A vast cache of videotapes from Afghanistan provides the clearest evidence yet to corroborate United States government charges that Al Qaeda developed and tested chemical agents, according to experts who have seen some of them.
Last night, CNN began broadcasting portions of tapes it obtained, one of which shows what appears to be the agonizing death of three dogs exposed to a chemical agent, apparently before Sept. 11.
The tape was among about 250 that Nic Robertson, a CNN reporter, was taken to 10 days ago, 60 of which he brought out of Afghanistan with him. Experts say the collection is the largest known assembly of videotapes ever made by Al Qaeda of its activities – a library that was collected, cataloged and stored by unknown individuals, apparently to document the history of Al Qaeda.
The archive includes instruction tapes on bomb-making and on how to shoot surface-to-air weapons, as well as the first meeting of Osama bin Laden and other Qaeda leaders with foreign journalists in May 1998, and other tapes – often violent – contributed by affiliated groups in Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere.
The earliest videotapes dated back to the late 1980's; the most recent included news broadcasts of the collapse of the World Trade Center.
Mr. Robertson and senior CNN executives declined to say precisely how or where they located the tapes, but they said CNN did not pay for them. Mr. Robertson said he drove 17 hours from the Afghan capital of Kabul about two weeks ago to view the tapes, which he said had been moved away from their original location. His contacts in Afghanistan told him the tapes had been moved. After watching the material for more than a day, he selected the tapes of greatest interest and took them out of Afghanistan.
A spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency said the agency could not comment on the significance of the material because CNN had not provided the tapes to the agency. But he said the tapes, as described, were consistent with what intelligence analysts have said about Al Qaeda's quest for chemical and other weapons of mass destruction and its testing of "crude" agents.
Government and private chemical weapons and terrorism experts watched many hours of the tapes last week, as did a reporter for The New York Times, at the invitation of CNN.
One of those experts, Magnus Ranstorp, director-designate of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said the tapes suggested that Western intelligence agencies might even now be underestimating Al Qaeda.
"In conjunction with the Encylopedia of Jihad and other written manuals, the tapes show meticulous planning, preparation and attention to the tradecraft of terror," Mr. Ranstorp said.
Peter Bergen, a former CNN correspondent who was the first television reporter to interview Mr. bin Laden in 1997 and who wrote a book on Al Qaeda, "Holy War, Inc." (FreePress, 2001), said that unlike tapes prepared to recruit members, which have circulated on the Internet, the tapes he saw were not necessarily meant for public consumption.
Thousands of people who went through Qaeda camps learned the things taught in "these how-to tapes – how to build explosives with ordinary chemicals you can buy off the shelf, how to blow up a bridge or shoot off weapons, how to kidnap," Mr. Bergen said.
He and Mr. Ranstorp agreed that the existence of such tapes indicated that senior Qaeda leaders intended their jihad to continue if they died. "These tapes can be replicated," Mr. Ranstorp said, "which means you don't need Afghanistan anymore to teach people how to make bombs and make chemical agents."
Al Qaeda disguised the tapes by recording or splicing them onto brief introductory segments of commonplace movies, like serials from India and American movies including "Lion of the Desert." "This is further evidence that Al Qaeda paid tremendous attention to concealment," Mr. Ranstorp said.
Several experts said they were surprised by the presence in the Qaeda archives of a documentary that was highly critical of Saddam Hussein. Mr. Bergen said that in his interview, Mr. bin Laden called Saddam a "bad Muslim."
In one tape's early frames, a white Laborador-like dog, wearing a green ribbon, is sleeping in a small room. A man wearing typical Afghan clothing, and without protective gear, drops something on the concrete floor and leaves quickly.
As a white liquid oozes across the floor and a vapor fills the lower part of the room, the dog sits up, alert, apparently sensing danger. In the next frames, the dog begins licking its mouth, salivates and sneezes.
The dog then tries standing; its head shakes violently, and its breathing quickens. Its hind legs appear to collapse. Seconds later, the dog falls and struggles to stand. Unable to control its front legs, it wimpers and moans. Then the dog appears to vomit. Its moan becomes a piercing wail.
The dog then seems to have trouble breathing. Its tail is all that moves as the screen goes blank.
A second later, the video replayed the first scene, of the dog's exposure to the gas, then jumped ahead, documenting the subsiding of its cries.
Finally, one of the dog's hind legs shoots up in the air, as its head goes down. It then lies motionless.
David A. Kay, senior vice president of the Science Applications International Corporation, a company that works for the government and commercial clients, said the tape of the dog gassing demonstrates that Al Qaeda succeeded in obtaining crude weapons of mass destruction.
Experts disagreed in their speculation about what type of chemical agent was used on the three dogs.
Mr. Kay said the dogs exhibited symptoms consistent with the use of a nerve agent like sarin. "That terrible racking sound of the dog in its death throes is a classic sound of a nerve agent like sarin," he said.
But Frederick R. Sidell, a chemical weapons expert who worked at the Army Medical Institute of Chemical Defense, said he doubted that sarin or cyanide was used. He called the video unsettling, but said it was not clear that the dogs had died.
Mr. Kay and Mr. Sidell said they believed that the tapes were authentic.
The Times reported in January 2001 that intelligence officials believed that Al Qaeda was storing and testing crude chemical agents, including nerve gas, in eastern Afghanistan. One intelligence official said then that American teams in Afghanistan had collected the bones of small animals and taken soil samples that proved to have traces consistent with the use of such chemical agents.
Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who is cooperating with the government in its prosecutions of those accused in the planned bombing of the Los Angeles airport, testified last year that he was taught to poison people by putting toxins on doorknobs and that he engaged in experiments in which dogs were injected with a mix of cyanide and sulphuric acid.
In February, four Moroccans in Italy were detained for possessing cyanidelike compounds and maps of the American Embassy.
Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive, said that the network had shared parts of the videos with senior State Department and Pentagon officials so they could comment on their authenticity and significance, and that it would make copies of the videos available to other "appropriate officials" once they are broadcast.
Asked why the C.I.A. failed to obtain the archive before CNN, Bill Harlow, the agency's spokesman, replied, "There are more of them in Afghanistan than there are of us, and they are paid better."
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