Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Q&A with Lawrence Wright | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Asharq Al-Awsat speaks to award-winning author Lawrence Wright, whose highly-acclaimed book ‘The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11’ gained him the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and numerous other awards. The New Yorker Magazine writer is also working on a documentary.

Q) Tell me a little bit about your new film?

A) [It’s called] ‘The Road to Al Qaeda’ by director Alex Gibney. He made ‘The Taxi to the Dark Side’ which won the academy award last year about Afghanistan and he is also working on a documentary about Lance Armstrong. I performed the play in New York, and Alex came to see me at the Kennedy Centre in Washington and he offered to make a documentary.

Q) How long will it be?

A) I imagine it will be about 90 minutes.

Q) Will you write the script for this documentary?

A) Yes, I will be both the scriptwriter and the performer.

Q) After writing so many books and articles on Al Qaeda do you think you have a better understanding of the organisation?

A) I think I understand it as much as a non-Muslim westerner can understand it. That means there are certain things about Islam and the political atmosphere in the Middle East that I cannot entirely understand because it is not my background.

Q) You’ve worked in both Saudi Arabia and in Egypt. What is your impression of the young generations in these countries?

A) I think that, especially in Egypt, the young people are so worn out. The democracy movement is very discouraged. The last time I was in Egypt was March and I just don’t see much political activism in Egypt right now.

Q) Do you think that Al Qaeda has become a threat or an ideology?

A) I think that Al Qaeda is a threat, not just to the West but to Muslims. Many more Muslims have been killed by Al Qaeda than Americans were on 9/11, and it remains a threat. The central core of Al Qaeda is much reduced. Egyptian intelligence told me that the core of it was just 200 members and the CIA told me that they thought it was just 300-500, but there are still far fewer members at the core of Al Qaeda than there was prior to 9/11. But the idea of Al Qaeda has spread and taken root in places where it wasn’t even present before 9/11.

Q) But the danger of Al Qaeda is not in Pakistan but in the tribal areas.

A) Yes. Al Qaeda has made itself present in many areas of Pakistan, one of which is definitely the tribal areas. But I would also say that connected to that is Afghanistan and they have formed an alliance with the Taliban, which is much stronger now than it was before 9/11. And then we can’t forget Yemen, which is becoming increasingly important to Al Qaeda, and Somalia is still a base, and potentially a very important one for Al Qaeda. And then there are Al Qaeda affiliates, such as in North Africa, which were not really Al Qaeda to start with but have become associated with them.

Q) How long do you think it will take for Al Qaeda to disappear altogether?

A) Well Al Qaeda is already 21 years old, and that’s a long time for a terrorist group to exist. It’s already lived much longer than one would have expected it to. I think Al Qaeda will not end until Bin Laden disappears. I think that’s when it will begin to end. I don’t think it will end immediately, but there are no obvious successors to Bin Laden.

Q) What about Ayman al Zawahiri?

A) Well he had his own terrorist group in Egypt and he proved himself to be a very poor leader.

Q) Why do you think that some Muslims, such as those here in Britain, and some members of the Asian communities learn western values and receive a western education but turn to extremism?

A) It’s not a clash of civilizations; it’s a clash of identities within a civilization. For example, the number one name for a child born in Belgium today is Mohammed and it’s the most common name in the whole world right now. If you have Flemish ancestry you may be thinking what’s going to happen to our language, to our culture, our little place in the world and if you’re a Mohammed you may be thinking these people don’t want me, I’ll never be one of them and I think that’s one of the reasons young Muslims go to the mosque and find other young people alienated like that, and that’s how they become radicals. Those young Muslims may not even speak Arabic. They may not have been to Morocco, they may not know, but they are really alienated and separated from the culture that they live in.

Q) There have been some successes during the “war on terror” under former President Bush’s administration such as the arrests of high profile Al Qaeda figures including Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, Abu Zubaydah, Ibn al Shaykh al Libi, and Ramzi Bin al Shibah. In your view, what errors have been committed?

A) Well let’s start with the great achievement that happened in Nov/Dec 2001 when a small number of American Special Forces agents and members of the Northern Alliance overwhelmed Al Qaeda, and pummelled the Taliban. The red army had been in Afghanistan for 10 years and they didn’t accomplish anything like that. Within a couple of weeks the war on terror was essentially over. According to their own memoirs and internal memos 80 per cent of Al Qaeda was either captured or killed. Their leader had got away, but they were scattered, they were impoverished, they could barely communicate with each other, they were repudiated all over the world. And for about three years Al Qaeda was kind of like a zombie, not entirely alive, but not completely dead either. Then the war in Iraq brought that monster back to life. That was the great mistake.

Q) Do you believe that invading Iraq helped Al Qaeda?

A) Yes it did, it brought it back to life. It gave Al Qaeda a new cause, a new country to train in and it attracted thousands of young Muslims to Jihad.

Q) What is your assessment of the steps taken by President Obama in the war against terror and closing Guantanamo Bay?

A) I think he’s in a very difficult spot. He’s dealing with the fact that the Bush administration made some catastrophic mistakes, for instance, making it extremely difficult to put these men on trial because they were tortured, and it is very difficult to then put them into a court of law and get them to use the confessions that were gained whilst they were being tortured. I think Americans are frightened about having members of Al Qaeda in their own states and in their own backyards but I think that’s going to happen, I mean Guantanamo will be closed and these people will be sent to maximum security prisons in the US. It’s a terrible quandary of a legal problem, and its one that reflects shame on our institutions for the decisions that were made during the Bush administration.

Q) President Obama recently appointed Dalia Magahed to be his adviser for Islamic affairs. Do you think that Islamophobia is still present in American society and that America is still finding it hard to differentiate between Muslims and terrorists?

A) There’s no doubt that Islamophobia still exists but I think that it has declined quite a bit. You saw Islamophobia arise during the elections when Obama’s opponents tried to make a point of his middle name, and the truth is it didn’t have any effect. In fact I even had friends who signed letters and made up the middle name of Hussein. I actually have a friend who gave his son the middle name of Hussein – he’s American. It was the opposite of what you might expect. Most Americans see Obama’s affiliation or background as being an asset in terms of understanding the Islamic world.

Q) Do you think that the numerous books and articles that have been published on Islam since 9/11, including yours, have helped raise awareness of Islam?

A) Yes, there is no question about that. One thing that one can say in favour of America is that when something like this happens, people try and understand it. Schools now have Arabic studies and Middle Eastern studies and thousands of people have written very knowledgeable books on the subject and the educational process has been very useful in trying to help Americans understand the background of this movement, and why it attacked America – not everyone comes to the same conclusion but at least most Americans have informed themselves.

Q) Do you think that one day the third or fourth generation Arabs in America could hold important posts in the CIA?

A) I would really like for that to happen. There are some areas where the American intelligence communities have really failed. There’s a prejudice about hiring Muslims, especially first generation immigrants. One of the heroes of my book was Ali Soufan, from Beirut, who was a first generation Muslim immigrant who was an FBI agent and he came closer to stopping 9/11 than anybody else, and he was one of eight Arabic speaking agents. Now the FBI has nine. They speak well enough to order breakfast, but not well enough to interrogate anybody.

Q) Are they of Arab origin?

A) They’re second generation. It was a mistake not to trust these people who could really help us. This reluctance applies to other languages and ethnicities also, such as Urdu. There are already people in America that speak these languages fluently; it’s just the agency that has been reluctant to include them.

Q) What’s your assessment of the CIA after Bush’s departure; do you think that it is progressing with its new director Leon Panetta?

A) I think it’s too early to tell. I’ve met Leon Panetta and I think he is a very decent man. He has a good reputation as a politician from California, he is very humane and wise, but whether he can change the CIA which has been resistant to change forever is still too early to say.

Q) From time to time we hear Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood calling for the boycott of American goods; what is your view of this?

A) I think that’s a much better approach than violence. Demonstrating is a very democratic response, and I may not agree with them but I certainly don’t argue with their methods.

Q) When will your books be translated into Arabic?

A) It’s supposed to be in the process of being translated. There is a publishing house in Cairo called Kalimat Arabiyah and they were supposed to have had ‘The Looming Tower’ out in Arabic last year, they’ve been a little mysterious about why it hasn’t appeared. This is the only book that I’ve arranged to have translated into Arabic.

I’m very eager to know what they say because this means a lot to me.

Q) You have lived and taught in Saudi Arabia. What’s your impression of the young Saudi generation, especially young journalists?

A) I worked at the Saudi Gazette newspaper in Jeddah for three months mentoring young journalists and I absolutely loved them. They were such wonderful young people. It’s discouraging to think of how slowly things change.

Q) What were the young journalists like?

A) It was hard for them because I was teaching them things that they really couldn’t use in many cases. Like how to investigate stories, but oftentimes they weren’t allowed to print it because it crossed some boundaries that I was too naïve to understand.

Q) You are now a famous journalist, if you were to do it all again, would you have chosen journalism or some other field?

A) I would never want to be anything other than a writer. I love my job and I’m working on a screenplay right now for Ridley Scott (about the end of civilization) and I’m also working on a play for the theatre.

Q) Did you start as a journalist or as a scriptwriter?

A) I started as a journalist and the first movie I had made was ‘The Siege’ in 1998.

Q) Do you have any particular memories from making this film?

A) It was unfortunate because it was widely protested at the time as it was thought that it defamed Muslims because it portrayed the Arab as a terrorist. Even before the film came out there was a bombing in Cape Town in South Africa in which two people were killed and a little girl lost her leg and the bombers came from a radical Islamist group who said they were protesting against Bruce Willis who was in the movie and is one of the owners of the Hard Rock Café – so that was very upsetting.

Q) Everybody knows that you have strong interest in the Middle East; were you interested in this region prior to 9/11?

A) I lived in Egypt in 1969. I was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, so I refused to serve in the military. This meant that I had to serve another job for my country for those two years. I found a job teaching English at the American University of Cairo (AUC) so that’s how I became interested in the Middle East. I loved my time in Egypt. I lived in Zamalek for two years and had all of these adorable young students and it was a great time to be there even though there were no political relations between Egypt and the US.

Q) Did they treat you well?

A) Wonderfully. It was a great time and I’ve developed a deep feeling of affection for the Egyptian people.

Q) How long did it take you to write the famous article ‘The Man Behind Bin Laden’?

A) I was in Egypt for three months researching it and then it took another few months…so it was around five months.

Q) How many people did you interview?

A) I’ve never counted for that article, but for the book I counted that I carried out more than 600 interviews.

Q) How long did the book take to complete?

A) Nearly five years from start to finish.

Q) What’s your view on Arab satellite channels such as Al Arabiya and Aljazeera. Do you think they are advancing?

A) They’re invaluable in terms of spreading information. For instance in Saudi Arabia the press was still restricted but when Aljazeera started broadcasting, suddenly Saudi was getting news that it didn’t have on its own channels or in its newspapers. That caused a huge revolution in the Saudi press. If it wasn’t for the news channels, the news flow in many Muslim countries would be worse than it is but that doesn’t mean that I agree with all of the things that Aljazeera broadcast.

Q) What is the most difficult situation that you have found yourself in during your career?

A) I’ve had moments where I’ve felt uncomfortable and scared, but I’ve never felt threatened, even when I was in the presence of people who violently disagreed with my opinion. I’ve always felt that the mystery of journalism is that people really want to have their story told otherwise they would never talk to a journalist.

Q) Has the FBI ever questioned you about the information you receive?

Q) Yes. The FBI came to my house asking about some calls that had been made from my house to a number in London and they wanted to know who it was. It was to Gareth Pierce, the solicitor, and they also thought it was my daughter who was making the calls. I was asking them how do you know about the calls and how do you know my daughter’s name, but they wouldn’t answer any of these questions. My assumption is that they were tapping my telephone, and somehow my daughter’s name got mixed up in it and they thought she was talking to someone in London about Al Qaeda. Not only am I concerned that they might be listening to my calls I am also concerned that they don’t understand what they are listening to.