Aug 22, 2003

Talking Points interview part 2

As promised, here is part two of our interview with al Qaida expert Peter Bergen.

Bergen is the author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden, and interviewed bin Laden in person in 1997. He is currently a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC.

(You can read part one of the interview, here. The complete interview will be posted in the TPM Document Collection.)

The interview was conducted early Wednesday afternoon ...

TPM: One thing you said recently--it's a bitter irony, but you know--that there seems to be little evidence that al Qaida was in Iraq (or at least the part of Iraq that Saddam controlled) before this April. But it seems quite possible that there might be now. Or if not al Qaida, people who are jihadists.
BERGEN: Yeah, jihadists and I think al Qaida. Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri and other top leaders of the group have made repeated statements since the beginning of the year to go fight jihad in Iraq. [And] for the people who sign on to this sort of thing it's sort of akin to a religious order. It's in the middle of the Middle East. Saad al Fagih, who has a good understanding of all this says--

TPM: And who is that?

BERGEN: Saad al Fagih is the leading Saudi dissident, he's based in London. And he--

TPM: Dissident from which, just for the--in which direction?

BERGEN: He's opposed to the royal family. In fact, six weeks ago someone tried to mount an assassination attempt on him, very possibly the Saudis.

TPM: Right, but in a Western direction, as opposed to a ?

BERGEN: No, I think kind of an Islamist, a moderate Islamist direction.


BERGEN: And the way he explained it to me is the following, and this makes a huge amount of sense. This is not about killing civilians in New York. This is about attacking an army that is occupying the heart of the Muslim world. After all back -- for people like bin Laden, the capture of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 is as recent as for us, the OJ trial. It's part of the mental furniture. And so, to have quote 'infidel' troops in the holy land, Saudi Arabia, that used to be their principal gripe, now Iraq is going to become their principal gripe ... On October 7th, 2001 bin Laden came out and he said a very interesting thing. He talked about the humiliation of the past 80 years and of course what he was referring to--

TPM: The end of the caliphate?

BERGEN: Was the end of the caliphate, then you know the British and French basically carved up the Middle East, the British got Iraq, the French got Syria -- this is all very recent history for people like bin Laden. We did a very smart thing in Afghanistan. Bin Laden and Mullah Omar made a calculation that we would be drawn into a Soviet-style invasion. They would respond with guerilla warfare. They would have some tactical successes in that warfare, and a strategic success that the United States would be reviled around the Muslim world for its brutal occupation of Afghanistan.

That didn't happen, obviously, and there are only 300 Americans in the whole, on the ground. That was very smart. Obviously, the US and British occupation of Iraq is different from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in many many ways -- not least of which is that Soviets killed a million Afghans and made five million of them refugees. Obviously that hasn't happened in Iraq. But there are some similarities in the following way: We are occupying in large numbers in thick spaces and we are doing that in the middle of the Middle East. And it seems that we're going to be there indefinitely. It seems that way, according to the Iraqis and to everybody else. Obviously we're in a period of guerilla warfare, these kind of high-profile terrorist attacks. You know, that's the future. I mean al Qaida is not going to get off this little exercise. Obviously the United States is not about to change its policy in Iraq. So I think, given those two facts, we're going to see more of what we saw at the United Nations Headquarters

in the future. I mean this is just the beginning, I think.

TPM: I think I saw an interview you did on CNN in which you discussed the the question of who, if there are foreign fighters in Iraq now, who are they? And I think you had said that a lot of them seemed to be Saudis who'd actually come in through Syria. Whatever details you have -- who are these people? Where are they coming from? Are governments assisting in bringing these people in?

BERGEN: I don't think governments are assisting in bringing these people in at all. Because if you think about, Syria has been quite cooperative in the war on terrorism, Jordan has fallen all over itself. That's one of the reasons the Jordanian embassy was attacked. Kuwait, don't have to explain that. But judging from what US counter-terrorism officials say and what Saad al Fagih says they're predominantly Saudi, which makes sense. Saudis were predominantly the people in Afghanistan, and the major group of people at Guantanamo Bay are Saudis. So that all kind of coheres. Some Kuwatis, and I would imagine a sprinkling of other nationalities, although I haven't heard any other than the Saudis and Kuwatis--that's all I've heard about. Now you know, if Zarqawi is in Iraq--although apparently he might be in Iran. So maybe there are some Jordanians, I don't know. But it doesn't sound like people from the Philippines are coming to Iraq, as it were, and coming to Afghanistan.

TPM: They would stand out?

BERGEN: They'd stand out. And also maybe it's just a matter of time. After all, this whole thing is a relatively recent phenomenon. I mean it seems to me that these volunteers, as it were, jihadist volunteers, either came directly before the war, during the war, or even more so after the war. The Saudi volunteers especially have come in the last few months. But I think this is all totally predictable. I don't see this as being a surprise.

TPM: Well you know before the war, and in the arguments that were made on either side before the war, there was an argument made--at least by certain neoconservative voices in the pro-war camp -- that getting rid of Saddam had its own immediate advantages (non-conventional weapons, threat to his neighbors, and so forth) but that changing the government in Baghdad could basically trigger a kind of domino effect in the region.

BERGEN: I just saw that as a sort of theological position.

TPM: Yeah, there was that position and then the contrary position, saying it's going to domino the other direction.

BERGEN: I'm going to firmly sit on the fence, because I think all we can say about the events of the Iraq war is the following: We speeded up history, right? Because we volunteered for this, we really didn't have to do it. There wasn't an imminent threat, you know there was no link to 9/11. Saddam's a horrible human being, but there are plenty of those around. So we volunteered essentially, and we basically sped history up. I know that you're a professional historian. When you speed history up, to say [with] rose-tinted spectacles, it's all going to be great, there's going to be democracy around the Middle East and everyone's going to love us, I mean that is as wrong as saying this will be the biggest disaster of all time. We just don't know.

I mean, we are playing the tape now. Maybe this is an easy way out of your question. The tape is being played. We just have no idea how it's going to turn out. Yeah, you could imagine a situation--you could easily say ten years from now, Iraq will have split up into a series of -- essentially a civil war between various Sunni jihadists and Shiia whatever. Or you could say, you know, Chalabi is running it and everything is fine and we're all happy. Or you could say -- I don't know. I think making predictions about this is impossible. But to say that it's all going to come out fine, that always struck me as being wishful thinking of the first order. We just don't know.

TPM: Regardless of where a particular commentator comes down on these basic questions of the big picture, the relationship between what happens in Iraq and what happens in Saudi Arabia is a key one for everyone. As near as you can tell, what is happening in Saudi Arabia? Because there's clearly been -- they're having these fire fights breaking out.

BERGEN: Actually, one interesting point: May 11th was the 9/11--May 11th, the Riyadh attacks in Saudi was like the wake-up call, the 9/11 for the Saudis. You know, up to that point, I've heard from several different US counter terrorism officials, the Saudis, even post-9/11, were not being cooperative.

TPM: Now what exactly does -- in the US press, we hear that all the time. You know, they're dragging their feet. Can you tell us what does that mean in practice?

BERGEN: We're talking about a very secretive society, and we're talking about a very secretive investigation anyway. So it's hard to tell, but I think you can make some commonsense observations. Fifteen of the hijackers were Saudi. Isn't it kind of curious that none of their mentors or buddies or facilitators or people that booked their tickets or whatever -- we haven't heard a single thing about them? There's an absence of the kind of things that you would expect to hear given the fact that this was an entirely Saudi operation.

Now, maybe in fact the Saudis have got all these people in jail and they haven't told us about it. I kind of don't believe that. But now May 11th comes along and that changes everything. Because al Qaida and its affiliates are really an existential threat to the House of Saud; they want to overthrow the House of Saud. And the HOS for a long time chose to kind of play both sides of the street, I think. But now this crackdown is very severe apparently. So part of the reason you're seeing these people show up in Iraq is, A) there's a very attractive group of Americans to go out and attack, but B) you know, the Saudis are really cracking down.

TPM: So there could be a push and a pull.

BERGEN: So I think that's also a factor. But you know they got this al Ghamdi guy that they just got in custody and some of his information led to that alert about hijackings. So you know, the Saudis are cooperating. And interestingly enough they're probably the last -- you know, I mean other countries around the Middle East have understood that al Qaida represents an existential threat, that it really makes sense to get on board whether with Jordan or Syria or whatever.

The Saudis I think have finally -- they've got a problem, which is -- they've got a lot of their own problems. They didn't want to grasp this nettle. But it seems they are doing quite a good job now. Apparently there's quite a lot of cooperation on this Riyadh attack in terms of law enforcement with the US.

TPM: Now there was--Crown Prince Abdullah gave a speech a week or so ago, a very seemingly muscular, aggressive speech in which he said that there was everything that happened before the attack [on May 11th] and everything after. So your sense, on balance, is that this has really qualitatively changed, with the seriousness of the crackdown?

BERGEN: Yeah, I think that's true. The biggest challenge to them is the Islamist challenge. I think that they have cracked down on that. Long-term -- you know, will that save their bacon as it were? I don't know. It seems to me that they've got so many multiple problems beyond that.

TPM: Going back to Iraq, as you say, we're playing the tape now, maybe playing it at fast forward. In the US there's a debate between basically proceeding as we are right now or moving toward some form of internationalization of the occupation. In practice, we can't really get up and leave. So what is there we can do to combat this kind of stuff?

BERGEN: Well I don't know. I mean I don't know what the answer is. I mean it seems to me that they're are -- one possible way of combating it would be to say, you know, "Let's produce some very low benchmarks of what constitutes success and then just walk away." I mean, I don't think that's going to happen. But you could imagine a situation saying, "Well OK, so the electricity's back on, we've got this Iraqi council. You know we're not in the business of totally rebuilding this country. It's too expensive, and it's too much whatever. It's proving too costly in terms of blood and treasure." And you produce these relatively low benchmarks and you leave. Now, but I don't think the Administration is going to do that, do you?

TPM: No, I certainly don't.

BERGEN: Because you're asking, what can be done about it? I don't think anything can really be done about it. Given the policy, and given that al Qaida's modus operandi and motives and that it's right in their backyard, etc., etc. You know I just think we're going to see more of the same. All you can do is just sort of say like "OK, we'll just make security better." [Unintelligible] Other than that, I don't see. This may be a question sort of outside my expertise -- I think it is -- because I just don't know what you can do.

TPM: We'll there's -- from what the president said yesterday -- there seemed to be some sense on the part of the Administration that we're in a kind of a hearts and minds battle over the Iraqi people with the terrorists. And maybe the masses of Iraqis will see this now and say, "This isn't just against the US, it's against us."

BERGEN: I think right now, I'm not sure if that's true. I get the impression that a lot of Iraqis don't want us to be there also. So, I just don't know what the answer is -- obviously it's a hearts and minds question. So I don't know. I don't really have an answer for that.

We're all going to be kind of reassessing the situation as the result of this. Look at the size of the headlines in the New York Times and the Washington Post -- this is a huge story and represents I think an entirely new phase in the whole deal. And how you adjust for that? It's going to be complicated.

TPM: Last question. Over the last month or so, in various publications there's been this -- what's called the flypaper theory. I don't know if you've heard this. This is basically the idea that even if there are attacks inside Iraq that this is actually good because we're sort of bringing everybody out of the woodwork and fighting them on our terms--

BERGEN: I think that's -- that's kind of, that's a post-facto rationalization. Don't you think?

TPM: Well I think-- [crosstalk] there's not a finite number of terrorists, at least in practice ... [crosstalk]

BERGEN: You can attract them all to Iraq--

TPM: And kill them and then you're done.

BERGEN: At what cost? If that is the idea, no one in the Administration is standing up to articulate that. Plus that seems like a very high-risk strategy. And also it doesn't make sense anyway. Because Afghanistan was a sort of an anti-flypaper thing where we went in and we bombed them and they all left.

So I don't think the Administration is thinking like that. I think that they really believe their own theories, I guess. There's really no other explanation for what they did. And going back to this whole al Qaida-Iraq connection, the reason ultimately I think that it's important -- forget about whatever people in the Administration said -- something that swayed the American people was that this connection existed. To me, the only justification for the war was you know, getting rid of Saddam's tyranny. But that's a sort of Gladstonian, liberal position.

I don't think that would have been easy to sell to the American people -- saying, "Hey, we're just going to liberate this place because this guy's a total you know, whatever." They sold it on the basis of this kind of putative connection, I think. I think that was the background. Sixty percent of Americans surveyed before the war thought Iraq was involved in 9/11. So I think this question of whether there was a link between al Qaida and Iraq is not a trivial one, because certainly people believed it.

TPM: One quick last question. To the extent that you're in touch with the guy in London, the Saudi dissident--and people in the countries around the periphery around Iraq, is there a consensus among people in these countries about the situation we're in? You certainly hear the Administration saying "You know, it's tough going but we're moving in the right direction." What do people in the region, outside Iraq, think we have on our hands?

BERGEN: I don't know the answer to that question. But there's a very interesting survey by--was it Pew? I think it was Pew. You know in countries as diverse as Turkey, Indonesia, Morocco, and Jordan, when asked "Who do you have more confidence in, Osama bin Laden or President Bush?" A substantial majority said Osama bin Laden in those countries. These are all countries that are closely allied to the United States. I think those figures speak for themselves about the faith they have in what we're doing.