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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Where Is Osama bin Laden?

Aired June 25, 2003 - 20:00   ET

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

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: We begin this hour with new clues about Osama bin Laden. Pakistan's president today told CNN he believes bin Laden is most likely alive hiding somewhere in the mountains along the Pakistani-Afghan border, and other evidence has surfaced indicating bin Laden not only is alive, he is still intent on attacking the United States.
Here is Mike Boettcher.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This was the public message Osama bin Laden sent in February, an audiotape aimed at the Iraqi people urging them to kill Americans just weeks before the war with the U.S. began.

But CNN has learned that privately, bin Laden was simultaneously sending another more deadly message. Intelligence sources in the region tell CNN that personal couriers took the messages from Pakistan to al Qaeda leaders worldwide and certain sympathizers in Africa, the Middle East, the caucuses in Asia, the message attack America and its allies.

ROHAN GUNARATNA, AUTHOR "INSIDE AL QAEDA": He sent personal letters to key al Qaeda leaders, regional leaders as well as leaders of al Qaeda associated groups around the world urging them in the month of February to launch terrorist attacks against the targets of the United States, its allies and its friends.

BOETTCHER: At a time when al Qaeda has successfully used the Internet to spread its message, and has access to satellite phones, why was Osama bin Laden using couriers to send messages?

Security, says Rohan Gunaratna, the author of "Inside al Qaeda."

GUNARATNA: He knows that America's greatest strength is electronics and he does not want to fall into that trap by using a satellite phone or any other communication device that emits a signal that can be detected.

BOETTCHER: But CNN has learned that despite bin Laden's elaborate precautions, a month after he sent the messages U.S. and Pakistani forces got a lead on bin Laden, knew where he was along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. By the time they moved in, bin Laden had vanished again. Intelligence sources believe bin Laden's messages did reach his followers and sympathizers and this deadly attack on western housing compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia was the first response.

When this man, Yosef Salif Fad al-Yiri (ph) a suspect in the bombing was killed two weeks later in a shootout with Saudi security forces, he was carrying something according to sources close to the investigation. It was a blood-stained copy of Osama bin Laden's letter that private message to followers.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BOETTCHER: So, if Osama bin Laden sent messages throughout the world to his followers, why weren't there attacks? A senior intelligence analyst I spoke to believes it could be attributed to the arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. He knew all the plans or many of those plans and people in the field knew that and spread out and didn't launch their attacks until after the war -- Paula.

ZAHN: But just the importance of the arrest does not suggest that the threat is over. It could just create a delay in those original plans.

BOETTCHER: No, absolutely, and you've got to realize that -- well, let's look at this U.N. report that's going to come out next week on terrorism. They're going to say that 700 to 800 operatives were sent out before the war in Afghanistan, before 9/11 actually, before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Now, a year and a half ago we reported that, that those operatives were sent out to Africa, west through the Middle East and east through Pakistan to go to these various regions. Now, some of those people have been picked up and certainly some of the top leadership is in custody at the present time, but most of those people are still at large. They are a younger generation of al Qaeda and they pose a great threat -- Paula.

ZAHN: CNN National Correspondent Mike Boettcher, thanks so much for that update.

To talk more about Osama bin Laden, I'm joined now from Washington by Arnaud de Borchgrave. He is an editor-at-large for "The Washington Times" newspaper. Good evening, sir. I know that you have believed for a long time that Osama bin Laden is most likely alive. How concerned are you by this latest information coming from Mike Boettcher tonight?

ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, EDITOR-AT-LARD, "THE WASHINGTON TIMES": Well, there's never been any doubt that he was alive. When I first picked up his trail was south of Tora Bora on the Pakistani side and that was on December 11 and, according to my local informants, tribal leaders, I missed him by two days.

So, I've never had any doubt that he was around. What is seldom mentioned, however Paula, is that these two provinces that adjoin -- are adjacent to Afghanistan, that is the northwest frontier province and Bunijstan (ph) are today governed by Islamist extremists, a coalition of six political religious parties who are pro-al Qaeda, pro-Osama bin Laden.

And in a poll taken, a survey taken in Pishar, the capital of the northwest frontier province, in December of 2001, 83 percent of male adults said that Osama bin Laden was a freedom fighter and not a terrorist.

ZAHN: Well, given that perception then are you optimistic at all in the end that any of these troops we now have -- it's now been confirmed by the Pakistani president are in the region we'll be able to nab this guy?

DE BORCHGRAVE: Well, there are thousands of places to hide. In aerial surveys there are 26 major passes along that border but hundreds of smaller passes where footprints have been detected from the air. So, and he moves around obviously with a lot of local support.

He's considered a local hero and in the Fatah areas, the federally administered tribal areas that President Musharraf spoke about saying that they're only just now going in, we were originally told a year and a half ago that they were already in there.

ZAHN: So, what does President Musharraf have to be worried about internally then? Is he worried about alienating these tribes and leaders and do you really believe he means what he says?

DE BORCHGRAVE: He has a lot to worry about. The federal parliament in Islamabad has been paralyzed by Islamist extremists who only have 20 percent of the seats but they're screaming every day, demanding that he give up his position as army chief of staff if he wants to remain president, and all parliamentary procedures have been not suspended but are paralyzed.

ZAHN: Arnaud, one final question for you and it has to do with a letter that just came to light where you were making a request of an interview of Saddam Hussein. This was a request sent back in January of 2001 and in this letter the "Washington Post" reports you called Saddam Hussein your excellency and you wrote that "hope it would lead to a reappraisal of American policy toward Iraq."

You have known from some of the e-mails you've gotten some Americans perceive this as being un-American. Do you regret having written this letter to try to get this interview?

DE BORCHGRAVE: Of course not. I mean, Larry Weymouth (ph) on the "Washington Post" has written similar letters to various heads of state all over the world. How on earth do you think one can get an interview with someone like Khadafi? I've interviewed him six times.

I have interviewed the late President Assad six times and I interviewed the late President Nassir twice. You don't get those interviews by not using the protocol addressing them to begin with as your excellency and hoping that the interview is going to make an impact. To think that I could change Iraqi or American policy is preposterous and most of the e-mails I got, in fact nine out of ten, have been rather critical of the piece in "The Post" but not of me.

ZAHN: Arnaud de Borchgrave, as always thank you for joining us.

DE BORCHGRAVE: Thank you.

ZAHN: Appreciate your insights.

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