February 4th, 2010
02:36 PM ET

Why the 9/11 trial belongs in New York

New York City police officers guard lower Manhattan, near Ground Zero.
New York City police officers guard lower Manhattan, near Ground Zero.

Peter Bergen and Karen Greenberg
Special to CNN

Obama administration officials, apparently bowing to political pressure, said over the weekend they are considering moving the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused operational commander of the 9/11 attacks, out of New York City.

The objections to holding it in New York seem reasonable: The financial cost to the city and the fear that the trial might inspire a lone bomber or even an organized al Qaeda attack.

Certainly, holding Mohammed's trial over many months and even years in the congested streets of Lower Manhattan will damage the local economy. But the fix for this could be straightforward: Move the trial to one of the many other courthouses in the five boroughs, or to Governor's Island, which is within sight of the crater where the World Trade Center once stood.

As to fears of bringing on another attack, putting Mohammed on trial in New York doesn't make the city any bigger a target than it already is, because - guess what - New York already is the No. 1 target for jihadist militants. It has been so for almost two decades, since the first Trade Center attack in 1993, which was followed by the averted plots to blow up the Holland Tunnel and other Manhattan landmarks and the 9/11 attacks themselves. Since then, there has been a plot to blow up the Herald Square subway station and alleged attempts to bomb fuel tanks at JFK airport and synagogues in the Bronx.

The unconvincing objections about the costs of holding the trial and the heightened terror threat that comes with it are also trumped by the larger public good from putting Mohammed on trial in New York City.

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Filed under: Justice Department • Peter Bergen • Terrorism
December 30th, 2009
08:54 AM ET
December 28th, 2009
12:01 PM ET

Bergen: Similar explosive on plane used in Saudi attack

A man reads a newspaper featuring a front-page story on the attack on Saudi deputy interior minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
A man reads a newspaper featuring a front-page story on the attack on Saudi deputy interior minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

Peter Bergen | BIO
CNN National Security Analyst

On August 28, the Saudi Arabian deputy minister of interior, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, survived a bombing attack launched by an al Qaeda cell based in Yemen, Saudi Arabia's southern neighbor.

Abdullah Hassan al Asiri, the would-be assassin, a Saudi who had fled to Yemen, posed as a militant willing to surrender personally to Prince Nayef.

Because he leads Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism efforts against al Qaeda, the prince is a key target for the terrorist group.

Al Asiri concealed the bomb, made of PETN, in his underwear, according to the official Saudi investigation.

PETN is a plastic explosive that is not picked up by metal detectors - through which the would-be assassin had to pass before he was allowed to meet with the prince.

Saudi officials believe that the prince's assailant exploded the 100-gram device using a detonator with a chemical fuse, which would also not be detected by a metal detector.

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Filed under: 360° Radar • Peter Bergen • Terrorism
December 1st, 2009
11:55 PM ET

How President Obama decided on the Afghanistan strategy

Peter Bergen | BIO
CNN National Security Analyst

Three senior administration officials outlined on Tuesday some of the concepts and processes that went into President Obama’s new plan for Afghanistan.

Between September 13 and November 23 the president chaired 10 meetings of his national security team to deliberate over the new strategy.

The president agreed with the ground commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal’s assessment from the summer that the key goal of the strategy was to reverse the momentum of the Taliban in the next 12 months. He selected from the menu of troop deployment options the one that got American boots on the ground in the most rapid manner.

There are six objectives those forces will try to accomplish.


Filed under: Afghanistan • Peter Bergen
October 26th, 2009
12:00 PM ET

US losing Afghan war on 2 fronts

 For years, Afghanistan was considered the forgotten war but Americans have started paying attention again.
For years, Afghanistan was considered the forgotten war but Americans have started paying attention again.

Peter Bergen
CNN National Security Analyst

We are losing in Afghanistan, on two fronts. The most important center of gravity of the conflict - as the Taliban well recognizes - is the American public. And now, most Americans are opposed to the war.

For years, Afghanistan was "the forgotten war," and when Americans started paying attention again - roughly around the time of President Obama's inauguration - what they saw was not a pretty sight: a corrupt Afghan government, a world-class drug trade, a resurgent Taliban and steadily rising U.S. casualties.

Many surely thought: Didn't we win this war eight years ago?

Americans, of course, hate seeing the deaths of fellow citizens in combat, but even more they hate to see those deaths in the service of a war they believe they are either not winning or maybe even losing, which is one of the reasons why they largely turned against the Iraq war in 2006.

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Filed under: Afghanistan • Peter Bergen
October 22nd, 2009
04:26 PM ET

The Drone War

Program Note: Tune in tonight for more from Peter Bergen . AC360° at 11 p.m. ET.

Remote-controlled drones, such as the Predator, are proving increasingly popular with the U.S. military.
Remote-controlled drones, such as the Predator, are proving increasingly popular with the U.S. military.

Peter Bergen | BIO
CNN National Security Analyst

The Al Qaeda videotape shows a small white dog tied up inside a glass cage. A milky gas slowly filters in. An Arab man with an Egyptian accent says: "Start counting the time." Nervous, the dog starts barking and then moaning. After flailing about for some minutes, it succumbs to the poisonous gas and stops moving.

This experiment almost certainly occurred at the Derunta training camp near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, conducted by an Egyptian with the nom de jihad of "Abu Khabab." In the late 1990s, under the direction of Al Qaeda's number two, Ayman Al Zawahiri, Abu Khabab set up the terrorist group's WMD research program, which was given the innocuous codename "Yogurt." Abu Khabab taught hundreds of militants how to deploy poisonous chemicals, such as ricin and cyanide gas. The Egyptian WMD expert also explored the possible uses of radioactive materials, writing in a 2001 memo to his superiors, "As you instructed us you will find attached a summary of the discharges from a traditional nuclear reactor, among which are radioactive elements that could be used for military operations." In the memo, Abu Khabab asked if it were possible to get more information about the matter "from our Pakistani friends who have great experience in this sphere." This was likely a reference to the retired Pakistani senior nuclear scientists who were meeting then with Osama bin Laden.

In the pandemonium following the fall of the Taliban in the winter of 2001, Abu Khabab disappeared into the badlands on the Afghan-Pakistani border. The United States put a $5 million bounty on his head and, in January 2006, attempted to kill him and Zawahiri while they were believed to be in the Pakistani hamlet of Damadola, targeting them with a missile launched by a drone aircraft.

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Filed under: 360° Radar • Afghanistan • Pakistan • Peter Bergen
October 7th, 2009
06:01 PM ET

Harsh Afghan outposts raise serious challenges for U.S.

CNN obtained this photo of a U.S. helicopter above Forward Operating Base Keating in the Nuristan province
CNN obtained this photo of a U.S. helicopter above Forward Operating Base Keating in the Nuristan province

Ed Hornick

Mountainous terrain and harsh weather in remote parts of Afghanistan have proven a deadly combination for the U.S. military in its push to reduce mounting violence in the country.

On Saturday, Taliban militants attacked American and Afghan troops in the Nuristan province in eastern Afghanistan. Eight American troops and two members of the Afghan national security forces were killed, according to the Pentagon.

It was the largest number of Americans killed by hostile action in a single day since July 13, 2008, when nine troops died, according to CNN records.

The fighting was so fierce that at one point U.S. forces "had to collapse in on themselves," a U.S. military official with knowledge of the latest intelligence reports on the incident told CNN. These revelations about the battle that engulfed Forward Operating Base Keating are a further indication of how pinned down and outmanned the troops were. Watch more on the attack in rural Afghanistan »

The base was scheduled to be closed in the next few days, CNN has learned. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, wanted to cede remote outposts and consolidate troops in more populated areas to better protect Afghan civilians.

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Filed under: 360° Radar • Afghanistan • al Qaeda • Barack Obama • Hillary Clinton • Peter Bergen • Robert Gates • Taliban
September 11th, 2009
11:37 PM ET

Where's Osama bin Laden?

Peter Bergen | Bio
CNN National Security Analyst

Eight years after September 11, the "war on terror" has gone the way of the dodo. And President Obama talks instead about a war against al Qaeda and its allies.

What, then, of al Qaeda's enigmatic leader, Osama bin Laden, who has vanished like a wisp of smoke? And does he even matter now?

The U.S. government hadn't had a solid lead on al Qaeda's leader since the battle of Tora Bora in winter 2001. Although there are informed hypotheses that today he is in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province on the Afghan border, perhaps in one of the more northerly areas such as Bajaur, these are essentially guesses, not "actionable" intelligence.

A longtime American counterterrorism analyst explained to me, "There is very limited collection on him personally."

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Filed under: Afghanistan • Peter Bergen
September 11th, 2009
06:15 AM ET
September 9th, 2009
09:00 PM ET

Helmand: Bombs, Drugs and the Taliban

A U.S. Marine sweeps for Improvised Explosive Devices (IED's) along the pathways around their base at Camp Jaker.
A U.S. Marine sweeps for Improvised Explosive Devices (IED's) along the pathways around their base at Camp Jaker.

Peter Bergen | Bio
CNN National Security Analyst
Nawa District, Helmand, Afghanistan

If the southern Afghanistan province of Helmand were a country it would be the world’s leading producer of opium and its derivative, heroin. More than half the world’s heroin originates here – much of it destined for the veins of junkies living in Europe.

In June 2005, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials and Afghan police raided the office of Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, the governor of Helmand, and found nine tons of opium in his office. He is no longer the governor.

According to an unpublished threat assessment by the Afghan army of the security situation as it was this April in Afghanistan which was obtained by CNN, Helmand province had the highest percentage of territory controlled by the Taliban of any of the country’s 34 provinces.

Nearly 60 percent of Helmand in April was fully Taliban-controlled, and the remainder was classified as “high risk” for Taliban attacks.

According to a senior Marine officer 20 percent of the Taliban in Helmand are “ideologues’ who are not from the local area and are influenced by the Pakistan-based central command of the Taliban – such as its leader Mullah Omar. The other 80 percent are local “opportunists” who are making money being paid by the Taliban to do jobs such as planting roadside bombs known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

U.S. intelligence officials estimate that the Taliban can pay approximately $300 a month to its rank-and-file soldiers. An Afghan policeman is lucky if he makes $100 a month.

Since early July, some 4,500 American U.S. Marines and hundreds of Afghans soldiers have launc hed offensives against the Taliban in Helmand and, according to a senior US Marine officer, as a result the Taliban “are on their arse, literally.”

The officer said that of the 13 districts in Helmand, only one is now fully controlled by the Taliban. However, they continue to maintain a persistent presence in the province and are capable of launching IED attacks at will throughout Helmand.

In Dawa District, in central Helmand, Marines at a dusty, spartan base with no electricity or running water venture out on several-hour foot patrols. They move through canal-fed corn fields armed with metal detectors and a bomb-sniffing dog looking to discover and disable IEDs.

The IEDs range from simple victim- operated bombs, typically pressure plate devices made from wood and springs, to more complex devices that are remotely detonated using a command wire. The corn rows that stand 10-feet high provide an ideal environment in which the IED triggermen can hide.

During World War II, 3 percent of American combat deaths were caused by mines or booby traps. By 1967 during the Vietnam War the figure rose to 9 percent. In Iraq during the latter half of 2005, IEDs were the leading cause of American combat deaths, responsible for 65 percent of all fatalities and half of all nonfatal injuries.

According to Brigadier General Laurence Nicholson, who is in charge of the Marine brigade in Helmand, an astonishing 80 percent of the casualties of the Marines under his command are now caused by IEDs.

Just one more statistic that helps explain why Helmand remains one of the more dangerous places on the planet.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Afghanistan • Peter Bergen
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