Evaluating Al Qaeda's Claim of Responsibility

Lynn Neary speaks with Mike Scheuer, former head of the CIA special Osama bin Laden unit and author of Imperial Hubris: Why The West Is Losing The War On Terror. He evaluates and explains possible links between al Qaeda and the London blasts.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Lynn Neary joins me in the studio, and, Lynn, Prime Minister Blair almost immediately called it the work of terrorists.

LYNN NEARY, host:

Yes, and so far, we have had one claim of responsibility for this, Renee. The Secret Organization of al-Qaeda in Europe posted a claim of responsibility on its Web site. We don't know for sure whether or not there's any legitimacy to that claim. And on the line with us now is Mike Scheuer. He's the former head of the CIA's special Osama bin Laden unit. And he's also the author of the book "Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror." That came out last summer under the name `anonymous.'

Let me start out, Mr. Scheuer, by asking you about this claim of responsibility. Do early claims like this generally pan out or not?

Mr. MIKE SCHEUER (Author, "Imperial Hubris"): For al-Qaeda, they generally do pan out. And this one, in particular, was mounted on a Web site that bin Laden has used frequently in the last decade for important announcements from himself, and the tone and the phrasing of the communique is pretty much standard al-Qaeda phraseology. So that fact, together with the really professional type of operation that hit London and the targets, I think, clearly, suggests that al-Qaeda was behind this.

NEARY: What's known about this group? Is this a completely brand-new...

Mr. SCHEUER: It's a brand-new name.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. SCHEUER: But there have been several brig--there's been the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade named after bin Laden's former military commander that has talked a lot about attacking in Europe. But this is a new name, and, as Dr. Hoffman(ph) mentioned to you earlier, it's not unusual for al-Qaeda to find a unique name for each of its operations.

NEARY: Now on that Web site, there were also threats or warnings to both Denmark and Italy to--about their support for the war in Iraq. What does that indicate to us?

Mr. SCHEUER: Oh, it's--again, it's another consistency in the pattern of information we have on al-Qaeda. Zawahiri and bin Laden have named about 23 countries since the fall of 2001 that should stand by to be attacked because they're helping the Americans, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. And the three staunchest allies we've had in Iraq, in Afghanistan, have been the Danes, the British and the Italians, of course. So that's another clue, I think, you could say, that suggests that this was, indeed, al-Qaeda.

NEARY: And what are the similarities between this attack today and the explosions, the terrorist attacks, in Madrid on the commuter trains there?

Mr. SCHEUER: Well, this appears to be a little bit more difficult operation. The attacks in Madrid were focused on one specific station and this was conducted in three or four different places. The numbers keep changing, ma'am, so I'm really not sure how many attacks there were.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. SCHEUER: But, clearly, this is a little bit more sophisticated. It may, in terms of damage, be less than Madrid but I think that's too early to tell. They're being very close-lipped about casualties.

NEARY: In terms of those changing numbers, we should say what we think it is right now is that there were four attacks, possibly--or it may have been six attacks, but in four sites. That's a possibility.

Mr. SCHEUER: Yeah.

NEARY: But definitely know of four attacks right now. You know, the fact that what we just mentioned, the attacks in Madrid, which similar to what happened in London today, the threats against Denmark and Italy, does this indicate a shift in focus for al-Qaeda to Europe?

Mr. SCHEUER: No, I don't think so. I think what they're trying to do is to dissuade the Europeans from being anymore help to us on either terrorism or Iraq than they are at the moment. Bin Laden's major goal for al-Qaeda proper continues to be to drive the United States out of the Middle East, and he's spent the better part of a decade trying not to dilute the focus on America. So these attacks in Europe are not as big as they could be, but they're clearly meant as a warning to the Europeans. I think with bin Laden hoping that the Europeans generally hope the alligator eats them last and that they will slow down their support for the Americans rather than intensifying it.

NEARY: London was pretty much expecting something like this to happen. There was a sense that I have had from talking with officials in London today that they knew this was something that was inevitable and they've been preparing for.

Mr. SCHEUER: And it's a very popular--it'll be very popular in the Islamic world. In some ways, the British are remembered with less favor than the Americans are. The British have a long history of imperialism and occupation in the Middle East, and any hit that goes against Britain strikes a very strong historical chord in the memory of Muslims. And so those who support Osama bin Laden will take a great deal of satisfaction from having the former empire take a blow in its imperial capital.

NEARY: Not only the former empire, but a country who is led by Prime Minister Tony Blair who's been a stalwart supporter of President Bush's war in Iraq.

Mr. SCHEUER: Absolutely, ma'am, and they both have--they're both in lockstep on this business of chasing al-Qaeda down one person at a time and bringing them to justice, which is--of course, nothing could be more pleasant to the ears of Osama bin Laden.

NEARY: And, of course, both Mr. Blair and President Bush were in Scotland at the G8 Summit. Mr. Blair on his way back to London now. But Mr. Bush in his remarks talking about the solidarity of the leaders there on this issue of terrorism.

Mr. SCHEUER: Well, clearly there's a rhetorical solidarity but there's certainly no substantive solidarity outside of a few members. Outside the British and the Italians, who are very staunch on this issue, the other members of the European community are more or less trying to look out for themselves so I think that's--it's always a good piece of rhetoric, it's always an easy piece of rhetoric to dispense, but the reality is the trans-Atlantic rift on the issues of terrorism and Iraq are pretty broad.

NEARY: Mike Scheuer, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

Mr. SCHEUER: My pleasure, ma'am, thank you.

NEARY: Mike Scheuer is the former head of the CIA's special Osama bin Laden unit.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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