Aug 10, 2003

NPR, State of al Qaeda

HEADLINE: Peter Bergen discusses the status of al-Qaeda LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Coming up, how do poets compete? One verse at a time? But first, this week, Attorney General John Ashcroft said there is a very real potential that al-Qaeda could unleash more terrorist attacks on the United States, this after the Department of Homeland Security warned of possible suicide hijackings in the months ahead. The warnings and the bombings this week in Indonesia and at the Jordanian Embassy in Iraq leave no doubt that the threat of terrorism against American interests and American allies is very much alive. Peter Bergen is a fellow at the New American Foundation and the author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden." He joins us here in the studio. Thank you for coming in. Mr. PETER BERGEN (New American Foundation): Thank you. WERTHEIMER: What do you think is the basis of the warning that there could be more attacks coming? Mr. BERGEN: The basis is based on interrogations of a particular al-Qaeda member in Saudi Arabia and other interrogations. Also, there was information--or they found in some al-Qaeda safe houses--they're not clear where--various electronic items converted for explosives--things like cameras or some kind of electronic gadgets. Al-Qaeda has used these before in the assassination of Massoud. WERTHEIMER: Massoud. Mr. BERGEN: Yes, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Afghan resistance against the Taliban was killed September 9th just before 9/11 by al-Qaeda with a camera containing explosives. WERTHEIMER: There was another audiotape this week. Supposedly it was the voice of Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, threatening retaliation if any harm comes to any of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Was it authentic? I mean, how do you... Mr. BERGEN: Well... WERTHEIMER: ...know things like that? Mr. BERGEN: Well, one thing is when these tapes have come out, I can't think of a single example where it hasn't been authentic. I mean, the Al-Jazeera or other Arab news channels wouldn't put them on the air unless they'd authenticated themselves. It is authentic. It seems to be a reaction to the Bush administration's announcement about three weeks ago that six people would be put on trial. The first set of the trials are military tribunals, two of them Brits, one Australian. All of them potentially face the death penalty, so it seems to be in response to that announcement. WERTHEIMER: What do you think about the war on terror and the war in Iraq? Do you think the war in Iraq has affected or altered the war on terror? Mr. BERGEN: I always had the view that Iraq and al-Qaeda had nothing to do with each other, or the evidence for their supposed links was between tenuous and non-existent. We are in the hugely ironic situation of al-Qaeda showing up in Iraq. It's a matter of common sense. It's not only a matter of common sense. I know from talking to several US officials that Saudi jihadists--maybe they're not exactly al-Qaeda--are coming over the northern border from Syria. There are a large number of American targets. They're going to be in fixed positions, and we appear to be there for a long time, so I wouldn't say it's going to be a Vietnam-style quagmire, but it--you know, lots of little Beiruts, lots of little Mogadishus you could easily imagine. WERTHEIMER: What about the idea that al-Qaeda is--has moved out into various countries in the Arab world? Is a decentralized al-Qaeda harder to deal with, easier to deal with? Mr. BERGEN: Yeah, al-Qaeda is a shorthand for a lot of phenomenona, and as al-Qaeda the organization did 9/11, al-Qaeda is also an ideology, and you know, a lot of people can sign up for that. Without having gone to Afghanistan they can read on the Internet how to make bombs, they can find out the philosophy, etc., etc. So, you know, we saw in this Indonesia bombing at the Marriott this week--that is probably by a group called Jemaah Islamia, which is sort of a franchise group of al-Qaeda, not directly--you know, obviously influenced by it, and it's no coincidence they attacked a Marriott which was, you know, a place where a lot of Americans are. If you remember the Bali attack, you know, the idea was to kill a lot of Americans. Unfortunately, they couldn't distinguish between--you know, they killed a lot of Australians, as it turned out, but we just have the testimony of one of the bombers in the trial, and he said the real idea was to kill Jews and Americans even though they only, in the end, of the 200 vic tims, they only killed seven Americans. WERTHEIMER: That bomber who was sentenced to death appeared to be delighted. He was smiling, he was happy. I mean... Mr. BERGEN: That was an amazing picture. WERTHEIMER: I was an amazing picture. But how on earth do you fight a group with that kind of attitude toward outcomes, I mean, if they have nothing to fear? Mr. BERGEN: Well, that's another very complicated question. You know, how do you--you know, part of the reason I think this is successful is there's an absence of other real voices. Nasser in the '50s was important for sort of Arab nationalists. I mean, bin Laden is able to step into kind of a vacuum of leadership and say, 'Hey, my ideas are important.' WERTHEIMER: What about heightened security in the United States since September 11th? Mr. Ashcroft said that the United States has disrupted more than 100 planned attacks around the world since then. Mr. BERGEN: Well, many have been disrupted. I mean, and the proof is in the pudding in the sense that since 9/11 there haven't been any attacks inside the United States. Both Richard Reid, the alleged shoe bomber, that didn't work out. There was this Jose Padilla chap who may or may not have been coming to the United States to plant a so-called dirty radiological bomb. These are the only two examples I can think of that are attacks that would have been directed inside the United States. Both of those didn't work out. So clearly, to me the threat level inside the United States is quite low, to be honest. WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much. Mr. BERGEN: Thank you. WERTHEIMER: Peter Bergen is the author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden."