London, Asharq Al- Awsat – Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with writer, journalist and academic, Peter Bergen, in the wake of the killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden. Bergen is CNN’s National Security Analyst and senior fellow at the Washington D.C. based New America Foundation think-tank. He is a true expert on terrorism, and the first western journalist to have met Osama Bin Laden, who he interviewed in the Tora Bora Mountains of Afghanistan in 1997. During that interview, Bin Laden famously declared war on America. Peter Bergen has interviewed many former and current members of Al Qaeda, in addition to a number of Bin Laden’s top aides. He is the author of “Holy War, Inc: Inside the secret world of Osama Bin Laden”, “The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An oral history of Al Qaeda’s leader”, and most recently “The longest war: The enduring conflict between America and Al Qaeda.” His award-winning books on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda continue to top the bestsellers chart. Bergen’s expertise has also led to him testifying before several US governmental committees, including the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Peter Bergen spoke about the killing of the Al Qaeda leader, the problems that this has raised in relations between Washington and Islamabad, and what the future now holds for the Al Qaeda organization.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that America and the West are safer now, following the killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden?
[Bergen] Even before Bin Laden was killed America was relatively safe. Al-Qaeda’s ability to re-do a 9/11 attack was very low. Bin Laden’s death has damaged the Al-Qaeda organisation, which was already damaged before recent events. Al-Qaeda the ideology was damaged by the ‘Arab spring’, which Al-Qaeda’s ideology had little to do with, and Al-Qaeda the organisation is now damaged because of Bin Laden’s death. Certainly an Al-Qaeda affiliate may be able to do an attack on the United States, but it’s not a huge problem.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The US media in particular, has been focusing on the killing of Bin Laden, and neglecting the thousands dying in Syria and Yemen. Why do you think they are turning a blind eye to other events in the Middle East?
[Bergen] I think that’s just the nature of the news business. There were other things going on around the world when 9/11 happened, but the media focused on matters that are important domestically. The Royal Wedding was the leading story in Britain, but it wasn’t the most important story. Certainly the death of Bin Laden was more important for America. It has subsided now, and you can see that the events in Libya, Syria, Egypt and Yemen will start coming back in the next few weeks.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell our readers a little about your forthcoming book “Manhunt”?
[Bergen] It’s basically an account about the hunt for Bin Laden. It’s an attempt to tell the story in as much detail as possible, and obviously it’s a story that there is a great deal of interest in around the world.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Now that the world has discovered that former Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden had managed to live in Abbottabad, Pakistan, for a number of years without being discovered, how can Islamabad convince the West that other figures, such as Taliban leader Mullah Omar, for example, are not also hiding out in Pakistan?
[Bergen] I don’t think that they can convince us. I think that it is very likely that Mullah Omar, Haqqani and Al-Zawahiri are in Pakistan. Does that mean that they are living there with Pakistani government approval? Well in the case of the Haqqani network, yes. Could they find Mullah Omar if they put their minds to it? I’m sure they could. Al-Zawahiri may be a different matter. There is no evidence so far that the government had any involvement in Bin Laden living in Abbottabad.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Bin Laden was known for being extremely cautious and usually surrounded by bodyguards. Were you surprised at how easily Bin Laden was killed?
[Bergen] I was certainly surprised. US Navy Seals are trained to a very high degree. I wasn’t surprised that Bin Laden had a limited number of bodyguards with him, because he didn’t want a lot of people to know where he was. If you’re surprised in the middle of the night by dozens of heavily armed men, it’s not surprising. He repeatedly said that he didn’t want to be captured, and he was killed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can we now finally say that the “war on terror” is nearing its end?
[Bergen] I think that the war on terror is near the end. I think that the “Arab spring” undercut the ideology of Al-Qaeda, and the death of Bin Laden undercut the organisation of Al-Qaeda. If you take these two things together, which have been relatively close in time, you couldn’t think of anything better to undercut the ideology and organisation. Jihadi terrorism will continue – we’ve just seen an attack in Pakistan by the Pakistan Taliban that killed 80 people – and there may be other attempts in places like London or Riyadh or Yemen or the United States. It’s not going to go away, but I think that Bin Laden is very hard to replace, such an important person that he was both in the movement and organisation. One very striking think to me, is that during the protests in Cairo, Bahrain, and Libya, I haven’t seen a single picture of Osama Bin Laden being held by the protesters. There hasn’t been a single American flag burning. Sure some people are anti-American, some people are anti Zionist, but the point is that people are expressing their real political views, if they don’t like the regimes.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Following the death of Osama Bin Laden, what major problems will the Al Qaeda organization face?
[Bergen] I don’t think that finance will be a problem because running a terrorist organisation is not expensive. The people in Al-Qaeda are volunteers; you don’t have to pay them. Al-Qaeda doesn’t need a lot of money. I think the main problem they will suffer now is that they haven’t been able to attack the US in 10 years. I think the main problem is that they are losing the war of ideas, and the Arab Spring and Bin Laden’s death just reinforced that. [Comments made before the reports that Saif al-Adel had been made Al Qaeda caretaker leader] If Ayman Al-Zawahiri takes over I think that he will be very ineffective. He is not very well liked or respected even within the Egyptian jihadist movement. I think whoever takes over Al-Qaeda has big problems.