Jan 24, 2006

review of OBL I Know in Denver Post

January 22, 2006 Sunday

LENGTH: 1258 words

HEADLINE: Inside bin Laden CNN terror analyst Peter Bergen recounts his '97 interview with the Islamic fanatic, and he talks with insiders who watched him become the world's most-wanted criminal

BYLINE: Tom Walker Denver Post Staff Writer


Few Westerners know Osama bin Laden as well as Peter Bergen, CNN terror analyst and author of "Holy War, Inc." Bergen sat down with bin Laden as a journalist in 1997 and interviewed the soft-spoken man who would become America's biggest nightmare.

Bergen was less than impressed with bin Laden's charisma but found him interesting, nonetheless, and has been following the Islamic fanatic ever since.

Bergen has just published "The Osama bin Laden I Know," a compilation of interviews with more than 50 people who have known the Saudi millionaire at different times of his life - from childhood, through school, at work with his father's extremely successful construction firm, as a mujahadeen fighting with the Afghans against the Soviets and to the creation of the worldwide terrorist organization, al-Qaeda - up until he became the most-wanted man in the world.

It also contains transcripts of trials of terrorists, rare magazine articles and, amazingly, the minutes of the meeting in which al-Qaeda was formed Aug. 11, 1988. It all makes for fascinating reading, and the reader cannot help but come away with a better grasp of the big picture when it comes to bin Laden and how he evolved into the world's No. 1 criminal.

The picture you get of bin Laden is of a deeply religious man - pious even as a youth - who eschewed the trappings of his wealth to live an ascetic life. He is the poster-child for religion run amok, however, believing, according to Bergen, that if he doesn't do what he sees as God's will, then God will punish him.

Somehow he equates God's will with killing.

Of course, it's easy to demonize bin Laden, but at the same time you have to take him seriously, and Bergen does just that in his book and in a recent interview.

"Certain people change history." he said, "It's very hard to explain the Holocaust without Hitler, and it's very hard to explain the French army in Russia in 1812 without Napoleon. And I think it's impossible to explain al-Qaeda without bin Laden."

Bergen stresses that not only is bin Laden important to history, but he is also important to the world today, and that makes him an interesting study. "For a man who changed history," Bergen said, "there is not a lot of good information out there about him."

And, Bergen said, bin Laden continues to change history. "It's not like he shut up after 9/11," he said. "He's had 18 videotapes and audiotapes that he's released since 9/11, and I think they've had a direct impact on what happens. First of all, they pump up his base by putting the message out to kill Jews, kill Westerners. (This interview with Bergen was held before Thursday's release of a purported bin Laden audiotape by the al-Jazeera TV network.)

"But secondly, they have specific instructions. For instance: Attack members of the coalition in Iraq, so we had the attack in Madrid, the attack in London."

While the book takes a look at bin Laden the man, it also explains the origins of al-Qaeda and discusses some of the people surrounding him. In the interview, Bergen goes a bit further, talking about some of the questions being asked today:

Is bin Laden still alive and living in a cave somewhere?

"There is no evidence that he's dead," said Bergen. "If he died there would be jihadist websites around the world lighting up with the great news that bin Laden had been martyred," Bergen said, adding that in the last videotape, released just prior to the 2004 presidential election in the United States, bin Laden was well- dressed and looked rested.

"I don't think he's in a cave cowering somewhere," Bergen said, pointing to the content of what bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri, are saying in their contacts with the wider world. "They are extremely up on the news," he said. And, he said, there is the fact that every senior al-Qaeda member who has been arrested since 9/11, has been found in an urban area, none in the remote tribal areas where the conventional public wisdom has placed bin Laden.

Why hasn't bin Laden been found despite what must be the world's largest manhunt?

According to Bergen, it's a case of simple logistics.

"It's a problem of finding one person," he said pointing to Eric Rudolph, who detonated a bomb in Centennial Park during the Olympics in Atlanta. It took five years to find him. "It's a problem in this country to find intelligent criminals. … It's harder than people think (to find bin Laden)."

Also, al-Qaeda is very disciplined and secretive, Bergen says, and perhaps only 10 people in the world know where bin Laden is hiding. "And, the people around him are not motivated by money, so a cash reward is not going to work."

Why have no al-Qaeda attacks taken place in the United States since 9/11?

In Bergen's mind stepped-up security has obviously helped keep al-Qaeda at bay. But there is another factor at work here.

"American Muslims have rejected the al-Qaeda ideology completely, unlike French Muslims or British Muslims," Bergen said. "The American dream doesn't always work, but it works quite well in this instance. American Muslims on average are better educated than most Americans and better off and have no truck with the al-Qaeda ideology. They don't go and volunteer to fight in Kashmir, they go to dental school."

Bergen also feels there is less of a threat here than in many areas because of a lack of organization on the terrorists' part.

"I don't think there are any American sleeper cells," he said. "If there are sleeper cells, they are not doing anything. So they are so asleep, they are effectively dead. The FBI has said there isn't evidence of American sleeper cells."

He said most of the terrorism cases in American courts have to do with material support rather than active terrorism.

He also pointed out that the war in Iraq is troublesome in that once the war winds down, all the people who have come to fight coalition forces there are not going to just give up the fight and go home.

"They are going to want to attack the United States at home," he said, "and they will have learned all these incredibly useful skills - improvised explosive devices, how to organize a suicide mission. The blowback from the Iraq war is really the big problem we face."

With all the arrests of al-Qaeda bigwigs and the fact that bin Laden is in deep hiding, has al-Qaeda's influence waned in the Muslim world?

According to Bergen, much of what the terrorists are doing is counterproductive. "The good thing about these guys is they keep shooting themselves in the foot. They keep killing Muslim civilians. This is going to undercut their popularity. We should be hammering home every time they do this how it is against Islam and how they don't respect any lives, including their fellow religious believers," Bergen said. "It's a propaganda advantage that I don't think we use sufficiently."

Bin Laden has as a stated goal to remake the Muslim world. Can he reach that goal?

Bergen thinks not. "Every time the bombs go off, I think that they lose. Nine-eleven may have been celebrated in some parts of the Muslim world as we finally stuck it to the United States. But when bombs start going off in Indonesia, in Jordan and in Riyadh, and all these other places, there is a lot of popular revulsion against them."

After reading "The Osama Bin Laden I Know," it's easier to understand how the world got to the dangerous point it's at today and how one man's worldview, no matter how twisted you might think that view is, has affected the lives of so many others.

Staff writer Tom Walker can be reached at 303-820-1624 or twalker@denverpost.com.