hunting bin laden
James Risen

He is a New York Times reporter who reports on U.S. intelligence. In his interview, conducted September 12, 2001, Risen talks about what's been learned about bin Laden's organization, the strategy it used in attacking the USS Cole warship in October 2000, why other Arabs have become recruits to his cause, the challenges confronting the U.S. intelligence community, and what has been learned from the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America.
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Is there a question in your mind, in the minds of the people you talk to in the intelligence community that this -- the September 11, 2001, attack -- was a bin Laden operation?

They're not definitive about it yet. They say it's still not conclusive. They say there are strong indications pointing at him. But they're not willing to be entirely conclusive about it yet.

Bin Laden in 2000. What did we know about him then, a year ago? What were we learning even at that moment?

I think the U.S. intelligence community has very gradually learned a lot more about him. With each attack, with each threat, they've been able to kind of put flesh on the bones of what they know about Al Qaeda, his network, and about the people involved and about their modus operandi. Each time, however, he uses a slightly different approach. And that's why he's been fairly successful against the United States.

What they now know is that Al Qaeda is a very loose organization of Islamic radicals, based in Afghanistan, but with people from Egypt, Algeria, and other countries, who kind of form shifting alliances using bin Laden and his organization as kind of an umbrella to perform operations. So it's always difficult to penetrate exactly what they're doing for the United States because there is not a hard and fast organizational chart to Al Qaeda. He uses different lieutenants for different operations.

And in the past, they have seen how some of his lieutenants will kind of come out of Afghanistan, be in charge of one operation, and then go back into Afghanistan and never be seen again in the West. It's clear to the United States that bin Laden has learned from each operation. He's improved his communications security. So that ... for instance, he learned after the East African bombings that the United States could penetrate some of his satellite phone and other communications. Since then, his communications have gotten more secure. And it's gotten more difficult for the United States to penetrate with great accuracy communications between bin Laden and his lieutenants overseas.

So this business of Al Qaeda, it's different than the Corleone family, say, the typical mafia family.

Right. It's a group largely based on ideology and religion of like-minded radicals and extremists who have been drawn by the jihad in the United States at first and then later by a shared anti-Americanism and a shared hatred for Israel. And he has recruited out of various Islamic nations and Islamic groups, partly because he has become seen in the Arab world as the premiere opponent of the United States. And so in a sense, our own publicity of him has hurt us. Because it's served essentially as a recruiting tool for bin Laden.

And it's made him a major figure in the Arab world by making it clear to desperate young Arabs who don't have anyplace ... who feel they don't have anything else to do, frustrated with their hatred of the West, that he's the man to turn to. And so essentially ... our attacks on him in some sense have made him a bigger deal than he was before.

The USS Cole, describe briefly what happened. And how did that put bin Laden again at center stage?

Well, his organization has typically attacked soft targets around the world where the United States has interests that are not heavily secured. Or he has found ways of determining vulnerabilities in American security, in American interests around the world. In the East African bombing case, he found two embassies in out of the way places in Africa where the buildings had not been modernized with more modern security measures that are in place at other embassies around the world.

His organization is difficult to penetrate. It is based on shared passion and emotion and an ideology.  And itēs difficult to buy an informant with money who is driven not by money but by ideology.

In the Cole, he found a United States warship that was anchored in a harbor, in a country that has traditionally been a haven for Islamic terrorists. The decisions to allow American ships to transit and harbor in Yemen may put those ships in an exposed position. Because we knew going in that Yemen had a history of being unable to stop Islamic terrorists, and that they operated through Yemen as a major transit point between Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East.

So, the United States knew going in that Yemen was a dangerous place. The United States made a political and diplomatic decision to place ships there in part to try and shore up the Yemeni support for the West. But bin Laden saw that as yet another weak spot, an Achilles heel. They had suicide bombers on little rafts loaded with explosives.

And when they approached the ship, pretending to be men bringing out supplies from the harbor, they blew up. So it is yet another example of using suicide bombers against a target that was in an exposed position. And that has become his MO. He has gotten enough recruits of people who are willing to kill themselves in the name of Al Qaeda and the name of an attack on American interests. And if you have a combination of suicide bombers and the patience and the resources to find weak spots in American security around the world, it's a dangerous combination.

Have we become complacent about his abilities? Or had he become all the more crafty about ...

Clearly with each attack he's gotten better. And he's become more sophisticated. The latest attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon show a dramatic increase in his sophistication. And yet, it was also similar in the sense that they were exposed targets, that he found a weakness in the security system. And he was able to exploit that with suicide bombers or suicide assailants.

And in the case of the Cole investigation, the fact that it was in Yemen, how did that effect the ability to really penetrate, investigate it?

It's made it very difficult. The investigation has stalled in the Cole investigation, largely because the FBI has found it difficult to operate in Yemen. The government there has arrested some people. But it's been difficult so far to trace these people back to Al Qaeda through the local investigation. So there's a great frustration or has been in the United States about the progress on that investigation.

The trials that were ongoing in relation to the embassy bombings, what did we learn in those trials about the man and his organization?

Well ... there was one very valuable witness who agreed to cooperate with the United States who provided real insight into the organization and layout of Al Qaeda. And that was probably the most significant thing to come out of the trial, was to have an insider finally lay out publicly for the first time great detail on the Al Qaeda organization. A lot of that had already been known to the CIA and the FBI because this man and others have been cooperating over the last couple of years. But this was the first time it was publicly revealed in open court. And it provided greater ammunition for those who make the case that bin Laden does have the motive and the resources to carry out these kind of operations.

What did we learn about the organization?

Just the intensity with which the organization continues to exist solely for the reason of killing Americans and Israelis, Americans more than any other group. And that it's a well thought out campaign of terror.

But you're describing an organization whose sole ideology is death to Americans?

Bin Laden was the heir to the largest construction company, one of the sons of the owner of the largest construction company in Saudi Arabia. So he grew up wealthy and privileged in Saudi Arabia and in Western Europe. But his early time in Afghanistan during the war radicalized him. And when he returned to Saudi Arabia and he saw American troops in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, he believed deeply that Americans were despoiling the sacred sites of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

And so he has been on what he calls a jihad ever since against the United States. And the real importance and significance of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I believe, to bin Laden is not that it has spurred him on personally ... because I think he was already on this jihad. But I think the last year or so, the problems in the Middle East have made it easier for him to recruit others. And so his brand of anti-Americanism fits in with a larger anger and frustration among other Arabs.

I don't think that many of the people around him are driven by the same anger over American troops in Saudi Arabia. I think it's more about Israel and Palestine. But that it's fed into the same thing.

And jihad to what end?

Well, he has said in the past he wants American troops out of Saudi Arabia. And it's unclear ... even if we pulled our troops out what he would do after that. But he is committed to a campaign against the United States.

Prior to the most recent tragedy, September 11, were there any inklings, any intelligence that indicated that bin Laden was on the move again?

What we've found so far is that there was not any significant warnings in the days or weeks leading up to the September 11 attacks. And that while there had been threat warnings earlier this year that were significant and which were ... talked about publicly, there were the threats related to the 4th of July holiday period earlier this year that were announced, those warnings seemed to have receded after the 4th of July. And officials say they saw very little that would have indicated a heightened activity level by bin Laden's organization or any threats, immediate threats, of a major attack against the United States.

When you say threat warning, what do you mean?

They pick up intercepted communications. Or they have a source who might tell them that something's going to be happening. They might have spy satellite photos that show movement. They might show, you know, the intercepted telephone calls or e-mails or something like that, that might have indicated heightened activity. And they say that they didn't see anything significant in the days or weeks prior to this.

Now, prior to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, bin Laden had made some very strong statements.

Yes. Several months earlier ... [ in 1998] it was one of his, I think, first public statements of his jihad where he went on videotape and announced his jihad against the United States. He had made what they call a fatwah. A fatwah is a religious statement claiming religious support of an edict of war or an attack, and he had issued those in the past. But this was his most public one. ... And then that was followed by the embassy bombings in August.

He did not do that this year. There were some statements he had made a few weeks ago, reported statements. But it's unclear exactly how significant those statements were. It's safe to say, I think, that the United States was caught completely by surprise.

What's the extent of what the intelligence community might know about this man's organizational chart .

It's not that cut and dried. It's shifting and free floating. And just think about the fact that all these people are willing to kill themselves to do this. It's not like a regular Army or a regular organization. These are people driven by passion and ideology. So you don't need a strict organizational chart. They have camps in Afghanistan where they train. And they have networks and communications through informal relationships to get people involved. But there's an inner circle of people around bin Laden. And then outside that, it's much more free floating and shifting alliances among radicals.

How much control does even bin Laden have over those?

Well, it's unclear. That's one of the greatest mysteries of this over the last few years. ... There are some other leading terrorists, for instance, from Egypt who have gone to Afghanistan. This one guy named al Savari who was originally part of a group called the Islamic Jihad which goes back to Sheik Omar Rahman and the first World Trade Center bombing. There's been people speculating that maybe it was people like him around bin Laden who really call the shots or who are the operational people. But it's unclear. I don't think the United States has ever thoroughly penetrated bin Laden's organization. So we don't really understand all of the inner workings of it.

And even understand his capabilities intellectually?

He's clearly smart. And he's got money and resources. But the question is, how operational is he versus some of the other people around him? Is he a figurehead? Or is he deeply involved in the day-to-day running of these, you know, planning of these operations? That's not clear at all.

Would you call him the shot caller?

I don't know. That's what I'm saying, we're not sure. He is clearly the name that everybody knows. But at this point, I think the U.S. government probably knows more ... obviously, than I do about this. But to me it's still unclear whether he runs everything or whether it's even more loose than just him. He may just provide his own blessing on operations that other people want to run. So I'm not sure.

Well, that raises the question obviously of what we do know and our capabilities to find out what we want to.

Well, I think this last attack shows that they're not good enough. Our intelligence wasn't good on this. And law enforcement investigation of bin Laden wasn't good enough. And we got beat badly by him this time. And that shows the weaknesses, both of our intelligence and our investigative skills.

And what are those weaknesses?

I don't think we know, the CIA and the FBI. I think if they knew what their weaknesses were, they'd be able to fix them. But one of the key things obviously is ... whether we have any informants in his organization who are well enough placed to provide us with adequate warning of what he plans to do.

So this idea of human intelligence is so central to be able to penetrate.

Right. For instance, what the CIA did against the KGB and the Soviet Union during the Cold War was we recruited Russian spies inside the KGB to tell us what the KGB was doing. We have not done that enough with Al Qaeda and bin Laden. We don't have enough spies telling us what they're doing. And the CIA has to do better about that. They know they have to do better. That's clearly one of their major priorities.

Well, why wouldn't we have more spies in there if he's the face of terrorism, he's the face of our biggest threat?

Because his organization is difficult to penetrate. I think largely because it's based on both ethnic and religious ties. And it is based on shared passion and emotion and an ideology. And it's difficult to buy an informant with money who is driven not by money but by ideology. Those are the hardest people to turn into informants. And that's different from a KGB officer in 1985 in Moscow who is desperate for more money and who didn't care much about the Soviet Union. And so that makes it a much harder target.

Were we expecting too much from the intelligence community?

No. I mean, this is what they have to do. This is the new target. If they don't do this, then they're not doing their job.

The most recent attack, what did we learn? What does that tell us about his capabilities, his mindset at this moment?

I think it shows that he's patient or that his organization has great patience. When we ramp up and we have a warning or a threat and the U.S. announces that they've heard a warning, he lies low. He only does one or two operations a year. And he clearly comparts them enough so that very few people know about them. And I would imagine that it's true that people in one part of the operation don't know about the other people. And so he's got very good security and he's patient and willing to wait. And he's willing to look for our vulnerabilities and attack those weak spots.

And there's no way we can not have weak spots. We are worldwide. We have worldwide forces, worldwide interests. There's going to be some place in the world where some American interest is not heavily protected. I mean, that's just going to be a given. And he has shown the patience to look for those. And he has this cadre of people now who are willing to die for him. And that's a very volatile mix.

That's a very frightening mix.

It is. Never seen the number of suicide bombers or suicide assailants that he has been able to project around the world in this kind of a global conspiracy. Because we've seen that in Israel in the past or in Lebanon in the 1980s, never seen suicide bombers in other cases or suicide attackers going around the world to different parts of the world to attack American interests all over the globe in the way he has. And so it's a very difficult target for us to stop, a very difficult thing for the United States to stop.

Can we?

I don't know. I hope so ... I think his big mistake this time was that the previous attacks were bad, but they were small enough for us to categorize as terrorism. I think this time the United States is categorizing it as war. And I think we are now going to elevate our response to him to a war footing. And I'm not sure if he's ready for that either.

What many people think, now is, "OK, if he's responsible, go get him. Just go over there, get him, find him. Take this guy out. Do what you have to do."

Well, the U.S. has had special operations troops training to get him for the last several years. And they've been ready to go for years. And the government has at various points decided not to do it because of the risk of casualties to American troops. That, I think, is one of the changes that you'll see is the calculus of "Is the risk worth it?" I think [that] has changed with the World Trade Center and the Pentagon bombing attacks.

When it was small attacks on small American outposts, you could make the case, ... is it worth going after this guy when you might lose 100 American troops and not find him? Now I think people may be more willing to take more aggressive actions against bin Laden.

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