Aug 22, 2003

Talking Points interview with Josh Marshall pt. 1

This evening we're very pleased to run the first half of our interview with al Qaida expert Peter Bergen. Part two will run Friday afternoon.

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.

The interview was conducted early Wednesday afternoon ...

TPM: There've been a series of [recent] attacks --the attack on the Jordanian embassy, the attack yesterday. And no one has claimed responsibility. There's the big debate about who's doing this. So what is your sense on the narrow question of who did it, and more broadly, what's happening in Iraq right now, this escalation?
BERGEN: Well, what's happening is utterly predictable, unfortunately. Which is that Iraq is acting as a sort of super-magnet for ... al Qaida or the jihadists in general. And they're coming to Iraq. Were they behind the Jordanian embassy attack? Very possibly. It happened on August 7th, which is a date that al Qaida is fairly preoccupied by, because that was the day that President Bush [Sr.] announced Operation Desert Shield and [began] posting American troops in Saudi Arabia. And then 8 years later [al Qaida] blew up two US embassies simultaneously on that day.

TPM: Huh, I'd never heard [that it was on the same date.]

BERGEN: They don't operate on anniversaries, but this is one that they have operated on. And they would definitely -- you don't spend five years [planning for] blowing up two US embassies without actually deciding, "We're going to do it on a day that really makes sense for us." And their principle political beef has been the US presence in Saudi Arabia. So the fact that the Jordanian embassy was attacked on August 7th, it's an interesting coincidence at least.

Then, attacking embassies, doing it in a professional manner. This is something that al Qaida has -- al Qaida or its affiliates -- among their specialties. Whether it was in Africa in '98, the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan in '95, attempting to blow up a series of Western embassies in Singapore post-9/11, which didn't happen.

So that's point one. Then point two: The United Nations is definitely -- attacking the United Nations is definitely something that for starters was a suicide attack, probably extremely well-organized. I don't think there's a huge group of people willing to martyr themselves to bring Saddam Hussein back to power. I mean it just doesn't make sense on the face of it. You know, there might be people who are nostalgic, but not nostalgic enough to want to kill themselves ? Secular socialism posits heaven here on earth, rather than in eternity.

Now, there's information just now that the FBI is saying that the explosive materials involved indicate some sort of military Iraqi [connection], which is interesting. So maybe there is some alliance between these former military people and the jihadists. But I think that -- I've never heard of a suicide operation mounted by people who don't believe in heaven.

TPM: Right, right. Does it tell you anything that no one has claimed responsibility for either of these attacks?

BERGEN: Well, al Qaida tends not ever to claim direct responsibility. I mean, there was a bogus thing, where they did claim responsibility for the blackout, but I doubt that was al Qaida. I mean claims of responsibility are -- you know, there are two claims of responsibility in the attack in Jerusalem: Hamas and Islamic Jihdad. So, I don't know. Claims of responsibility are sort of curious. Al Qaida as a general proposition has tended not to make claims of responsibility, so make of that what you will.

I don't think there are any claims so far. You know on Monday of this week, just before the attack on the United Nations, an audio tape came out from an al Qaida spokesman, calling for attacks on Iraq and making sort of a -- deriding US efforts to bring more people into the coalition. Obviously an attack on the United Nations' headquarters, it sends a very strong signal: If you're contemplating sending troops, you know, "Don't do it."

TPM: As you mentioned, there was this report today that these were Soviet-era munitions that the former regime had around. And that at least raises the question of whether there's some sort of coordination. Now obviously before the war this was one nominal casus belli. So, what is your sense on that big question: Was there a link between Iraq and al Qaida, was there coordination before the war -- and might there be now?

BERGEN: You know, the best evidence linking al Qaida to Iraq was what Colin Powell said with George Tenet sitting behind him at the United Nations. And it's this guy Zarqawi who went for medical treatment in Baghdad. Now I've talked to US officials and European intelligence officials and Zarqawi had his own organization that's not part of al Qaida. And even if you put the best possible spin on everything, A) he has a separate organization, and B) the way US intelligence officials look at it, they say that he would say, "Yeah, sometimes I do work for Osama."

But the fact is that this guy spent more time in Iran and Lebanon than he spent in Iraq.

I mean, he went to Iraq for medical treatment. He also traveled under an alias, by the way. This is a guy with many aliases. It's quite possible that he was getting medical treatment without the regime knowing it. After all, he's Jordanian.

So Zarqawi's their best [evidence] --and it's a pretty thin reed. You know, Iraq actually has quite good medical treatment compared to most other countries in the Arab world, from my understanding. So the fact that he went there -- and just by the law of averages, by the way, if we accept the fact that, as President Bush said in the State of the Union, that there are sixty countries where al Qaida exists, just by the law of averages, some of them are going to show up in Iraq.

But, you know, I spent years researching my book on al Qaida, and one of the striking things is how few Iraqis there are in the organization. I mean, everybody has an alias in al Qaida. They're called al Misri, which means you're from Egypt, or you're called al Jazeera, which means you're from Algeria. Very few are al Iraqi. The only one who is significant is a guy called Mahmud Salim who's actually in prison, and has been in prison since '98, who was a significant player in the leadership of al Qaida.

But obviously bin Laden is a Saudi, most of the top leadership is Egyptian, rather than Iraqi. And if you do a breakdown of who went through the training camps, the overwhelming numbers, from the Arab world at least, would be Saudis, Yemenis, and Algerians. Those would be in the top three. Iraqis really would have come down [the list]. And also, no one from Iran. There were no al Iranis in the groups.

TPM: Now that would be at least a sectarian divide?

BERGEN: Actually there's more evidence for al Qaida playing footsie with Hezbollah in the early '90s. You know, if you look at the model, the al Qaida model is the Hezbollah model. And this goes back to the question du jour--which is, what's happening in Iraq?

If you accept the fact -- and it is a fact -- that bin Laden modeled al Qaida's tactics on Hezbollah in Beirut in the mid '80s, when the bomb went off and we withdrew, and also on Mogadishu, where 18 Americans were killed and then we also withdrew ... If you accept that as their model, then that's the model they're going to apply in Iraq. That would explain the Jordanian embassy, the UN Headquarters, and the future attacks there are undoubtedly going to be against US soldiers there.

Some people trained with Hezbollah in Lebanon who were members of al Qaida and [bin Laden] met with Imad Mugniyah, who was sort of the operational commander of Hezbollah. But that's in the early '90s. On the Iraq question, he also met with Iraqis when they were living in Sudan. But you know, we all have meetings that don't mean anything. Look at the UN sometimes. So the fact that these guys were having meetings doesn't really mean, I think, very much.

TPM: How about Ansar al Islam, which is the other player in this debate?

BERGEN: Ansar al Islam A) is a small group of people, and B) was in the part of Iraq not controlled by [Saddam]. In fact, the only reason Ansar al Islam existed as a group, if you think about it, was because we were enforcing a no-fly zone. Totalitarian regimes don't tolerate opposition of any form, whether it's religious, political, whatever. Saddam Hussein would have executed people in Ansar al Islam.

So that's -- I think to say ex post facto that these attacks can be laid at Ansar al Islam might be convenient for the administration. And may or may not be true -- I don't know. There is the fact that Ansar al Islam mounted a suicide attack on a group of Western journalists during the war and killed an Australian. So they have managed to assign operations against Western targets. But to me they seem a rather trivial [group] when you're looking at numbers of 3,000 Saudis, as Saad al Fagih, the leading Saudi dissident told me yesterday.

I think the maximum number of people in Ansar al Islam were in the several hundred. And they seem much more preoccupied with attacking the Kurdish leaders. Other than this attack that I mentioned on the Australian journalist there doesn't seem to be a lot of indication that they're involved in anti-Western terrorism.

TPM: Now one of the accusations, at least before the war, was that the Saddam Hussein regime was aiding Ansar basically because they had a mutual enemy in Kurdish leaders. And to the extent that there was any argument about cooperation, that's how people built it up.

BERGEN: You know, maybe it's true. What does this all mean? The bottom line is, was [Iraq] involved in 9/11? Obviously not. Were Saddam and al Qaida in cahoots? No.

If you actually talk to the people who investigate this stuff --- the people in the US government [for whom] this is their daily bread, this is what they get up and think about every day --- they will say, well, one of them will say, "Don't get me started. My blood pressure was fine before you mentioned it. They came to me for a casus belli before the war and I said, 'I'm not the guy, there's nothing here.'"

And these are people who have investigated al Qaida arguably since 1993.

TPM: People in the US intelligence community, law enforcement, etc.?

BERGEN: Yeah. One of the key pieces of evidence is this guy Farouk Hijazi, who was the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey and a fairly senior Iraqi intelligence officer, that he might have met with bin Laden in December of '98. And [the US intelligence officials] say, "We really don't know if that's even true."

So I think going back to Colin Powell's presentation is the most useful exercise, because Powell didn't want to get out in front of what basically they felt they could nail down. Yes, Zarqawi went to Baghdad for medical treatment. Yes, there were meetings in Khartoum between al Qaida and Iraqi officials. But other people I've talked to in the US government say, "Those meetings happened. What to make of them, who knows?"

Also, another official would say, "Actually, bin Laden was just doing that to be polite, because Sudan and Iraq were closely allied at that time."

And I can speak from my own personal experience. Because when we met with bin Laden in '97, at the end of the interview (when this was a question of no political import at the time) Peter Arnett, the correspondent (I was the producer of the interview) asked bin Laden, "What do you think of Saddam?"

And he said, immediately, "He's a bad Muslim"--and no argument there, I mean that's a statement of fact--"and he took Kuwait for his own self-aggrandizement"--again, no argument there. These are both truthful statements that represent bin Laden's unmediated [views]--that's his response.

You know, proving negatives, of course, is difficult. But I think the case that al Qaida and Iraq had any kind of relationship, even of the most trivial kind, has not been proven at all. And look, if we find a warehouse of documents that proves the Iraq-al Qaida link in Baghdad, I'll be the first person to say, basically, I've got this one wrong. Because I don't have a dog in the fight -- I really don't care. I mean, obviously it's interesting. But it's not like something that I've got an ideological thing of wanting to separate these things out. It's just if it's not there, it's not there.

You know, we now have in custody, after all, the two people -- al Ani, who was the Iraqi intelligence agent who supposedly met with Mohammed Atta in Prague, is in custody. Don't you think he knows his get-out-of-jail-free card to some degree is saying "Hey I did meet with Mohammed Atta"? He's obviously not saying that, otherwise we'd know about it.

And then Farouk Hijazi, the guy I just mentioned, is also in custody. He must know that his biggest -- you know, I mean, we're not hearing about it. And what's very interesting is that we do know that the CIA -- the interrogations of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh are saying, "We specifically rejected Iraq's help." And these people by the way, the high ranking al Qaida operatives are giving very useful information for reasons that -- it's kind of puzzling in a sense -- ego, wanting to show that they're in the game, that they're important, whatever. They are producing useful information. They know that they're going to be in custody for the rest of their lives and very possibly executed. If there's any way of making their lives slightly more comfortable, don't you think they would have said, 'Hey, we have this relationship with Iraq?' So, au contraire, they're not saying that.