hunting bin laden
Larry C. Johnson

A former CIA officer, he was deputy director of the U.S. State Department Office of Counterterrorism, 1989-1993, and now heads the consulting firm Berg Associates. He explains why he believes the U.S. has often exaggerated the terrorist threat and analyzes the danger posed by Osama bin Laden.
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So, what are we to make of the embassy attack in Nairobi or the World Trade Center?

larry c. johnsonWhat we are to make is that terrorism remains a potential threat in the world. I don't think we're ever going to eliminate terrorism, and from that standpoint, we should not dismantle capabilities to combat international terrorism. ... We have good capabilities in the United States for combating international groups and domestic groups but the rhetoric is heated up to the level that you would think we are besieged at every turn, that every Muslim poses a threat to American citizens. ...

Most of the international terrorist attacks last year, as an example, took place in Colombia. When you go back and look over the last 10 years, the two regions of the world that have had most terrorist attacks have been Europe and Latin America, not the Middle East. Now, I think I understand why the Middle East gets tarred with this brush of being sort of the cradle of terrorism.

We've tended to make Osama bin Laden sort of a superman in Muslim garb...  We need to put it in perspective.  Yes, he does not like the United States.  If he had the wherewithal to kill Americans and attack US targets, he would do so, but he doesn't.  He is not in the position.  He's not an army. That's because Hamas, as an example, in 1997, was responsible for less than 1% of the terrorist attacks, but accounted for about 52% of the casualties that year. And because casualties play well on television, television leaves the impression that these groups are more active and more powerful than they really are. And so, when you see body counts being generated by radical Islamic groups, that ends up fueling this perception that radical Islamic groups are really behind most terrorism. That's not the case. ...

[When did Osama bin Laden emerge to the intelligence community as a major threat?]

... When Ramzi Yousef was captured [as a suspect in the World Trade Center bombing] in Pakistan in 1995, end of January, first of February, the more information started to come out about Osama bin Laden ... . There were lots of theories, not very good intelligence, and so the intelligence community actually started generating a picture that Osama bin Laden was this, if you will, sort of the Carlos the Jackal of the '90s. He was the new face of terrorism. But the complete picture of what he was up to didn't start coming out until really the last couple of years. Now, when the bombings happened in August, CNN called me, I went on camera and I said that morning the most likely suspect was Osama bin Laden. I wasn't engaging in Arab or Muslim bashing, I was more going from the approach that if someone goes out and threatens to kill another person and makes those threats twice in a six month period, you would naturally go talk to that person if the fellow threatened turns up dead. In this case, Osama bin Laden had issued two very public ... fatwahs against American citizens and against American installations. You have to take the man at his word. He's not just doing that to generate publicity. In the course of that, there was also [an] intelligence operation behind the scenes, where key personnel in his organization either turned themselves in or were captured, and in the course of that debriefing, a picture starts coming together and there's that "aha" moment that, "Oh, we do have a problem. We've actually got someone who doesn't like us and is wanting to kill us."

The danger I think that has happened is we've tended to make Osama bin Laden sort of a superman in Muslim garb. I mean, he's 10 feet tall, he is everywhere, he knows everything, he's got lots of money and he can't be challenged. Actually, Osama bin Laden, in my view, represents more of a symptom of a problem, and the problem is this: the Saudi Arabian government, not just Osama bin Laden but many people in Saudi Arabia, have been sending money to radical Islamic groups for years. ...

Isn't it a tradition in Saudi Arabia to pay off potential dangers to your own regime?

Oh, absolutely. They've made it into an art form and that's exactly what they've done. So, in this case, Osama bin Laden is not unusual in that regard. I think what's made him unusual is he's gotten fed up with the US presence in Saudi Arabia and I attribute it to the passion of an idealist and someone who's relatively young and when you're young and full of passion and you really believe what you say you believe, you're going to do some things which, to the rest of the world, may not appear terribly rational.

But back up for a second. He's fed up with US presence in Saudi Arabia. To most of us, we're in Saudi Arabia to defend them.

... Although the core of Islam is one of courtesy and politeness to others, the fact of the matter is that the United States culture and US society is viewed as the ... exact opposite of everything that Islam stands for, [particularly in] the version [of Islam] practiced by Osama bin Laden. And so, as a result, he wants to purge his society, to cleanse [it] of this influence of the infidels, and he sees the existing Saudi ruling family as allowing what would be considered the most sacred shrines of the Islamic world to basically be contaminated because the US is there with its western ways, with its use of alcohol, with its women who are running around not properly dressed and hidden and so, it ends up being a real culture clash and he's appealing to a fundamentalist view of taking society back to what it was.

But is he, from your estimation ... the guy we should really be after? At least that we should be publicizing in the way that we're publicizing?

When you look at who's killed Americans in the last 10 years, the individuals he's supported and backed--I'm basing that upon the initial information that's been released in the indictments and conversations with others in the intelligence communities--Osama bin Laden has been the one killing Americans. No other terrorist group in the world has been out killing Americans except for Osama bin Laden. Where Americans have been killed, they've been collateral damage. They haven't been the target, they've been in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's not like in the mid-80s when you had a variety of groups targeting Americans, attacking Americans at the Rome and Vienna airports and at a cafe outside the Italian embassy and blowing up Pan Am 103 and putting a bomb on a TWA--it was incident after incident after incident where Americans were clearly in the cross hairs of several different terrorist groups. Fortunately, we're in a situation now where those groups are largely inactive, they've stopped targeting Americans, and Osama bin Laden remains out there as the one really targeting us.

So, we recognize that he's the threat. He's serious about wanting to kill Americans, but as long as he's in Afghanistan, as long as he doesn't have access to a cell phone, as long as he can't just hop on a plane and travel wherever he wants without fear of being arrested, his ability to plan and conduct terrorist operations is extremely limited. We have to recognize [that] he would like to do a lot of damage. He would like to kill Americans, but wanting to is different from being able to, having the full capabilities in place.

But did he have more of a capability when he was in the Sudan?

To an extent. ... It was about '94-'95 period that the United States really started putting pressure on Sudan to get him out of there because he was then seen [as] a factor in things such as the World Trade Center bombing. Even then, with all of his hatred and the amount of money he has--I've heard everything from $30 million to $800 million, so pick your number--but even with all of that money, we do have clear evidence right now from two different cases, from the case of Ramzi Yousef and from the case of the individuals who blew up the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya [that his operatives did not have unlimited resources.] In both cases, those operatives, if you will, for Osama bin Laden, they were not lighting cigars with $100 bills. They weren't staying at the best hotels. They weren't eating at the best restaurants, they weren't driving around in Mercedes and they weren't passing out dollars like packets of candy to cops and buying their influence. They had limited resources. So, limited resources limits your ability to conduct operations. ...

... I find it very interesting that even though Osama bin Laden, who represents a very narrow majority of the Islamic world--I mean, his views are at the radical fringe--he's ... issued this fatwah, "kill Americans." He's sort of like almost a 21st century version of Lenin. Instead of calling for, "Workers of the world unite," it's "Muslims of the world unite." And they're not uniting. They're ignoring him. I would have more confidence in his ability to really represent the vision of Islam if in the aftermath of his public calls and his attack on US targets, you saw Muslim groups moving out and attacking US citizens ... attacking US targets ... American bodies piling up. That's not happening. You're not even having a good protest at a US embassy anywhere except maybe in Syria after we bomb Iraq. ...

So ... we need to put it back in perspective. Yes, he does not like Americans, he does not like the United States. If he had the wherewithal to kill Americans and attack US targets, he would do so, but he doesn't. He is not in the position, he's not an army. He doesn't have an arsenal of nuclear weapons, he doesn't have an arsenal of chemical/biological weapons. He doesn't have military forces in place ready to launch, because then he'd also need transportation to move them from point A to point B and once they get to point B, then he's gotta figure out how to get them back to point A. He doesn't like us. He would like to conduct operations. He'd like to make our life miserable, but thank God, he's been limited by his ability to do that, in part because his people are in jail, in part because he's holed up in Afghanistan and no other country out there is willing to open its arms to him and say, "Come sit down and work with us." ...

[Is it] ... fair to say what you're saying is that the president of the United States, his national security advisor, his deputy national security advisor for counter-terrorism, are basically blowing smoke [about the danger posed by bin Laden] and his followers]?

They're grossly exaggerating the problem. They are hyping it. They shouldn't be talking about rising terrorism. Instead of saying "terrorism's rising," it's not. "Terrorism is spreading," it's not. "More people are dying from terrorism," not the case. But what they should be saying is, "There's one individual out there that really doesn't like us, and he's made it his mission in life to kill Americans, and we've gotta deal with him." But we need to have a voice of reason in that process instead of putting ourselves out crying wolf, because this is essentially what's taking place right now. They call it the administration that cries wolf.

On the streets in Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, in Khartoum, it seems to us that all this publicity is making [bin Laden] into a folk hero.

I'm sure he's sort of becoming the Che Guevara of the Muslim world, an icon, a symbol of where you get to rebel against your parents and make a statement, but it hasn't translated yet into people actually being willing to take up arms and put their lives at risk to go out and kill others and incur the possible threat of retaliation. ... We like to portray the radical Muslims as suicide bombers. Well, Hamas has not been out there doing suicide bombings every day, every week. And it's not just a matter of not being able to find recruits. That's one of the problems that you face with suicide bombers. You only get to use them once. But once you use them, they sit back and look and [ask], "Is this an effective approach? Are we accomplishing what we want to accomplish?"

If all you're interested in doing is killing people without regards for the consequence, then that, in my view, would be the ultimate dangerous terrorist. We see even with Osama bin Laden, that's not how he's operating. He's not just wanting to kill for killing's sake. He wants to put pressure on the United States to get out of Saudi Arabia and to leave the Muslim world alone. And to the extent that the United States takes policy actions that either increase the perception that we're tarnishing Islam or decrease the perception that we're tarnishing Islam, that will have a heavy influence, in my view, on whether we see increased terrorist attacks or diminished terrorist attacks. ...

[One source we've spoken to] says that ... it [is] a mistake to identify bin Laden as some all powerful figure, that's not the way it works. He says that even if you get rid of him, you jail him and kill him and do what you're going to do him, there will be another Ali, Mustafa, someone who will step in his place.

He sounds like he's very naïve and hasn't had a lot of experience in either politics or in organization. The fact of the matter is leadership makes a difference. That's one of the reasons that when you look at the lack of domestic terrorism in the United States from skinheads and neo-Nazis, they haven't had an effective leader. You've got lots of knuckleheads out there who hate other people for racist reasons and they spew invective and they talk tough and they want to do violence and if they get the chance they may do something but they've never really coalesced or brought together because they lack that kind of twisted visionary. That's fortunate. ...

There's not another Ali or Mustafa out there at this point and Osama bin Laden in my view has not been a very effective organizer or leader. He talks a great game and puts out terrific threats as far as stirring the passions in the United States and maybe firing up the imaginations of some young Muslims throughout the world. But when push comes to shove, can he get a group of people who are together who will say: we are going to plan an operation, we're going to put our lives on the line, we're going to go out and try and kill people and we don't care what the consequence is? It hasn't happened. ...

Have we pinned too many incidents on Osama bin Laden? It seems that once his name become public, he was responsible for these bombings in Saudi Arabia or somehow linked to those, to Ramzi Yousef, to this, to that. It's almost like he was the convenient suspect.

I can understand how it certainly appeared that way because you hadn't heard anything about this guy before unless you were reading the New York Times and Jeff Gerth's piece from a couple of years ago. But there was also an influx of intelligence of some defectors and the arrests of key people came in, provided additional intelligence, the picture started becoming clearer of what this guy was up to. When you look at all of the groups that conducted attacks in the last ten years, Osama is the one far and away that is appearing to attack American citizens and US targets. Most of the other things that could be classified as attacks against the United States tend to be collateral attacks.

But is he attacking or is it just that he provides some money or some guidance?

I would say money and guidance. Osama himself is not out leading the charge. He's not building the devices. He's the leadership core. I come back to the issue of leadership. These groups can be dangerous if they have someone who is a bit of a visionary and a bit of a leader. Osama does fit that category. In my view he's not a very effective leader, he's not a very effective organizer. He certainly has the passion, but he hasn't had the ability to rally and mobilize and really create a political movement that becomes, if you will, a trans-Islamic political movement.

So when the president of the Sudan, for instance, tells us that the problem is that you - the United States - made us push him out of the Sudan and now he is dangerous. Now he wants to attack you. When he was here in Khartoum, we had him under control...

I think he's probably a good politician in trying to find justification for what they did before and a way to shift the blame. The fact of the matter is, Sudan's got its own problem in harboring lots of bad groups that if they didn't harbor those groups, their ability to conduct attacks - even though they've been limited - would be even less. Sudan has to make a choice whether it wants to be part of the civilized world or the part of the world supporting terrorism. I think in this case the United States made a real error in bombing a plant without the right evidence because that ends up figuratively blowing up in our face when we blew up the plant.

We shouldn't take as credible their claim that when they had Osama in Khartoum, he was basically building roads and--

No, absolutely not. I think that's ridiculous because the fact of the matter is that if he was absolutely up to charitable works and constructive public projects, he wouldn't have been an issue. ... If the Sudan was so convinced that he was not engaging in anything harmful, I think he would have put up more of a struggle. ...

In the Nairobi bombing, in terms of the issue of coordination and dissemination of information [among the US intelligence agencies], there seemed to be some prior warning about the bombing.

Well, see, the real flaw with what the US government has done goes back to Admiral Inman. This was the negative side of the Inman report [released in] the aftermath of bombings of US embassies in Beirut [which] recommended a substantial upgrading of the physical plans to make them hardened targets so terrorists couldn't attack it. That was a great suggestion. It needed to be done; wasn't done completely. ...

The problem is we don't have Kreskin the Mind Reader in the US government to predict what terrorists are going to do. In my experience you rarely had advance notification that some group of individuals are going to carry out an attack against some target. ... The threat warnings, when you get them, are so vague and difficult to act upon that it lulls people into complacency. ...

But what we do know is that if you will simply follow the recommendations that Admiral Inman made about hardening facilities, building walls up, set back from the street, that there's a physical limit to how many explosives someone can pack into a van or a truck. Laws of physics take over; unless they've got a nuclear weapon in there, set-back is going to increase your chance of surviving, decrease their chance of dying. The US government--particularly State Department--from 1988 on did not make embassy security a priority. In fact, when I was there in 1992, the State Department started on a major effort to get rid of diplomatic security officers and to downgrade embassy security overseas. ...

Counter-measures put in place end up being an effective deterrent because the three things you need to do terrorism: You've got to have a motive, you've got to have the capability -- the know-how how to build the bomb -- but you've got to have the opportunity, the access to the target. We've seen in the world of aviation when you put in measures that prevent people from getting onboard planes with guns and knives, guess what? Hijackings go down. When you put in place measures that make it more difficult to put bombs onboard planes, bombs don't blow up on airplanes. When you put in place security measures which make it more difficult for people to put a vehicle next to a building and leave it unattended, car bombs don't happen. ..

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