he was reading out of the telephone book it would be newsworthy. And the fact is that there is quite a lot of -- it is very indicting. I mean, on a couple of occasions, he basically seems to take responsibility for the events of 9-11. He sort of ducks the question of anthrax. But this is all very interesting.

So frankly I'm just perplexed why they chose not to air it. I mean I'm not privy to all the facts of the case, but it's a very puzzling episode.

CNN: The U.S. government also obtained this independently. So what was the incentive in holding this back from the American public?

BERGEN: Well, Paula, I mean, again, I'm just really, really perplexed. Al-Jazeera bills its reputation as being a sort of independent broadcaster in the Middle East, different from some of the other broadcasters that are basically government entities. Perhaps they came under some pressure from their own government, the government of Qatar, not to broadcast this.

But I think there's some facts that we don't know yet which will elucidate this funny and rather strange episode.

CNN: Many Islamic analysts have suggested that Osama bin Laden has always distorted the Muslim faith. What do you make of his continued (statements that) it's permissible under Islamic law for innocents to kill other innocents?

BERGEN: Well, it's just ludicrous. I'm not an Islamic scholar. But I mean there's nothing -- and the Koran is very, very explicit about -- even if you accept the dubious premise that somehow this holy war was justified -- civilians are off-limits in any kind of war as far as the Koran and as far as Islamic traditions are concerned. This is a very unusual interpretation. It cannot be justified in Islam.

CNN: The last interview you did with bin Laden was back in 1997. How different was the Osama bin Laden we saw in this tape, the interview taped late in October of 2001?

BERGEN: He's actually quite similar. I mean, in terms of his demeanor and his voice -- these kinds of things are quite similar. The big difference is that he's aged enormously between '97 and October of last year.

This is a man who was clearly not well. I mean, as you see from these pictures here, he's really, by December he's looking pretty terrible. But by December, of course, that tape that was aired then, he's barely moving the left side of his body. So he's clearly got diabetes. He has low blood pressure. He's got a wound in his foot. He's apparently got dialysis ... for kidney problems.

I mean, this is a man who has a number of health problems, apart from the fact that anybody running around the Afghan mountains is not going to be in great shape.

CNN: And, of course, the question that people continue to debate is not only is he not well, is he still alive today? Peter Bergen, thank you very much for coming along to share your insights with us this morning.




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