Tapes give evidence of al Qaeda's global reach
August 22, 2002 Posted: 6:54 PM EDT (2254 GMT)
From Nic Robertson and Mike Boettcher
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- A careful examination of an al Qaeda video archive obtained by CNN shows something less graphic -- but no less sinister -- than images of bomb-making or tests of chemical agents on animals: evidence of the terrorist network's global reach and links to other groups.
The video archive obtained by CNN shows evidence of al Qaeda's links to other groups, including fighters in Eritrea. One tape shows fighters in Burma in 1990 training with an Arabic-speaking instructor.

One video, catalogued by its owners as Tape B135, shows Arab fighters in Chechnya ambushing a Russian convoy.

Another, Tape C205, shows jihadi fighters in 1990 in the south Asian country of Burma, training with an Arabic-speaking instructor, who tells them, "We are fighting this fight because it is an Islamic fight."

 And a tape from the east African nation of Eritrea shows fighters there proclaiming an Islamic battle to drive infidels out of the country.

Other videos from Uzbekistan, Algeria, Bosnia and many other countries show similar scenes.

The videos are among 64 al Qaeda tapes CNN obtained from a source in Afghanistan who said they were found in a house where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had stayed. Nearly all the tapes pre-date last year's September 11 terror attacks.

Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on al Qaeda who reviewed the tapes, says they provide proof that al Qaeda has bound itself to similar groups, becoming what he calls "an organization of organizations."

In fact, Gunaratna says this is the single most important thing to be divined from the video archive.

"It gives a comprehensive picture of al Qaeda's strategic gift, of al Qaeda's global reach," he says. "It very clearly demonstrates that al Qaeda is waging a universal jihad campaign."
Shift in operations

Indeed, intelligence officials say that since September 11, al Qaeda has shifted the focus of its operations to smaller-scale attacks carried out by so-called super cells around the world while the network's leadership works to rebuild after being scattered by the U.S.-led air campaign in Afghanistan.

Those attacks include an April bombing that killed 21 people near a synagogue in Tunisia, and a bombing in May outside a hotel in Karachi, Pakistan, that left 14 people dead.

Authorities report disrupting al Qaeda cells in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Morocco. The Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on international issues, says al Qaeda has links to terrorist organizations in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Kashmir, Uzbekistan and Algeria, among other countries.

The terror ties stretch much farther west. Al Qaeda suspects have been arrested in European countries including Italy, Spain and Germany. In his book "Inside Al Qaeda," Gunaratna claims an al Qaeda cell based in Britain planned to attack targets in London on September 11 but was foiled when air traffic was grounded.

In testimony last month before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said al Qaeda had operatives in more than 60 countries, including the United States.
Modern technology, 'personal vanity'

A further look at the tapes acquired by CNN shows how al Qaeda kept its growing empire together.

One segment, shot in an office believed by coalition intelligence sources to have been al Qaeda's secure Afghan communications room, shows a man using a two-way radio. He tells the person on the other end to look for a message on his computer and decode it.

Another tape shows bin Laden giving a speech. That same speech was found on a video CD, one of a several obtained along with the archive of tapes -- proof that al Qaeda was disseminating its knowledge in various media.

The video CDs are a reminder, says one expert, that al Qaeda is more than willing to embrace the technology of its enemies to spread its message.

"Bin Laden uses the whole spectrum of technology -- video cassettes, he uses e-mail, he uses encryption," says Magnus Ranstorp, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

"He also understands how his enemies operate to function without being impaired in terms of security."

Other tapes from the archive give a glimpse of bin Laden's personal public relations efforts. One tape contains the al Qaeda leader's own recording of a 1997 interview that CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen attended.

Upon seeing the tape, Bergen expressed surprise that bin Laden had his own camera rolling.

 "It's very odd to see it so many years later and to realize that the whole thing was being videotaped [by bin Laden]," Bergen says. "I mean, actually I had no idea it was being videotaped. I just had no idea."

The archive contains other such examples from interviews with ABC and the Arabic-language network Al Jazeera -- further insight into the terrorist leader's strategy and his psyche.

"Bin Laden has been interested in his media profile for a long time," Bergen says. "And, in a way, this videotape collection is sort of the ultimate .. sort of manifestation of that."

"I think it shows personal vanity on behalf of bin Laden," says Ranstorp, "of understanding the power of the media, of how to communicate, how to persuade."

The archive of tapes shows that al Qaeda, and possibly bin Laden himself, apparently reviewed their own handiwork: One videotape, titled "American Under Fire," shows news coverage of the September 11 attacks, including reports from the BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN.