hunting bin laden
Larry C. Johnson

A former CIA officer, Johnson was deputy director of the U.S. State Department Office of Counterterrorism from 1989 to 1993. In this interview, conducted September 12, 2001, he explains why our perception of Osama bin Laden and his organization may be wrong, what we know about bin Laden's involvement in the 1998 embassy bombings and the 2000 USS Cole attack, and the degree of warnings leading up to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the U.S.
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Leading up to January 2000, the millennium, everybody's expecting the possibility of a big terrorist attack. Tell me what happens, and how it affects in any way how we think about Osama bin Laden.

We've got to avoid personalizing this too much. Bin Laden is a symbolic head of a movement of religious fanatics who want to purge the world of evil. And the United States is the symbol of that evil. That said, they do not have the global reach of General Motors. And they do not have the political sophistication that you would associate with a major political movement in the world. They tend to be very ideological and very crude.

Consequently, in the face of security measures [on the eve of the millennium] and the cooperation of other governments, their attempts to launch attacks at certain targets were thwarted. What we've seen, looking back [from] the World Trade Center bombing [in 1993] up through yesterday's World Trade Center disaster, we now know things about bin Laden that we didn't two or three years ago.

...the fundamental problem the United States faces in dealing with entities like bin Laden and his supporters is that the existing intelligence apparatus is still organized to defeat a conventional Cold War enemy.

We now know, for example, bin Laden was meeting with Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah security chief. Mughniyah, until yesterday, had killed more Americans than bin Laden, had wounded more Americans than bin Laden. Mughniyah was involved with the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, the takeover of TWA 847, and the murder of Navy diver Robert Stethem, the apprehension of several Americans who were held hostage in Beirut, Lebanon.

So this is an individual who has been aggressive in his attacks against America. And we now know through testimony that came out in the trial in New York City on the bombing of the U.S. embassy, that Mughniyah was the mentor, the ideological inspiration, for Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden saw Mughniyah as one who used violence to force the United States to retreat from Lebanon. And he believed that that same model could be used against the United States to force it out of Saudi Arabia and to punish it.

Let's break that down. How does that lesson get learned? It starts, as you say, earlier, circa the millennium?

In the millennium we still did not know that.

So, at the millennium, what do we know?

Well, at the millennium, we know that [bin Laden is] holed up in Afghanistan. He is working with ideological sympathizers, some who have their roots with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, some who have their roots with the armed Islamic group of Algeria. They've sort of merged together. Because although they come from different countries, they share a common vision of destroying the United States, eradicating the stain of U.S. influence that they view as sinful. And you've got to confront the sin by destroying it.

So we thwart some efforts. Does that diminish our anxiety about his capabilities? Does it make us complacent?

No. ... It sounds counterintuitive. On the one hand, we spend so much time talking about [bin Laden] that we elevate his status to this invincible sort of person. And yet, at the same time, the individual who's carried out the most spectacular terrorist attacks, or is tied to individuals who have carried out the most spectacular terrorist attacks, in the last nine years is Osama bin Laden. So you have to find the balance. And unfortunately, while the U.S. intelligence community is trying to watch and trying to monitor, the U.S. intelligence community and, frankly, other intelligence organizations are not set up or designed to penetrate groups like Osama bin Laden's.

So we come to the USS Cole incident. Briefly describe what happened there. How did that put bin Laden back on the radar?

Well, bin Laden, because of his ties to Yemen by virtue of his mother and the ties to some people that are sympathetic to his vision of Islam, sympathetic and supportive of his fatwahs, calling for the death of Americans. Again, you saw a sophisticated -- sophisticated in the sense that Arabs traditionally in conducting maritime terrorist attacks have been abysmal failures -- in this case, they were able to load sufficient explosives in a boat and have some notion about the damage that would do to a ship and were able to get close.

Now, I still maintain that even though bin Laden was planning that kind of attack and was hoping for success, I think failure of security measures on the part of the U.S. captain of that ship contributed to it. That was not the finding of the review board. But nonetheless, when you don't impose any kind of security parameter, you create opportunities for these people.

I think lurking in the mind of bin Laden and the al Qaeda group is the notion you're going to strike a blow so decisive, so terrible, it will cause the collapse of the society that they view as hollow. Western society is evil. It is based upon liquor and prostitutes and not being faithful to Allah, as they interpret Islam. And therefore it's a shell that once you attack it, and hit it in its right spot, will collapse.

So with the USS Cole, with that attack, what did that tell us about bin Laden's capabilities, about his organizational structure, and about al Qaeda?

I think we're still trying to sort that out. Because we got ourselves in a bit of a trap, and that trap is this: We're looking for evidence that will stand up in a U.S. court as opposed to taking information and intelligence that gives you a reasonable basis for belief and action. And in the process of waiting to develop evidence that you can present in a U.S. court, you end up tying your hands. You can't take preemptive action because you want this case to go forward.

And I firmly believe in the importance of ... prosecutions as a way to try to eviscerate or try to weaken these people. But as we've seen in the events of yesterday, with the attack on the World Trade Center, we have reached the point now where we can no longer afford that luxury. We do have enough information about bin Laden and his ties, at least in the embassy bombing in East Africa. The ability to be patient and say, "Let's wait and see if the Taliban will extradite him," is over.

How much do we really know about the Cole investigation? Set aside the legal questions. From an intelligence perspective, how much did we really learn about him? How much do we know in terms of his involvement in that operation?

I think there's a gap between what the intelligence community knows and what the criminal investigators know. The criminal investigators have more information that is not necessarily being passed to the intelligence community, because the criminal investigators do not want that information to be tampered with or tainted in any way, so that if it does come to trial, they can get a conviction. And so you wind up with this interesting possibility that has happened in the past, where the CIA has actually less understanding of what's really going on, in the evidence side, than does the FBI. And the FBI is in a position to know, but does not or cannot share.

So, do we know whether bin Laden was responsible [for the Cole attack]?

I cannot sit here and say definitively bin Laden was responsible, no.

Now, there was this Internet video where he seemed to claim some credit for that particular event.

Well, and that's where I come back and say, do I know that there's sufficient criminal evidence saying bin Laden did it? No. But looking at it logically and circumstantially, he did not take the opportunity in that video to say, "Oh, this is an abhorrent act. I reject it." No, he celebrated it and affiliated himself with it. Now, maybe he's like the rooster taking credit for the sun rising. In any event, he not only associates himself with the act, takes credit for the act, but then continues to call for further acts of that nature against the United States, and with other evidence of training in Afghanistan, albeit crude, but training designed for one purpose and one purpose only, to kill Americans, to destroy the United States.

So when you put together the entire picture, starting with the World Trade Center, running through the attacks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, up to and including the bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa and finally, with the USS Cole, once you see that the person, the same person is at least popping up with a relationship in each of those acts -- while he may not have been [the one] to place the explosive, he may not have been the one that came up with the original idea -- if everyplace I go there's a fire, at some point people are going to say, "When I see you, a fire breaks out. Let's talk to you about arson." And so from that standpoint, he's not a suspect because he looks the villain; he is a suspect because he is the "here's Waldo" of terrorism. He pops up [wherever] there's a terrorist incident of some significance against the United States.

How difficult is it to then take action? In the case of the Cole, in a place like Yemen? And how important is it to a bin Laden or somebody else to take a terrorist action in a place like Yemen?

Well, the issue in Yemen, from the standpoint of criminal prosecution, it's a problem of the FBI and how they conduct themselves overseas. Despite repeated incidents overseas, the FBI still has not set up a specially trained cadre of people with language capability and cultural sensitivity who know what it's like to go operate in Yemen. Instead, they put together a group, and it's like an old Mickey Rooney and Andy Hardy movie. Let's put on a show.

And so you pull people, special agents, some come from Louisiana, and when they go to Yemen it's their first time outside of the United States. You know, the only other time they've been outside of Louisiana was when they went to Quantico for training. So now they're in Yemen? And, you know, these are foreigners. And they don't do things the way they do in Louisiana or Texas or Missouri or Michigan.

Then after two or three weeks in that place, they're homesick and they want to get home and see their families. They don't speak the language. And they don't necessarily have the proper cultural cues for working with the locals. And so it's no surprise that you wind up with these frictions where the Yemenis are not bending over to cooperate. Because they're feeling mistreated.

And you find the same experience in Kenya, the same experience in Tanzania, the same experience in Saudi Arabia.

How important is cooperation in these other countries?

The FBI still has not learned the lesson that was demonstrated in the movie "Die Hard," where they show up and they take control and they completely trample over the local police. They do that in the United States and they do that overseas. And it's not because they're trying to be bad guys. It's just that that's their culture. And they have yet to say, "Let's put together a special investigative response unit. Let's put together ... one that speaks Arabic, one that speaks Spanish, one that speaks Chinese."

You put together groups that speak other languages, so that when you have incidents in a particular area, you can pull that group together, send them there with a reasonable degree of certainty that they're going to know how to live in the culture, how to speak the language, and they're specially trained for it. And consistently, what the FBI has done, even in the latest incidents with the USS Cole, was take a group of people that have no country knowledge, no language knowledge, [and] throw them into the mix.

Did we take anything from the USS Cole experience? Did we take away any particular lessons about the modus operandi of bin Laden or his willingness to strike out?

I don't know what the government took away. What I observed is someone who continues to be creative at using low tech in an efficient manner. And again, to say that it's sophisticated, it's not sophisticated to put a large amount of explosives in a boat. You've got to have the ability to multiply, divide, and run the conventional equations for predicting the effect of an explosive at a certain distance and maybe have conducted some tests.

So that means you've got to arrange some [place] where you can do this, that you've got access to water where you can do this. And you're willing to conduct some experiments and you've got sufficient explosives to do that. That's not terribly sophisticated. But that does mean that you have to have some local cooperation or own a vast isolated stretch of an island or a coastline somewhere where you can work on that without being detected.

The trial of the accused in the embassy bombings in East Africa seems to present some opportunities to learn more about the organization of bin Laden.

Well, it reflects that the U.S. knew a lot more about it from the FBI side that was allowed to come out in public. The source that the FBI used to reach the plea agreement, he'd served in the U.S. Army. He was an Egyptian. And he'd also apparently been an FBI source at some time. His plea bargain with the FBI, with the U.S. government, was sealed. But what was released to the public was extremely revealing. It showed for the first time a confessed link between bin Laden, Mughniyah, and the Iranians. Now, up to this point, the intelligence community, and I know the National Security Council under President Clinton, believed that someone like a bin Laden would have no connection or ties to Iran, [that he would be] diametrically opposed to [Iran] because the Taliban are opposed to the Iranians.

But when you see someone like Mughniyah meeting with bin Laden, and Mughniyah moves freely back and forth between the Bekaa Valley and Iran -- and the Bekaa Valley is where the explosives come out that end up destroying the U.S. housing complex in Saudi Arabia -- and that the individuals who are involved in that bombing attempt in Saudi Arabia again show up having links and ties with bin Laden, all of a sudden, you need to step back and say, "okay, maybe this is not quite as we pictured it."

Maybe bin Laden is not just this freelance artist being tolerated by the Taliban. Is it possible that he's operating as an agent provocateur under a false flag? He may think he's working for someone else, when he's doing the bidding of Iran. That's a possibility. What is clear is -- whether he's doing it on his own or with the encouragement of a state that's staying behind the scenes -- he is willing to use violence to destroy what he believes, what he genuinely believes, is evil.

Help me understand who is Imad Mughniyah?

Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah security chief, planned and directed some of the most astonishing terrorist operations until bin Laden came along. The bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983, the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks [in 1984], which until yesterday had caused the largest loss of life in any single terrorist attack against the United States, the hijacking of TWA 847, and the murder of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem, the kidnapping of several Americans that were held hostage in Lebanon for a while, such as Terry Anderson.

So this is an individual who continues to operate in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, continues with ties to Hezbollah, continues to be supported and protected by the Iranian intelligence organization. And here he is meeting with bin Laden. And, according to the source, ... the basis of the plea bargain is that everything he's saying in this is true, that bin Laden modeled himself after Mughniyah. ...

And what did we learn about their relationship and how well connected they have become?

Well, we learned publicly in the trial that there's a relationship that was not probed. And we do not know what's in the sealed parts of the indictment. This much is known. There's a sealed indictment in the United States against Imad Mughniyah that still has not been brought public. So the fact that those two are tied together, when you step back and look over the last 20 years of all the significant terrorist attacks against the United States in which Americans were killed or injured, you discover -- I ran the numbers -- it's roughly 72 percent of all Americans killed and wounded in international terrorist attacks since 1968 have been carried out by these two individuals, Mughniyah and bin Laden.

So, we're not looking at a global threat. We're not looking at multiple groups. This notion that all terrorists want to kill Americans, not true. If that's true, why haven't FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] and ELM [National Liberation Army of Bolivia] been out attacking American targets and killing Americans? They'll blow up oil pipelines, but they shy away from killing Americans. Kurdish Workers Party in Turkey, no compunction about killing Turks in Europe. Very hesitant to kill Americans in Europe or in Turkey.

What about Hamas and Hezbollah? Even Hamas with its suicide bomb killing, would kill Americans who happened to be onboard buses, but not because they were Americans. And they reached a point at which, [with] the death of Americans and such, they backed away from the suicide bombing campaign.

The only one who's really been consistent with his actions to kill Americans has been bin Laden over the last eight or nine years, and those who have affiliated themselves with him.

Now, would bin Laden have taken more than just inspiration from Mughniyah? Logistical support perhaps? What do we know?

Well, there was also testimony in this sealed document, or what was unsealed in the plea agreement, that Iran was providing weapons and training along with encouragement through Mughniyah. So, weapons, explosives, training. So it was not Osama bin Laden, the lone wolf. But rather, he at least had some ties from a country that has been very active in terrorism over the last 20 years.

How would that affect somebody like bin Laden who's up in the hills in Afghanistan? Would that embolden him?

It would reaffirm in his mind the righteousness of his cause, that he is doing something that within his skewed religious vision is not only correct and proper, but is righteous and deserving of God's blessings ... Allah's blessings, not Allah's curses.

So we have the USS Cole, we have evidence coming out of the East African embassy bombings that would suggest that bin Laden is not only more active, but fortified with accomplices and help.

Well, we need to keep in mind that while bin Laden is definitely a kind who is willing to carry out spectacular acts with no regard for civilian casualties, nonetheless he's not able to conduct these on a weekly or a daily basis. He has been thwarted on several occasions. And when you look at the period from 1998, in August of '98, when U.S. embassies were bombed in East Africa, until October of 2000, over 24 months passed before he could carry off another terrorist spectacular. And here we are almost 12 months [later].

So we're looking at an individual who's got a network, but getting that network set up and in place and ready to carry out these actions, so far he has not demonstrated the ability to do it with any greater frequency than once a year. That's the good news. The bad news is, in the history of terrorists, there is no one that has come up with the vision of destruction and the willingness to carry it out like him -- if in fact the ones responsible for this latest attack in New York are proven to have links to bin Laden.

Leading up to this latest attack, [were there] any inklings? If you've got a guy that you think is on your radar once every 12 months, 24 months, one would think, you'd look at your watch and say, "Hey, it's about time he's going to pop up again." Any indications that that might happen?

No. Because ... let me put it this way. I understand that there was intelligence information pointing to supporters or adherents of bin Laden who were receiving training in aviation operations. But not the specifics of, they're going to infiltrate the United States, they're going to fly out of certain airports, they're going to hijack [planes], and they're going to crash them into major buildings. You know, no one connected those dots. I've listened to some of the pundits who claim to be experts saying that they were not surprised by this at all. Not even Tom Clancy in his wildest fantasies came up with something this heinous and this outrageous.

And so then, to step back and recognize when you're dealing with individuals who are willing to die, and are willing to kill thousands of others without any regard for the consequences, we have entered a new realm -- they've ratcheted up their activity to a level that they want to make sure it succeeds, and with the belief that in succeeding they're going to destroy the United States.

If you look at the loss of life yesterday, and if it approaches 14,000 or more, in one day you've had more people killed in this incident in the World Trade Center than have died from all international terrorist attacks since 1968 worldwide. Americans, people from all other countries, more people died yesterday in the United States from this single act than have died in all previous international terrorist attacks in the last 32 years. That is astonishing. That takes us ... that's like trying to compare a bullet to a nuclear bomb.

It is of a magnitude and a dimension that the world has not seen heretofore. It is a wake-up call for the world -- if it's ultimately proven bin Laden's hand is in it, and I think it will be. When he attacked the U.S. embassy in Africa, he wanted to kill Americans; he didn't plan to kill almost 300 Kenyans. And when you kill 300 Kenyans, all of a sudden you've got a new enemy. And now when you kill not just Americans, but the French, English, Germans, Russians, Swiss, Italians, Nigerians, Brazilians, you know, run down the list of countries, Chinese, Japanese. ... You've killed people from other countries. And they don't have to come out and come after you to punish you for killing Americans. They come after you because you've killed their citizens.

And in that sense, we need to avoid portraying [bin Laden] as this master -- he's not the Gary Kasparov of terrorism. He's not this chess master who's thinking two or three steps ahead. He is more like an impulsive teenage boy who acts on emotion and acts on conviction without fully weighing the consequences of his actions.

All he's guaranteed himself out of this is not a victory in the Islamic world -- he'll even gain the condemnation of most of the Islamic world -- but he's guaranteed the opposition of the rest of the world. And I don't care who you are. You cannot stand up against the world with that kind of pressure. ...

Prior to the [latest attacks], there didn't seem, as you said, to be any solid information. But at the same time, if there's intelligence about some of the bin Laden organization taking flying lessons, how does it work inside the intelligence community? What kind of alarms does that signal? And what happens to that information? What's made of it?

When it's turned over to the analysts, the analysts have to sit down and say, "What are the possibilities here?" And I'm sure you're going to find that nobody in the analytical community sat down and said, you know, "What [are they] preparing to do? They could possibly be preparing to come in and commandeer an aircraft and then take control of that aircraft and crash it into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon" -- nobody foresaw that. So you can call that an analytical failure. And that may be too harsh, because ... this is asking people to imagine the unimaginable. But at the same time, while it's unimaginable or at least was unimaginable, it is nonetheless something that is within the realm of capability. As opposed to the scenarios about nuclear weapons or chemical and biological weapons, which are much more difficult to get access to and to use.

And part of the problem comes back to the nature of the sourcing of this information. I don't know if this is signal intelligence. I don't know if it was human intelligence. But when an analyst sits down and weighs it, it depends very much on the source.

And really the fundamental problem the United States faces in dealing with entities like bin Laden and his supporters is that the existing intelligence apparatus is still organized to defeat a conventional Cold War enemy. And that means your intelligence operatives are going out in other countries to recruit people who are at cocktail parties and diplomatic functions and official government functions. You're looking for people who are in positions of power in the other government who can tell you what's going on.

How do you penetrate an organization which is largely ideological and bound by religious fervor? They don't have a membership. You don't have to fill out an application. It's not like joining a country club. You are brought together by the commonness of belief that is shared in worship. And in the faithful application of your religious faith.

So how do you penetrate that? Well, then you have to have people who speak the language and who can come off as committed enough on that religious front. And then ultimately, you may be asked to demonstrate your faithfulness by participating in some act of terrorism or killing somebody. And at that point, our intelligence apparatus goes, "Wait a minute. We're not going to do that." And it's the classic problem of, you've got rats, they live in the sewer, but you don't want to get in the sewer because it's dirty. It smells. And you might get sick from being around it. So you want to stay out of the sewer and try to kill the rats. And you know what? You've got to make a choice. Either you've got to get into the sewer or you've got to learn to live with the rats.

And we don't want to get in the sewer?

We made the decision about 10 to 15 years ago not to get in the sewer. And the push has been more and more away from the sewer. I mean, again this is not to justify what has taken place in Peru, in the case of [Vladimiro] Montesinos, the intelligence chief there. But recently, you've seen a big uproar about, What was the CIA doing? And who were they talking to? And why was this guy stealing money? With hindsight we're geniuses. But when you're trying to collect information and keep track of what someone's doing, you sometimes have to be willing to do things which may not pass the Nobel Prize human-rights sniff test.

But we've got to decide. If we want to win the Nobel Prize for human rights, that's OK. That's a noble goal. But that will not allow you to have intelligence operations that will anticipate and detect terrorist plots like the one that brought down the World Trade Center.

Or maybe we're just asking too much of the intelligence community.

No, I don't believe that. It's not that we're asking too much of them. It's that they structurally are not set up and organized, they're still like someone sitting in a wheelchair being asked to run a marathon. ... So it means you've got to get them out of the wheelchair, get the legs functioning, which requires a complete structural change, and it's not easy.

And the only advantage, if there is any silver lining in this disaster of yesterday, when those planes flew into the World Trade Center, is this may be a sufficient catalyst to force changes in the intelligence community and in the defense community that the United States has been unwilling to address in recent years.

How do you respond to this, if it is in fact bin Laden? How easy is it to find him? Why haven't we found him? And what about this friend of his, Mughniyah?

I believe it's easy to find anyone if you're willing to pay enough money. And we have not yet been willing to pay enough money. I don't think anyone has gone yet to the CIA and to the operations unit and said, "OK, we don't care how much it costs. We're not going to look over your shoulder and criticize you. We want you to take as much money as you need and get this guy. And if you need a year, that's fine. If you need two years, that's fine. But get him. You set a date, but get him."

And with that amount of money in place, it reminds me of the line from "The Godfather" where Al Pacino made the point, you can kill the president if you really want to. So I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility. But we have got to be willing to play the game in a way that we're not willing to play right now. Because right now how is it done? Well, first let's have that budget appropriation. Tell me how you're spending the money. And then let's make sure that nobody is making something on the side. And then let's make sure we account for every penny. We want to be IRS accountants in chasing a guy that's killed 20,000 Americans.

So I go back to the rats in the sewer. We've got to figure out, do we want to get rid of the rats? Or do we want to stay out of the sewer? And so far our choice has been we want to stay out of the sewer. We want to stay clean. But we'd sure like to get rid of the rats.

Did the bombings yesterday change that?

We'll see. I have talked to too many friends who have far more experience with the operations community than I do and who are experienced operators and who have run some of the most sensitive programs overseas. They say the agency is broken. It needs to be dismantled and something new put in place. And I'm not just talking about the isolated opinion of one person, but several.

So put yourself in the mind of bin Laden right now, the day after. What's he thinking?

He probably feels like the Baltimore Ravens after they won the Super Bowl. Only he's not going to Disneyland. He may think about that as his next target. But he thinks he struck a blow. And again, a lot of this depends upon how much information gets to him. Because ... he's not living like a drug lord in Colombia with satellite televisions and hot tubs. He remains very much an ascetic who lives a monastic lifestyle.

And so consequently, he may not be fully in touch with what's going on and how the world's reacting. But as that information filters in, there will be suddenly this realization that instead of being applauded, instead of the Muslims of the world rising up and saying, "Bin Laden, you're right. Let's kill the Americans." Instead, he'll say, "My God, most of the Muslim world is standing there in shock saying, 'What have you done?'" And with that, his ability to move and operate in other places will be circumscribed. ...

So his mistake was being too successful?

Yes. This ... I would describe yesterday as his pyrrhic victory. He has won a tremendous battle and it will lead to his downfall. And it's unfortunate that it's taken so many lives to accomplish that.

You mentioned at the time [of our previous interview] that we were making too much about bin Laden at that time. That if he had the wherewithal to kill Americans and attack U.S. targets he would do so, but he hadn't. What changed?

What changed is, I think he came to believe our propaganda. Our focus, by making bin Laden so important a target and the constant emphasis -- if you recall earlier this year, in the face of threats, it wasn't just that we close civilian institutions, but the U.S. Seventh Fleet puts to sea, Marines are withdrawn, U.S. military forces go into the duck and cover. At that point, if I'm bin Laden, I'm saying, "If my threats force the military to retreat, what will my actions do?" And, you know, up until the attack ... on the World Trade Center [he had not shown] a willingness to really incur the casualties of lots of Americans -- men, women, and children.

And I don't know if it was a frustration that the other attacks were not achieving his objective and that in that frustration he's overreached, but this much is certain: By killing so many people and by destroying the World Trade Center towers, whatever measure of success he wants to take from it, he has galvanized a level of opposition and intensity against him that did not exist before. And by crossing that threshold, by now deciding that he's willing to kill Americans regardless of whether they're military or diplomats, but just common people going to work, that he's made himself enemies that he did not have before.

You said [in our previous interview] "... Osama bin Laden in my view has not been a very effective organizer or leader. He talks a great game."

Yeah. Well, he repeatedly calls "Muslims of the world unite." He doesn't have a great following. He has a fervent following. Those who do enlist and sign up with him are true believers. But at the same time, and let's take the picture that was presented in the case of the East African embassies. Here again, while bin Laden is described as this guy with this incredible international organization, multi-millionaire, the picture that emerges is of a guy who's tight-fisted, sends his people out to live in places where they don't have enough money or enough to eat and they're always scrounging around.

And it's not that they're trained with the latest technology and the best weapons and the best clothing and the best hotels and the best of anything -- it's enough to get by. And if they can be effective, great. And if not, you know, you go on to the next target. You saw it again with the failed millennium plot. I mean, these individuals, they're going to go to LAX and blow up the airport. Where are they going to place the bomb? Well, they're going to figure that out when they get there.

Well, if you're going to do proper target attack, you recon your target first. And you figure out where you can get access. Plus, the way the guy was handling explosives raises questions about whether he was properly trained. Because he was lucky he didn't blow himself up at the border.

So you're describing somebody who has an organization that seems moderately effective. And yet, how does that compare with what just happened?

Again, you saw the same pattern yesterday. Here again, the individuals who carried out the attack, they leave their car with all the Arabic flight manuals visible at Logan airport, easy to find. The impression that this was a highly sophisticated operation, that only the greatest criminal mastermind could pull off, I dispute that on several accounts. If you've got a credit card, you can buy the plane tickets for the four aircraft. And let's be generous. Let's say there were five persons per plane. That's twenty tickets. You can buy those within two hours. And you can do it over the Internet. That's number one. So you've got your tickets.

Then you've got to make sure that you've got at least one person, and more likely two people, per team who can maintain flight speed and can turn a rudder right and left. That you provide some basic flight training. It doesn't have to be terribly sophisticated. But you're not trying to say, "OK, we want you to be able to take off and land the aircraft." If you're talking about that, then you're talking a level of sophistication that did not occur.

Weapons. The initial reports are that in neither case do they go to the effort of getting weapons smuggled onboard the aircraft, but rather they used either knives that were allowed to be on the plane or could be jury-rigged in such a way that it could represent a threat but would pass security. ...

The reason I don't think it's sophisticated [is that] it didn't require a lot of time or money to buy the tickets. It didn't require a lot of time or money to train people to maintain air speed and figure out which way to turn the aircraft. It did require some effort to figure out how to get the people into the country. But that is not, particularly in the United States, an impossible task. And if you've got enough money to forge passports, which bin Laden does, that's not difficult either. So it requires a basic ability to organize. But in organizing, again, these people didn't organize themselves in such a way that when they carried this out their tracks were so well covered that the investigators are sitting there scratching their heads. Instead, they left footprints the size of elephants.



Read FRONTLINE's previous interview with Larry C. Johnson for the original 1999 version of "Hunting bin Laden."
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