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interview: nabeel musawi

You were saying that Sept. 11 was a coup attempt? What do you mean?

If you go by the history of the Middle East and the way coups were carried out, you aim for the financial center, you aim for the ministry of defense, and you aim for presidential palace. Of course, you usually aim for the TV and radio, but in the case of the United States, you don't need to do that, because it's free press. So what happened on Sept. 11 in the United States was a coup attempt, because they aimed for the White House, they aimed for the Pentagon, and they aimed for the heart of the financial center of the United States.

But a coup implies that they're going to replace the existing government or elite with another one.

...If you're attacked in the White House and if you are attacked in Air Force One, and you're attacked in the military establishment which represents the most powerful thing within the United States, that is a coup. You're destroying the leadership. You're killing the whole leadership. It will take weeks, if not months, to bring back some sort of order into the American system. That is a major success for a small terrorist organization like Taliban and Osama bin Laden and their associates in the region.

To them, this will throw not only the United States but the whole of the Western world into total anarchy, panic. We know they had limited success from the atrocities committed on Sept. 11. And still, it threw everybody into a panicky state for a few days. It took us few days to get over the shock. Even the political system itself took a few days to recover from the shock. So imagine if you actually get Air Force One and the White House. That is a coup. ...

about nabeel musawi

An Iraqi dissident, Nabeel Musawi is the political liaison for the London-based Iraqi National Congress. Alleging an intelligence connection between Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and Iraq, he tells FRONTLINE that he believes Saddam Hussein's regime was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. Musawi says U.S. support of "corrupt regimes" in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia is a major factor fueling anti-Americanism in the Middle East. This interview was conducted late September 2001.

You don't believe, as I take it, that this was the work of simply a private network?

No. Absolutely not. Private networks don't function that way. This kind of operation requires logistical support, training [and] funding. No private network is capable of carrying out the planning of this operation over a period of at least two years with total secrecy unless they have a serious support and backup from professionals to a degree that goes beyond Taliban. It goes beyond Osama bin Laden. They're amateurs, compared to what we have in the Middle East.

Who are amateurs?

The Taliban. They only started years ago, compared to, for example, Iraqi intelligence, who have been around for over 30 years. They've carried out many terrorist operations outside Iraq. They've supported many terrorist organizations. They have the expertise. They have the logistics. They have the finances. They have what it takes to support a front organization like Taliban, or Abu Nidal previously, to carry out any operation they want outside. ...

But I think what we have now is, again, a new phenomenon. Because Mohamed Atta, according to the press, had five shots of vodka the night before he got on the plane on Sept. 11. So I think it reflects a new dimension now. The new dimension is that these people are involved with the likes of Osama bin Laden to vent a degree of anger and frustration at what's happening over in the Middle East.

In your words, this has now become a kind of fusion of the religious and the political, and supported, you believe, by some state apparatus?

Absolutely, yes.

A U.S. government counterterrorist official, Mr. Sheehan, told us that the one reason why he does not believe the Iraqi government would be involved is that they were getting what they wanted up until now -- release from the embargo, sponsors in the U.N., increasing trade and a Palestinian war with the Israelis, which is creating more sympathy for them. So why would they be involved in something that could backfire, or get them bombed again?

I think those who advocate this view don't understand the mentality Saddam Hussein possesses, and the mentality of the Iraqi regime. Saddam Hussein neither forgives nor forgets.

He was humiliated by the United States and the coalition back in 1991. He kept telling the Iraqi people and the world for the past ten years that there is one more war. If you follow his speeches for the past ten years, it's always been indicating one more war to avenge the honor. I don't have right now direct evidence to present to you of Saddam Hussein's connection to the WTC and to the attack on the Pentagon.

But what I can tell you is that the connection between the Iraqi regime and Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and Taliban, although ideologically they are totally opposed to each other, the intelligence connection is there. We knew of its existence three years ago. We issued a press release at the time of the meeting between Farouk Hijazi and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Let's go one step at a time. Three years ago, you say there was contact between bin Laden and an Iraqi security official?

Yes, the special security service. We know some of the details in the meeting. The Iraqis proposed a cooperation and support of Osama bin Laden and his organization. They even offered him a home in Baghdad if he wanted to move, because they felt that they could accommodate him over there. He declined to take them up on their offer of the to move to Iraq. But he accepted the support. They offered financial [and] logistical training.

We got hold of the information through a security source inside Baghdad. We issued a press release at the time, even naming the individual who heads the Iraqi team. Now, we know cooperation and liaison continued after that. The nature of that, we are not sure about. But we know it's on the special security level in Iraq. And this is under the data control of Qusay, Saddam's younger son. Qusay is the younger one who's deputizing for his father. He's in charge of the special security service and the Republican Guards. Basically, he's the effective ruler of Iraq now.

And Farouk Hijazi went to Afghanistan ... with two [Iraqi security officials] in a private jet. They met Osama bin Laden. They stayed there for a couple of days, and went back.

But there may have been meetings with the representatives of the Pakistani ISI and Osama bin Laden. There may have been meetings with the Saudi intelligence and Osama bin Laden, because that's what intelligence services do.

Yes. The fact that we're talking about the possibilities of chemical and biological terrorist attacks somewhere in the West or in the United States is an indication of the Iraqi connection. They are the only regime that possesses the know-how, and [is] sick enough to allow a terrorist organization like Osama bin Laden access to it. They are the only regime in the world that possesses chemical and biological weapons and used them many times. And they are willing to use it again.

... Do they have the people in place who can do it, who are not even in Iraq or in the Middle East?

Of course. Over the past few years, many infiltrators from Iraq came over to the West, asked for political asylum, and they settled here. We know for a fact that they continue to have their intelligence connection with the Iraqis and intelligence connections with others pro-Iraq.

Do you think that people who carried out the operations on Sept. 11 worried about the consequences of their action? They did not. They were quite proud of what they did. To their colleagues, they are martyrs. So don't think people will shy away from taking this a step further and use chemical or biological weapons. It is sheer madness to think that the likelihood of this, "Who's going to take on the West? Who dares to take on America?" They took on America. It's done.

And you believe they'll do it again in some other form?

I believe they will do it again and again, unless the United States and the coalition tackles the root of the problem. It might not happen this month or next year or even ten years from now. But it will come back to haunt us again. ...

But they didn't do it during the Persian Gulf War, apparently because of the threat made by the United States. [With] a situation where their relationship seems to be getting better, and they may get rid of the embargo, why would they risk it now?

Well, the nature of any terrorist operation is the difficulty of pinpointing one person or one organization as directly linked to such an attack, especially if you have individuals who are willing to commit suicide in the process of the operation. Establishing that connection is very difficult, as we know now.

As I said earlier, Saddam Hussein is someone who neither forgives, nor forgets. The fact that the Arabs now, for example, that the Egyptians and the Saudis, are setting preconditions on the United States in order to cooperate with the coalition, that they should leave Arabic countries out of it, meaning, "No bombing of Iraq. Don't link us to this."

Well, isn't it rational that they have to deal with public opinion in their own countries, and that it's difficult enough as Muslim countries, to aid and abet a war against other Muslims? And so, they have to keep it limited?

We had the Gulf War. [In] 1991 the Saudis allowed the American troops to establish bases inside Saudi Arabia.

But this is one of the reasons bin Laden has given for his own war against America and the Jews, and the Saudi royal family.

But Arabic public opinion is outraged at the operations of Sept. 11. The fact that the Saudis want to -- and they have -- set preconditions for their cooperation with the United States [is] because they are more afraid of the domino effect of any serious change inside Iraq and the effect that it might have on them as a regime, and not as a direct result of public opinion.

You're saying that the Saudi regime and the Egyptian regime have demanded that we exempt Iraq from retribution in this, without us having found out exactly who did this and when and why? Yet we understand, that for people in the Saudi opposition, there is a lot of public support in Saudi Arabia for bin Laden. There was some actual celebration there, privately, quietly, of the operation on Sept. 11.

There is public support as you've put it, but from within a certain segment of society. I think we should come to that in a minute. But the point that I was trying to make earlier was it's already been declared by the United States and Britain that the aim of this war, as a first step, is to establish a new government in Afghanistan, because the Taliban is just simply a terrorist organization, and they cannot deal with it in civilized manners. They have already stated that if they establish any connection between this operation and any other state, the same thing will happen, meaning Iraq.

We know already that the Saudis are aware of American plans to strengthen the Iraqi opposition and help them to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Saudis are afraid a change in Iraq might have a domino effect, a knock-on effect, on the Saudi regime itself. ...

They would rather have the man who threatened them with invasion than have democracy?

Yes. But at least when you compare the Saudi regime to that man, the Saudi regime become extremely civilized and extremely liberal, even. ... But if you're going to establish, or help establish, a liberal, fairly democratic regime in Baghdad, then the knock-on effect, the one that you remember from 1989 in eastern Europe, will probably finally occur in the Gulf. And the Saudis will be the first on the front line.

I know that your colleagues believe that there is not only a financial, but also a spiritual connection in the Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia that is the ruling sect in the country [and the Taliban]. Maybe you could explain that. What is that perspective?

The Wahhabis believe in the same principle as the Iranian revolution back in 1979, which is exporting the revolution, exporting Islam, to other countries. Now the Iranians have stepped back from the principle and have said no more. The Wahhabis have adopted a completely different principle.

I can tell you from my own personal experience in northern Iraq during the 1990s, what they do is, they would go to tiny, very poor villages. They would establish a center. The center would serve as a mosque, a school, as a community center.

These are the Saudis?

These are the Wahhabis, yes. Before you know it, they are totally dominating the life in the village. These villages are extremely poor. It's fertile ground for recruitment of young men who have nowhere to go, who have no future, no education.

So they become totally dedicated to the cause of the Wahhabis, even if they started their life as something else, as probably moderate Sunnis or moderate Shia, they end up being extreme Wahhabis, because they were the only ones who offered them hope. That's how it works.

Similarly with the Taliban?

Similarly with the Taliban, exactly. It's exactly the same principle they used. ...

Is there a connection between elements of the Saudi regime and bin Laden?

Yes. For sure. ...

The Khobar bombing?

Yes. The reason why the Saudis were so cautious in releasing any details about the investigation and why the CIA ... and the FBI [were so frustrated] was due to the fact that the Saudis established very early on in the investigation the connection not only to Osama bin Laden, but to people from within the elite of Saudi society. I'm referring to people very close to the royal family, who funded and supported and facilitated the operation in Khobar. And to them, this would've rocked the foundation of the regime in Saudi Arabia. ...

I can show you at least ten different statements from similar individuals inside the Saudi government, leveling charges at different groups of totally different loyalties, ranging from extreme Shia to Sunnis to foreign elements to Afghani Arabs. They were contradicting themselves after every few months. Because within the family itself, there were arguments of how much information should the public be made aware of, and how much information should the Americans be made aware of, as the victims were American soldiers.

So I'm sitting here, an American. We got a surprise attack on Sept. 11. Our government is pointing towards a private network run by Osama bin Laden. Some people, yourself, former CIA director Jim Woolsey, are saying, "Hey, wait a minute. Take a look at Iraq." Why would Bush not want to, if you will, get even with Saddam at this point?

I think it's their eagerness to form some kind of coalition, even if it's for public consumption. They want to show that they have Muslims on board like the Saudis, like the Egyptians, like other governments.

They want to show whom?

They want to show the world. They want to show the Islamic world, specifically. Because they are becoming more Islam-sensitive now. ... I think the less they expand this war, the more likely they can demonstrate a victory in the near future, some sort of victory.

If they expand it, if they include Iraq, and if they include other countries that might be linked -- the Syrians, for example, might be linked to other terrorist operations somewhere else against American interests from the 1980s, early 1990s -- then before you know it, you're confronting about six, seven, eight different countries. And what do you do? You implement a regime change in all of these countries? So they're limiting the scope of this war.

To Afghanistan?

At the moment, Afghanistan, yes.

Have you contacted the U.S. government?


When you present this information to the U.S. government, do these officials you meet with indicate, "Yes, we have other intelligence that would corroborate what you're saying?"

Most people within the U.S. government privately declared their worry [of] what Saddam Hussein might do. They know Saddam Hussein is a willing partner in any terrorism, anywhere, even in the deepest, darkest Africa. Saddam Hussein wants to always have the power to exert pressure on countries. This is his form of diplomacy. This is his form of bringing people on his side.

But Iraq is a complicated issue from the American point of view, because they have their friends in the region. And the friends in the region, like the Saudis, like the Emirates, even Kuwait, sometimes oppose a change the way America would be willing to support a kind of change, which is more democratic, opening the country.

But from what we understand, one of the motivations for the groundswell sympathy for anti-American acts is our intermittent bombing of [Iraq] and the embargo which causes all of this suffering for the majority of people in the country.

No. The majority of people in the Middle East view American policy in the region as extremely cynical. While America declares its support for democracy and human rights for Americans and for the First and the Second World, the Third World, which is mainly made of these countries in the Middle East...

Like Egypt? Saudi Arabia?

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Iraq Kuwait, all these countries, Libya, North Africa. Millions and millions of people see American officials at peace [who] support, prop up extremely corrupt, crumbling regimes in the Middle East, regimes that have no sympathy for any democratic notion in their countries. They have no notion of support in any kind of human rights for their own people.

But they see Americans appeasing them. They see Americans supporting them -- and I'm talking about the American officials here, many administrations. This is not only restricted to the current administration. So they view this as an act of hostility towards the people of these countries.

And that causes this groundswell of anti-American acts?

Exactly. The dislike of American policy in the region did not start with the bombing of Iraq. Look at before, pre-1991, there was still that feeling. In the 1980s, in the 1970s, in the 1960s. Because it's always been constantly American policy of supporting regimes that they know if they pull the plug on them, they'll fall. It's as simple as that. If they pull the plug on their support of the Kuwaitis or the Saudis, they won't be able to survive for two years in power.

But then we worry that we won't be able to have the oil we need or that Europe needs or Japan.

But you see, people in the region can't drink oil. They have to sell it. And it is the world that consumes it. It's as simple as that. Having democracy there does not prevent you from getting the oil. ... What are we going to do with the oil buried underground? We need the money. We need your money. You need our oil. It's a simple exchange. ...

You were saying this is a situation of personal relationships with bin Laden. Explain.

Well, that region runs on tribal loyalty and tribal connections. So in order to secure your position within a tribe or within a region, then you marry. It's an old tradition that's been running for centuries. So bin Laden chose to follow the same path very successfully, and married his daughter to Mullah Omar, the so-called effective ruler of Afghanistan.

So he has one daughter married to the ruler of Afghanistan?

That's right. But bin Laden himself is married to a niece of Hassan al-Turabi, the effective ruler of Sudan for many years, and very well known throughout the Middle East for his very close ties to Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime. And so the tribal connection, the personal connection or the bond, the strong bond, is there. ...

So to expect, for example, Mullah Omar or Taliban to give up Osama bin Laden is nuts. It will never happen. They will see the whole country destroyed and the whole population wiped off the face of the earth before they would even contemplate such a thought, because they've made that blood connection. That's the way that part of the world runs. It's been running like this for centuries, and no Bush or Dick Cheney or Colin Powell will ever change that.

We believe the way to tackle this war against terrorism and against Osama bin Laden and Taliban is to tackle the root of the problem, and that is to help democratic forces bring about a serious change in that region. I'm not only referring to Afghanistan or Iraq; it has to happen throughout the region. That is the way to protect international law and local law. That's the way to prevent terrorism from prospering in that region, and exporting terror to the outside world.

So what you're saying is, in a sense, we're looking in the wrong direction?

You're looking at the right direction. But you're looking at the wrong policy or of the wrong way of tackling the problem of terrorism. Yes, you'll probably kill Osama bin Laden. You'll probably get through the Taliban. You'll probably have an effective change of government in Afghanistan.

Then what? Has the problem of terrorism been resolved? Absolutely not. Will you be able to find individuals in the Middle East who are willing to commit suicide in the streets of New York and Washington and Los Angeles? Yes. ...

[Can you describe] the nature of the Wahhabis, the Taliban. From a religious point of view in the Judeo-Christian tradition, what are they like?

Wahhabism ... as a movement, they took Sunnis a step further.

Sunnis being the mainstream Islamic belief?

Yes. They kind of moved it a step further, more conservative than sort of mainstream Sunnis. The kind of Wahhabism that Osama bin Laden and his people represent is two steps even further from that. They are far more extreme, to the point where, to them, even using radios is against Islam. Even shaving your beard is against Islam, which really has nothing to do with Islam. ...

But [if] they believe all of that, how come they're using rifles or airplanes or encrypted phones or all these other modern [technologies]?

They used it because they have their own political ends. They sell this ideology to the people to control the masses. It's two different spheres here.

They need to do something to control the masses. Hence, going even a step further and become more extreme. As far as they are concerned, they recruit individuals who are willing even drink alcohol -- from what we know now of Mohamed Atta and others, the night before they commit suicide and become martyrs. So there is a cynical view of their own, regarding Islam and justifying what they do. And of course, not allowing others to do it. ...

The sanctions against Iraq have hurt the people. How badly?

Very badly. Very, very badly. It wiped out the middle classes in Iraq. The effect of sanctions on Iraq has been devastating.

The regime has been left totally immune from the effect of sanctions. In fact, they have more access to cash now than they did back in 1990. We have always maintained that sanctions as a policy is a bankrupt and immoral policy. If you speak to anyone in the streets of Iraq, in any street in the Middle East, they will tell you a sanction is an American ploy. It's a conspiracy between the Americans and Saddam Hussein, believe it or not. This is what the man in the street believes. I don't believe that. ...

Again, I take you back to the point where people see cynicism in American policy. They see American policy kind of deal with the people with contempt. You don't know anything. We know best. So we'll put sanctions for 11 years and we'll see what happens, because we have better foresight than you do.

Do you agree that U.S. policy in relationship to the Palestinians and Israel is also another cause of--

Oh, absolutely. It's the cynicism. Sometimes it's perceived as bias by the United States.

Bias towards Israel?

Bias towards Israel, bias towards dictatorship in general. Why allow murderous regimes like Saddam Hussein to stay in power? Why not help the democratic forces?

Leaving Iraq aside for a moment, the bombing and the sanctions, the corruption of the Saudi and Egyptian regimes and others, the tilting towards the Israelis and let's say, an acceptance of people like Sharon, who represents to many people in the Arab world, if you will, a mass murderer. That's from their perspective. Sounds like a lot of the list of grievances that I read in Osama bin Laden's [fatwa].

That's right. That's right. That's why despite people's outrage at what happened [on Sept. 11] ... there is also this attitude that, you know, they had it coming. You can't go on decade after decade running this policy in the region and not expect some payback. The existence of the likes of Osama bin Laden and the people who carried out the Sept. 11 attack is a direct result of policies in the region.

I travel quite a lot to the United States. This attitude that everything is happening across the ocean, we're far from it, anytime we feel like it we shut our air space and we're immune -- this myth has been destroyed forever now. America is part of this world, and you need to play fair. You're the godfather now. You're the superpower. So you have an obligation to play fair. If you play an imbalanced policy in the region, this is what happens. This is the outcome. ...

You have an axe to grind here. You want to get rid of Saddam, his family.

Of course.

So for those listening at home, isn't it possible you're just using this ... as an excuse to complete what the U.S. government didn't do in 1991?

But we're talking about the rest of the region here, as well. ... If you're going to tackle the problem, it's not only in Baghdad. Whether you establish a data connection between Osama bin Laden or Saddam or not, that's another issue. But you need to look at the big picture and see why there are Saudi elements and Iraqi elements and Egyptian elements and Tunisian and Moroccans involved in atrocities, and prepare to commit further atrocities.

And die doing it.

And die willingly. That's the real war on terrorism. It's not bombing Kabul. It's not killing Osama bin Laden only.

Or Saddam.

Or Saddam. There is a wider picture here that needs to be tackled. And it's really the responsibility first and foremost of the United States as their influence and their policies in the region that is required. But to be redirected, they have to stop their perceived support of these corrupt regimes. ...

By the end of the day, the United States is the only superpower. It has claimed that mantle. And it continues to insist that it is the only superpower, and its word that has to be heard and respected. We accept that. We don't argue with that.

We have a new world order.

We have a new world order. We accept that. But that carries a high degree of responsibility. You're not going to be a superpower and respected as a superpower, and dealt with as a superpower, unless you fulfill the obligations that you've have towards the people in the street. This is not about appeasing King Fahd. This is not about appeasing Hosni Mubarak. ...

You're talking about a solution that requires the population of the United States and in western Europe as well, to have a deeper understanding of globalization. Unlikely, isn't it, in this kind of atmosphere, where the president of the United States says, "Wanted, dead or alive." Is it possible we're going to play into the dialectic of tit for tat?

This is a long-term solution. This is not going to happen overnight. I realize and understand the American public now expects some revenge. They want to see blood for the blood that was spilled in New York and Washington. Fine.

The U.S. will sort of go through probably some sort of fighting engagement in the region. They'll bomb Afghanistan. They'll probably bomb other targets, and they'll satisfy public opinion. I'm talking about the point from beyond that. What is going to happen? Will the U.S. retreat back and say, "OK, we've done our bit, we're happy and we've avenged the innocent people who died in New York and Washington?" Or will there be a clear, levelheaded policy of tackling this problem from its roots?

Now, if we're going to follow that logical levelheaded approach, then hopefully as we say, "In Sha'allah," five, ten years from now, we feel that we have dealt with the issue of terrorism very seriously.

"God willing?"

God willing.

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