Fighting for Bin Laden

Interview Steve Coll

Steve Coll

Author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invastion to Sept. 10, 2001 (2004) and The Bin Ladens (2008), Coll is also a staff writer at The New Yorker and president of the New America Foundation. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on May 2, 2011, the day after bin Laden was killed by U.S. Special Forces.

In the wake of the killing of bin Laden, what happens to a group like the [group featured in Fighting for Bin Laden]?

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There are a few hundred Al Qaeda-affiliated operatives in Afghanistan and along the Pakistan/Afghan border, probably more on the Pakistan side than in Afghanistan. And they've always operated, to some extent, autonomously, but at the same time, in response to strategic direction from bin Laden.

“What Al Qaeda faces now is a succession struggle that it has never known in the 23 years of its history.”

What Al Qaeda faces now is a succession struggle that it has never known in the 23 years of its history. It's unusual as a terrorist organization in that it was founded in the summer of 1988 in Pakistan. It appointed an emir, Osama bin Laden, and a deputy emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri. And those two guys have had the same jobs ever since.

So now the organization will have to sort out its leadership and its communication strategy and its recruitment strategy for the first time since it was founded.

Are there surprises in this film that clue us into the state of Al Qaeda?

It's rare to see self-declared Al Qaeda fighters on the ground in Afghanistan anywhere in the last three or four years. There haven't been a lot of credible reports about such fighters. In the south of the country, the NATO commanders who have been fighting there have said publicly that they don't see any foreign fighters in their part of Afghanistan. In the north, there have been more scattered reports of units of the type we see in the film. And it's quite interesting to see them documented in this way.

They reflect some of the history of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups fighting in Afghanistan, particularly in the northern regions, which is to say multinational groups of Chechens and Uzbeks and others who come together almost as a kind of Special Forces team to enhance the capability of the Taliban against their opponents. In the old days, in the '90s, it was against the Northern Alliance. Now it's against NATO forces.

Are there lots of groups like this running around northern Afghanistan?

The best estimates from NATO are that you're talking about 100, 200 at the most. This film provides a rare actual portrait of such a group. Earlier this year, I heard NATO commanders estimate that there were no more than a few dozen groups of that type, and that they typically circulated on the battlefield in Afghanistan for a few months at a time, and then withdrew over to the Pakistani side.

Does it tell us anything about the strength of Al Qaeda today?

I think it shows you something of the character of Al Qaeda that suggests that Al Qaeda is persistent in what it has been -- that is, a multinational, highly motivated bastion of foreign fighters who are motivated by ideology rather than local grievances, and who are prepared and trained to strike directly at American targets. That's been Al Qaeda's profile along the Pakistan/Afghan border really going back to the 1990s. But to see it persistent after so much effort to root it out is certainly striking.

And how dependent are groups like this on the structures of Al Qaeda, if there are such?

Al Qaeda's a funny thing. It's an organization with governing committees and functional committees, such as a military committee and a finance committee. Insofar as we know, those formal organizational structures have remained intact, even as the organization has come under great pressure.

But it's always been more than just an organization. It's always been a network of like-minded groups, affiliated groups. Some of the groups have been tightly affiliated, almost like franchises -- Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would be an example of such a group. Others have been more aligned, closely aligned -- Al Shabab in Somalia would be an example of that. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and some of the Chechen groups have been more aligned than directly franchised.

And when you look at the fighters, as best we can see them in the film, what they suggest is a blending of individuals who may be formally sworn to allegiance as Al Qaeda members … and/or they may be ideologically aligned fighters who see themselves serving Osama bin Laden's cause, but retaining some of their own independence of action.

… Say they are sworn followers of Osama bin Laden. What happens to them in the wake of his death?

I think they'll carry on under their own banner. They may act more independently than they did before. I think it depends on the extent to which they were dependent upon Al Qaeda facilitators for funding and weaponry. It may be that they have independent access to the funds and guns that they need to operate for months at a time in the field. It may be that they have to go back to Al Qaeda central now and ask, "OK, now who's in charge?"

Presumably Ayman al-Zawahiri is in charge.

Presumably he is. I expect that he will declare soon that he is in charge. And there's really no reason to think that in the short run his succession won't occur as it's been preordained to occur. It ought not to be especially disruptive in the initial phase.

How effective can Zawahiri be as a leader of Al Qaeda? He doesn't have, so many people have said, the charisma of Osama bin Laden.

Yeah, I think he can keep the trains running for a while. But can he hold the organization together in the strategic ways that bin Laden did? As you say, bin Laden had a gift as a communicator. He was a charismatic figure. He had a spiritual aura. He had a gentle aspect.

A good narrative.

A good narrative. He was media-savvy. He understood how to speak to multiple audiences simultaneously. He was a skilled communicator.

Zawahiri's record is quite different. His record is one of alienating his colleagues, fighting over dogma, even within the Islamist movement. And as a communicator, he is less effective. His books are turgid and dogmatic.

Fairly recently he tried to conduct a sort of online chat with Al Qaeda sympathizers or interested citizens about the movement's violence and political aims. And it really did not go very well. All you have to do is read a transcript to see that he's not a natural communicator.

He wants to be able to convince his followers that his was the way?

He reacted in a way that you don't see in Osama's texts and communications. He was defensive. He was argumentative. He seemed kind of unappealing as a leader. He didn't ever say to a challenging question, "You know, that's a good question and I'd like to address your underlying concern." He just was defensive and sort of unpersuasive.

He always did seem like an edgy guy.

He suffered as a young man, fighting on the streets in Cairo, in a way that Osama bin Laden never did. He was jailed; he was tortured. He fought in a terrorist cell and made great personal sacrifices before he was forced into exile.

So in some sense, it's not surprising that he's always carried around a lot of determined anger and a sense of drive for revenge. Bin Laden never was arrested in a serious way, throughout his entire life. He floated through the narrative of his own heroism and his own sort of role as a global leader, and he came from a very modern setting and he had a gentle temperament. And all of those things became sources of his success and his charisma.

So what do you think it means for Al Qaeda that Zawahiri will take over?

I think right away probably not very much. But over the next five years, I think they've got some big roads to cross. First of all, Zawahiri himself may eventually be located. Secondly, Zawahiri has to define the movement successfully at a time when all of the opinion polling and other evidence suggests that Al Qaeda itself is in a state of declining popularity and has yet to persuade many Muslims that it has a political program that makes any sense to the great majority, even of devout Muslims.

So I think over time Zawahiri's record suggests he will struggle to establish the same kind of leadership that Osama has done. And then I think it's quite likely that there will be contenders for bin Laden's inheritance -- perhaps even before Zawahiri is ready to yield the field.

There are other charismatic personalities that have surfaced over the last five or 10 years. … And given that the organization is already decentralized to an extent through franchises such as the one in Yemen, it would not be surprising to see breakaway groups attempt to establish themselves as the rightful heirs of bin Laden's legacy.

What do you think bin Laden's last year or two have been like?

It seems to have been pretty comfortable. He's seemed to be living in a modern setting. And I always thought, reading his statements, that it was transparent that he had access to international media on a continuous basis. There was quite a lot about what he was saying that suggested someone who was watching satellite television, perhaps locked behind walls, and getting riled up by things he saw in the international media that he felt like he needed to reply to, sometimes talking back to President George W. Bush, and so forth, and aggravated about media coverage of one thing or another. He clearly was reading books. He had access to English-language media.

And another thing about him is that he's always been surrounded by family. He married at a young age. He had children at a young age.

His son was killed.

His son was killed. And it seemed reasonable to guess that one way or another he would have found a way to preserve a marriage or a married life, a family life. The initial briefings suggest that his youngest wife was with him. Taken as an indication of what we know about his marriages, that would seem to suggest that his Yemeni wife, a much younger woman who he married late, while he was in Afghanistan, might have found her way to Pakistan to be with him.

His older wives have been separated from him for so long that under Islamic tradition, he could easily have just divorced for reasons of involuntary separation. And perhaps he married someone while he was in exile.

But in any event, he had a family with him.

… What was he facing in terms of the strength of the movement he founded?

The high-water mark of his personal popularity -- the evidence about his recruitment of new volunteers, and so forth -- was probably the first year after the Sept. 11 attacks when, notwithstanding the shock of that event in the West, in the Muslim world, many fence-sitting Arabs and other Muslims, took some satisfaction that bin Laden had done what no dissident in their societies angry about American conduct and foreign policy had ever been able to do, which was to bring violence directly to American soil.

And so for a while, he seemed a charismatic pirate, a leader of a broadly distributed cause. That gradually yielded to the recognition, as Al Qaeda violence persisted, that the fact was that most of the victims of the campaign that bin Laden had conceived were other Muslims. And he seemed also not to have any political program that spoke to the aspirations of the Muslim societies that he purported to lead.

So gradually, as the violence increased, as his own radicalism seemed more and more isolated, opinion polls and other evidence suggested that he was in decline as a popular leader. That coincided with his organization being put under extraordinary pressure that they had never known before.

Before 9/11, if you were an Al Qaeda sympathizer or volunteer, crossing borders was relatively easy to do. Finding $10,000 or $20,000 or $40,000 to support you in some operation or another was not difficult to locate. Raising money was fairly easy. After Sept. 11, everything become much riskier. And that also reduced the number of people who were willing to take those risks in bin Laden's cause.

Were you surprised that he was taken down?

No. I thought that it was overdue. I thought that while it's always hard to find a fugitive who is skilled at covering their signals and their tracks, that the sheer numbers of people looking for him in the United States intelligence community, as well as the superior technology that the United States could bring to bear, would eventually lead to his capture. I thought that it was a little more likely a year or two ago. But I wasn't surprised.

Was there anything about the operation that surprised you? His location?

No. I sort of always imagined him in a big, walled compound. I hadn't quite visualized him being 1,000 yards from the Pakistan Military Academy, and the extent of proximity to the Pakistani state that --

What does that tell us?

It certainly presents circumstantial evidence that the Pakistani state had within it significant leaders, generals or others who knew that he was there. I think the circumstantial evidence suggests as much that he was under Pakistani state control as that he was hiding.

Can you imagine a scenario whereby, given that he was 100 yards or so from this military academy, that the Pakistanis were not aware of his presence there?

It strains credulity that you could build a million-dollar home with heavy fortifications, 12- to 15-foot walls, and house within it the world's most wanted man in a city like Abbottabad, which is essentially a military cantonment town, and not have anyone in the military know that he was there.

A military cantonment town is a place where most of the real estate is owned by the military.

A lot of the real estate is owned by the military. And also one of the features of a Pakistani military career is that when you retire, you're granted land as a reward, as a kind of pension. And you can build a house on that land, or you can sell it. And in those cantonment towns, even outside of the restricted military areas themselves, quite a lot of the land on which residential housing is built is owned by retired or serving military officers.

Do we know who owned this house?

We don't. And I think that's the first question I would ask if I were a federal prosecutor at the United States Department of Justice. Who owned this land? How was it sold? Who organized the construction? Who was the general contractor? Are there now witnesses available to say who visited the house, and so forth. … It would seem reasonable for American prosecutors to ask those questions.

Of Pakistan?

Of Pakistan, and of individuals, of the institutions of Pakistan.

Now, I think what we'll likely see is a divided attitude within the United States government. I would be surprised if prosecutors didn't pursue some of those questions, given that the circumstantial evidence begs these questions about who built this house and whose land was this and how did this --

Basically accusing Pakistan of harboring-

Well, individuals. We start with the evidence. What we know is that there was a very prominent house, in an unusual plot of land, next to a Pakistani institution, not an inconspicuous house, one that was much larger than any house around, that had certain kind of haunted-house-on-the-hill features about it. And so, you start with, well, then, where did this come from? Who owned this? How did it get built, and so forth. You start with that trail of evidence.

That's a Justice Department response to this. I think the rest of the United States government will be reluctant to challenge the Pakistani state over what I presume will be its defense, that it didn't know anything about this and that it was shocked, shocked to discover that Osama bin Laden was living near its West Point.

This is very much like having a major safe house, a walled compound right next to West Point and the Army not knowing what was going on.

That's correct. I think there was a presumption that even if he was hiding in a city, that he would have been hiding in a more sort of sprawling, uncontrolled urban area. I imagined him in some corner of Karachi, or in some high-rise, perhaps, or in one of the Punjabi industrial towns where whole sections of the city are relatively unsupervised by the state.

But to be in a cantonment town, close to the Pakistan Military Academy does beg these questions, I think.

So why would some elements of the government want to protect Pakistan from closer examination? Isn't it about time, some people will say, that the American State Department got a little tougher on Pakistan?

Certainly some people would make that argument, but the United States also has other interests in Pakistan that might trump Justice in a case like this.

Isn't this America's number one interest at this point, vis-à-vis Pakistan?

The United States is trying to exit Afghanistan without leaving behind a civil war or a second Taliban revolution. And to do that, they're going to require some level of cooperation from the Pakistani Army. It would be easier to exit successfully from Afghanistan if Pakistan were not in a state of open hostility against the project.

Pakistan's own internal stability is constantly a question. And given the size of its nuclear arsenal and the amount of fissile material lying around the country, anything that risks destabilizing the country is going to raise questions inside the U.S. government.

This has been the dilemma of U.S. policy towards Pakistan for a long time. Unfortunately, the generals have learned that they really are seen as too big to fail by the West. And so, they can take risks.

Pakistan is too big to fail?

Pakistan is too big to fail, and so they can take risks that another weak government might never take, because they believe that between their nuclear deterrent and the sort of systemic risks they pose to the rest of the world, that they'll never be fully confronted over behavior that another weak state might be overthrown for.

What does this mean for the Taliban?

Mullah Omar is presumably living in Pakistan as well. And if there is anyone in the Taliban/Al Qaeda nexus who is most likely to be under Pakistani state control, it's actually Mullah Omar.

And that's the leader of the Taliban?

That's the leader of the Taliban. So if I were Mullah Omar, I would take note of this news and maybe be a little bit concerned about whether I should be shifting my residence. But I also would be concerned that the Pakistani state, if they had been providing protection for me previously, might now calculate that the uncomfortable proximity of bin Laden's refuge to a Pakistani military cantonment might lead them to cut me loose. …

This opens a window on the operation of U.S. Special Forces inside, deep inside Pakistan. What can you tell us about what's been going on and how freely American Special Forces do operate there, inside Pakistan?

For years now, the United States has operated bases along the Pakistan border, on the Afghan side of the border, that are essentially joint task forces made up of intelligence, paramilitaries and special operations forces from U.S. Special Operations Command, so the principal Special Forces of the United States military.

And those task forces and units have been looking for actionable intelligence about a certain category of Al Qaeda and Taliban leader. I think they have a formal and legal designation in the American system. They're commonly referred to high-value targets.

That if they could get intelligence on a high-value target, they can go across the border and operate?

Yes. That there is distributed authority that is distinct as to the list of a few dozen who are on the high-value target list at any one time.

Now, any commander with the authority to act will evaluate each case and decide whether the intelligence is solid enough to take the risk, and so forth. And to raise Pakistani sovereign territory with a helicopter unit would almost certainly require presidential check-off.

But in principle, these forces are deployed to carry out exactly the kind of attack that they carried out, a unilateral, no-permission-asked, ground forces attack against a high-value target. So not your average mid-level Taliban commander, but somebody on this list of 30 or 40.

And particularly, somebody at the top of the list -- bin Laden, Zawahiri, Mullah Omar -- those would be the cases where the United States would be most likely to bear the reputational and backlash problems that it might create in Pakistan.

Very interesting -- if you look at the Pakistani government's statement today in response, essentially, their statement did not challenge the right of the United States to carry out this raid. It simply acknowledged accurately that the United States had long declared that it would act unilaterally if it had actionable intelligence about Osama bin Laden.

And so, the Pakistani government essentially took note of the fact that the United States did what it had long said it would do in a case like this.

The president was very careful in his speech to say that they had cooperation from the Pakistani government. Do you think it's possible that this operation needed any kind of cooperation from the Pakistani side?

Obviously we don't know everything about what is the back story of this operation.

Could they do this operation without Pakistani --

Absolutely. I think it's mostly likely that the did not have any operational cooperation from the Pakistani government.

So you can fly helicopters inside Pakistan without a problem?

I think the United States has the technology, training and equipment to carry out a raid of this type, not risk-free, but to be satisfied that the risks were acceptable given the potential rewards, yes, absolutely.

How do you do that?

You suppress the other side's ability to see you. You fly in machines that are not easy to detect. You move swiftly in at night. And you just basically go do it. That's kind of the creed of Special Forces raids in general. These are fast operations, and you don't expect the other side is waiting for you.

Even though you're landing 100 yards from their West Point.

Yeah, but it's dark and West Point doesn't generally station air defense sentries around the academy. They've never had an event like this in their history so there would be no reason to interpret it correctly.

… What happens now?

I think it's probably most significant for President Obama's running room on Afghan policy because part of the rationale for the surge in troops that he dispatched was that Afghanistan's stability was necessary in order to complete the job. He ran for president saying he was going to finish the job against Al Qaeda, and a lot of his risk-taking in the Afghan war has been --

In his surge.

In this surge has been rationalized around the Al Qaeda story. So having decapitated Al Qaeda, even though Zawahiri is still there, even though Al Qaeda still exists to some extent, he has closed off some of the narrative of international justice and the international global potency of Al Qaeda that began on Sept. 11. And I think it does allow him to say to the American people about an unpopular war: "We did what we came here to do. We brought this guy back in a box. And now we're going to manage our way. We're not going to surrender to Al Qaeda or allow them to threaten our shores, but we are going to reduce our footprint in the region." I think it gives him political space that he didn't have the day before yesterday.

It gives his policy credibility.

It does. And that gives him flexibility to draw down the number of troops in Afghanistan if he believes that he can do so without leaving some kind of chaos behind.

I think on the terrorism side, over the last few years, there's been a pretty steady drip, drip of a certain amount of Al Qaeda operational tempo that's not likely to change as a result of Osama bin Laden's death. It is neither an existential threat, nor inconsequential. Just the week before last in Germany, they busted up a cell where there was some, according to the German police, Moroccan operative who had been trained by Al Qaeda along the Afghan/Pakistan border in explosive techniques and had the capability to deliver at least a car bomb-sized event in the Dusseldorf area.

There are homegrown radicals emerging in the United States who weren't emerging before. There's been a series of franchise attacks, such as the Christmas Day bombing attempt the Christmas before last.

So I think the open source of evidence gives you a pretty good picture of what Al Qaeda's tempo and capabilities looks like today. So it's not inconsequential and it's not World War II. …

Does Al Qaeda itself draw urgency from the death of their leader and strike back in force? Would you expect that?

There may be individuals who wouldn't otherwise have acted who will be motivated by some self-styled vengeance fantasy, some opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Otherwise, I think Al Qaeda's capability is pretty well distributed. We know roughly what it is. Perhaps some attacks that were incubating will be speeded up so that they can be statements of revenge.

But there's unlikely to be some street-driven mass uprising that creates substantial new turmoil or capability. Al Qaeda's not popular in that way. It's not going to bring people into the streets the way the Arab Spring has done across the Maghreb. …

Why bury him at sea so quickly?

There'd been a long time for the United States government to consider the various dilemmas of Osama bin Laden's prospective martyrdom, a longer time than I think they would have liked to have wrestled over that problem. And so, there were a number of questions.

If you capture him but don't kill him, what do you do? Do you try him? Do you only make your situation worse if you do that? And then, if you do kill him because he resists, and you have then the preferred option, which would be not to take him alive, then how do you avoid a physical shrine and some way for followers or successors to honor his memory?

And I think they clearly worked through the sequence that they announced last night very well in advance. And one interesting element of it was the pretense of having asked the Saudis if they would like his remains returned to Saudi Arabia where he was born, and where he had been a citizen until the Saudis pulled his citizenship.

Osama bin Laden is actually not technically a citizen of any country on earth, other than perhaps some informal grant by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan run by the Taliban.

But he came from Saudi Arabia.

He came from Saudi Arabia, so it would be quite reasonable, I think, in the eyes of Arab and Saudi publics for the United States to make at least a notional offer to return his remains to his family and then have the government refuse that offer, and leaving the United States with no apparent choice but to bury him at sea.

Did they do that? Did they ask the Saudis?

According to the statements that have been put out, yes. The statement that was made was that they asked the Saudis to accept his remains. They refused. And so therefore, he was buried at sea.

So they worked this out in advance. So they had a cheat sheet for what they were going to do if they had the body of Osama bin Laden.

I think it's apparent that they've studied this carefully and came to this conclusion well in advance, yeah.

What are the assets of Al Qaeda worldwide? This movement has been in decline for some time. What are their strengths at this point in time?

If you ask that question from an American perspective, what you're interested in is where did they have assets that could create violence on American soil, or take the lives of large numbers of Americans traveling abroad, for example. And that's a different question than where does Al Qaeda have strength at all, because in places like Somalia, affiliated groups like Al Shabab are obviously important forces in a regional civil conflict. But that civil conflict is largely irrelevant to the security of Americans. At least so far.

This gang of guys on motorcycles in northern Afghanistan is not --

They don't look like a global threat to me at all. So if you ask where are the global threats in Al Qaeda, the organization, in the franchises and in affiliated groups, I think there are three principal answers.

The group along the Pakistan/Afghan border that is training visitors who go back to Europe or the United States in explosives techniques clearly remains dangerous. They have contact with motivated volunteers every six months or 12 months, it seems. And these plots keep surfacing. So that is one capacity that's of obvious concern.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula demonstrated with the Christmas Day bombing that they have both the capability and the intent to carry out attacks against Americans in the United States. They then followed that up with the attempt to ship these printers through Federal Express, and so forth. So they're another dangerous element of the Al Qaeda network from an American perspective.

And then finally, I would say of the affiliated groups, the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba, though it has not --

Which was responsible for the Mumbai --

Which was responsible for the Mumbai attack, presents a danger just because it's a very able organization -- big, talented, motivated. And while it may not have an interest in turning up in New York, per se, even another Mumbai is dangerous because of the instability between India and Pakistan. And so, I would say they have certainly the potential to create risks to Americans elsewhere.

The death of Osama bin Laden, what does that mean for the Taliban?

I think it creates questions for the Taliban about the security of their own leaders in Pakistan, first of all. It certainly gives the United States a sense of momentum and motivation that might carry it through a few months of ... an Afghan war where the psychology of the war has gone back and forth and has often favored the Taliban. So now there'll be a dose of resilience, I think, on the American side for a month or so.

It raises questions more broadly about whether the Taliban can find some space to accommodate an American withdrawal, gradual withdrawal or drawdown from Afghanistan without persisting in the pursuit of a kind of revolution again, or the reestablishment of their Islamic emirate.

The United States is determined to attempt negotiations with the Taliban this year. They have now eliminated one of the problems in those negotiations, which was asking the Taliban to denounce Osama bin Laden. Well, this is now moot.

And easier to do.

And easier to do in a post-bin Laden world.

And it's not so hard to denounce Zawahiri.

Perhaps not. And ultimately, the Taliban have to decide what their strategy is and how negotiations fit in that strategy. But it's, for Mullah Omar, his experience over the dilemma of denouncing or breaking from Al Qaeda was always a highly personal one. He had a personal relationship with Osama bin Laden. It had its ups and downs, but bin Laden constructed a house for him in Kandahar. He provided money to Mullah Omar back in the day when Mullah Omar had few friends. He provided shock troops for Mullah Omar's war. And he was the leader, not Zawahiri, bin Laden. That was where the relationship was located.

So perhaps bin Laden's passing will affect Mullah Omar by making him angry. Perhaps it will create a different context in which he, or at least some of his colleagues can consider the alternative of participating in a more normal political settlement to come back home.

And how long before Zawahiri issues a new audio or video tape?

I'm sure his instinct is to issue a statement as fast as possible. But his instinct will also be tempered by the security risks that every media communication creates for its issuer. So given that the Americans seem to have been better sourced in Pakistan than some people believed, he might want to wait a little while to make sure that he's got a secure environment around him and a means to get a message out without being traced.

Time to do a little review --

I would have a meeting, yeah. [Laughter] Who's house is this again?

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Posted May 3, 2011

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