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Apr 04, 2003

Interview with NPR’s Neal Conan: Al Qaeda and the Iraq war

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington. Join Ira Flatow on the next “Science Friday” for a look at the lasting environmental effects of oil pollution in the Middle East, plus an update on the smallpox vaccination program. That’s tomorrow on “Talk of the Nation/Science Friday.”

Today we’re talking about where the war on terrorism stands now that US forces are deeply engaged in a war with Iraq. If you’d like to join the conversation, our phone number is (800) 989-8255, and the e-mail address is totn@npr.org. Joining us now here in studio 3A is Peter Bergen. He’s the author of “Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden.”

And it’s good to have you back on the program.

Mr. PETER BERGEN (Author, “Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden”): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: You were here two months ago, before the war began, and said–we ran a clip of this at the top of the program–‘If al-Qaeda can’t pull something off reasonably big timed to a war in Iraq, then there’s a serious problem with their capabilities.’

Mr. BERGEN: Well, I think that’s true. I mean, some of the people in al-Qaeda were talking about, you know, significant action timed to the war in Iraq. We’re now two weeks into it. We haven’t even heard a videotape or an audiotape statement from the leadership, let alone a terrorist attack. It’s striking to me how little terrorism has resulted from the war in Iraq. I was certainly somebody who thought that there would be a great deal. Now is it either because al-Qaeda has been so disrupted that they’re out of business for a while, or is it because, you know, there’s still time for this war to carry on? That’s possible. But to me, it is an indication of weakness on their part that they haven’t been able to pull anything off because the most significant event in the Middle East in the past decade is definitely something that they want to be seen to be part of.

CONAN: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, captured just a bit before the war began, said to have been the operational commander of al-Qaeda. Maybe that was more disruptive than most people could even hope.

Mr. BERGEN: Yeah. Well, certainly, of all the people you’d want to take off the street, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was that man. There’s an interesting side note to that, Neal, which is that he was arrested in the house of a Pakistani microbiologist, and there was a good piece in The Washington Post about 10 days ago by Barton Gellman. It wasn’t an accident, apparently, that he was living with a microbiologist. Just as Osama bin Laden was meeting with Pakistani nuclear scientists to educate himself on that issue, it appears that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was interested in knowing how to mill anthrax. And the question of who did those anthrax attacks after 9/11 is still an open one. There are no suspects, clearly, and, obviously, the initial idea that it was a Ted Kaczynski-type character–white American scientist–that group of people they’ve, obviously, looked at. Maybe we need to go back and look at al-Qaeda again. After all, those anthrax letters were mailed in the 9/11 time frame, and it’s possible that one of the hijackers was treated for a subcutaneous infection that was related to anthrax in Florida.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. One other thing that’s happened in the war has been the end of the enclave run by Ansar al-Islam, a group said, by Secretary Powell, to have ties with al-Qaeda that was up in the Kurdish area on the border with Iran, and also ties to the Saddam Hussein regime as well. Has anything solid emerged from going through what has ever been found there yet?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, apparently, there are some indications that chemical or biological research was going on at that site. I don’t think it was anything particularly–you know, it would have been rather rudimentary. But that group was always a small group, and it’s, obviously, out of business now. Its links to al-Qaeda were–it did have some links to al-Qaeda. I think its links to Saddam are sort of unproven, although, obviously, we’re going to know a lot more about those sorts of things very shortly.

CONAN: Let’s go back to the phones. Our next caller is Jonathan, who’s with us from Amherst, Massachusetts.

JONATHAN (Caller): Hi. How are you doing? First, I want to commend Peter Bergen. I read your whole book, cover to cover, Peter, when it came out and I’ve actually cited some of the stuff in chapter two when people constantly repeat the idea that we created Osama bin Laden. I’ve had to cite that, in fact, to some local NPR affiliates as well.

But my point is that we need to have a really strong parallel war going on, a war of ideas. And I’m just kind of echoing what Tom Friedman has been saying for the last two years, and I’m not sure if anybody in our administration has been listening to him. But I think, you know, besides the concentrated, coordinated international effort to wipe out these terrorist groups–obviously, there’s this whole reservoir of it–and I think what we need to be doing is challenging the Islamic world to face its issues; in other words, that they need to be engaged and pressured into doing self-critical analysis.

I didn’t see anything coming out of the Islamic world after 9/11, even before the war in Afghanistan or afterwards, saying that they took responsibility, that they were going to look at their own educational system, that they were going to kind of sort of really look into how Islam was being promoted in their country and really do something about it. And I think that, you know, it’s their responsibility to do that, and I’m really sick of so many Americans of my generation, whom I identify with in other ways, blaming ourselves for their ideology.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JONATHAN: It’s their ideology. They’ve got to deal with it. We’ve got to push them to deal with it.

CONAN: Peter.

Mr. BERGEN: Well, the mechanics of that are, you know, it’s difficult to tell how you’d exactly go about that. Though, by the way, after 9/11, and Ahmed Rashid mentioned this, there was some re-examination. And there was a very interesting report produced by Arab intellectuals, sponsored by the United Nations.

JONATHAN: I saw that.

Mr. BERGEN: Right. Which talked about, you know, the level of illiteracy, the status of women, you know, the demographic problem they have. And so there is some self-examination going on. However, obviously, the war in Iraq has put that a little bit on hold.

JONATHAN: Yeah.

Mr. BERGEN: I think that how the war in Iraq plays out–obviously, the people–you know, Mr. Rashid was pointing out that this is generating potentially more recruits for al-Qaeda. That may be true if the war in Iraq is a protracted affair with a lot of civilian deaths. We don’t know yet. I think if the war in Iraq is done, as it seems to be completed, in a rather surgical manner and a rather quick manner, the notion that it would serve as an important recruiting tool for al-Qaeda may, in fact, not happen.

CONAN: Jonathan, thanks very much for the call.

Let’s go now to Nye, who’s with us from Sonoma, California.

NYE (Caller): Yeah. Hey, there. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Sure. You’re on the air.

NYE: Hey, Neal. Thank you very much. I love your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

NYE: I just want to bring a slightly different world into this. The science-fiction novelist Orson Scott Card starts one of his novels with a discussion of a character trying to make someone stop doing something, and the realization this character has is the best way to make someone stop doing something is to stop wanting to do it. And I think in the discussion of global terrorism–and this does relate to the previous caller’s question–is, you know, until we address the issue of global poverty, issues of global disenfranchisement and despotic regimes, we’re not going to stop terrorism by going out and invading countries, like lining up whether it’s, you know, Syria, Iran, North Korea after this, which, you know, certain hawks in the administration might want to do. And, you know, unless we, you know, funnel more funds into Afghanistan for rebuilding, creating jobs, creating a situation so that people aren’t so desperate they want to blow themselves up and go to, you know, the Islamic paradise that they think they’ll get because their life is so bad.

CONAN: Yet, interestingly, the research on terrorists suggests that they are not from poverty-stricken backgrounds. They themselves are well educated.

Mr. BERGEN: Yeah. Yeah. So marshall plans to…

NYE: Well, it seems the leaders are, but to get–the masses up behind them, you know, are generally going to be people that are going to be subject to being swayed by those ideologies and…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

NYE: …who don’t have a lot.

CONAN: Yeah.

NYE: But anyway, thank you…

Mr. BERGEN: Well, I think you put your finger on it with the word ‘disenfranchisement.’ I mean, I think the problem here is the political regimes around the Middle East, which are sort of authoritarian kleptocracies in general, and more democratic regimes might produce politicians who are more anti-American. However, I think it would also take the winds out of the sails out of all the terrorist groups because they would have a place to go. Right now, the al-Qaedas in the world are the result of the fact that there’s no other way to go. If you’re an Islamist, you’re, you know, brutally repressed. In Egypt or, you know, in a lot of countries around the Middle East, you would be executed as somebody who’d perhaps gone to Afghanistan.

NYE: Mm-hmm. Well, thank you very much, guys.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call, Nye.

Let’s go to Ralph. And Ralph is with us from Brooklyn.

RALPH (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi. You’re on the air.

RALPH: Hey, how you doing?

CONAN: OK.

RALPH: Yeah. My view now on the war on terror: Obviously, you know, like the last caller said, there seems to be a large problem in a lot of Islamic countries with poverty and things of that nature.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

RALPH: And a lot of young Islamic teens and things of that nature seem to not be able to make enough money, so they join these causes that are funded by, you know, who knows?–these nations that are, you know, supporting terrorism and stuff. So that’s their way of making money, by just warring and keep warring and keep fighting and keep doing things so that they can support their family. And that seems to be a big problem. And I see the only way is by this war in Iraq, after we get things fixed up and all that, that we create some system where they can have jobs and these young Islamic children, they won’t grow up feeling that they have to get into some terrorist group to have some money to feed their family and things of that nature.

I mean, in Afghanistan, we’re going to have to have the people over there go to all those warlords, those, like, very villagy-type places and get rid of the people’s guns. They have to take away the guns of those warlords in those tribal areas because if not, things are just going to stay wild the way they are. I mean, it’s a tradition over there to have guns. Everyone has guns. The only way to stop what’s going on in Afghanistan, the government has to have some kind of group, some maybe, you know, government group, and just go around and tell the people, ‘Hey, there can’t be anymore guns like this,’ or everything is just going to stay the way it is.’

CONAN: Peter Bergen, easier said than done.

Mr. BERGEN: Well, I mean, pretty much every Afghan male is armed; that’s a fact. But, you know, the situation in Afghanistan, despite the, you know, recent activity, is a lot better than it was or has been in the last 20 years. I do think that it’s the height of cynicism if we promised certain funds to Afghanistan and those funds aren’t getting through because then we would be repeating the same error that we made in 1989 when we washed our hands of the place. And that was really a central part of the problem, I think, in terms of some of the things that came out of the post-’89 situation: Taliban, al-Qaeda. We need to be engaged there.

CONAN: Peter Bergen is with us here in studio 3A. We’re talking about the war on terrorism, and you’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Peter Bergen, I wanted to raise the same question with you that I raised earlier with Paul Wilkinson and with Ahmed Rashid, and that is that a month ago it looked, after the capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, everybody seemed to be hot on the trail of Osama bin Laden himself. That has seemingly cooled off?

Mr. BERGEN: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think it’s back to square one, or maybe square two. You know, I think the general view is that Osama bin Laden is in the northwest frontier province of Pakistan. He’s probably been there the whole time, as, indeed, are Ayman al-Zawahiri, his number two, and his son, Saad bin Laden, is supposedly in Karachi. So they’re in Pakistan, you know.

You know, Neal, it’s an interesting question. What happens if they do capture or kill Osama bin Laden? I mean, there’s actually a raft load of problems with that. Killing him is not something the Pakistani government, I think, can really be seen to be part of. If American forces kill him, you know, that also creates some problems of martyrdom for him. Capturing him, I think, would be very useful. We’d put him on trial. That would go some way to puncturing his mystique. But in a way, just having him kind of fade away might be the best possible outcome.

CONAN: Fading away is not something he is likely to do, though.

Mr. BERGEN: Well, he certainly hasn’t, you know, produced an audiotape yet. I mean, there is a rumor that a videotape may surface tied to this war in Iraq. But if bin Laden can’t get a message out now that the war is started in Iraq, forget about a terrorist attack, that really indicates that there’s a huge problem in his organization.

CONAN: Peter Bergen, thanks very much for being with us.

Peter Bergen is the author of “Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden,” and a fellow at the New America Foundation here in Washington, DC. And he joined us here in studio 3A.

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