An interview with Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc., conducted by The Terrorism Monitor’s managing editor, Julie Sirrs, on September 6, 2003.
TM: What are the main reasons the U.S. has so far not been successful in apprehending Osama bin Laden?
Bergen: There are three main reasons fugitives get caught, apart from dumb luck. One is by offering a cash reward, as happened successfully in apprehending Mir Aimal Kasi. The people around bin Laden obviously aren’t susceptible to this incentive. The second is signals intelligence. Bin Laden hasn’t been using his satellite phone since 1997 or 1998, and he’s also not using a handheld radio or cell phone, so this method, too, has not been successful. The third is a mole in an organization, which we evidently don’t have within al Qaeda. Other factors involved include the Pashtunwali code of conduct and code of empathy by which those non-Arabs surrounding bin Laden continue to protect him. Also, there is bin Ladin’s familiarity with the area [Pakistan/Afghanistan] where he is now hiding. He likely knows it better even than his native Saudi Arabia, having spent more time there in his adult life than any place else.
TM: Are you hopeful that this situation will change?
Bergen: Having recently traveled to Afghanistan, as well as having spoken with many U.S. officials, I’d have to say that we’re back to square one, or maybe square one and a half in terms of the hunt for bin Laden. Though initially there was a lot of hope that bin Laden would be caught after the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that didn’t happened. Some people speculate that it is likely to take another one to two years before we would get him, but really we just don’t know. One positive thing in our favor is that in order to remain al Qaeda’s leader, bin Laden has to continue to communicate. Each time he does so provides us with an opportunity. I also think another audio tape is likely to come out very soon.
TM: What do you see as the future for al Qaeda?
Bergen: The organization itself has morphed into more of an ideology, and one that will not find much support in the West, making the internal threat to the U.S. that much lower. Instead, what we’ve seen in the past year, in places like Saudi Arabia and Bombay, is the future: Attacks by groups that share al Qaeda’s ideology, but which aren’t necessarily directly connected to bin Laden.
TM: Do you believe al Qaeda has been significantly weakened?
Bergen: It’s definitely less of a threat, and certainly al Qaeda as signifying the core group who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks has been significantly weakened, but there are still others worldwide who are committed to carrying out terrorist attacks who are motivated by the same ideology.
TM: Do you see al Qaeda being replaced by another terrorist organization as the primary threat to the U.S.?
Bergen: There will undoubtedly be other groups who come to the fore like the [Pakistan-based] Jaish-e Mohammed, and we need to presume there will be another threat. We should keep in mind that prior to 1996, al Qaeda generally wasn’t known by U.S. officials. Within just five years, it became more deadly than the Soviet Union had throughout the Cold War. We should also view al Qaeda as part of a trend. Just as before 9/11, one of the deadliest terrorist attacks had been carried out by the similarly little-known Japanese group, Aum Shinrikyo, the 9/11 attacks set a new benchmark for killing that other groups will try to surpass.
TM: Is there a part of the world where you believe al Qaeda has regrouped?
Bergen: Iraq. That’s the most target-rich environment right now. It’s also an example of–in bin Laden’s view–a Muslim country that has been invaded by infidel forces. You could say that bin Laden is probably happy about what has happened in Iraq, both the overthrow of what in his view was a communist–Saddam Hussein–and the establishment of a new battle ground for al Qaeda.
TM: What has been the impact of the U.S.-led war in Iraq on al Qaeda?
Bergen: Iraq has given al Qaeda a new sense of mission. The attacks targeting U.S. forces there are more jihadist than Baathist in their motivation. People aren’t committing suicide to bring back Saddam Hussein.
TM: How would you characterize the past two years of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan in terms of eliminating the threat of terrorism from that country?
Bergen: The war in Afghanistan went extremely well. Mullah Omar and bin Laden wanted to coax the U.S. into a Soviet-style invasion and occupation, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the toppling of the Taliban and most of the fighting happened using Afghan forces. The country is no longer a base for al Qaeda, and the resurgence in fighting is mostly from Taliban forces now. But the U.S. also needs to be more serious about rebuilding Afghanistan, and that’s going to take more than [the recently-proposed] one billion dollars. We have little other choice if we want to stabilize Afghanistan. At least as opposed to Iraq, we have more support from the international community in Afghanistan, so they can help out, too, both with humanitarian aid and military forces. Progress has been slow, but the situation is much better than it was under the Taliban.
TM: What do you see as the biggest challenge faced by the U.S. now in terms of countering terrorism?
Bergen: There are so many. The main one is probably that there are many people in the administration who are prisoners of their own ideological convictions, such as an antipathy toward nation building or supporting international organizations. What is really needed is a greater amount of realism and less American triumphalism. That really doesn’t play well anywhere else. But having said that, since 9/11–other than Richard Reid, who had the ultimate case of cold feet–no serious attempts to attack the U.S. homeland have occurred. That shows that U.S. policies have been successful. Afghanistan has also been a success, though the situation in Iraq is still undetermined. We’ve tried to speed up history. Who knows what will happen next in the region?
TM: Are you confident that the U.S. is safer now from a terrorist attack on the homeland than it was two years ago?
Bergen: Yes, it’s definitely safer. Even the other domestic cells that have been uncovered–in Oregon, in Buffalo–weren’t a real threat. Al Qaeda’s network in the U.S. was really disrupted.
Peter Bergen is the author of the best-selling book, Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden. He is also a fellow of the New America Foundation.