TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. President Obama said Tuesday night that he's making the decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan because he's convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He described the area as the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al-Qaida and a place where new attacks against us are being plotted.
But what exactly is al-Qaida now, eight years after the 9/11 attacks? What is its connection to the Taliban, and what is the nature of the threat these groups pose to the U.S. today? That's what we're going to talk about with journalist Peter Bergen. He's CNN's security analyst, co-directs the Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation, and is a research fellow at NYU's Center on Law and Security. He's written two books about bin Laden. The first was published in 2001, before the 9/11 attacks. In 1997 he produced bin Laden's first TV interview in which bin Laden declared war against the U.S.
Peter Bergen, welcome to FRESH AIR. President Obama said Tuesday: If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow.
You've written that we can't defeat al-Qaida without securing Afghanistan. Why do you say that?
Mr. PETER BERGEN (Security Analyst): Well, history indicates what happens if there is a vacuum in Afghanistan. We've seen this videotape, by the way, twice, once in 1989, when we closed our embassy there, zeroed out aid to one of the poorest countries in the world, and basically the United States and the international community turned its back on Afghanistan. Into the vacuum in '96 rose the Taliban, and then they invited or acquiesced and then hosted al-Qaida.
And then again, after we overthrew the Taliban, because of the Bush administration's aversion to nation-building from an ideological point of view, it was the least-resourced post-World War II reconstruction effort the United States has engaged in for at least the first several years.
So you get what you pay for, and we've sort of - we've already - you know, the critics of Obama's plan have to answer a very simple question, which is: What is the alternative? And one alternative would be to pull out completely. Well, we've already done that. Another alternative would be to do something kind of light and just sort of a counterterrorism mission. Well, we've already done that too, and we've seen the results. That was basically the Bush administration approach from I would say 2001 to about 2006, 2007, when - and they - you know, to the Bush administration's credit.
So I - that's why I support what the president is doing. I think that there is - he's got a fighting chance of success, and part of that also is - you know, this is just not my opinion - Afghan population is just overwhelmingly still in favor of the international presence. The numbers have gone down, but the polling data is very, very strong. We've had nationwide polls by any number of organizations, including the BBC, ABC News, Asia Society, the International Republican Institute, a lot of different organizations, and they generally find the same thing, which is that at least half the population or more has a favorable view of the United States.
GROSS: So you've warned that we've pulled out of Afghanistan before and it's been disastrous, especially because we left Afghanistan in a messy, chaotic state when we pulled out. But if President Obama is committing to starting withdrawal of troops in 2011, and he's adding 30,000 more troops now, what are the odds that Afghanistan is going to be in such great shape that an expert like you would be comfortable pulling out then and feeling like, okay, now we've really secured the country, it's no longer liable to become a haven for al-Qaida?
Mr. BERGEN: Well, you know, the 2011 pullout is - was, I think, largely for domestic political consumption, particularly to mollify those particularly on the liberal side of the Democratic Party who were opposed to it and those Americans who were opposed to it, and also it does also give more leverage over the Afghans. You know, this is not just a blank check, and you have to get your act together too. But if you look at what he actually said, he talked about conditions on the ground being part of the calculus for the drawdown in 2011.
Right now, of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan, only one province, the province of Kabul, is capable of administering itself from a military and police point of view. The other provinces are not at that point.
So you know, in July of 2011, maybe there'll be two provinces, or maybe there'll be 10 provinces that you can turn over to Afghan control. But there's a massive caveat in what he said, and I think that the headline was we're pulling out in 2011. But if you actually look at what he said, he didn't say that at all.
GROSS: Yemen and Somalia are already in some ways safe havens for jihadists. So if we secured Afghanistan, one argument is that al-Qaida and maybe even the Taliban, at least the leadership, could get safe haven in Yemen or Somalia. So why is that a scenario that's any better or any worse than safe haven in Afghanistan?
Mr. BERGEN: You know, I'm by nature somebody who's interested in history, and if you look at every major jihadist terrorist attack over the last decade and a half, whether it was the first Trade Center attack of '93, 9/11, the Cole attack in 2000, the U.S. embassies attacks in '98, the Bali attack in 2002, the 7/7 attack in London, which was the largest, deadliest terrorist attack in British history, all these things have one thing in common. They were conceived of and trained for in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and since 9/11 specifically on the Afghan-Pak border.
They weren't conceived of or trained for in Somalia or Yemen. I mean, I'm not happy that there is an al-Qaida presence in Yemen. I don't think the Yemeni government is happy. But it - you know, there's been no evidence from the Somali case or the Yemeni case that these groups are capable of operations anywhere other than their - in the countries they operate in, or to some degree neighboring countries.
So you know, the argument that al-Qaida could go anywhere else - of course, you know, pigs can fly and, you know, all sorts of things can happen. But the fact is, is that al-Qaida, for the last two decades - it was founded in 1988 in Western Pakistan - that's where it's been based. You know, this is where these guys live. They don't - they've never moved anywhere else.
GROSS: Well, bin Laden moved to - was it Yemen or Somalia? I'm trying to remember. Somalia, right?
Mr. BERGEN: Yeah, he moved to Sudan from Saudi Arabia.
GROSS: Sudan, that's right, yeah.
Mr. BERGEN: But let me put it this way. You know, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, his number two, arrived in Pakistan in the mid-'80s. So both of them at that time were relatively young men. Bin Laden was in his mid-'20s. Ayman al-Zawahiri's in his - probably around 30. These guys have spent more of their adult lives in Pakistan and Afghanistan than their home countries by, you know, significant factors. Ayman al-Zawahiri's married into a local tribe. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Osama bin Laden is similarly married into local tribes. You know, this is where they are. They're not - and you know, they've had eight years to go to Yemen or Somalia and they haven't done that. Similarly, all the other leaders of al-Qaida have remained in that area.
GROSS: President Obama talks about the threat from al-Qaida and, you know, that it was al-Qaida who attacked us on 9/11. We have to prevent them from doing more harm. So you know, that's a good deal of his justification for increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan. You've been trying to assess what the actual threat from al-Qaida is now. So let me start with this. What is al-Qaida now? It's changed a lot since 9/11. What's left of it? What shape does it take?
Mr. BERGEN: The problem with describing al-Qaida is that it, depending on your vantage point, it can look different things at different times. So one thing that we forget in this discussion, Terry, I think sometimes, is we focus very much on al-Qaida as being the problem, and al-Qaida certainly is a group that attacked us. But don't forget that before 9/11, every Muslim insurgency group in the world was headquartered in Afghanistan. That's where they trained.
So it wasn't just al-Qaida that was using this as a training ground. It was a lot of other groups. Al-Qaida itself has certainly, you know, changed. What kind of threat do they pose to the United States? I - you know, it's not the organization that attacked on 9/11, which means the threat to the United States is lower than it was, but you know, bin Laden functions - I mean, there are interesting cases in the United States where - in the last year or so there have been a whole set of cases that are absolutely fascinating to me in the United States, going from the gamut of American citizens, like a called Najibullah Zazi, who in Denver - traveling to an al-Qaida training camp and getting training from al-Qaida - to, you know, groups like a group in North Carolina who are alleged to have cased Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, who seem to be acting in an al-Qaida-like manner, even though they've got no connections to the al-Qaida core group at all. Or Major Hasan, who, you know, his motivations still are a little unclear, but clearly he had some sort of jihadist intent.
And you know, so al-Qaida is able to operate as an organization and is able to operate as an inspiration. It has a network of like-minded groups that have plugged into it. For instance, Lashkar-e-Taiba, you know, is really only a Kashmiri militant group until relatively recently, but by attacking in Mumbai and specifically targeting Westerners and Jews, it indicates that it's taken on a more al-Qaida-like manner.
So you know, it - you know, al-Qaida is a sort of shorthand for a kind of largest phenomenon.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Bergen. He's CNN's national security analyst. He's a fellow at the New America Foundation and a research fellow at NYU's Center on Law and Security. His latest book is called "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al-Qaida's Leader."
Now, although al-Qaida still thinks of itself as at war with the United States, you've been trying to assess the threat that al-Qaida poses, and you think al-Qaida poses a second-order threat. What do you mean by a second-order threat?
Mr. BERGEN: When 9/11 happened, the United States re-orientated its national security policy completely. I don't think there's - al-Qaida can do that again for the foreseeable future. I'm not saying that they don't have an intent to do it, but their capability is weakened now.
But you know, they could pull off something like killing hundreds of Americans overseas if they manage to bring down a commercial aircraft, as they've tried to on a number of occasions - Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber, if you recall, in December of 2001; the planes plot in London in the summer of 2006. And you know, that's a possibility.
But I think, you know, a large-scale mass-casualty attack on the United States, I don't think that's possible. I think what might be possible is something - the outer reach would be something like Oklahoma City, 168 people dead, or the lower reach would be the World Trade Center attack of '93, which was six people dead. Obviously that would be a tragic event, but it wouldn't - I don't think we would completely change our national security policy because we've had a terrorist attack that killed scores of people.
I mean, that's - you know, that's inevitably going to happen at some point. You know, whether it's a year from now or 10 years from now, I don't know, but you know�
GROSS: What do you think they are targeting?
Mr. BERGEN: Well, I mean, Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-American, if the allegations against him are true, he trained at an al-Qaida training camp, he was scoping out targets in Manhattan. Bruce Hoffman(ph), one of the leading terrorism experts in the world, described that to me as a Mumbai-on-Hudson-type plan if he'd succeeded.
Certainly it seemed that he was going to, you know, plant one or more bombs, and�
GROSS: This is the guy who was trying to make bombs by buying peroxide hair dye at cosmetic stores.
Mr. BERGEN: Right, and in fact hydrogen peroxide bombs is a signature of al-Qaida right now, and the reason that I think I can say with some certainty that if he'd succeeded, if the allegations are true, he would have killed scores of people - because that's exactly the same ingredient that was used in the 7/7 attack in London, July 7, 2005, which killed 52 commuters.
The process of, you know, making a hydrogen peroxide bomb is pretty complex. It's not something you can learn on the Internet. It's a very unstable bomb material, but the reason that terrorists like to use is that if you're going to - if you buy nitroglycerin or ammonium nitrate or these kind of traditional explosives, you're going to draw a lot of attention to yourself. If you're just buying hydrogen peroxide, you're going to draw less attention to yourself.
So Najibullah Zazi was building one of these bombs. And we've seen this also, by the way - Ramstein Air Force Base was a target of two Germans and a Turk in 2007. They also had learned how to make hydrogen peroxide bombs. And if the planes plot of the summer of 2006 had been carried off, again, those guys were experimenting with hydrogen peroxide bombs. So this is sort of a signature of al-Qaida right now.
GROSS: So you think al-Qaida is targeting the United States with hydrogen peroxide bombs that would be aimed at what kind of targets?
Mr. BERGEN: I think any target they can. You know, at this point they need to show the flag, but they will continue to be interested in cities like Manhattan, symbolic targets. Los Angeles International Airport has been a target of an al-Qaida affiliate in the past.
So you know, it's - they're not interested in attacking Des Moines because the people that they're trying to influence don't know where Des Moines is. I mean, they're trying to show to their followers that they're still capable of attacking the United States. So they want to do that in places like Washington and New York. They have no interest in doing it in sort of small cities that don't have any kind of valence for their followers.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Bergen. He's CNN's national security analyst. He's a fellow at the New America Foundation and a research fellow at NYU's Center on Law and Security. His latest book is called "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al-Qaida's Leader." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Peter Bergen. We're talking about what is the threat from al-Qaida and what is the relationship to the Taliban. Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst. He's a fellow at the New America Foundation, a research fellow at NYU's Center on Law and Security. His latest book is called "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al-Qaida's Leader."
Now, you've written that al-Qaida has made common cause with the Taliban and that at the leadership level, al-Qaida and the Taliban function more or less as a single entity. Would you explain what you think the connection now is between al-Qaida and the Taliban?
Mr. BERGEN: Yeah. When the Taliban were in power before 9/11, this was a very provincial group of people. I actually spent time under the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, which is one of the many reasons I, you know, I'm somewhat optimistic about what's happening in Afghanistan, because, you know, the country was so poor at the time that, well, banks stopped measuring its GDP. There was no business. It was - you know, the Taliban were a provincial group of people, not very competent, and as time went on, they got more and more affected by the al-Qaida world view.
I'm sure you remember the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas of Bamyan, which had been standing in the Bamyan Valley since, respectively, the third and fifth centuries, and those Buddhas of Bamyan, blowing that up was sort of an al-Qaida idea. Essentially the Taliban became more and more militant as time went on.
They forced, for instance, Hindus to wear yellow, distinctive yellow clothing in the run-up to 9/11, and they were becoming more and more militant, and al-Qaida was influencing them, and that process, I think, has actually accelerated since 9/11.
GROSS: Now, one distinction I often hear between al-Qaida and the Taliban is that al-Qaida is into world jihad, global jihad, whereas the Taliban are interested in gaining power in their region, not that interested in the West, the United States. Do you think that distinction still applies?
Mr. BERGEN: I think that's generally true, but I think it's sort of a distinction that doesn't really mean a great deal, because if the implication of that is, well, if the Taliban came back to power we wouldn't need to worry, I think that's ridiculous, because if the Taliban came back to power, they would bring al-Qaida back with them.
I mean, we've - they've shown that that's their modus operandi, both before 9/11 and since 9/11. They've been sheltering the Taliban - they've been sheltering al-Qaida since 9/11 and they were sheltering al-Qaida before 9/11, and they haven't - Mullah Omar has had multiple opportunities to say, you know, I think Osama bin Laden's a bad idea, al-Qaida are a bad group. You know, he hasn't done any of that. And so I mean if the Taliban, you know, took power even in parts of Afghanistan, it would help al-Qaida. The Taliban project has been partly about protecting al-Qaida. It's also about trying to gain power in Afghanistan, but these two things are related.
GROSS: You know, one issue - one of the many issues that's been raised about the Taliban is can we negotiate with them? Can we negotiate with the leadership of the Taliban? If not, can we negotiate and offer opportunities to more lower-level people in the Taliban, offer them jobs, pay them, just give them an incentive to leave the Taliban and join, you know, our side or the government's side, if there were a government that wasn't corrupt.
But anyways, I wonder, like, do you think that either on the high level or low level of the Taliban that there can be people that can be negotiated with or changed?
Mr. BERGEN: Well, there can always be people who can be bribed or coerced into doing things, and - but on the upper levels of the Taliban, I'm pretty suspicious for several reasons about the idea that we're going to be able to do a deal with them, we being the Afghan government, really, with our support.
One is we've already seen what the Pakistani Taliban did when they did peace deals with the Pakistani government, which is essentially they used them as interim arrangements to extend their reach into other parts of Pakistan. So they didn't observe these peace deals.
Secondly, Mullah Omar has taken every opportunity to say he's not interested in any negotiations unless international forces pull out. Well, if international forces pull out, the Taliban would roll into Kabul tomorrow. So that's a non-starter.
Thirdly, I think the Taliban and al-Qaida are close together ideologically and tactically. That makes it harder to negotiate with them on a leadership level.
And fourthly, the Taliban right now don't think they're losing and maybe think they're even winning, and so why would they negotiate for a piece of pie now that they can get a larger piece of pie later? So that's one of the reasons that President Obama is accelerating this 30,000 troop deployment, to blunt their momentum so that they don't feel that they're in some way winning. So I'm pretty skeptical.
On the lower levels of, you know, the Taliban negotiations, I think that's, you know, it's very doable, and in fact something that's not well-understood is that thousands of Taliban foot soldiers have already taken advantage of an amnesty program that's been in place for several years now, and it's been pretty successful. The recidivism rate has been very low.
So you know, I think it's possible. In any insurgency, you can always get people who are foot soldiers to defect for one reason or another, and obviously, as you pointed out, Terry, I mean, I think a very powerful incentive is just jobs. And in fact, Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has put a pretty big chunk of change in a defense appropriations bill precisely for that purpose, which is for American commanders, basically, to put people on the Taliban payroll on our payroll, which of course is one of the reasons that the Iraq War turned around.
The real - the biggest surge in Iraq was not - obviously, the American surge of 30,000 was important, but a really big surge was having the 100,000-man Sons of Iraq. These were 100,000 people who used to be shooting at Americans who were suddenly put on our payroll and then started shooting at our enemies. So that's a 200,000-man surge if you think about it, because it's 100,000 enemies who are suddenly becoming on your side and actually working for you.
GROSS: Peter Bergen will be back in the second half of the show. He's CNN's national security analyst. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Now that President Obama has decided on his Afghanistan strategy, we're talking with journalist Peter Bergen about the Taliban and al-Qaida, how they're connected and what kind of threat they actually pose to the U.S. today.
Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, co-director of the Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation, and the author of two books about bin Laden.
One of the geniuses of the Taliban seems to be that if they feel they're going to be defeated in any one area, they retreat. They go someplace else...
Mr. BERGEN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and they set up shop some place else. So you can declare victory in the area where the Taliban have fled but it's not really a victory if they're just moving to someplace else and setting up shop there.
Mr. BERGEN: There's a book, there's a book, Terry in - from - which actually I haven't read, but has a great title. It was written in 1961 by - I think a guy called David Taber - and it's called "The War of the Flea," and it was about counterinsurgencies for the, you know, for any, you know, that's what - that's what insurgents do.
I mean they're the flea. They move. They, you know, it's very hard to trap them in a place and defeat them. It's - and that's why it's so important to get the population on your side to basically help you with trying to defeat the insurgency, because there's no way you can do it conventionally.
GROSS: And the Taliban are also very patient.
So you know, one argument against the Obama strategy is that if you, you know, pledge to strengthen things for a while, knowing that you're going to start pulling out as soon as you can, preferably in 2011, President Obama says, then why can't the Taliban flee where they're under fire, wait patiently until we leave, and then, you know, take over the country and - meaning that we...
Mr. BERGEN: Sure. I mean...
GROSS: ...wouldn't avoid the worse case scenario that we're trying to avoid.
Mr. BERGEN: Well, the one factor that's missing from that is building up the Afghan army and police. Now, right now they don't - the Afghan army, by the way is the most popular institution in the country and it's seen as being a sort of mostly fair player. The police are very corrupt and are not well regarded. But that was also true, by the way, in Iraq and that changed.
Now, you know, absolutely. If it's just that, you know, the Taliban, we'll just wait and, you know, until we leave, then, you know, raises the question of why are we there? But if the strategy - our exit strategy - the United States exit strategy from Afghanistan honors clearly building up a somewhat functional Afghan army. It doesn't have to be a particularly great army. It just needs to be good enough to deal with the Taliban.
And you know, right now there's a certain paradox, which is that the Afghans are some of the world's greatest fighters and right now they have one of the world's worst armies, and I think that's perhaps because we're sort of forcing them into a kind of a Western model of what an army should look like rather than just letting them kind of fight in the more, you know, sort of special forces, small unit kind of formations that they naturally...
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Mr. BERGEN: Militias. Yeah. Well, exactly. I mean that's how they defeated the Soviets. I mean so I think there is a way of, you know, that is the only exit strategy possible. We're not, you know, otherwise if you, you know, I mean you've raised a very good point. I mean if it's all about the Taliban waiting us out, then we have to be there forever and we're obviously not going to be there forever. And I do think that, you know, building up the Afghan army is not a complete pipe dream, but it's certainly not something that's going to happen by July of 2011.
GROSS: Now, you've written that the Saudis have been facilitating back door negotiations between the Afghan government and more moderate elements of the Taliban. What can you tell us about that?
Mr. BERGEN: Well, yeah. I mean this has been fairly widely reported, that in Mecca, in the fall of last year, some fairly senior figures in the Afghan government met with fairly - formerly senior Taliban officials who are more on the moderate side, and these include the former foreign minister, the former ambassador to the United Nations. These are guys, by the way, who were never fans of Osama bin Laden, always regard him as being bad for business.
The problem with the negotiations is that the people who were really involved in the insurgency didn't really send anybody. The major figures in the insurgency, the Mullah Omars, the Hakani Network, they're not part of this process. But you know, at least it's something. And the Saudis could play an even bigger role, an even more useful role both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia was one of the three governments in the world that recognized the Taliban. This is a group of, you know, people who really believe that they're doing God's work. And of course the Saudis come with a great deal of credibility because they're keepers of the two holy places.
And so, you know, I mean this is, I hope this process continues. But right now it's not really yielding anything. But, you know, these insurgencies go on for a long time and baby steps, it's - just because they're baby steps it doesn't mean that it may not yield something down the road.
I think everybody knows that the Taliban's going to have to be part of the future of Afghanistan in some shape or form. Taliban is sort of a loaded word, but you know, Pashtun, rural Pashtuns need to feel kind of that they're part of Afghanistan's future and that their interests are represented.
And part of the problem here is that there aren't really Pashtun political parties of any great size, so you're sort of - if you're a Pashtun you've got Hamid Karzai on one side, who's a Pashtun, and you've got the Taliban with little bits in between, and hopefully in the next five years, under a Karzai government, there will be more Pashtun political participation and parties. That would begin to help this process move along.
GROSS: What do you think would be the most effective way of stopping al-Qaida? I mean one is to get bin Laden and his number two. Short of that?
Mr. BERGEN: Well, Yeah. Something we have very little control over and should try and exercise no control over anyway, which is Muslim public opinion, you know, has changed, has moved very dramatically against al-Qaida. You know, bin Laden and the Taliban had this sort of Robin Hood flavor in Pakistan for a long time. But now the Pakistani public, in a recent poll 90 percent of them said that religious extremism was a very serious problem in their country.
Support for bin Laden is waning. The Taliban is waning. Supporting for suicide bombing in Pakistan, where these groups are, you know, largely headquartered, has dropped from 33 percent to five percent in the last several years, and that's a story that we've seen in Jordan where - do you remember - Abu Musab al Zarqawi launched an attack on three hotels in Amman, Jordan, which killed mostly Jordanians attending a wedding, which if you were to design an operation more suited to destroying your credibility, it's hard to think of one.
You know, the same process happened in Iraq. It's happened in Indonesia. It's happened in Saudi Arabia. These groups, embedded in their DNA is the - kind of is - are the seeds of their own destruction because they've decided that they are the world's only true Muslims and that if they kill other Muslims that it's not a problem. And in Muslim country after Muslim country it is a problem for the 99 percent of the population that is opposed to, you know, that is on the receiving end of this.
And so they're losing the war of ideas, first of all, in the general population. And then very importantly, they're also losing the war of ideas even amongst militants and Jihadists. People who fought with them in Afghanistan have turned against them. Militant clerics like - there's a guy called Salman al-Awdah in Saudi Arabia, who I've met, who by bin Laden's own account was the reason that he started attacking the United States.
Salman al-Awdah was a Saudi cleric who issued the first fatwas against the American military presence as a result of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He was imprisoned by the Saudis for seven years. He (unintelligible) and bin Laden has said that he's a sort of an inspiration to him. Now, this guy has gone out on Middle East Broadcasting Corporation, one of the biggest TV networks in the Middle East and in other venues, and has publicly criticized not just 9/11, not just terrorism, but bin Laden by name.
Because we've had a lot of Muslim clerics who've said that, you know, 9/11 was wrong or terrorism is bad, but very few have actually had the courage to say that actually bin Laden is immoral, and this is what this guy did five or six years after 9/11. So that kind of support is evaporating.
Now, the counter-argument, if Bruce Hoffman was here, the leading scholar of terrorism in the United States, he would point out that in the '70s the Brigate Rossi in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, you know, practically brought these societies to their knees and they had zero public support. So yeah, terrorist groups can survive with very little public support, but it certainly doesn't help them if their public support is really evaporating.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Bergen. He's CNN's national security analyst. He's a fellow at the New America Foundation and a research fellow at NYU's Center on Law and Security. His latest book is called "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Qaeda's Leader."
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Bergen. He's CNN's national security analyst. He's a fellow at the New America Foundation and a research fellow at NYU's Center on Law and Security. His latest book is called "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Qaeda's Leader."
You've written that you think the threat from al-Qaida and its Jihadist affiliates is greater in Europe than it is in the United States, and it's especially great in the UK. How come?
Mr. BERGEN: I think part of that is an accident of geography and history. Seventy percent of the British Muslim population comes from Pakistan. Pakistan is where al-Qaida and the Taliban are headquartered. If you have Jihadist ideas, you can get training pretty easily in Pakistan. Four hundred thousand British citizens goes to Pakistan every year, 99.9 percent of them for completely legitimate vacations, but a tiny minority end up with a Kashmiri militant groups, which is often a way station to meet up with al-Qaida, and they get training.
And we've seen, you know, the deadliest terrorist attack in British history was directed by al-Qaida. Two of the leaders trained with al-Qaida in the tribal regions in Pakistan, the 7/7 attacks, and there are a number of other British terrorist plots, all of which lead back to the tribal regions of Pakistan.
GROSS: So it's not so much that al-Qaida is more interested attacking the UK than in the United States. It's that it's easier to do it because of people who are already living in England who might go back to their home country and get training.
Mr. BERGEN: Right. And in fact, you know, when we've - al-Qaida is kind of conscious of this. For instance, when they try to blow up an American Airlines flight between Miami and Paris, it was a British citizen who had the shoe bomb in his sneakers.
Mr. BERGEN: And so, you know, you can kind of attack the United States offshore, is I think the way al-Qaida sees it. And another example is the planes plot of the summer of 2006, where an al-Qaida-directed cell using hydrogen peroxide bombs planned to bring down seven American and Canadian airliners leaving Heathrow. By the way, this was right around the fifth anniversary of 9/11. This was al-Qaida's way of celebrating in a ghoulish way the fifth anniversary of 9/11.
But, you know, what's interesting about the plot is two things: first of all, they target a commercial aviation, which is the hardest target imaginable right now. So they remain obsessed by this. The second thing is that they did it in the United Kingdom, because they don't have, you know, 12 people or 20 people, as this plot needed, that they can recruit here in the United States.
They might be able to recruit one or two people, but they can't recruit, you know, a couple of dozen, which would - you know, for a major terrorist plot where you're going to have multiple targets and multiple suicide bombers, you need more than obviously just one person.
GROSS: At the same time, you've written about the growing threat from homegrown terrorists in the United States, people who have been trained by al-Qaida. And examples of that that you give are Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-American man who bought hydrogen peroxide from beauty shops in order to make bombs. But he was arrested before he progressed too far with that plan.
Would you consider Major Hasan, the Palestinian-American officer who massacred people at Fort Hood recently, would you consider him an example of that, of a homegrown terrorist?
Mr. BERGEN: Well, I mean it was certainly an act of terror and think it was motivated by Jihadist ideas. I mean I, you know, and I say that having thought about it pretty carefully, because I didn't, you know, no one wants to leap to conclusions. But if you look at his actions in the days leading up to his death - let me just go through them because I think it's important.
First of all, he gave away all his possessions to his neighbors. Secondly, he said that he was going to go and do God's work. When he talked to one of his neighbors, he gave him his Qurans, you know, a very important possession for a devout Muslim. The day of the operation, he dressed in white. You may remember there was a convenience store videotape of him. White, by the way, is traditionally associated with martyrdom in Islam.
He was exploring suicide bombing, a question of killing of innocents. His communications with a radical cleric in Yemen had accelerated during this period. He seemed like he was going out to do a sort of Jihadist death by cop. I mean I think he intended to die and is surprised that he's ended up in a, you know, paralyzed in a San Antonio, Texas hospital.
GROSS: How well do you think the FBI is doing in stopping homegrown terrorists from carrying out their attacks?
Mr. BERGEN: I think generally speaking very well. I mean a huge amount of resources has gone into the FBI and other arms of the American government since 9/11. I think there are something like 2,000 FBI agents who are involved in counterterrorism cases. Before 9/11 it would've been, you know, orders of magnitude smaller. And you have joint terrorism task forces around the country.
I mean, yeah, I think that, you know, some of these may - is more in the area of overkill rather than under kill. But, of course, you know, somebody is always going to get through. And Major Hasan was - the FBI was aware of some of his Internet postings and they kind of dismissed it as not being a problem.
The FBI was also cognizant of the guy called Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad(ph), who is an African-American convert to Islam, who traveled to Yemen early this year and then came back and then shot up a military recruiting station at Little Rock, Arkansas, over the summer, and killed an American soldier.
So, the FBI seems to have really dropped the ball in his case. But as a general proposition, I think, the criticism is more about people, you know, FBI or other arms of government sort of entrapping people into - you know, the classic example of this is the Liberty City case where six, mostly Haitian immigrants, believed they were swearing an oath of allegiance to an al-Qaida - to al-Qaida, but, in fact, it was government informant and they were planning to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago, although they never traveled to Chicago, they never had guns, they never had weapons.
And that case went to trial three times. It took a jury - it took - only on the third time, were the convictions in that case. So, you know, I think the FBI and other agencies have done a pretty good job. And if there is criticism, sometimes, is more about overkill rather than under kill.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Bergen. He is CNN's national security analyst. He is a fellow at the New America Foundation and a research fellow at NYU's Center on Law and Security. His latest book is called �The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al-Qaida's Leader.�
I'm interested in hearing what you think of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee report that was recently released, criticizing the American military and basically criticizing General Tommy Franks, who was running the war in Afghanistan; and then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, for not sending reinforcements to Tora Bora when the military was telling them bin Laden is here and we could get him but we need reinforcements.
Mr. BERGEN: I mean, I think it's entirely accurate. And, in fact, they interviewed me for the report and I've been to Tora Bora and I've spoken to a lot of people on all sides of the battle and the evidence of bin Laden being there is simply overwhelming. And that was known to people in the U.S. government at pretty high levels if you go back and look at what they said at that time.
And, you know, they dropped the ball. There's just no, you know� By my calculation, there were more American journalists at Tora Bora then there were American soldiers - certainly more Western journalists. And if CNN can get his crew to Tora Bora, why can't the 82nd Airborne get there?
GROSS: So, what are the consequences that are being played out as a result?
Mr. BERGEN: Well, you know, I think if you'd captured or killed - it wasn't just bin Laden at Tora Bora, it was, you know, the entire top leadership, and they - more or less all of them - escaped. You know, I think the group would have - you would have really put a damper on the group. You know, they wouldn't come back. I mean, if you think about what they've done since 9/11, they conducted the deadliest terrorist attack in British history, they helped plunge Iraq into a civil war because of this al-Qaida who was doing the vast majority of all the suicide attacks.
They have inflect - influenced the Taliban ideologically and tactically with all the results that we know in Afghanistan or Pakistan. I mean, they've done, you know, by not putting the amount of business there, I think, it's been a big problem. And, of course, it's not a coincidence with the Tora Bora senate report was released a day before Obama's speech, I don't think.
GROSS: To help justify him sending�
Mr. BERGEN: Well, it kind of sets up, you know, that� It sets up the narrative about what happened, which is still in Afghanistan eight years later because we didn't really finish the job.
GROSS: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who's considered the principal architect of 9/11, is going to be brought to trial in New York at a federal court house.
Mr. BERGEN: Long overdue.
GROSS: What you're going to be looking for?
Mr. BERGEN: I mean, you know, this is a clich�, but I'm looking for justice. I mean, we've already done this before many times. When the embassies got blew up in '98, you know, 200 people killed - plus - mostly Africans, many of them Muslim, by the way. When the four guys involved in that were put on trial in Manhattan, no classified information came out. Any classified information was, you know, held in camera. These guys - the victims, many of the families of the victims got a chance to go to court and see these guys in court. We found out, for the first time, that al-Qaida had a weapons of mass destruction program.
And there's are the lot of public goods in trials, and we've had, you know, we have - the United States is perfectly capable of putting (unintelligible) Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial and we should have done this five years ago. One other point, those guys in the embassy attacks got life without parole. You know, they are going to molder away in the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, which is about a million times worse than being in Guantanamo.
GROSS: And you think the same will happen with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?
Mr. BERGEN: Well, he will either be executed, which, I guess, is kind of what he wants, because he's got a sort of James Bond of Jihad complex; or he will be, yeah, it will be life without parole, which I think Florence, Colorado - it's as close to hell on Earth as you probably can get.
GROSS: Peter Bergen, thank you so much.
Mr. BERGEN: Thank you.
GROSS: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and co-director of the counterterrorism strategy initiative at the New America Foundation. His latest book is called �The Osama bin Laden I Know.�
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