Recent interviews:

Alex Beam: The Asylum on the Hill (January 4, 2002)
Alex Beam, the author of Gracefully Insane, probes the rich past of a mental hospital renowned for ministering to prominent, creative, and aristocratic patients.

Reuel Marc Gerecht: The Necessity of Fear (December 28, 2001)
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA spy in the Middle East, argues that the only way to douse the fires of Islamic radicalism is through stunning, overwhelming, military force.

Larry Thompson: War's Forgotten Faces (December 18, 2001)
Larry Thompson of Refugees International describes what life is like for the refugees of conflicts, old and new, in Afghanistan.

Alice Munro: Bringing Life to Life (December 14, 2001)
A conversation with Alice Munro, whose stories are fueled by her fascination with the way people portray their own lives.

Elinor Burkett: Back to School (November 28, 2001)
Elinor Burkett, who at age fifty-five became a member of the class of 2000, reports on high school today through a journalist's eyes.

William Langewiesche: Culture Crash (November 15, 2001)
William Langewiesche, the author of "The Crash of EgyptAir 990," on the cultural reverberations of a seemingly straightforward airplane crash.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on the war on terrorism in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.


From the archives:

New & Noteworthy: Holy War, Inc. (December 2001)
A review by Bruce Hoffman.

Atlantic Unbound | January 9, 2002
 
interviews
 
Terrorism's CEO

Osama bin Laden, argues Peter Bergen in Holy War, Inc., used corporate-management techniques to turn al Qaeda into the world's preeminent terrorist organization

.....

Gracefully Insane

Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden
by Peter L. Bergen
Free Press
297 pages, $26

rior to September 11, Peter Bergen was just another journalist working on a book. In August he had delivered the completed manuscript, a biography of Osama bin Laden, to his publisher. Bergen recalls bemusedly how he had then "looked forward to a civilized period of editing before the [book's scheduled] publication in mid-summer 2002." All that of course changed as the unforgettable events of that September day unfolded. Suddenly, there was an acute public need for more information about the person behind the attacks and the organization responsible for them. Most of all, there was a yearning to understand how this could have happened. And there was no one more qualified to answer these questions than Bergen. In 1997 he had produced the first televised interview with Osama bin Laden broadcast on American television, and, hence, is one of only a few Americans to have actually met the man. In addition, Bergen has had a long and passionate interest in Afghanistan and has traveled many times to that conflict-plagued country—as well as to other places around the globe associated with bin Laden, including Pakistan, Egypt, Kashmir, and the isolated Hadramawt region of Yemen where the bin Laden family originated. Not surprisingly, Holy War, Inc.'s publication date was quickly pushed forward to mid-November 2001. Bergen embarked on a two-week break-neck effort to revise and update the original manuscript in order both to take account of September 11 and explain to readers still reeling from the tragedy exactly how bin Laden had orchestrated the bloodiest day in United States history since the Civil War.

Bergen's explanation is at once fascinating and disquieting. Bin Laden presides over his terrorist organization, al Qaeda, in much the same way that a corporate president and CEO manages a multinational business. According to Bergen, bin Laden used the techniques of modern management—skills that he first learned as a student of economics and public administration at one of Saudi Arabia's premier universities and later sharpened while working in his family's highly profitable, world-wide business empire—to transform al Qaeda into the world's preeminent terrorist organization. Abetted by modern technology and fueled by a sense of profound grievance coupled with religious piety, bin Laden was able to launch the first truly global insurgency. He is thus at once a product of globalization and a response to it. As Bergen sees it, bin Laden has masterfully "exploited twenty-first-century communications and weapons technology in the service of the most extreme, retrograde reading of holy war. The result is a fusion I call Holy War, Inc."

Bergen and I discussed these, and related issues, over lunch in Washington, D.C., on December 21, 2001.

—Bruce Hoffman



Peter L. Bergen
Peter L. Bergen   

Is there something particular about bin Laden—his personality, his ability to spread his message—that led to al Qaeda's successes and the response that they have generated in the Muslim world? Or do you think that someone else could have filled that role? Is he the archetypal right man in the right place at the right time?

I think he has, in Hollywood terms, a great "back story" which made him attractive, not only to the media in the sense that this is an interesting case, but also, more importantly, to his followers. His followers are keenly aware that he could have been sitting around in his palace in Jiddah and jetting off to London and instead chose to fight holy wars in Afghanistan and Sudan, etc. I think that makes him an appealing figure. Obviously he had certain organizational skills. When he announced the united fight against the Jews and the Crusaders in February of 1998, the CIA had an analysis saying that this was the first time that all of these different national groups had gotten together to foment a religious war against Americans. True. So bin Laden must have some ability to broker deals that makes him special.

Let's talk about how bin Laden managed al Qaeda. Does bin Laden's application of corporate-management practices to the running of al Qaeda really account for its success? Is this one of the things that has separated this terrorist group from all of its predecessors that were never really as competent and certainly could not have accomplished the type of attacks we saw on September 11?

I think he organized it in quite a rational manner with all the various committees for religious, business, military, and media affairs. There was a top council and various committees after that. Bin Laden comes out of a business background—he studied public administration and economics at university, and he worked for his family company, which was obviously a rather successful enterprise. When you come out of that kind of environment, you do apply the lessons that you learned to whatever else you're doing, and I think he did run al Qaeda as sort of a business. At one point people in al Qaeda were actually drawing monthly paychecks when they were based in Sudan. This guy also privatized terrorism. That hadn't happened before in the same way. This guy was probably one of the biggest businessmen in Sudan between 1991 and 1996. There wasn't a single type of business in Sudan that he didn't have, whether it was a bank or a tannery or a bakery or a construction company or an import/export firm. He employed thousands of people.

You wrote in your book that the U.S. has proved to be one of al Qaeda's most useful bases of operation. What is it about the United States that lends itself to being a hub of al Qaeda-Islamic terrorist activity?

One of the surprising things about the whole story is how many al Qaeda members were living in the United States. Even before the events of September 11 the FBI had identified maybe seven or eight al Qaeda members or associates who were living in the United States. It's an open country. I guess that is why they come here. And secondly they want to understand the United States because they are trying to attack it. It is not an accident that Ali Mohamed, the Egyptian-American al-Qaeda member who is now a U.S. government witness against the group, came here and tried to get a job with the CIA. Then he did work at U.S. Special Forces Headquarters in Fort Bragg, and he volunteered to work for the FBI. It was sort of opposition research. And also Ayman al-Zawahiri, astonishingly, was fundraising in this country. Here's a guy who is well known to be the head of a terrorist group in Egypt, and in the 1990s he got two visas to come to this country. If that is not a failure of intelligence, then what is?

Do you think bin Laden is a product of his times? In other words, is he quintessentially a man of the nineties created by globalism and the collapse of ideology? Could he have existed or thrived in any other epoch?

I think it would have been unlikely. Bin Ladenism is created by globalization and is also a response to globalization. It is very hard to imagine how bin Laden could have operated in another era. A lot of the stuff he was doing was on satellite phones. And satellite phones really weren't around until the nineties. There was no way to communicate in Afghanistan without a satellite phone. It was one of the most basic levels in terms of communicating with his followers around the world. A lot of places where al Qaeda flourished didn't exist before the end of the Cold War: Azerbaijan, for instance. The Internet also played quite a role in recruiting people or getting the message around. Bin Laden produced a videotape last summer which was widely circulated on the Internet. It is not an accident that he rose to prominence at this time. In the eighties all these kinds of groups were sort of arms of various governments. But the world was a different place in the nineties, and bin Laden had deep enough pockets that he could function in this new world. Plus there's this whole notion of a transnational world. Cheaper and more available travel also had a part to play. A lot of the people who were recruited to bin Laden's flag were flying from all around the world to Afghanistan to get training. If you were some guy in the Philippines, it would not have been very easy in the seventies to just decide to go to Afghanistan and get military training, but it became easier.

What do you think accounts for bin Laden's adroit use and exploitation of the media? Is he that skillful? Or is it more that the media was ready and willing to be exploited by someone like him?

I am very suspicious of the notion that somehow bin Laden was a media creation. We did the interview with him in 1997 on CNN, and basically no one paid any attention at all. It got a little write-up in some wire services, but it was not a big deal. Bin Laden's actions made him into a big deal. Not the media. Without the simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and the U.S. cruise missile attacks two weeks later against his terrorist training camps, no one would have noticed him. This whole question of the media has a slightly tautological feel—it is a media age, and everybody uses it. The fact that bin Laden uses it is not surprising. So does President Bush. So does Tony Blair. Bin Laden is not stupid, and he uses the media in a way that many other "not stupid" people use it.

Let's turn to the tape that was released last month by the U.S. government. It showed bin Laden acting gleeful, boasting over the September 11 attacks, and generally behaving in a way that revealed little remorse for the events of that day. Based on your own face-to-face meeting with the man, did what you saw on the tape ring true to you?

It seemed utterly authentic to me. I have worked in the television business for fifteen years. Trying to fake that kind of thing would take you years. The amateur nature of the video and audio to me confirmed very much that it was authentic. This was intended, I think, to be taken home by the Sheikh to show what a great guy bin Laden was. And it's interesting, if you look at what bin Laden tapes do exist, they are all in focus, the audio is good. This was an amateur tape not meant for wide distribution. When we met with him he smiled occasionally—a rather thin smile. This is about as jovial as bin Laden has ever gotten. And he was having a rare old time. This was a knee-slapping bin Laden. It is not a pretty sight, is it?

Was there anything on the tape that surprised you?

These people are almost giddy. To me it's of a piece. And now we have a better translation of the tapes. We have gotten more names. It is a slam dunk. It is curious to me that the U.S. government didn't release all those names. It makes the case against bin Laden even stronger that he mentioned nine of the hijackers by name.

Is it surprising that he had that detailed, meticulous knowledge of the plot?

This was obviously incredibly important. Bin Laden was involved as early as 1993 with the operational details of the attack against the U.S. embassies in Africa. So it shouldn't be surprising that he would be quite knowledgeable about this attack, which, after all, was his pièce de résistance.

There are repeatedly iterated fears of bin Laden's acquiring and using a bona fide weapon of mass destruction. Do you think those are realistic? Is this a man who would destroy the world?

I think that the fears are extremely well founded. The documents that have been found in these al Qaeda safe houses in Kabul show a keen interest in weapons of mass destruction. And there's a certain pattern in al Qaeda's past activities—whether experimenting in an amateur way with chemical weapons or trying to buy bomb-grade uranium. This group was deadly serious about looking into this stuff, and bin Laden's statements on the subject—that he'd use weapons of mass destruction in certain circumstances—are pretty discomforting. I think that al Qaeda wouldn't hesitate to use them. The point is that the kind of weapons they have are not serious atomic weapons, but they do have a radiological component or a chemical component. That makes them weapons of terror rather than weapons of destruction.

Why do you think al Qaeda hasn't already employed even low-level chemical or biological weapons? They may be less destructive, as you said, but weapons of terror obviously have enormous psychological potential.

Maybe they just didn't get to the point where they were weaponized in a way that would be remotely effective. They were injecting dogs with cyanide gas two or three years ago. Clearly they were experimenting. But the fact is that they came up with a complex, low-tech solution: using planes as bombs. One has to presume that if they had something more they would have used it. But I still think that there is a strong possibility that they will deploy a deadly nuclear bomb at some point.

Does it suggest anything to you that in the videotape, bin Laden talks about September 11 but makes no mention at all of the anthrax exposure in the U.S.?

Often it is important to listen to what people aren't saying. When bin Laden was interviewed by Hamid Mir, the Pakistani journalist, he said, "We have nuclear and chemical weapons." But he didn't mention biological. So that is the second time where he has sort of taken a pass or hasn't said anything about the biological. Also, we don't have any indications that they did any experiments with the biological, and we do have indications that they have a strong interest in nuclear and chemical weapons.

According to German intelligence, a total of 60,000 persons were trained in al Qaeda camps in Sudan and Afghanistan during the past decade. Does this number surprise you?

That number seems very high. All these numbers are estimates, and supposedly, during the Afghan-Soviet War, 25,000 Muslims from around the world came to fight against the Soviets. Quite a number of those people would have had some contact with bin Laden's organization. How many were members of al Qaeda? Who knows? I think that the number is in the low several thousands. Some of the people involved in the attacks may not even be members of al Qaeda, anyway. One of the people involved in the U.S. embassy bombing attack in Tanzania—he ground out the TNT— had never met bin Laden and had never even heard of al Qaeda. So the point is that people lower down the scale who are doing the gopher jobs aren't necessarily members of the organization. But 60,000 seems awfully high.

Where do you think most of these guys are now? And are we looking at a problem of these endless phalanxes of sleepers seeded throughout the world that will rise up?

I think it is a huge problem. It has got to be. Some of these people may have just reverted to their civilian jobs and may not want to be involved in terrorism, and some may be rounded up by law enforcement around the world. The fact is that after the U.S. embassy bombing attacks there were a lot of arrests—not only in the United States but also around the world—of people supposedly affiliated with bin Laden. Obviously those arrests missed a lot of people, because September 11 happened. And the Cole happened. You would have to be wildly optimistic to presume that there isn't a cell out there capable of doing a lot of damage that no one has found.

So you think there are a lot of cells out there.

I don't know. The point is that it is very hard to know. It's like proving a negative. You arrest X number of people, but is that it? One of the things that struck me about the people on the eleventh is how disciplined they were. They didn't brag or boast about what they were doing. They didn't get arrested for petty infractions that would get them deported. Those sorts of people have been trained. Obviously the FBI wasn't looking for this type of thing, and they didn't see it.

Getting back to the corporate-management parallel. All good corporations have some plan of succession. What do think is bin Laden's and al Qaeda's?

I think bin Laden had other people that he would have liked to take over the organization. But I think the U.S. government is keenly aware that al Qaeda's leadership is not just bin Laden—that it is about twenty-five other people. The government has those names, and it will go after those people. So I think the top echelon is destined to be captured or killed, and that will make a big impact on the organization.

So there is no obvious successor?

Given the fact that Ayman al-Zawahiri has a 25-million-dollar reward on his head, that Muhammed Ataf is dead, and that President Bush has said we're going to go after Abu Zubaida, I think bin Laden is sort of short-handed for the entire top leadership.

From your perspective, what do you think bin Laden was trying to accomplish on September 11?

I think bin Laden was trying to provoke a clash of civilizations, and it turned out to be a huge dud. One thing that was really striking to me after September 11 was the demonstrations we saw in Karachi, which is a city of 15 million people. Tens of thousands of people were demonstrating in the street. You can have a million-man march at the drop of a hat. Or in Cairo or in Jakarta. We didn't see mass outpourings of support for bin Laden. I think he was trying to divide the world between the believers and the nonbelievers and trying to really provoke this clash. Well, it turns out that the people who are going after bin Laden, without exception, are Muslims. Whether it is Pakistani intelligence or the Afghans, the actual "infidel" presence in Afghanistan is miniscule. The people who are really doing the work are all Muslims.

Knowing what you know about bin Laden and al Qaeda, if President Bush were to ask you what the United States should do next in the war against terror (assuming operations were successfully concluded in Afghanistan), what would you advise him?

I think Afghanistan was a very sui generis situation. You don't need to go to war with other countries to get at al Qaeda at this point. It is just not necessary. And you have seen in Yemen recently that the Yemeni government went after al Qaeda with some U.S.-trained forces. There are no more wars after Afghanistan. It is a whole different phase. It is about intelligence gathering. If indeed the U.S. Administration goes after Iraq, it will have nothing to do with September 11 and everything to do with not letting the weapons' inspectors in. That isn't new anyway. The U.S. has had that policy against Iraq since 1990. It is not as if going after Saddam Hussein about weapons of mass destruction would be a new development.

From the archives:

"The Counterterrorist Myth" (July/August 2001)
A former CIA operative explains why the terrorist Usama bin Ladin has little to fear from American intelligence. By Reuel Marc Gerecht
In terms of terrorism, what is the biggest challenge the U.S. will face in the post-bin Laden era?

The lack of human intelligence is obviously the key. That is what is striking. It doesn't matter how great your Predator drone or your Daisy-Cutter bombs are in Afghanistan. None of this makes any difference. If there had been one informant inside the people who planned September 11, we wouldn't be having this discussion at all. That is critical. It is a matter of working out how to either recruit people or train people who are capable of penetrating. The U.S. government has not had a particularly good track record with this. In the first World Trade Center bombing there was an informant. He was ignored because he was a rather problematic person, but it turns out that he was correct, and they used him again in the second New York terror conspiracies. And that averted what would have been the bombing of the United Nations, the Holland Tunnel, the George Washington Bridge. The moral of the story is that human intelligence is the most vital source of intelligence.


What do you think? Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism analyst for the Rand Corporation.

Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.