TOPICS > Nation

Roots of Terror

September 13, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, more on the terrorist organization of Osama bin Laden that is the main suspect in the New York and Washington attacks. We start with some background from Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: Osama bin Laden is a 43-year-old Saudi dissident living in exile. He has been accused of masterminding acts of terrorism around the world that wounded more than 1,400 people and killed hundreds, including 59 Americans.

Bin Laden is said to have used a personal inheritance of more than $300 million to help finance the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen last year. The 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, for which U.S prosecutors won a federal indictment of bin Laden, and several other attacks. U.S. officials say the Taliban militia in control of Afghanistan has provided bin Laden safe haven there.

But earlier this week, the Afghan foreign minister denied that either the Taliban or bin Laden is connected with the attacks in the United States. Meanwhile, investigators continue to search for clues at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center site. The FBI said today it has received some 2,000 telephone tips, some of which have been useful to the investigation.

The Justice Department says there probably were 18 hijackers, at least four on each of the jetliners that crashed Tuesday. At a midday press conference, Attorney General John Ashcroft said several hijackers likely were trained in this country to fly and had accomplices on the ground here.

JOHN ASHCROFT: It is our belief that the evidence indicates that flight training was received in the United States and that their capacity to operate the aircraft was substantial. It’s very clear that these orchestrated, coordinated assaults on our country were well conducted and conducted in a technically proficient way.

KWAME HOLMAN: With suspicion for the attack centered on the Saudi bin Laden, Aschroft condemned reports from several U.S. cities of violence against Arab-Americans and others of Middle Eastern descent.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on Osama bin Laden and his organization we turn to three experts. Daniel Benjamin served on the National Security Council on the Clinton administration. He’s now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and he’s writing a book on the rise of religious terrorism.

Rashid Khalidi is a professor of Middle East history at the University of Chicago. And Milton Bearden is a retired CIA officer. He was stationed in Pakistan in the mid-1980s, and helped run the CIA’s covert operation to arm the Afghan resistance against the Soviets. Welcome, gentlemen.

Daniel Benjamin, beginning with you, let’s pick up where Jim and Secretary Powell left off, what motivates Osama bin Laden and his organization to commit acts of violence against the United States?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Osama bin Laden and his followers have a distinctly different view of the universe than we do. They view the United States as being a hostile force, a force of evil in the universe, one that is committing the blasphemy of having intruded into the traditional realm of Islam and that must be repelled and must be defeated. In that sense they are acting both in the here and now and they believe that their violence is divinely mandated.

And so they’re also acting on a metaphysical plane — if you will – and for them, this is all there is – this is the great struggle to reestablish a caliphate — a Muslim super state like there was in the 7th century.

MARGARET WARNER: And they see the United States as standing in the way of that?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: They very much do. They view the United States as being an evil presence in the universe. It is… It has its troops stationed in the holy land of the two mosques and that is considered intolerable to them.

MARGARET WARNER: Speaking of Saudi Arabia?

Osama bin Laden and his followers have a distinctly different view of the universe than we do. They view the United States as being a hostile force, a force of evil in the universe, one that is committing the blasphemy of having intruded into the traditional realm of Islam and that must be repelled and must be defeated.Daniel Benjamin, Center for Strategic and International Studies


MARGARET WARNER: Rashid Khalidi, what you would add to that in terms of the motivation here?

RASHID KHALIDI: I think I would add that groups like this developed this perverse misinterpretation of Islam in the cauldron of the Afghan war. They fought and helped to defeat a superpower. They went through the valley of death; they fought a very ruthless foe. And they developed a worldview, which combines elements that have been there before, but which is, in essence, entirely new, and is entirely alien to what most Muslims believe.

It’s a perversion in terms of a variety of things. And as a result we’re talking about a very peculiar strain of Islam and in fact, unrecognizable strain of this religion to most of the billion and a quarter Muslims.

It is very deeply rooted in the specifics of that conflict in Afghanistan, as are in some respects the forms of organization, the trade craft that was then learned, and many other things come out of the Afghan experience, the bringing together for example, of people from Algeria, Pakistan, other parts of the Arab world, Afghanistan.

They’re fighting together in the same trench. They’re coming to have the same worldview. It was entirely a function at the outset of the Afghan war — things that developed in the ensuing years and they have many targets — the United States I think is obviously the most important of them but many, many governments in the Islamic world are also seen by them as ungodly in positions on the Muslims.

They are, therefore, a group that holds beliefs that most Muslims abhor; killing innocent people, for example, is something for these ruthless men who watched the Soviet army butcher people and in turn engaged in ruthless warfare is not important. Sacrificing themselves is something that after seeing their comrades die in battle they clearly don’t think is important. So this is a very peculiar group of people who came out of a very peculiar situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Bearden, you, of course, were on the front lines of that Afghan war. Does this jibe with your view?

MILTON BEARDEN: I think we can overdraw the experience of the Afghan Arabs as opposed to the Afghan people themselves. That war was fought and essentially won by the Afghan people who lost a million dead, a million and a half maimed and maybe 5, 6, 7 million driven in to external exile. We can overdraw the role of the Afghan Arabs played in that war. I think it has been….

MARGARET WARNER: When you say Afghan Arabs, you mean people from other countries who were recruited by the CIA -


MARGARET WARNER: Or, do you mean indigenous Afghans?

MILTON BEARDEN: No. I mean Arabs that came to Afghanistan, that came to Pakistan to take part in the Jihad. The CIA actually avoided the issue of recruiting Arabs for this war, although many people will claim that that’s a fact. That never happened – just simply didn’t happen. The truth is, is that the Arabs that came to take part in this were more engaged in fund-raising activities, Osama bin Laden for example, building homes for orphans and widows of martyrs of the war.

The truth is that there was a very marginal role by non-Afghans in that war. They fought it; they didn’t need any help to fight it except what we were providing them. So I think we have to try to redefine this just a little bit. I have no doubts that these people were affected by that, these Afghan Arabs, the people who came from the Arab world. But I would take issue with what some of the assessments I hear of the role they played in it.

MARGARET WARNER: Dan Benjamin, I’m sure you’ll want to pick up on that but also move in on our brief time to whether you think Osama bin Laden and his organization, this Al-Qaida network, have the wherewithal to pull off this kind of sophisticated operation and if so where that comes from, the money, where they operate, how they communicate — all of that –

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, it’s a big question. I do believe that they have the wherewithal. They may have had assistance from other states. But they have a network with cells in over 50 countries. They have been present in one way or another in the U.S. since the 80’s — or at least people who became members of Al-Qaida or its constituent groups.

They show enormous technical sophistication and very impressive trade craft and of course an extraordinary ruthlessness; they can draw on considerable resources because although Rashid Khalidi is completely correct in saying that this is a perverse and very alien strand of Islam, the sad fact is that while a billion Muslims do view this brand of Islam as anathema, there is a minority that still numbers in the millions stretched really from Northwest Africa and Algeria and Mauritania, as far as the Philippines which is attracted to bin Laden.

That minority include many poor people who feel disenfranchised and have no political voice and feel frustrated and overborne by the West and also revolted by American culture, which they view as a dominant culture.

And they are contributing money and it includes the poor and also includes rich sheikhs in the Persian Gulf region. So there is an appeal here that is profoundly dangerous. And in the battle ahead that Secretary Powell and the President have described, it’s going to be absolutely imperative that we have both a short-term and a long- term strategy, because radical Islam cannot be defeated militarily over the long run.

This is a project that will require enormous diligence, diplomatic resources, more money for foreign engagement of many kinds, extraordinary innovations in the realm of intelligence. It’s going to be a challenge not for one or two years but for a generation.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Khalidi, do you agree with that assessment that he can draw from all kinds of resources throughout the Muslim world even if it is just a radical fringe?

RASHID KHALIDI: I think one of the great challenges for the United States in the coming era is going to be separating out this tiny minority of people and their potential supporters, from the great majority of people in the Muslim world who find these ideas abhorrent. We’ll have to watch very carefully to ensure our government doesn’t act in a way that in effect gives these fanatics additional foot soldiers, gives them additional support.

They do have some support. Mr. Benjamin is right. But the crucial element in a war is to limit your number of enemies, to isolate them, and there are things that this country can do, which probably can help in that process: Narrowing down the number of people who would conceivably support them, decreasing their resources; isolating them from the countries in which they operate, some of the which they are already being pursued in, and some of which because they are weak states.

There is no government to chase them. There are also, however, things that our government is capable of doing and policies we can follow which will alienate people throughout the Muslim world and increase that tiny fringe – multiply the numbers of people who might sympathize with them.

There are many American policies which people in the Islamic world disagree with; these people would never dream of harming Americans or carrying out terrorism. What we want to avoid doing is pushing people who have legitimate differences with American policy over the line to where they might conceivably support people who carry out these murderous, malevolent, horrible acts.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Bearden, we only have a minute or so left but pick up, would you please, on the professor’s point.

MILTON BEARDEN: I think the professor is right. The key point here is that there a coalition building and it is not just Paris, London, and Berlin. We are talking about denying these people safe havens. That means you’re going to have to deal with Cairo, Khartoum, Damascus, maybe think about dealing with Tripoli, you certainly deal with Pakistan. Pakistan has delivered more terrorists to the United States than any other country. And you’ll get behind the scenes on back channel and talk to the Taliban. They’re talking today. They understand what’s going on. They see the resolve.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think some of the states that are supporting them can be peeled off?

MILTON BEARDEN: Of course they can. What happened in 1989 and 1991 was that the world changed, the Soviet Union went – the Warsaw Pact — Carlos had to leave Budapest; they ended up in Khartoum or in Afghanistan. We can peel these countries off and leave almost no place for them to go but it takes building coalitions and it takes time.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. Thank you all three very much.