Three Years After 9/11: An Interview With Peter Bergen

Publication: Spotlight on Terror Volume: 2 Issue: 10

Peter Bergen is a print and television journalist and author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden. Mr. Bergen is CNN’s terrorism analyst and an Adjunct Professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His article, entitled “The Long Hunt for Osama”, appears in this month’s issue of The Atlantic Monthly. He recently returned from a six week trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The interview was conducted by Chris Heffelfinger on September 12, 2004 in Washington, DC.

Terrorism Monitor: How is al-Qaeda marking this third anniversary of 9/11?

Peter Bergen: Well, the tape from Zawahiri has been the only thing I’ve seen [released to al-Jazeera on Sept. 9]. But if we don’t see an audio tape or a video tape from bin Laden in the coming days, I think that’s a sign there is some sort of problem. What that problem would be, I don’t know. But, on every anniversary bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have both produced something, whether it be simply pictures, or audio or otherwise.

TM: Considering the evolution of al-Qaeda since 9/11, it has been stated that bin Laden and his network have taken on a more ideological role, and that they have minimized or eliminated their operational capacity. Would you agree with that?

PB: The conventional wisdom is that bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are sort of out of it. I think that’s completely wrong. By the medium of these audio tapes and video tapes, they keep influencing the terms of the debate. When Ayman al-Zawahiri calls for an attack on Musharraf, the attack follows. And when bin Laden calls for attacks on Coalition Forces in Iraq, and you have things like Madrid happening. So, they retain a broader, strategic role.

TM: So, the capture of bin Laden would not be merely symbolic at this point, it would have actual strategic importance?

PB: Ayman al-Zawahiri and bin Laden created al-Qaeda between themselves. So if you remove the CEO and Chief Operating Officer, I think that that would make a difference. Obviously, the broader Jihadist movement in certain places around the world is going to continue. But it was the al-Qaeda organization that pulled off 9/11, not the broader al-Qaeda ideology; it wasn’t “bin Ladenism” or “al-Qaedaism” that did 9/11, it was the al-Qaeda group. Al-Qaeda’s ideology will continue, but these two people are not replaceable.

TM: Looking at terrorist attacks carried out since 9/11, Madrid, Istanbul, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, among others – most of these have been claimed by smaller groups. Speaking broadly, how close are these groups to al-Qaeda and bin Laden?

PB: Well, when the bomb goes off, do you care if it was an al-Qaeda affiliate or al-Qaeda itself? That’s one point. But, obviously these groups are operating fairly autonomously now, that is true. But these aren’t mutually contradictory in the sense that, yes, these groups are operating locally and autonomously, but they are also influenced by bin Laden’s rhetoric.

TM: So, to your knowledge, is anyone receiving direct training, funding, or arms from al-Qaeda proper, from bin Laden?

PB: That’s a good question. Al-Qaeda, to a large degree, has migrated to the Internet. There’s a lot of ideological material there. So that’s one way al-Qaeda remains in the game. There are training camps that remain active in Pakistan. The Pakistanis just recently announced that they bombed one of these training camps, in Waziristan in the Northwest Frontier Province, which is somewhat odd because the Pakistanis have always denied that the training camps were in existence. Obviously, al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan took a huge hit after 9/11. But, they are still capable of very nearly assassinating President Musharraf in December of 2003, and still capable of blowing up the DynCorp building in Kabul, etc.

TM: In an issue of the online journal Mu`askar al-Battar, which is considered by many to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, Abdul-Aziz al-Muqrin wrote that each cell is to plan and carry out attacks on their own, and Osama serves as ideological leader, to motivate and keep the jihadist movement alive. Do you think Muqrin was guided by bin Laden in his activities in Saudi Arabia, and do his writings reflect that?

PB: Well, let me answer that by saying that for these groups to attack inside Saudi Arabia they would have needed the say-so of someone pretty high up the al-Qaeda totem pole. Regarding the first attack in May 2003, I think it’s generally understood that Saif al-Adil, the military commander of al-Qaeda, gave his blessing to that attack. So, since then, these attacks have been happening independently. But, I don’t think they would have mounted the Riyadh attack in May 2003 without someone senior in the organization saying it was OK to do this. Now, of course, they appear to be operating more or less autonomously. But, the view is that Saif al-Adil, from Iran, somehow gave the blessing for that.

TM: Do you think bin Laden’s goals in Saudi Arabia have changed; is it still a goal for him to overthrow the regime?

PB: Yes, that’s always been a priority of his. I think that is his single, major political goal. And, it’s not looking so bad right now. Obviously, al-Qaeda inside Saudi Arabia have alienated a lot of people. But, they’ve also helped destabilize the regime and have driven up the price of oil. The regime right now is somewhat vulnerable. People have been predicting the fall of the House of Sa’ud for many years. But when average income has fallen from $25,000 to $8,000 in the last two decades and you’ve got 50% of the population under 15, you don’t have to be de Tocqueville to realize these guys are on the way out.

TM: In terms of bin Laden’s overall strategy, you seem to be saying that there is some coordinated plan – by approving attacks, whether in Istanbul, Madrid or Saudi Arabia. What is his overarching strategy? Does he approve some attacks and deny approval for others?

PB: I think his overarching goals are one, to overthrow the House of Sa’ud, and two, to reduce Western influence in the Muslim world. So I suppose target selection is based on either one of those two things. But, I don’t think bin Laden is actually selecting targets, he’s giving broad strategic guidance.

TM: What about bin Laden’s lieutenants? Who aside from Zawahiri is the most significant, has anyone risen to the top?

PB: No, I think all the significant lieutenants are either dead, like Muhammad Atta, captured, like Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, or in some kind of legal limbo like Saif al-Adil in Iran. I don’t think there’s really anybody of significance from the pre-9/11 al-Qaeda organization that is still on the run, except for Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, but of course, they’re 20 times more important than anybody else. Also, it’s possible that Sa’ad bin Laden, who is 24 now and may be in Iran, could in the longer-term take up the family name.

TM: Looking at Iraq, what have been the activities of al-Qaeda since the U.S. invasion?

PB: It seems that there are perhaps as many as 1,500-2,000 foreign fighters that have cycled through Iraq. How many of them were actually part of al-Qaeda, I don’t really know. But, certainly they were acting in an al-Qaeda-like manner. It wasn’t until January of this year when Hassan Ghul was captured, an al-Qaeda operative – I think he was the first one of any significance that has actually been found in Iraq. Of course, al-Qaeda didn’t have a presence in Iraq before the war, so it’s not surprising that it’s taken them some time to get people in there. Then, of course, you have Zarqawi, who is obviously more active, but his relationship to al-Qaeda seems to be almost more competitive than anything else. I mean he wasn’t part of al-Qaeda. The training camp he had in Afghanistan was in Herat, which is in the Western part of the country, hundreds of miles away from bin Laden’s bases, which were in the Qandahar region and Jalalabad.

TM: So you see Zarqawi as more of a competitor or rival to bin Laden than an ally?

PB: Yes, I think so. If you look at the Zarqawi letter, it more or less says, “can you help us out? And no big deal if you don’t.” Obviously, ideologically they’re very similar, but they’re not part of the same organization.

TM: Right. And reading the letter it seemed as though it were written as a letter of introduction.

PB: Yes, like someone you admire from a far.

TM: In your view, has Iraq now become the main front in the war against al-Qaeda?

PB: I suppose so. If you look at the reports by John Burns in the New York Times about what’s happening in Falluja, Ramadi and Samara, these are Taliban-style mini-states. Clearly, there is a sort of virulent, fundamentalist-type regime that has taken over in some of these cities, which is going to be a big problem for us. Even if the war stops tomorrow, it’s going to be a big problem with this radicalized new generation – when they go home to wherever they go home to, they’re not going to go back and open falafel stands, they’re going to be part of the next generation of jihadists. Whether they’re part of al-Qaeda, the organization, or have nothing to do with it, they’re going to be a problem. Is Iraq the main front in the war on al-Qaeda? I just don’t know, because of all these people who aren’t necessarily associated with al-Qaeda, but certainly it’s the main front in the war against the jihadist/terrorist movement, and of course, that’s something of our own creation.

TM: Has the Iraq war then helped al-Qaeda regroup?

PB: It’s tremendously energized them. Talleyrand said, “It’s worse than a crime, it was a blunder.” The Iraq War has been a spectacular screw-up in terms of the War on Terrorism. I mean, if Osama believed in Christmas, this is what he would have under his Christmas tree. And it seems to be getting much worse. If you look at the number of attacks against American troops, they’ve actually been going up since the transfer of sovereignty, not down. It’s difficult to imagine something less helpful.

TM: What do you see emerging as the next main front, then, over the course of the next year or two?

PB: I don’t think there will be many changes from what we see today. Even John Kerry is talking about withdrawing troops over a four year time period, so obviously Iraq will remain a problem. The situation in Pakistan is going to continue to be a problem. I think the situation in Afghanistan may get better, because I think this election on October 9th is going to be a partial success. Karzai is playing some very smart politics. He dropped Faheem from his ticket, who is one warlord, he just canned Ishmael Khan in Herat, who is another warlord. And Karzai is drawing some very favorable polling numbers. Now, if a legitimate government is installed in Afghanistan based on these elections, that can only be a good thing in terms of damaging the Taliban and increasing the legitimacy of the central government.

TM: Looking to Pakistan, you mentioned bombing the camp in Waziristan, but in the larger picture, do you think Musharraf has had any real success in cracking down on al-Qaeda and their sympathizers there?

PB: Sure, there have been some successes. But, it is a double-sided picture because on the one hand, all the major arrests of pretty much every major al-Qaeda leader have been in Pakistan, which indicates that the government has been doing a reasonably good job. On the other-hand, all the major al-Qaeda arrests have been in Pakistan, which demonstrates that it’s a safe-haven for them.

I think Musharraf has gotten very serious about this, especially since the assassination attempts. But, it’s a large country, 140 million people. In my Atlantic article, I point out the distinctions between al-Qaeda and these Kashmiri groups are really distinctions without a difference. If you look at Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping, it was a joint operation by Jaish-e Muhammad, one of the Kashmiri militant groups, and al-Qaeda. If you look at these attacks against Musharraf, I think you’ll find that all these splinter groups of Kashmiri militants are cooperating together. Look at the attacks in Karachi on the police chief. Because the Kashmiri militant groups have money, structure and a certain amount of popularity – Lashkar-e Taiba attracts hundreds of thousands of people to its annual gathering – that allows al-Qaeda to have a base of support. That’s very tough to weed out. The Kashmir issue is a very popular issue in Pakistan. Obviously, the ISI [Inter Service Intelligence] was helping these groups at one point, but I think that’s less true now.

Also, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad was arrested in the house of a JI [Jamiat al-Islamiyya] supporter. JI is the largest religious-political party in Pakistan, it’s done pretty well in the polls. Pakistan is a sympathetic environment, even if the government is doing a great job, the fact is there are people there that will help out al-Qaeda.

TM: Do you anticipate any big arrests, such as bin Laden or al-Zawahiri in Pakistan or Afghanistan before the U.S. Presidential elections?

PB: No, I don’t, because I don’t think they’re any closer to getting him today than they were two years ago. It seems that they really don’t have a lot of information, and that’s not a situation that has changed a great deal. The whole effort to capture bin Laden has really hit a brick wall.

TM: What are your thoughts on the recent attacks in Russian – the plane and subway bombings and Beslan?

PB: Well, the Russians turned Grozny into a parking lot on two occasions, they killed tens of thousands of women and children in the process. Chechens have a legitimate grievance against the Russians. Tolstoy was writing about fighting the Chechens in his book, The Cossacks. The struggle has been going on for a long time. Yes, there was ibn Khattab, a sort of bin Laden protégé, who was a Saudi, and he and Basayev basically triggered the second Chechen war. But, still, the number of Arabs fighting along side the Chechens is very small. So, for Putin to say this is international terrorism, well, there’s no evidence that Beslan was. None of the hostages said that they saw any Arabs.

TM: Many speculations have been made on whether al-Qaeda will attempt to launch an attack on the U.S. before the elections, with many analysts saying al-Qaeda will not attack precisely because they want Bush to remain in power, as he’s been a polarizing force in the Muslim world. What is your take on this?

PB: I’m not convinced that they have the capacity to do anything inside the United States. But, I would have given you the same answer on September 10, 2001. What’s much more likely than an attack timed for the U.S. election, is a bomb going off in London, or Heathrow airport or something like that. If you look at the arrest of al-Britani in England, it seems he was a serious member of the group and possibly was considering an attack on the Heathrow airport. The people that have been arrested in the United States, the Lackawanna people, the Detroit case, all these cases are not serious threats. I think that the more hardcore al-Qaeda members are to be found in Europe rather than in the United States. So, I’d say an attack in Europe is more likely than in the United States, as we saw in Madrid.

TM: When we spoke a year ago, you said that at that point, al-Qaeda’s threat to the U.S. had been significantly weakened. So, at this point, you would say that al-Qaeda is even a less serious threat to the U.S.?

PB: I think the threat has been much attenuated. They pose a threat to J.W. Marriott hotels in Jakarta, or Sheratons in Karachi, or American troops in Iraq – they certainly are a threat to American interests abroad. The only serious plot that was averted was the Richard Reid plot. I’m still concerned about people coming into the United States, possibly with European passports, but we’re in such a different posture and so much more vigilant than we were before September 11.

TM: Well, is al-Qaeda stronger than they were a year ago? Obviously they were greatly weakened after 9/11.

PB: Again, I would say that al-Qaeda was tremendously energized by the war in Iraq. And if you look at the public opinion polls that have been taken in the Muslim world – Pew polls, Zogby – we’re seeing that clearly the group of people who dislike the United States has been expanded by the war. Last year’s State Department revised figures on terrorism show the largest number of significant terrorism attacks around the world in twenty years. Al-Qaeda was on the ropes, and it has given them another reason for existence.