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Asharq Al-Awsat Talks to CNN’s Peter Bergen | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The CNN’s Peter Bergen meets with Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, on 30 March 1997.

The CNN's Peter Bergen meets with Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, on 30 March 1997.

The CNN’s Peter Bergen meets with Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, on 30 March 1997.

London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Peter Bergen is a journalist and academic, he is a senior fellow at the New America foundation in Washington D.C. and CNN’s national security analyst. He is a true expert on terrorism, and the first western journalist to meet 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. His books on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda continue to top the bestsellers charts. His new book is scheduled to be published in January, and is called “The Longest War.” This is not the first time that Asharq Al-Awsat has interviewed Bergen, but it is the first time that the CNN journalist has spoken at length about his 1997 meeting with Bin Laden.

Bergen revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that Khalid Al-Fawwaz, a Saudi national detained in a British prison pending an extradition request to the United States for his alleged involvement in the 1998 US embassy bombings arranged his journey to Afghanistan. Bergen undertook this journey – from London to Afghanistan – accompanied by senior Al Qaeda member Abu Musab al-Suri, although he was not aware of the man’s true identity. On the subject of Abu Musab al-Suri, Bergen told Asharq Al-Awsat “I did not know him as Abu Musab al-Suri, but by the name he used throughout the flight (Brother Omar). He presented himself as a Syrian journalist interested in Jihadist groups”.

Peter Bergen revealed details about his interview with Bin Laden, and how he managed to get access to the reclusive Al Qaeda leader, as well as his opinion on the current situation.

The following is the text of the interview:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you start by telling our readers a little about yourself?

[Bergen] I started working in ABC news in New York for five years (1985-1990). My first professional experience was making a documentary about the Afghan refugees in Pakistan. I joined CNN in 1990.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your latest book about?

[Bergen] I have a new book that comes out in January and it is going to be about the history of war on terror. It’s going to cover Afghanistan, Pakistan Iraq, Al-Qaeda, and the United States in about 400 or 500 pages.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your next book called?

[Bergen] It’s called ‘The Longest War’ – because it’s the longest war in American history.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How long did it take you to write?

[Bergen] I’ve been writing it for several years. I also wrote a book about Bin Laden, so I was writing two books simultaneously so it took several years to write both. And I still work with CNN and the American Foundation.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you manage to work at both institutions?

[Bergen] Well both are in Washington and CNN is very news driven and sometimes there is no news.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] And so it took you a long time to write “The Longest War?”

[Bergen] Well I wrote the two books simultaneously, but together it did take seven years. ‘The Osama Bin Laden I know’ was going to be translated into Arabic by a Lebanese publisher, but the invasion of Lebanon by Hezbollah happened and it was never published. It would be great if it was translated into Arabic because it contains a wealth of information. My book ‘Holy War Inc’ was translated into 18 languages.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about “The Osama Bin Laden I Know?” Was it difficult to write that book?

[Bergen] I interviewed 50 people who know Bin Laden – some were his acquaintances, his brother in law Jamal Khalifa who was probably Bin Laden’s’ closest friend at one point, and Khalid Battarfy who was his childhood friend in Saudi Arabia, and I used court cases as well. This book is also about 500 pages.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us a little about meeting Bin Laden?

[Bergen] It was 30 March 1997 near Tora Bora in the middle of the night. When I looked at him, I never imagined that this man would be the No 1 most wanted terrorist. At the time I thought that this guy is well informed, intelligent, the people around him were disciplined and mostly educated, all spoke English. Some of the people around him had covered faces, but some of them did show their faces. Abu Musab Al-Suri was the one that took me to Afghanistan from London. The only reason that I am saying this is that Abu Musab Al-Suri has published his own account of this and explained it in his book, so it’s not a secret.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What was that trip like?

[Bergen] Well we went from London to Pakistan to Afghanistan on Pakistan International Airline…and we crossed the border into Afghanistan, which at the time was controlled by the Taliban, and Abu Musab Al-Suri was the guy who had arranged everything. No visas or anything were needed because the Taliban were very disorganised so we were able to just cross the border. It wasn’t a very functional government.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How long did your meeting with Bin Laden last?

[Bergen] It was about an hour. We weren’t allowed to carry anything with us, so no watches or anything. We filmed the interview on a camera that they provided and then just took the tape. They were concerned about security and tracking devices.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] And what was the actual interview like?

[Bergen] Well I wouldn’t say that it was relaxed. It was the middle of the night, everybody has a weapon, and there was only limited time because Bin Laden didn’t want to spend too long there. It wasn’t hostile, but it wasn’t relaxed either. After Bin Laden left we hung around for a bit more, and then at two or three in the morning we went back to Jalalabad.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did Bin Laden’s people ask to pre-approve your questions?

[Bergen] When we were approved for the interview we were told that they wanted to see the questions in advance, we told them that we don’t usually do that, but it’s a legitimate reason and that it would be fine. I wrote about 100 questions, and they rejected all of the questions about his personal life and his family. At the end of the day we were interested in what his political views were, so they kept in all of the questions about why he was declaring war on the United States, and whether American civilians were going to be targeted. The key questions were kept and they wanted to answer those. I think they also wanted the questions in advance to think about what their answers were going to be because they had no experience with the media, and their view was that the media was controlled by the government because that is what it is like in the countries that they come from; so they are mistrustful of the media.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did they ask you to add any particular questions on topics that they wanted to discuss?

[Bergen] No, but at one point Osama Bin Laden was very critical of President Clinton (who was in power at the time), and Abu Musab Al-Suri asked if I was going to use that; and I told him yes that we would use it. They didn’t like the US President, and actually used pictures of Clinton for target practice. They said I could ask anything I wanted as long as it was not about money, family, or any personal questions. They were concerned about his [Bin Laden’s] security, so they wanted to make the interview short; he was very business like, so he was neither friendly nor unfriendly. The interview took place in a house about six thousand feet up, and it was March, so it was cold. We had been blind-folded and we changed vehicles [so we did not know where we were being taken]. The journey started in Jalalabad where myself, the correspondent Peter Arnett and our photographer; we were picked up from the hotel in a mini van with curtains and three guards with sub machine guns, it becomes night and there was a change of vehicle where we took a four wheel drive up into the mountains where there are checkpoints, guards, rocket propelled grenades. When we got to the house we were given tea and maybe some goat to eat. We waited for about one or two hours before he [Bin Laden] appeared. They provided the generator, they provided the camera.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that Bin Laden is still alive?

[Bergen] Well he’s definitely alive. We had an audio tape from Bin Laden a little after the Christmas day 2009 attacks that brought down the Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Bin Laden said that Umar Farouk Abdul Muttalib was a great mujahedeen. So that’s proof of life. I believe he is in the tribal areas of Pakistan or he could be in Chitral, or Bajaur; nobody really knows. I doubt that he is in Iran even though all his kids are there, including a lot of other people, such as Abu Walid [al-Masri].

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that Al Qaeda is finished?

[Bergen] I think they have a lot of problems. The first is the killing of Muslim civilians. I think that Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia has suffered a strategic defeat, and Al-Qaeda in Iraq is not doing very well. On the other hand some of the groups, such as Al Qaeda in Yemen are doing very well. But they are losing the war in the world of ideas in the Muslim world. I think a lot of Muslims are planning against Al-Qaeda, Bin Laden and suicide bombing. Support of suicide bombing in Pakistan has dropped from 33 percent to 5 percent in the last several years. Support for Bin Laden has dropped from 65 percent to 18 percent in the last several years in Pakistan. Al Qaeda doesn’t need a lot of people to continue to survive. It’s losing popular support, but its always been a small group anyway. Their leadership is still alive and they’ve infected other groups with their ideology – such as the Pakistani Taliban and the bomber that targeted Times Square. So they are certainly not doing well, but they’re not out of business; and it’s not an easy group to dismantle because the people that are involved believe that they are doing God’s will. They are hard to deter.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you think Osama Bin Laden manages to communicate with his followers all across the world?

[Bergen] Well I think that he only communicates by audio tapes, and he communicates very little. His tapes are being communicated by couriers; hand to hand and put on Jihadist websites.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us about the Sinjar Documents, and your involvement in this?

[Bergen] Well the Sinjar Documents were found by the US military in Sinjar, Iraq. Then they were given to West Point [Military Academy] who asked me to analyse some of the documents. I think there were more than 700 biographies of fighters who arrived in Iraq, many of whom were Libyans and Saudi Arabians; others were from around the Middle East.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there any particular research method for dealing with documents such as these?

[Bergen] They just gave me a lot of documents and asked what it all meant. They just wanted an analysis of the documents. I was one of several academics they asked to look at it. I think that West Point has done some of the best research.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you take bodyguards or protective details with you when you go into danger zones such as Afghanistan or Pakistan?

[Bergen] It depends. If you go with CNN there is protection, but if I go to Afghanistan by myself I don’t get any protection, I just go by myself; but I know the country very well and do feel very at home there. And I’ve been visiting Pakistan since 1983, so you start to understand that certain things are risky and others are not.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think is the greatest risk for journalists visiting countries such as this?

[Bergen] In Afghanistan there is a risk going into any area controlled by the Taliban, such as Helmand. I’ve been to Helmand but it was with the military, so I think that if you go on your own it is a different matter. In 2005, I was able to travel around anywhere in Afghanistan. For example, I travelled from Kandahar to Kabul by taxi which took about 7 hours, without any problems. I was in Afghanistan during the civil war in the 1990s and it was dangerous back then.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How many times have you visited Afghanistan and Pakistan to date?

[Bergen] It’s been at least a dozen times.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you ever felt that you are under observation whist on these trips?

[Bergen] I think in Pakistan there is an element of that.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the most difficult interview you have conducted to date?

[Bergen] Arranging the Bin Laden interview was the most difficult. It took several months just to arrange it. In August of 1996 the US State Department released a document saying that Bin Laden was financing terrorism, and if you think back to the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, it always gave me the impression that an organisation was involved; it wasn’t just a bunch of guys from Brooklyn. When Bin Laden’s name first came out in 1996 I said I thought that this guy was behind the World Trade Center attack – it wasn’t quite true, but it’s what I thought at the time. Because of this I went to my bosses at CNN and said that we should try and interview this guy, and they said okay. All of the people who helped me were in London; Abu Musab Al-Suri and I spent around two weeks talking to them. We talked about the Quran, we talked about Saudi Arabia; we talked about a lot of things. After a certain point they said OK to the interview. Bin Laden had decided to do an interview, the question was who was he going to give an interview to? He wanted to give an interview to the English speaking world. He had already given an interview to the Arabic speaking work in Al-Quds Al-Arabi – and now he wanted to speak to the English world. They were thinking about the BBC, they were thinking about CNN, and they were thinking about 60 Minutes on CBS. They finally decided on CNN, but the whole process took several months. We travelled to Pakistan, and probably spent around three weeks there before going to Afghanistan, a lot of the time was spent just waiting. It was not easy; Bin Laden and the people around him are a disciplined group of people, they’re paranoid, secretive and very concerned about security; so it was difficult.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did you convince Abu Musab al-Suri and Khalid al-Fawwaz to give you the interview?

[Bergen] I think I convinced them that I would be fair, and I think that they thought that the final product was a fair piece of journalism. We described who this person is, why he is declaring war on the United States of America. But my understanding is that when CNN did the interview it got some attention in the Middle East, but there were no stories about the interview in Saudi Arabia because at that time they did not like to have any news to do with Osama Bin Laden.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] When you were in Afghanistan with Abu Musab Al-Suri trying to arrange this interview, did it ever cross your mind that your lift was in danger?

[Bergen] No. There were two things, the first being that Abu Musab Al-Suri never actually said ‘I am Abu Musab Al-Suri’ , he told me his name was Omar and he told me that he was a journalist; obviously he was a Jihadist sympathiser, and he was writing about the Jihadist conflict. He wasn’t lying, but he wasn’t telling me the full story either. At the time I knew very little about him, and he was only known by a small group of people in London.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Following the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud by two suicide bombers pretending to be journalists, do you think that journalism has become more difficult?

[Bergen] As a westerner it was the murder of Danny Pearl in 2002 that changed everything. Al Qaeda had never killed journalists until then, but they started to target journalists since then and after that. When I went in 1997 I was not concerned at all, but now you do have to be very concerned. And western journalists were not targets on Pakistan until Danny Pearl.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the new terror laws will affect the way in which journalists operate?

[Bergen] As journalists we are doing out job, and we have to have material on out computers about terrorists and such, but I don’t think that it would be a problem in regards to police or the law. We are just doing our jobs.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you ever contacted an intelligence or law enforcement agency such as the CIA or FBI because of sensitive material that you have managed to obtain?

[Bergen] Everything we do is public, so it’s not like we are keeping some secret stuff to ourselves. The interview we did with Bin Laden, all of the best stuff was put out to the public. I’ve interviewed members of Al Qaeda, and I’ve interviewed members of the CIA and FBI; so I’ve interviewed everybody. Out job as journalists is not to collect information for them, but to collect information for the public; and public information is usually the best information. If you look at this WikiLeaks thing, there were 90,000 secret documents, but very little interest in any of them. To me, that was a real indictment of the American intelligence process. Bin Laden declared war on the USA on CNN four years before 9/11. It wasn’t a secret; all you had to do was look at what was out there. We lived in a world that was very open. [As for] Abu Musab al Zarqawi, they videotaped everything that they did, every operation, so if you want to be informed all of the information is out there. There is no secret information about where Bin Laden is hiding, there just is no information.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that WikiLeaks will change the face of investigative reporting?

[Bergen] No, I think that it is technology that changes the business; but the Pentagon Papers were much more significant – which was somebody taking papers out of a safe and making copies of them and giving them to the New York Times. Although things like WikiLeaks make it easier to get the information, it also makes it easier for the general public because they can look at all of the original documents; but I don’t see it as being a huge new development.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the internet is a threat to print media?

[Bergen] It is, because there is no business in the world that makes money from giving stuff away. You can’t make money if it’s all free. There is no business in history that has survived by giving away things. The newspaper business needs to think about charging on the internet. For me, I would pay $100 a year for a New York Times subscription on the internet, and there are lots of people who would. The newspaper industry made a huge mistake by just making everything free.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you ever felt like you were being used either by fundamentalists or the government?

[Bergen] Well I think that anyone who talks to a journalist has an agenda. We all have agendas. Everybody has a point of view and if they talk to a journalist they want to put their point of view out there, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that everybody understands that if you interview somebody in the FBI they are going to have a different view to somebody in Al-Qaeda – we all have different points of view, but I think that the main thing that we as journalists can do is to be fair.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Other than your Bin Laden interview, what is the most memorable story that you have covered?

[Bergen] Well right now it is this book ‘The Longest War’ because I have been writing it for such a long time. I am trying to tell the whole story of what happened since 9/11; a lot of things happened. It starts on 9/11 and ends more or less today. 9/11 is one of these events that change history, so I try and tell the story of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, America and the United Kingdom.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think there will ever be a complete end to Al-Qaeda?

[Bergen] I think at some point it will just fade. The ideology is losing steam. If Bin Laden was captured or killed the organisation would be largely over because Ayman al-Zawahiri is not an effective leader. Bin laden is a very effective leader. When people talk about him they say they love him. They say they love Bin Laden; they don’t say that they love Ayman al-Zawahiri. He’s disliked internally by people in his own group. They love Bin Laden. He’s the son of a billionaire, given up everything, imitates the prophet Muhammad, speaks in good Arabic, and is well-educated.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think Osama Bin Laden will be captured anytime soon?

[Bergen] Well he’s 53, so he’s not that old, so he’s got many years left. It’s been nine years, and it could be another nine years. But I don’t think he will be captured, I think he’s willing to die.