Peter Bergen began covering the rise of al-Qaeda long before the twin towers fell. One of the few Western journalists to have interviewed Osama bin Laden, Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, and has written three books about the terrorist organization. In his latest, The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda, he argues that 9/11 marked the climax of al-Qaeda’s power. Bin Laden’s organization, he writes, has been in decline ever since. Bergen spoke with Maclean’s from Washington.
Q: Al-Qaeda has now lost its best recruiter and fundraiser. Is this the beginning of the end?
A: Yes. When you joined the Nazi party, you didn’t swear an oath of allegiance to Naziism; you swore a personal oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. When you join al-Qaeda, you swear an oath of allegiance to bin Laden, not to al-Qaeda or al-Qaedism. Similarly, when groups join al-Qaeda in Iraq, they swear a personal fealty to bin Laden. He’s the grand fromage of al-Qaeda and the jihadi movement. No one can replace him.
Q: Does his death also mark the end of the so-called war on terror?
A: If this doesn’t mark it, what does? We can be involved in an endless war, or we can say that while jihadist terrorism won’t go away, and while it threatens people in the U.S. and Canada, the combination of bin Laden’s death and the Arab Spring undercuts both the ideology and the organization of al-Qaeda.
Q: Why was it so crucially important for the U.S. to find bin Laden?
A: At the end of the day, that’s what this war was about. If Mullah Mohammed Omar had just said: ‘Okay, we’ll just give this guy up,’ [the Taliban would] probably still be running Afghanistan. It really came down to that.
Q: Will his death alter the debate on Afghanistan in the West? Will it hasten the pullout?
A: It might. It increases political pressure to say: ‘Well, it’s over.’ Personally, I think there are reasons other than bin Laden for being in Afghanistan. The Taliban are the Taliban, after all, and it’s interesting how quiescent liberals have been about them coming back to power in some shape or form. It wasn’t just al-Qaeda. The Taliban hosted all sorts of terrorist and Islamist groups while they were in power. Where they continue to exert power, in places like western Pakistan and the tribal regions, they continue to host not just al-Qaeda but various Taliban splinter groups: Lashkar-e Taiba, the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan and any number of unpleasant groups.
Q: In angry Arab capitals a decade ago, bin Laden was often seen as a hero, sheik, leader—a religious Robin Hood. How do he and the terrorist organization he launched differ today from what they then were?
A: Al-Qaeda, in 2001, ran an almost parallel government to the Taliban in Afghanistan. They had training camps and thousands of recruits; they paid people salaries and even had a vacation schedule for their recruits—2½ months off a year, more than most American companies. They have much less capacity today. A 9/11-style attack is implausible; they don’t control big chunks of the country. A tremendous amount of pressure has been applied to them. That’s not an argument for saying: ‘Well, let’s stop, because the job is done.’ Let’s say Northwest Flight 253 [the infamous underwear bomber incident on Christmas Day 2009] had blown up over Detroit, not far from the Canadian border. Three hundred people would have been killed, plus more people on the ground, global aviation, tourism and international business would have been impacted, and the Obama presidency would have been severely damaged, perhaps even mortally wounded. So, even backed into a corner like a snake, these groups continue to have, and will continue to have, some capacity.
Q: What about bin Laden himself?
A: He was losing the war of ideas in the Muslim world, not because the West is winning them, but because al-Qaeda is losing them. In Indonesia, Morocco, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, poll after poll shows declining support for al-Qaeda, bin Laden and suicide bombing. And that was true before the Arab Spring. There’s no bin Laden pictures in the streets of Cairo—no one’s calling for a Taliban-style theocracy in Libya. It’s simply not part of the conversation.
Q: You met the man in 1997. What was your initial impression?
A: Well-informed, intelligent, serious—he wasn’t a table-thumping revolutionary. He was a fairly thoughtful individual; he’s widely regarded as being humble, though killing 3,000 people on a Tuesday morning isn’t really the act of a humble person, I would say. I spent a lot of time interviewing his friends, family and people who fought with him in Afghanistan for my book [The Osama bin Laden I Know], and the picture that emerges is of a guy who was a religious zealot from the age of about 15 on. That is really the explanation of who he was. He believed he was doing God’s will, and saw the West, particularly the U.S., at war with Islam. That set of assumptions coloured everything else.
Q: What was the biggest popular misconception about bin Laden?
A: That he had a bank account with $200 million in it, and that he was at war with us because of our freedoms. There are hundreds of thousands of words on public record from bin Laden. But he was very quiet on the Supreme Court, alcohol, drugs, feminism, homosexuality—he didn’t care about cultural issues in the West. He cared about our foreign policy. He wanted the West, broadly speaking, to get out of the Muslim world.
Q: Bin Laden was found in an ostentatious, suspicious compound in a town with a soldier on every corner, a mere two hours from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, nominally a U.S. ally; by last year, even journalists had heard rumours bin Laden was in Abbottabad. Are we to believe Pakistan’s intelligence service didn’t have a clue?
A: It’s still hard to tell. But look, living in compounds with high walls is a lot less unusual in Pakistan than people believe.
Q: What did Pakistan come to mean to al-Qaeda after its near-death experience in the winter of 2001?
A: In a way, it was back to the future. Al-Qaeda was founded in Afghanistan in 1988; as adults, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri spent more time in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world.
Q: Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, who is also believed to be in hiding in Pakistan, is commonly seen as the brains behind bin Laden. In the book, however, you describe him very differently.
A: That was the conventional wisdom; it turned out to be untrue. Obviously, Zawahiri is a smart guy, and certainly Zawahiri made Osama more radical in the late ’80s. But by the mid-’90s, things had changed quite dramatically. It was Osama’s idea to attack the United States, an idea he basically foisted on Zawahiri. Zawahiri, at the time, was the leader of a relatively small group, and wasn’t well liked even within it. Osama, who by ’97 or ’98 was a global celebrity, subsumed Zawahiri’s group into his own, much larger organization.
Q: In the beginning, was there a perception that bin Laden wasn’t very bright?
A: In the ’80s, he was very much overshadowed by people who were older than him, and who had more experience fighting jihad or being imprisoned by the Egyptians. It doesn’t necessarily mean he was dumb, but no one saw him as a leader. He was monosyllabic, silent; that’s the picture that emerges. But by the ’90s, he’s running a large organization, he’s got the courage of his convictions, he’s leaving some of his mentors behind and making decisions they don’t necessarily like.
Q: So will Zawahiri now assume the mantle?
A: Zawahiri is the nominal successor. But I don’t think he’ll be successful—he’s not well-regarded by people in the organization. And the world doesn’t stop when he releases a tape, as was the case with bin Laden. One of [bin Laden’s] sons might choose to go into this, but I don’t see anybody similar in stature emerging.
Q: You write that 9/11 backfired on bin Laden. How so?
A: He didn’t achieve any of his self-stated goals. He hoped to get the U.S. out of the Middle East so the Saudi regime would fall and a Taliban-style regime would replace it. None of that happened. Rather, it was the reverse. The U.S. didn’t pull out of the Middle East; we’re in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he lost his base in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda means “the base” in Arabic; their base ran almost a parallel state in Afghanistan. That’s gone. Many years later, they came up with post facto justifications—that this was all part of a clever plan to get the U.S. involved in the Middle East and bleed it dry, but that doesn’t make any sense.
Q: He didn’t really understand the West, did he?
A: No. He spent two weeks in the United States in 1979, and he had a series of “yes people” around him who said: “You’re right, Osama, the U.S. is a paper tiger, the U.S. will crumble”—he really didn’t get it.
Q: Yet the U.S.-led invasion, you write, was also a boon to bin Laden’s cause.
A: The invasion of Iraq, the coercive interrogation, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib—all these things helped feed into bin Laden’s master narrative that we’re at war with Islam, even if that wasn’t the case.
Q: So what now for the Taliban—whose raison d’être is first and foremost expelling foreigners, who have no record of terrorist acts outside Afghanistan and never seemed, as you’ve written, to have much in common with jihadists bent on using Afghanistan as the starting point for a worldwide caliphate? Was it a marriage of convenience for them and al-Qaeda, and will they now go their separate ways?
A: Yes—but they’ve had a lot of time to go their separate ways, and they still haven’t.
Q: In Iraq, it took Sunni Arabs to turn the tide against al-Qaeda. Can we draw lessons from the so-called “awakening,” in which Sunni tribes helped rid Iraq of the organization?
A: There are differences. In Iraq, al-Qaeda was a foreign organization imposing a Taliban-like regime on the locals. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is much more of a local phenomenon. But you could imagine local militias setting up—and this is happening in Afghanistan right now—to fight off the Taliban. They wouldn’t be ethnically different from the Taliban; they’d be coming from the same community.
Q: Why do you feel the U.S. will release photos of bin Laden’s body?
A: They make a point. It was the footage of Saddam Hussein being checked for head lice that completely undercut whatever currency he had remaining. The pictures of Uday and Qusay Hussein and Musab al-Zarqawi after their deaths—these pictures tell a thousand words.