The Hunt for Bin Laden
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on the bin Laden tape and the state of his al-Qaida network we turn to: Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College and author of a recent book on America and political Islam.
Phyllis Oakley, a former assistant Secretary of State who served as Afghan desk officer in the 1980s. She’s an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Larry Johnson, a former CIA Officer, and deputy director of the State Department’s Counter Terrorism Office in the first Bush administration.
And Judith Miller, a correspondent for the New York Times who has covered the Middle East and written extensively on terrorism and bin Laden. Her new book is about bioterrorism.
Welcome all. And Judith Miller, beginning with you, you’ve been covering bin Laden for many, many years. What strikes you… What, if anything, strikes you as significant or revealing about this tape?
JUDITH MILLER: Well, what’s extraordinary to me is the difference between this tape that we’ve just seen and the last tape we saw. Gone is the kind of jocular spirit, gone are the boys, the men around him who were slavishly adoring him. He is gaunt, he is gray, and he is alone. And he is obviously very depressed.
MARGARET WARNER: But he was alone on other tapes, was he not, that he prepared… Well, not entirely for public consumption.
JUDITH MILLER: You usually see him at one point or another surrounded by people. This tape was also very crudely made, even more so than the last one. The message is the same, but the desperation in his voice is truly haunting, not to mention how thin he has become, how gray he has become.
I think what is most striking to me was the repeated call for continued Holy War against the economy of the United States, the repeated reference to the horrendous strikes against us as “blessed” and “holy,” and finally, the fact that he still expects the Muslim Umah or community to rise up when, if anything, what we’ve seen is that Muslims all over the world seem to be supporting the American campaign. Look at the pictures of Kabul, the joy in the streets, as people get rid of the Taliban and get rid of him.
MARGARET WARNER: Fawaz Gerges, how do you read this tape? He obviously meant it for public consumption. It was released. This was not a videotape found and somehow… Found by U.S. intelligence. How does it strike you?
FAWAZ GERGES: Well, I think, to my mind, the timing of the release of the tape is highly critical. This tape comes two weeks after the U.S. government released the so-called incriminating tape in which Osama bin Laden incriminates himself. This tape comes amid great speculation about the fate of Osama bin Laden, whether he’s dead or alive.
So in this particular sense, I think his lieutenants wanted to send a particular message that he wants to respond to Washington’s accusation and tell the Arab and Muslim community that he is well, alive and in control.
But let me make another highly critical point here. Regardless of whether Osama bin Laden is dead or alive, I think the release of this tape highlights a major point we should not really lose sight of — that is, despite all the damage inflicted on the al-Qaida organization, despite the devastating U.S. military campaign, obviously, the al-Qaida organization still operating and still functioning. And this fact shows that the war on terrorism is a highly complex and difficult thing and will be a difficult one.
It also, by the way, raises doubts about the extent of damage we have done to the foundation and the infrastructure of al-Qaida organization.
MARGARET WARNER: Larry Johnson, your reaction to the tape — But I’d particularly like to ask you, you know, the U.S. Government has been very concerned about dissemination of publishing or broadcasting of these tapes — and of course al-Jazeera is broadcasting it throughout the Arab world — because they were afraid there would be hidden signals or messages. Is there a danger, a possibility that here this is meant to be some sort of signal to his followers?
LARRY JOHNSON: If it’s a signal, they’re deaf, dumb and blind in sending the signals. That’s how I look at it. This is not what you’d call an inspiring picture of a leader that you’d want to put out front. I don’t see that as a real risk. I would disagree that somehow this demonstrates that al-Qaida’s got some real push left to it.
What they’ve shown is they can produce a videotape and not do a very good videotape. If anything, bin Laden is looking forward to a career as a spokes model for a health club, that’s not going to happen. I think what we’re seeing is that this group fortunately, is being taken apart financially, it’s being taken apart in terms of its leadership, it’s being taken apart as a military organization.
And thank God they have not conducted attacks since the 11th. I have trouble with those who say, “Well, they’re going to come get us.” What are they waiting for? They don’t need anything else.
MARGARET WARNER: Before we go to the network, though, let’s stick a little bit more with the tape and bin Laden. And Phyllis Oakley, first of all feel free to comment on the tape. But also, let’s move on to these conflicting speculations about where he might be. Where, still, if he is alive, are there people and supporters enough to help protect him?
PHYLLIS OAKLEY: Well, let me just say two or three very quick things about the tape, too. I thought he looked awful. If you didn’t know who he was, it was pitiful. Also, for me, he’s lost his aggressive edge. This was very defensive. I understand from people who listened to all of this, this afternoon in Arabic that there was a great concentration on blaming the United States for the Palestinian-Israeli problem. He also talks about all the brothers from Saudi Arabia who were part of this.
MARGARET WARNER: The hijackers?
PHYLLIS OAKLEY: Yes, and is more specific about this than ever before. He also talks about this disparity and how much explosive was used in Nairobi and how much the Americans are using.
But I didn’t get what Judith did about this aggressive tone in going after. I thought he was quite defensive and it was very different from earlier things.
Now, on where he might be, I think we all noticed that in this tape, there was burlap behind him. People had gone to geologists in some of those earlier films to see if they could recognize the rock. He was alone, the left arm was down…
MARGARET WARNER: Never moved his left arm.
PHYLLIS OAKLEY: He never moved. And it really is impossible to date exactly when this took place. I think it’s understandable, when you know the geography of eastern Afghanistan and the tribal areas, to think that we’ve missed him. He could have gone incognito, given up his guard, still be some place.
But the fact is this is a diminished man and a diminished organization. And I would agree with the Secretary of Defense, we’re going to get him some time. Now, he’s been held, but I think the… Or helped by the Pashtuns. I think the dynamic on that is changing, a is well.
MARGARET WARNER: And you’re talking about Pashtuns both in Afghanistan and in part of Pakistan.
PHYLLIS OAKLEY: That’s correct. Because there are about an equal number that straddle the border. They have such a code of supporting him – of hospitality of sanctuary. But the Taliban’s on the run, and money’s got to be a factor now.
MARGARET WARNER: Your view, Larry Johnson, on… I mean Pakistan says it’s got all… And it does have all these troops searching this area and the government obviously wants to find him. But are there some in the government forces who might feel otherwise?
LARRY JOHNSON: I’m sure there are some in ISI, the intelligence service, who would try to protect him. But we’ve given them $25 million reasons to give him up. And we do have the experience with Miramal Kanzi, the fellow who killed CIA employees outside headquarters here in northern Virginia, his own family tried out in that area gave him up for $2 million. 25 million’s going to buy a lot more cooperation. We need to be patient. I don’t see this as a half hour sitcom that we’ve got to come to a conclusion.
MARGARET WARNER: Judith Miller, first of all your thoughts on where he might be protected. But also let’s move on to the network because we’re running out of time. Whether he’s dead or alive and on the run, can his worldwide network function without him or with him in this condition?
JUDITH MILLER: I think he is very important, and his aides were very important to this network. But, that being said, the al-Qaida network was decentralized. Missions, attacks were planned both from the top down and the bottom up. There still undoubtedly are militants out there who are eager to try and pick up the cudgel and work against the United States and against the West.
But without his money without his central planning, without his central commanding, it’s going to be much harder to do the kind of grand terrorism that he dreamed of and that he was capable of.
And therefore, I think that tape that we have just seen is really a good indication that the American policy so far is really having some success.
MARGARET WARNER: That’s really the question, isn’t it, Fawaz Gerges, whether this network can operate or whether these cells can operate without the technical expertise, the sort of vision and the money that was provided by bin Laden and those around him.
FAWAZ GERGES: Indeed. Al-Qaida’s effectiveness lies in its centralized decision-making process and its ability to recruit and plant sleeping cells all over the world, in particular in the Middle East and Europe and some even say the United States. What Osama bin Laden did was to provide the organizational umbrella and finance resources, which enabled so many desperate groups to wage a deadly campaign of terror against the United States and other countries in the world.
And the question is… Or the questions are: Will these desperate groups be able to regroup and function without the existence of bin Laden and the al-Qaida infrastructure? Will the sleeping cells be able to function without the existence of a decisive leadership?
And what will be the character of the new leadership that will succeed Osama bin Laden? The consensus among Islamic experts in the region that the disappearance of Osama bin Laden while it will handicap, temporarily handicap I think the intensity of terrorism, it will not end terrorist activities against the United States and its pro western allies.
MARGARET WARNER: That’s what Donald Rumsfeld says, isn’t it Phyllis Oakley?
PHYLLIS OAKLEY: Yes, and I think we’ve forgotten a little bit about the root causes. We were talking more about that sometime ago. Given the success that our military has had, I think that we’ve neglected to go back to some of these root causes that we originally had talked about: The hopelessness, the anger, the lack of opportunity, the poverty the overpopulation.
And we’ve got to get back at looking at those basic issues because certainly another leader could arise, and what we have to focus on, as well as the immediate problem, is going to some of these fundamental issues and addressing the fundamental things that give rise to terrorism in the world.
LARRY JOHNSON: I have a slightly different take than ambassador Oakley. It’s not just leadership; if you don’t have a launching pad from which you can conduct training, feed and house recruits, bring people through, it’s impossible to carry out these attacks.
MARGARET WARNER: What kind of base… The kind of base that Afghanistan – the safe haven Afghanistan provided?
LARRY JOHNSON: Right. And there’s only one other country in the world today that has more camps operating where terrorists groups, and that’s Lebanon. It’s not Iraq, it’s not Sudan, it’s not Somalia, it’s not Yemen. It’s Lebanon. And when you take out those camps, these people cannot train. And that has got to be a priority.
MARGARET WARNER: Judith Miller, final comment from you on that point.
JUDITH MILLER: Well, I agree with Larry Johnson. I think it’s made a tremendous difference to eliminate the sanctuary or, as the Clinton administration used to call it, to drain the swamp. And as for the Arab street and the root causes, I think I will have to quote Osama bin Laden himself, “People prefer a strong horse.” The United States is emerging as the strong horse.
LARRY JOHNSON: Well done.
MARGARET WARNER: Fawaz Gerges, do you have a final brief thought?
FAWAZ GERGES: What’s clearly been missing from the discussion here is the fact that the Muslim Umah, that is the worldwide Muslim community, did not buy Osama bin Laden’s goods. Muslims did not rush and join his holy brigades. In fact, Osama bin Laden’s political obituaries in the Arab press are getting angrier by the day. Arabs and Muslim commentators are coming to see Osama bin Laden as a wrecker and a reckless adventure remember who not only brought the temple on his head but even on the Arabs’ and Muslims’ heads, as well.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, thank you all four very much.