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  Knowing Osama

A conversation with SAIS's Peter Bergen, recent author of a surprisingly intimate portrait of the world's leading terrorist.

By Catherine Pierre

Opening photo courtesy
Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins' Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, is a terrorism analyst for CNN and author of the New York Times bestseller Holy War, Inc. He's also one of the few Western journalists ever to have met Osama bin Laden in person. In his new book, The Osama bin Laden I Know (Free Press, 2006) — researched with the help of SAIS students Paul Cruickshank, Alec Reynolds, Kelly Magsamen, Tom West, Steve Arons, Georges Chebib, and Mark Thomas — Bergen creates a portrait of the elusive bin Laden out of a series of more than 50 interviews with people who have known him, including family members, childhood friends, and former al Qaeda members. Johns Hopkins Magazine spoke with Bergen about bin Laden, the war in Iraq, and the continued terrorist threat.

You met Osama bin Laden in 1997. What did you know of him then?

Anybody reading this would know considerably more about him than we did in '97. In August of '96, the State Department released a white paper that characterized him as a financier of Islamic extremism and somebody who had training camps in Sudan. My hypothesis was that he was the guy responsible for the first World Trade Center attack in '93. As it turns out, bin Laden probably had very little to do with that attack, though Ramzi Yousef, who was the mastermind, trained in an al Qaeda camp.

One of the things he said in the interview that surprised me is, "I'm planning to attack Americans," although at that time he was talking about U.S. military targets, not civilian targets. There was part of me that was saying, Well, how are you going to implement this? We're sitting in a mud hut in the middle of the night in Afghanistan. You seem very serious, but how do you implement an attack on the United States from 8,000 miles away?

Then came the embassy attacks in 1998 in Kenya and Tanzania.

Those attacks were several thousand miles away from their base. They simultaneously blew up two U.S. embassies — which is not twice as hard as blowing up one embassy, it's 10 times harder to blow up two within the same time frame — so that's when it became clear that they were serious.

A number of people make the point that bin Laden wasn't particularly brilliant or charismatic. How did he become the leader of al Qaeda?

The picture that emerges in the book is of a very shy, reticent, and monosyllabic multimillionaire's son who didn't make much of an impression — except this religiosity and the fact that he was rather self-abdicating, giving money away to the poor and sleeping on the floor. So what changed was fighting the Soviets, which he did almost suicidally. One of the people in the book says that he founded a base specifically so it would take a lot of Soviet fire. That's not the way most people set up their bases. He fought bravely, and people started looking up to him. By the account of many people in the book, a group of Egyptian militants told him, "Look, why don't you be our leader? You've got leadership potential." In Hollywood terms, he's got a great back story — you know, son of a multimillionaire takes on the Soviets personally.

Your book dispels several myths about bin Laden. One of them is that, by funding the Afghan mujahideen during the war against the Soviets, the CIA essentially created bin Laden.

Yes, that's a sort of staple of leftists and conspiracists, but there's no evidence of it. There are very few things al Qaeda and the U.S. government agree on — [that the CIA did not fund bin Laden] is one of them. Osama had tons of money. He had personal money, money flooding in from the Saudis — he didn't need the CIA. And he was quite anti-American beginning in the early '80s because of U.S. support of Israel. So it doesn't make sense.

Another myth is that al Qaeda attacked the United States because they "hate freedom."

We have hundreds of thousands of words on the public record from bin Laden, and he's strangely silent about the Supreme Court and our First Amendment and Madonna and Hollywood and drugs and homosexuality and feminism and all these other cultural things. He just doesn't care about it. There's so much on the record from him about why he's doing it, and it's about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

I think if you polled on this question, a lot of Americans remain confused about this because the administration conflated al Qaeda and Saddam in a way that was simply not borne out by the facts. Al Qaeda had stronger roots in Brooklyn than it did in Baghdad.

Bin Laden wasn't much of a military strategist during the Afghan war. What role has he played in the attacks since then — does he plan them, or just inspire them?

In the case of the USS Cole, and in the 9/11 attacks, he actually took a pretty strong interest in the details. In other attacks, he didn't. The first act of international terrorism al Qaeda ever engaged in was trying to kill the [exiled] king of Afghanistan in 1990. Someone came to bin Laden with that idea, and he didn't really say yes or no. I think things that were less important to the organization didn't require bin Laden to be really involved in planning. But in the embassy bombing attacks, bin Laden started thinking about them in '93, started thinking about where the bombs would go. In the 9/11 attacks, he picked Mohammed Atta to be the lead hijacker, he was informed five days before the attacks happened when they were happening. Of course, he didn't bother himself about what time is the flight going out and these sorts of things; these were left to other people.

A lot of Muslims have died in attacks since 9/11.

The Achilles heel of these groups is how many Muslim civilians they've killed — whether at that wedding in Jordan in November, the second Bali attack that killed mostly Indonesians in 2005, obviously a lot of Muslim civilians have been killed by al Qaeda in Iraq. I think it's going to catch up with al Qaeda and its affiliates.

The village of Rubat, in Yemen, where the bin Laden family originated.
Photo courtesy
Peter Bergen

I think there are two major strategic weaknesses. One is that they keep killing Muslim civilians. The other is that they don't present a positive vision, other than a vague call for the return of the caliphate, which as a practical matter, is as likely as the Holy Roman Empire reappearing in Europe. And if it did reappear, what would it look like? It would be Taliban-style theocracies from Indonesia to Morocco. I don't think most Muslims want that. There was an interesting poll in Saudi Arabia, where 50 percent of people had a favorable view of bin Laden. And when asked the question, Do you want to live under a bin Laden-ruled state, only 5 percent said yes. I think that gets to an important point, which is bin Laden is admired by a lot of people in the Muslim world because he stuck it to the West, but most Muslims don't want to live in a Taliban-style regime.

The battle of Tora Bora in December 2001 — whether bin Laden was actually there — became very controversial, especially during the 2004 presidential election. You're confident that we missed our chance to capture him?

In the book, I have eyewitness accounts within al Qaeda of what it was like to be there, including bin Laden's own account of being there. And there's no evidence of him being elsewhere. What [Army] General Tommy Franks said before the election is total nonsense. [Franks, who was the commander of the operation, wrote in The New York Times that the United States did not know whether bin Laden was at Tora Bora.] Clearly it was very political. It was embarrassing that they didn't get him, and it was an issue that [Democratic candidate John] Kerry was pushing. But the fact is, he was there, we didn't get him, we were sort of victims of our own military strategy — which was a very limited number of U.S. troops on the ground and tens of thousands of people from the Northern Alliance. It was a brilliant success against the Taliban, but it was not a success at capturing or killing bin Laden.

Would capturing bin Laden have really made a difference?

It would have been a huge psychological victory for us, for the West, for civilized people. Every day he's at liberty is a propaganda victory for him and his likeminded jihadists. If he had faded into obscurity and said nothing since 9/11, I wouldn't have even bothered to write the book. But we've had 19 video or audiotapes — he keeps popping up like a bad penny. On these tapes, he pumps up the base, and he has specific instructions. Of course, the catch-22 is that every time they release one of these tapes, they open themselves to detection.

"There could be multiple wars going on in Iraq for a decade. That would mean cycling through new generations of jihadists, and when the war is over, they're not going to go home and open coffee shops. The war has re-energized these groups." On the other hand, you quote Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as saying that the war in Iraq is creating "a thousand bin Ladens."

Al Qaeda the organization is [now] very disorganized, and there have been lots of people captured in Iran. On the other hand, al Qaeda the ideological movement, which I guess was what Hosni Mubarak was referring to, is alive and well.

If you think about the 9/11 plot, it was hatched in Afghanistan, in Germany, there were wire transfers from United Arab Emirates, there were people recruited from all around the Middle East, then they lived for some period in the United States in training — it was a very simple idea, but it was very complicated to put together. All the links between these different players have now been cut. So you're going to see a lot more attacks in one country and organized in one country. And since we don't have a problem with American sleeper cells or the American Muslim community, it's somewhat more of a European problem.

It seems to me that the future of al Qaeda is really being decided in Europe, not in some Pakistani madrassah. People who go to Pakistani madrassahs are sort of functional idiots in a sense — they're reciting the Koran by rote in a language they don't understand. So that doesn't make you an effective terrorist.

My former colleague Swati Pandey and I looked at five major anti-Western attacks, and we found that 54 percent of the people involved had been to college. Very few attended madrassah. Many had gone to Western colleges, either in Europe or the United States. So the people we need to be concerned about are London School of Economics graduates, not madrassah graduates.

You've said that, after al Qaeda's defeat in Afghanistan, the Iraq war was a life raft for them.

Michael Scheuer, who was the head of the CIA bin Laden unit until 1999, has said that if Osama believed in Christmas, this would be under his Christmas tree. Basically we're doing in Iraq what bin Laden hoped we'd do in Afghanistan. We've provoked a defensive jihad. A lot of Muslims can [support] the idea of a defensive jihad [as opposed to] an offensive jihad. Al Qaeda usually uses the sword verses from the Koran that are about killing infidels wherever you find them. The defensive jihad is if Muslim land is under occupation or invasion by non-Muslims; it's theologically OK to engage in a defensive jihad — it is incumbent on all Muslims to engage in it. Some pretty major clerics have described the Iraq war as a classic defensive jihad — the same clerics who have condemned 9/11.

Bergen at bin Laden's house in Jalalabad.
Photo by Scott Wallace
So is the Iraq war making al Qaeda stronger?

We know what the blowback from the Afghan war looked like — it was the first World Trade Center attack, it was the embassy attacks, it was the Cole, 9/11, and al Qaeda — so why would the Iraq war fallout be anything really different? It could even be worse. We're only three years into the Iraq war, and whatever the United States does, there could be multiple wars going on there for a decade. [That would mean] cycling through new generations of jihadists, and when the war is over, they're not going to go home and open coffee shops. We're seeing a Belgian female suicide attacker in Iraq, we're seeing French people dying in Iraq, we're seeing Canadians volunteering — in the short term, the Iraq war has re-energized these groups and is training a new generation of people.

The idea of terrorism has become a political football on both sides of the aisle. Are we failing to take real notice of the problem?

I think there's pretty good polling data that show that for most Americans, this is not a high priority.

Does that worry you?

The whole point of terrorism is to get people terrified. If they're not terrified, the terrorists have lost. On the other hand, this is not a group that is going to wake up one day and say, The United States is the world's greatest thing so we're going to take a vacation. Americans have many virtues; patience is not one of them. We tend to think this year, next election cycle, and that's it. [Bin Laden deputy] Ayman al Zawahiri in his autobiography points out that it took two centuries to get the crusaders out of the Middle East. It took 120 years to get the French out of Algeria. It took 70 years to get the British out of Egypt. That's how these guys are thinking — they see it as a generational thing.

I think it's important to understand that the threat [of terrorism] is not existential. If you scored the Soviet threat at a 10, I think this threat from al Qaeda is like a 0.5. If they got lucky they could do a radiological bomb attack in a major American city, and damage our economy seriously and close down that city for a period of time, but that's the full extent of it. They can't incinerate everybody on the planet in half an hour. My job is to think about these things, but I also try not to be a Chicken Little about them.

Catherine Pierre is the magazine's associate editor.

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