Mar 06, 2004

PB and Laurence Wright of the New Yorker on VOA

Copyright 2004 Federal Information and News Dispatch, Inc. Voice of America News February 14, 2004 SECTION: RADIO SCRIPTS - ON THE LINE 1-01458 LENGTH: 3508 words HEADLINE: Al-Qaida Terrorism TEXT: THEME: UP, HOLD UNDER AND FADE Host: Al-Qaida and terrorism. Next On The Line. Host: In recent days, suicide bombings have killed scores of Iraqis. More than forty people were killed in a Baghdad explosion. And more than fifty were killed in the city of Iskandariya. Many of the victims were Iraqis applying for jobs. An Al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is suspected of plotting dozens of suicide bombings in Iraq. Al-Qaida also continues to target civilians in many other countries: Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco, Kenya, and Indonesia. More than two years into the global war on terrorism, how has Al-Qaida's network and its targets changed? I'll ask my guests: Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine; and Peter Bergen, author of "Holy War, Inc." and a fellow at the New America Foundation. Welcome, and thanks for joining us. Peter Bergen, is Al-Qaida or an Al-Qaida affiliate operating at this point in Iraq? Bergen: You know, right from the beginning of the war, it's clear to me that the people doing suicide attacks weren't Saddam loyalists. You know, Saddam is a Baathist, socialist, secular kind of a guy. You don't commit suicide to bring back Saddam. These were clearly jihadists. Now, whether they're Al-Qaida itself, affiliates of Al-Qaida, or just local jihadists operating in the name of bin Laden, it's hard to tell exactly. But clearly, we achieved something. One of the war aims was -- one of the justifications for war was a link between Al-Qaida and Iraq. We have certainly created that as a result of this war. Host: Now, there recently was discovered a letter being sent from someone in Iraq to Al-Qaida. What do you make of that letter and what do you think it is? Bergen: Well, the letter is supposedly from this guy Zarqawi who you mentioned in the lead-in, who is a Jordanian, who is accused of a wide range of terrorist incidents outside Iraq, including the assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan. And he is really calling for - it's a letter to the Al-Qaida leadership, saying, "Look, we've got a problem here. The war isn't going quite as well as we'd like. We need to create a civil war between the Iraqis: Sunnis and Shia. That way we can really inflame the situation." If the letter is authentic, which it seems to be, it seems to be maybe a sign of desperation, that these Al-Qaida guys on the ground in Iraq are feeling that the things are not necessarily going entirely on the right direction. However, we have seen so many suicide attacks right now that obviously they are having some level of success. Host: Lawrence Wright, do you think Al-Qaida's in a position to deliver the kind of help that this letter, perhaps from Zarqawi, is calling for in Iraq? Wright: No, I don't. I think that it's a very fractured organization and it's become more of a franchise operation now. It doesn't have the hierarchy that it had in the past. A lot of those leaders have been captured, dispersed, and it's really unclear who's in charge. Yet they do have the moral suasion with a lot of these different groups to send out messages and say, "We would like for you to aid the effort in Iraq, or direct your efforts to Turkey, or whatever." So they tend to be preaching rather than practicing at this point. Host: And how is this issue of moral suasion -- which is, people responding to the message of Al-Qaida - how is it that in the last two years, the targets of Al-Qaida seem to have switched to targets where Al-Qaida people have easier access, which means often Muslim countries? And how have the attacks in those countries affected the appeal of Al-Qaida to the very populations that are under attack now? Wright: Well, I was in Saudi Arabia for three months last year. And those attacks in Saudi Arabia have been devastating for the morale of the fundamentalists in that country, and a lot of Saudis have turned against Al-Qaida who were not opposed to them in the past. They feel like, you know, "They are killing our own people. They are killing our chances to be a real country in the world." It's, I think, been a devastating miscalculation on the part of Al-Qaida. And the fact is, they found a handwritten letter from bin Laden in the body of one of the Al-Qaida leaders that they shot. I mean, you know, there is very strong evidence of the linkage between Al-Qaida directly ordering these very attacks against Muslims. Host: Peter Bergen, has it been a tactical mistake to go about killing Muslims as opposed to Americans? Bergen: Yes, but, I mean, there's a lot of different things to say, some which appear contradictory. Pew Charitable Trust did the biggest poll of Muslim opinion that's ever been conducted last year in May. And when you ask the question, "Who do you have more confidence in, bin Laden or Bush?", in countries which are traditionally American allies -- Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, Turkey -- by overwhelming pluralities, people say, "We have more confidence in bin Laden." So I think Lawrence is absolutely right. In Saudi Arabia, killing Muslims, killing Saudis in Riyadh, the capital, has not done Al-Qaida's cause much good. On the other hand, bin Laden -- perhaps because of an absence of other kinds of leaders in the Muslim world -- has sort of stepped into this vacuum and presents himself as an important leader of Muslim opinion. If you look at bin Laden's political ideas, they are actually unexceptional in the Middle East and the Muslim world: "Get America out of the Middle East, too much support for Israel, blah blah blah." The only thing that is different is this call for violence against Westerners, against Jews, against the allies of the West. Obviously that is, you know, only a minority of people in the Muslim world have signed on for that. But despite the fact that the organization took a huge hit with the war in Afghanistan, etc., etc. they are capable of continuing to do violence in - you mentioned in the lead-in - in all these different countries. There're not [down] for the count. The organization may not be -- the organization hit the United States on nine-eleven. But the ideological movement is doing these things, these attacks in Istanbul and Turkey. Perhaps some of the attacks in Saudi Arabia are not Al-Qaida itself, but sort of more like sympathizers. So, these local attacks, I think, are going to continue even if Al-Qaida has lost some of its momentum as an organization, and even if - as Lawrence pointed out -- they've taken a hit in places like Saudi Arabia. Host: What about in Turkey? You mentioned in that Pew poll opinion in Turkey. I take it that poll was before the attacks in Istanbul. Has the opinion changed there since that? Bergen: I'm not sure. Obviously, the poll happened in May and obviously it was very much influenced by the events of the Iraq war. Unfortunately, the Iraq war has given a tremendous boost to Al-Qaida and like-minded jihadists because it's seen as further evidence that the United States is trying to take over the Middle East, etc., etc. If we hadn't gone to the Iraq war and we'd destroyed the organization in Afghanistan, it's quite possible we might not even be having this conversation right now. Host: Lawrence Wright, how does the situation in Iraq, going forward, now effect the fortunes of Al-Qaida? Wright: Well, we've thrown our dice on the table. We'll find out. I was in Saudi Arabia before and during the war, and there was a lot of fear and resentment of what we were about to do. But at the same time, people that -- in a gathering of, you know, a number of people would say: "You have no business going into Iraq," and so on, privately would say: "We're desperate. We need to push. This whole region is paralyzed. We need a change and maybe this is it." So, I think -- and these were the same people -- I think it's perfectly plausible that they held both points of view very strongly because they are frozen. They're paralyzed, they need change. And the U-S, among other things, has been resistant to change in that part of the world. Now we have an obligation to stick it out and do - maybe we made a mistake going in, we can't make the make the mistake of leaving. Host: Lawrence Wright, what about the question of American troops in Saudi Arabia? One of the reasons, it seems, that contributed to the logic for going into Iraq was to take away the need for American troops in the region particularly in Saudi Arabia, protecting Saudi Arabia against Iraq. And of course, always, this was one of the issues that bin Laden had made so much of: American troops in the land of Mecca and Medina. How has opinion in Saudi Arabia followed the removal of those American troops? Wright: I think that it was in March or in April that the President announced that we're going to remove all the troops from Saudi Arabia, and it was in May that there the bombings against foreign compounds in Riyadh. And lot of Saudis were saying: "But they're leaving. So why attack them on the way out?" I think what that indicated to Saudis and to most analysts is: "That's not really the main agenda for Al-Qaida. The Americans' presence in Saudi Arabia is a flash point, is a hot button, that they can use in Islamic countries. But essentially they want to topple the regime there, that's their ultimate goal." Host: Peter Bergen, what do you think about the dynamics in Saudi Arabia at this point? Bergen: You know, you don't have to be an Arab [Alexis] de Tocqueville to say they've got some serious problems. I mean, when average income has dropped from twenty-five thousand dollars a year to say, eight-thousand dollars a year in the last ten years, two decades; when you've got open protests on the streets of Riyadh and it's basically a police state and you've got hundreds of demonstrators coming out readily; when you've got big car-bombs going off in the capital, that's a way of saying: "Hey, you don't have the security situation under control." You know, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where the royal family has inserted their name in the country. It would be like, if the English royal family renamed England "Windsor" or something. So you know, that model can't survive forever. And we see they're making some reforms around the edges trying to kind of bring a little bit more people into the political process. But it seems to me very small amounts of reform. And you know, people have been predicting the fall of the House of Saud for decades, but they seem to have some pretty serious problems going forward. Host: Lawrence Wright, in your reporting in The New Yorker magazine, about your time in Saudi Arabia, you talked about the sense of helplessness, if you will, of young men who live in Saudi Arabia, and made the case that perhaps this contributed to the reason that so many of the men on those planes going into the World Trade Center were Saudi men. Tell us what you mean by that argument and whether it continues to be the case. Wright: Well, there's a lot of despair in that country. There's a lot of hopelessness, even among the well-educated young people. And you said "men." I mean "women" too. I was supervising some young reporters in Jeddah. And I became very well-acquainted with the country through the eyes of my reporters. And one of them did a report, a psychological survey of students, and seventy percent of them exhibited signs of despair - I mean, of depression. Seven percent of the girls admitted that they attempted suicide. You know, five percent of both sexes said that they were drug addicts or alcoholics. These are kids, in an Islamic country where you are not even supposed to have alcohol. It was quite eye-opening. And I think, you know, they've got no futures for them. The government stopped hiring - they hired most of the graduates from their schools up until about ninety-eight, and then the oil sharks come along: they stopped hiring. And now we have this phenomenon of the idle, unemployed Saudi youth with no way to be powerful in the world. And here is the voice of bin Laden out there, saying, "Come to me, I can - you can have a chance to make history." That, I think, is the most profound attraction - is there's so little that stands between the government of Saudi Arabia and the extremists in the mosque. And there's no civil society. There's no way for you if you want to play music or make movies or write books or those kinds of things - the ordinary things that people occupy themselves with beyond just having a job - aren't there. And so it's a very stark environment. Host: Peter Bergen, Al-Qaida has been recruiting people in Saudi Arabia but also in countries like Indonesia, where there is more freedom to live a life if you will. And how does the recruiting pitch vary from place to place with Al-Qaida and its affiliates? Bergen: That's a tricky one. I think "place to place" is the answer because a reason that somebody might hook up with an Al-Qaida-affiliated group in Indonesia probably is very different from why they would join in Saudi Arabia. I mean, Lawrence is sort of suggesting boredom and underemployment. Indonesia has economic problems, certainly. But I think of the - you know, that's a very tough question. I think one thing that we tend to underestimate in all this - we are looking at it through maybe a Western lens. This is obviously a truism but it's sort of based on an Islamic creed that a lot of people have sort of signed up for. And I think we've got to understand what that is. And basically, you know, bin Laden and his immediate followers, for them, the seventh century is very real: the prophet Mohammed, the invasion of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 is a recent event. So they really see themselves as inhabiting this world, and the people crashed the planes into the Trade Center on nine-eleven - you know, they saw that as an act of worship. Now trying to understand how you'd be recruited to do that -- we can produce all these explanations -- boredom, underemployment, whatever. At the end of the day, there's also something: real religious belief, which we have to - we may not understand exactly, but we can't discount, because at the end of the day, there's no other motivation for doing this other than believing that you're acting in the name of God. Host: Lawrence Wright, how widespread in the Muslim world is that view of God, that God demands these kinds of acts of terrorism? Wright: Well, in the Muslim world, they wouldn't describe these as acts of terrorism necessarily, if they were sacrifices or waging wars against the infidels. They would redefine that. There's a lot of sympathy all over the Arab world, at least in my recent travels, for bin Laden and what happened on nine-eleven - there's a lot of approval of that. At the same time, I think, it's sinking in, you know, compared to the year before, when I was in Cairo for three months, and last year when I was in Saudi Arabia - the consequences of this action have begun to make themselves felt as they've become isolated in the world, especially among the Saudis. But I know it's also true of a lot of Egyptians. They fear travel, it's difficult to - they're stigmatized. They're beginning -- at first they might have been celebrated and now the party's over and they're waking up and feeling a little sick about it. So, you know, I was thinking the other day, we were waging a war on terror a hundred and fifty years ago against another group of religious fanatics who were trying to create this theocratic state, and it was the Mormons. And they massacred a wagon train in 1857, and until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, it was the greatest act of civil terrorism in our nation's history: a hundred-and-twenty-four people brutally murdered. But the consequence of that, for the religion of Mormonism, was that they became introspective and they looked inside the darker currents of their religion and they changed. I'm hopeful that something like that might happen in the more extreme elements of Islam. Host: Peter Bergen, what's your sense of the extent of the appeal of bin Ladenism as a religious question? Bergen: Well I think we have to make a distinction between bin Laden's political ideas, which a lot of people have signed up for, and people who would be willing to do violence. And that's obviously a very small number. But if there are one-point-three billion Muslims in the world and zero-point-zero-one percent of them are prepared to do violence in the name of bin Laden, that's still a hundred-and-thirty-thousand people. So I don't know what the numbers are exactly, but the recent congressional inquiry into nine-eleven -- they use the figure of seventy-thousand to a hundred-and-twenty thousand who'd gone through those camps in Afghanistan and got some kind of basic military training or terrorist training. That number may be high, but the fact is, we're talking about tens of thousands of people who are ready to do some kind of violence against Westerners, Jews, allies of the West. How long will that last? A lot depends, I think, on the United States' actions, because a lot of this is in reaction to things we do. But people use phrases like a "generation" or a "decade" or whatever. I mean, certainly, we're going to be talking about this, for more than this year. Host: How important is what happens to bin Laden, in terms of bin Ladenism, and where is Osama bin Laden? Bergen: Well, Osama bin Laden is in the Northwest frontier province of Pakistan, I'm almost sure of that, along the border with Afghanistan. Capturing or killing him would be very useful. I mean, actually the most useful thing would be to capture him. Those pictures of Saddam being captured spoke for themselves. They punctured his mystique. Killing bin Laden would obviously turn him into an enormous martyr. He said before that he's prepared to die in the struggle. I take that completely at face value. I don't think we will capture bin Laden alive, but it would be useful to do so, and it would be useful for whoever's trying to get him, to plan to capture him alive. Will we get him tomorrow, or a decade from now? Who knows? By the law of the averages he'll be found, but he's not doing the sorts of things to get you caught: chatting on your [satellite] phone or cell phone. You know, there's no mole within the group. Cash rewards haven't worked. There was one in 1999, for five million, went up to twenty-five million, post nine-eleven. So, I don't think we're going to - you know, we will get him eventually. Is it important? Yes, part of it. But we need to be careful about how we do it. And let's say we do capture him alive. Who tries him? His crimes have spanned every country almost in the world. So you can imagine an international court in the Hague, with the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a kind of group of Muslim countries that would have some input. Maybe that's hopelessly naive [thinking] that we'd put him on trial. But I think it would serve a very useful purpose. When we tried [Adolf] Eichmann in the early sixties, a lot of very useful information came out of that. And at the end of the day, Eichmann was still executed. Host: Lawrence Wright, you've also written extensively about Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who's Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, or equal partner in operation. How important do you think finding out the whereabouts of Zawahiri and bin Laden is in the fight against Al-Qaida at this point? Wright: Well, I think that bin Laden is an irreplaceable asset as a model, and kind of a star, in the jihad world. And Zawahiri is kind of the operations man, you know, the man behind the scene, certainly the ideologue. And there's an Al-Qaida Web site that has a rap group. Have you seen this? It comes out in London and... Bergen: I've heard about it, yes. Wright: Yes. But they're using Zawahiri as the main image. He turns into a lion and conquers -- and it does, it has led some intelligence people to wonder if he's kind of moving in, too. He doesn't seem a type of person that a rap group would be exalting. [laughter] But these guys, you know, they are the heart and soul of the movement. If you can remove them, there may be other people to grow up to their stature, but it would be difficult. And I think, you know, the fact that they are still out there and able to operate, however ineffectually, but still get their message out is an open signal to the rest of the world that we can't take care of these guys. Host: We've got about ten seconds. Do you think that they will be able to take care of them? Bergen: I mean, eventually, by the law of averages. Host: I'm afraid that's going to have to be the last word for today, we're out of time. I'd like to thank my guests: Lawrence Wright, of The New Yorker magazine; and Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation. Before we go, I'd like to invite you to send us your questions or comments. You can Email them to For On The Line, I'm Eric Felten. LOAD-DATE: February 17, 2004 Document 4 of 5