Articles

Apr 16, 2003

Online chat with Washingtonpost.com

Washington, D.C.: You said on last night’s program that al Qaeda undoubtedly had the materials to make a dirty bomb. Tell us what led you to believe this, for example, do you have any intel or evidence? Can you tell us which nuclear species they undoubtedly possess? We have been hearing the basics on dirty bombs for over a year so maybe you could go right to the intermediate level in your reply.

Peter Bergen: There are several components. First of all Jose Padilla was arrested in spring of last year, allegedly either targeting a site for a dirty bomb or get material for one, so that pointed in the direction of al Qaeda wanting to blow up a dirty bomb in this country. Secondly, there have been numerous al Qaeda attempts to buy radioactive material over the years and while its improbable that they have highly enriched uranium, it is possible that they would have gathered the material for a radiological bomb.

Raleigh, N.C.: How much of a threat are Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to the world? Should the U.S. use all its power to roll back Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program considering the fact that it is an unstable, islamic country with close al Qaeda connections. If terrorists can get their hands on nuclear weapons, it will be in Pakistan than any where else. Doesn’t this make Pakistan a good case for pre-emption? Thank you.

Peter Bergen: Certainly probably senior Pakistani nuclear scientists who recently retired met with bin Laden on at least two occasion and we also know from the Kargal situation in 1999 that it appeared elements of the military were moving nuclear weapons without the sanctions and the Sharif government, so both of these are very disturbing facts. However, is that an argument for preemption? I think that’s a separate issue.

Long Beach, Calif.: What is the New America Foundation? Who are the major funders? Within the political spectrum, where does it sit? Is it politically based? If so, what political party generally embraces the positions espoused by your “foundation?” Thank you.

Peter Bergen: The foundation is a post-ideological solutions oriented whose ideas are that — the people of the foundation span a spectrum of positions politically. I actually don’t know who the major funders are. In the January issue of the Atlantic Monthly, 15 of the fellows here did a package called “The Real State of the Union.”

Naples, Fla.: If the United States does not lead by example and destroy its weapons of mass destruction, is it reasonable to assume that other countries will continue to pursue procuring and developing them?

Peter Bergen: Well, again, this is not really my area. But the U.S. has signed certain treaties which it is adhering to.

Arlington, Va.: Peter, not only was “Avoiding Armageddon” on last night — which scared me to death — but I also caught part of “Al Qaeda 2.0.” While the PBS show focused on truly how little nuclear material would be required to do a lot of damage, the other show talked so much about al Qaeda cells in places like Singapore and Bangladesh. Do you think that in environments such as those (poor, I guess is what I’m getting at), the likelihood of terrorists obtaining nuclear materials is high?

Peter Bergen: Well, I think the likelihood of acquiring radiological materials is very high. al Qaeda has that capability. There is some evidence that Chechen rebels did in the mid-90s. Nuclear materials are difficult to acquire and very difficult to deploy in a weapons. States spend decades developing these. Maybe a crude nuclear device in the future, but the likelihood of that is very low.

Waterford, Mich.: How would U.S. respond to an act of nuclear terrorism committed by a group of terrorists on U.S. soil? For example if 9/11 were to be an act of nuclear terrorism committed by al Qaeda, killing millions and wreaking havoc on U.S. economy, what options will the U.S. president face on his response to Afghanistan (base of al Qaeda), Saudi Arabia (citizenship of the terrorists)?

Peter Bergen: Emergency teams as part of DOE deal with these incidents and they would be dispatched immediately. Many cities have conducted drills for potential WMDs.

New York, N.Y.: Where is the least secure nuclear material located?

Peter Bergen: Without a doubt, that is in the former Soviet Union. Just because of the volume of materials and the economic problems of so many in that area and clearly Sen. Sam Nunn and Sen. Dick Luger provides a mechanism for these sites to be secure, but much work remains. There is a black market for these materials. Unfortunately, for a long time that was a result of sting operations by the police, but now there is evidence that al Qaeda was interested in the materials.

Winston Salem, N.C.: Yesterday, I watched “Avoiding Armageddon” program. It highlights the possible links between Pakistan government, ISI and Taliban and terrorist organizations during the Kauris conflict.

It makes me even more interesting to figure out the logic of current U.S. administration seeking Pakistan’s help to clean out the Taliban. Don’t they fear that Pakistani government may play a double game with the U.S.?

Actually in my opinion, it’s a very dangerous ally.

Peter Bergen: Pakistan is actually being quite proactive in arresting senior al Qaeda members. It’s not an accident that Khalid Sheik Mohammed was arrested and another planner of 9/11 and Abu Zabeda, chief recruiter of training camps.

However, it’s difficult for the Pakistani govt to crack down on Kashmiri militant groups, some of whom are tied to al Qaeda, because being seen as soft on Kashmir is a problem for the government.

Annapolis, Md.: Brilliant. Could I get your read on Bush teams’ apparent “chasing the chemicals” policy? The Bush team is implying that Iraq suddenly transported all of their WMD to Syria, so attacking Syria becomes an option. What if we attack Syria and (during the attack) we discover Syria divided them up and sent some to Columbia, some to Iraq and some to Pakistan? Would we attack Columbia, Iraq and Pakistan next?

I don’t know what the solution is to this (other than peacefully working hard for equality and justice for all — including the oppressed and impoverished in this country — on a global scale). And concurrently build solid, mutually advantageous, trusting relationships so we can contain and reduce the WMD.

I don’t see how the Bush team’s approach will do us any good. It seems it is only scattering the stuff all over the place in conjuntion with de-stablizing some already very tenuous relationships.

Peter Bergen: The Bush administration has made it clear that they have no intention to attack any other countries. In Iraq’s case it was a ceasefire agreement Hussein broke and 12 years of U.N. Resolutions.

Washington, D.C.: Which is more likely to keep you up at night: proliferation and recruiting of al Qaeda members, or the broke governments (i.e., Russia and the former Soviet Union) that are likely to sell nuclear materials to them? How do we even begin to address this?

Peter Bergen: Well, we have begun to address this. Russian nuclear facilities are much more secure today than they were 10 years ago and U.S. customs has an interesting program in place now to train and supply customs agents in the former Soviet Union to look for radioactive materials. So there are things that can be done. The simplest fix for proliferation is to secure these places at the source. Once they get out of the facilities, it is much harder to find. The Nunn-Lugar program I referred to earlier is clearly beneficial.

Tin Ears and American Politics: Why did the Palestinian Authority immediately react to the capture of Abul Abbas by demanding that the U.S. release him?

They would be hard pressed to show that a treaty between Israel and the Palestinians applies to the United States, although they could make somewhat of a claim since we witnessed it. But it certainly doesn’t apply to Italy, which wants Abbas.

They must know that (a) we won’t give them Abbas and, (b) demanding the U.S. give over the man behind the murder of an elderly American is not going to help them.

So why are they giving ammunition to anyone who wants it?

Peter Bergen: Their view is that the Oslo peace process, that a small part of that was amnesty for Abbas. That’s their view. I don’t know if that is in any way binding on the U.S. But the fact that they’ve got him is tremendous. Executing a disabled man is unconscionable.

In the past, Abbas has given interviews saying he has nothing to do with bin Laden or al Qaeda. He’s not an Islamist.

Baltimore, Md.: What was your initial impression of Osama bin Laden? When did you interview him? And, do you think the capture of Abul Abbas will lead to us to bin Laden or other terrorists?

Peter Bergen: He definitely won’t lead us to bin Laden. The interview was in ’97 and my first impression was that he’s physically very tall and very thin. The second impression was that he’s quite focused and seemed to be very bright. His demeanor was low key. He didn’t raise his voice.

Phoenix, Ariz: Mr. Bergen, does tonight’s episode explain how radical Islam and its Saudi financiers are a grave threat to the world?

Peter Bergen: Tonight’s episode is I think interesting for a few reasons. First of all, there was a quite revealing interview with Assam Al Radi, who at one time was a pilot for bin Laden and knows him quite well personally. There are two quite compelling stories about the way people may or may not become terrorists. One is a story of a Palestinian teenager who is clearly considering becoming a suicide bomber. There’s a second story about a Sri Lankan teenager who went through suicide bomber training and bailed out at the last moment. Both of these get you in the mindset who are potentially willing to kill themselves.

Bremerton, Wash.: Do you think that SARS could be terrorist related?

Peter Bergen: No.

Wheaton, Md.: Since we know Syria is a major supporter of terrorism and has plans to obtain WMD, how can the U.S. not take strong measures against Syria since Syria is every bit as much the threat Iraq once was?

Peter Bergen: I think first of all, to what extent does Syria pose a threat to American interests. The answer is that Americans are not threatened by Syria. Syria is on the State Dept.’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

Harrisburg, Pa.: Thank you for informing us about some of the threats we face. How well are we at detecting when these threats move into the United States? Are these chemicals,etc. easy to hide, or are they easy to detect? What more should or could we do to catch these materials?

Peter Bergen: Since 9/11 U.S. customs has implemented a program to make sure that these kinds of materials don’t come into the country. You can’t search everything, but they search 2 percent of the containers. But if a container has a red flag, it will be searched. So there are programs in place to do this. Cities around the country have conducted exercises to simulation a WMD. However, we saw with the anthrax attacks after 9/11 that seemingly one person was able to cause a huge amount of panic in Washington and New York, though the attacks only killed five people. But experts talk about weapons of mass “disruption” and clearly although WMD attacks don’t kill a lot of people it is a very effective means of terrorizing them.

Syracuse, N.Y.: In your book, Holy War, Inc. you write that the U.S. has proved to be one of al Qaeda’s most useful bases of operation. What is it about the United States that lends itself to being a hub of al Qaeda-Islamic terrorist activity?

Peter Bergen: Well, the first point is that al Qaeda functions in 60 countries. There are other western countries that have had significant presence — like Germany. We live in a globalized world with open borders and al Qaeda takes advantage of that. We can’t turn the clock back to the 1950s when air travel was expensive and communication was difficult. One of the consequences of globalization is that it empowers a lot of non-state actors, so certain members ended up living in this country.

The second in command of al Qaeda went on a fundraising trip here in the 1990s. It’s a commentary on the world we live in.

Washington, D.C.: There was SO much speculation before the U.S. went into Iraq that the whole military operation would make Americans far more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Thus far, it hasn’t come true. But on balance, do you think we have more to fear now from terrorism than we did before Iraq? I have to believe that Marine putting the American flag over the head of that Saddam Hussein statue was essentially an al Qaeda recruiting poster.

Peter Bergen: Certainly I predicted that there would be a lot of low level terrorism before the war in Iraq and it didn’t happen. I was not alone in that prediction, so that might point to some weaknesses in al Qaeda because they would want to show the flag as it were.

That being said, Paul Wolfowitz saying we’re going to be in Iraq 6 months — we’re still in Bosnia, too. There will be significant U.S. military presence in Iraq for a long time to come. That’s in the Middle East — so that situation could come to resemble Lebanon in the early to mid-80s. It’s a possibility. We have seen suicide bombings and may see more.

Atlanta, GA: Supposed ‘Experts’ on the Koran state that the Koran forbids the killing of innocent people and children. How does Osama, who is a self-professed devout muslim, justify acting in conflict with the Koran??

Peter Bergen: I think that’s a very good question. The Koran is very explicit about protection afforded to civilians even in times of holy war — and protecting roads, trees — there’s a code of conduct about how war should be conducted. So when Osama is asked how to justify this, he can’t refer to the Koran. What he says is “American taxpayers support American policies so are complicit and deserve to be attacked.”

Washington, D.C.: Why is it that “The Enemies” such as Osama Bin Laden as well as Saddam Hussein are so elusive? We go to war but never nab THE MAN? Explain this please.

Peter Bergen: Well, it’s a problem of finding one person. Eric Rudolf, who allegedly bombed Atlanta’s Centennial Park in 1996 was the subject of the biggest manhunt in the U.S. and is still out there somewhere, so we had 28,000 troops in Mogadishu in ’93 looking for Mohammed Addid and never found him. Multiply that by 100 and that’s how hard it is to find Osama. I think Saddam may well be dead, but will be found relatively quickly if not. Clearly there are people in his inner circle who have already dropped the dime on him. Saddam — there’s nothing there but his reign of fear. Osama’s people are motivated by some kind of real belief, so I think they will protect bin Laden.

Washington, D.C.: In your opinion is the U.S. winning the war on terrorism right now?

Peter Bergen: I think the short answer to that is “yes.” You can do some back of the envelope arithmetic to answer that. Since 9/11 a dozen Americans have been killed by terrorist related to al Qaeda — Daniel Pearl, the Bali disco blast and in a grenade attack. Each of those is an individual tragedy, however, even by the historical status of terrorism existing before al Qaeda came into the picture — these are low figures. So a year and a half after 9/11 this trend continues. We could say the problem receded back to where it used to be.

We haven’t had any new attacks on U.S. soil. Something is going right. al Qaeda could be disrupted, more alert American citizens, better security — all of this continues. I wouldn’t say the al Qaeda problem is over. The group has demonstrated a lot of patience in the past and al Qaeda is not the Gambino crime family, it’s bigger than that. They’ve clearly been interrupted.

Charlotte, N.C.: I have two questions here.

1. Do you see the possibility of India-Pakistan conventional or proxy war leading to nuclear? The reason for me to ask this is, whichever side uses this first need to realize that it effects their region also because nuclear warhead does recognize line of control.

Would the U.S. at least compel Pakistan to sign on “No First Use” treaty like India did on its own?

2. Do you think the U.S. government believes Pakistan acquired its nuclear technology on its own or is it already aware of nexus between China and North Korea playing a helping hand to Pakistan?

Peter Bergen: I think by the law of averages, India and Pakistan may have another war over Kashmir in the next few years. Will it involve nuclear weapons? For the U.S. and Russia, we knew of mutual destruction, so the question is will this also deter Pakistan and India.

Unfortunately from statements from those leaders there is talk of using these weapons in ways that would be unthinkable at the height of the cold war. I think that’s the major global national security concern. At the end of the day Kashmir is the most volatile problem.

If you ask what can you do about terrorism, these are difficult problems to solve, but a peace solution for Israel/Palestine and for Kashmir would go a long way towards this and these are concrete things we can do.

Arlington, Va.: Does bin Laden still possess the power he once had? Is the U.S. military still pursuing his whereabouts?

Peter Bergen: Well, the latter part is a very interesting question. How many people get up in the morning and start looking for Osama bin Laden in the U.S. govt. There don’t seem to be a huge amount of people taxed with that task right now. His organization is disrupted, but he remains the chief idealogue of this movement so he’s retaining some kind of ability to sway opinion. Can his group produce another 9/11, I don’t think so.

washingtonpost.com: What about the current situation in Afghanistan. U.S. military presence has dropped off and things seem to be destabilizing a bit. Is there a risk of the Taliban or al Qaeda gaining a foothold there again?

Peter Bergen: It does seem it has gotten considerably worse in the past weeks. But fighting picks up in the spring in Afghanistan. Clearly Taliban elements want to make themselves felt. They’ve assassinated a Red Cross worker. They’re attacking some U.S. bases. How significant is this? It’s worrisome. IT doesn’t threaten the threat to the Karzai government. If he was assassinated that would be a huge threat to the government. The U.S. needs to remain very engaged in Afghanistan to make sure mistakes aren’t made again.

washingtonpost.com: That wraps up today’s show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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