Looking Ahead: Peter Bergen on Al-Qaida Two years after the death of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. continues to warn of the threat posed by the terrorist organization he led. As part of our "Looking Ahead" series, Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst and author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, talks about the future of al-Qaida.
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Looking Ahead: Peter Bergen on Al-Qaida

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Looking Ahead: Peter Bergen on Al-Qaida

Looking Ahead: Peter Bergen on Al-Qaida

Looking Ahead: Peter Bergen on Al-Qaida

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Two years after the death of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. continues to warn of the threat posed by the terrorist organization he led. As part of our "Looking Ahead" series, Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst and author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, talks about the future of al-Qaida.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. In the two years since SEAL Team Six killed Osama bin Laden, we've gotten mixed messages about the continuing threat from al-Qaida. Administration officials say the organization's leadership has been all but wiped out, and we're told the number of drone strikes is down sharply - at least in part - for lack of targets.

Then again, al-Qaida affiliates are active in Yemen, Mali, Algeria, Somalia and, of course, in Libya. And just last week, a Pentagon official said the war against radical Islamist groups is evolving, and predicted it would last another 10 or 20 years at least.

Today, we continue our series of conversations and look ahead with Peter Bergen. If you have a question about Peter Bergen's work on Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, a look at the long history of Nigerian email scams. You can email us the most creative approach you've received. Our email address again is talk@npr.org.

But we begin with Peter Bergen. His latest book, "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad," is now available in paperback. An HBO documentary based on that book airs on CNN this Friday. He joins us here in Studio 42.

And nice to have you back on the program, Peter.

PETER BERGEN: Thank you for the invitation, Neal.

CONAN: And are we looking in the right place? Should be looking in the Pakistani mountainous regions of Waziristan, or should we - as we learned in the Boston Marathon bombings, or news we're getting from Britain today about an apparent murder of a British off-duty soldier in what seems to be a terrorist attack - should we be looking closer to home?

BERGEN: Well, I think there's good news and bad news in that. I mean, the good news is, is that al-Qaida central has taken a tremendous beating, particularly in Waziristan, where the CIA drone program is focused. And the best witness for that is Osama bin Laden, who, in the documents that we've recovered from his compound, was really cognizant and complaining about the effect the drone program was having and suggesting that al-Qaida actually move from Western Pakistan into a part of eastern Afghanistan. So that's the good news.

And, of course, it was al-Qaida central that did 9/11 and the London attacks on 7/7, July 2005. You know, the bad news is that you have what we're seeing, this evolving situation in London, somebody who's basically spouting bin Laden's message. He's saying in a video that's just been released, you know, that he's killing this soldier because all Muslims are under assault, and this is a sort of vengeance.

And, in a way, it's basically bin Laden's message, and it's the same message that Dzhokhar, the younger brother in Boston, in a note that he left in the boat where he was finally found, you know, basically...

CONAN: Which he wrote, as he believed he was dying.

BERGEN: Right - saying the reason we did this is because of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it's sort of - so, I mean, bin Laden's sort of most poisonous legacy is not al-Qaida the organization, which is basically over. It is bin Laden-ism, the ideology, which unfortunately, you know, it's hard to kill ideas.

CONAN: And there are also the affiliates, some of whom are prospering more than others.

BERGEN: Yeah, I mean, the one in Syria is the one that's particularly worrying. It's called the al-Nusra Front. It really is al-Qaida in Iraq by another name, and it seems to have learned from al-Qaida in Iraq's mistakes. So, for instance, it is not imposing Taliban-style rule on all the population it controls. It is a very effective and disciplined fighting force. It isn't looting or doing the kind of things that will alienate the local population - at least for the moment.

And, of course, at the end of the day al-Qaida is an Arab organization led by Arabs, cares about the Arab world. Syria borders Iraq, Israel, Jordan. It's in the heart of the Arab world. It's one of the centers of Arab civilization. And for al-Qaida, this is really a fight that they want to have, and it's against a, you know, a guy who's a secular dictator who subscribes to Alawism, which is a heretical Shiite...

CONAN: From their point of view.

BERGEN: From their point of view. Well, even if you're a kind of conventional Shiite, Alawism is a very strange kind of syncretic religion. So the point is he's a sort of - he's almost a perfect kind of person for them to fight. And we have this extraordinary situation now, Neal, where Hezbollah is fighting against al-Qaida in the middle of Syria, and we're against the Assad regime, yet the most effective opposition to them is al-Qaida, effectively. And so it's a very strange and sort of toxic mix.

CONAN: And we're fighting al-Qaida, and our ally is Hezbollah, the Shiite group in Lebanon.

BERGEN: Right. Right. Right. So it's - yeah. It's complicated.

CONAN: It's complicated, and I think it's going to be complicated for quite some time to come. And as you look, though, at other areas - and we'll get back to Syria. I'm sure people have questions about it. But as you look at other areas of the world, the group that we were told to worry about the most before the al-Nusra Front was al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

BERGEN: Yeah. And I think that they are - they've had a lot of pressure put on them. And there's a big difference, like, between what the group is doing in Syria and what the group did in Yemen. The group in Yemen certainly was threatening the United States directly, because they were putting very hard-to-detect bombs on American airliners and that kind of thing. But they weren't controlling large chunks of the country, and they didn't have a great deal of popular sort of buy-in because of their fighting abilities.

They were - you know, they had control of a number of small towns in southern Yemen. That's over. And I think that group is, you know, is - has also sustained a great deal of damage, partly because of CIA drone strikes against them, partly because of some of the actions of the Yemeni military.

CONAN: Yet they, too, have left an ideological time bomb, the sermons that are on the Internet, and they will be there forever, I gather.

BERGEN: Yes, Anwar al-Awlaki, the - who was based in Yemen, who had a leadership role in this group, was the first American ever to be assassinated by the order of an American president, President Obama. Yeah. His legacy lives on. We saw in the Boston case that his lectures and speeches appear to have been influential on the brothers who did the attacks.

CONAN: And prior to his death, he was directly engaged with the man who carried out the killings at Fort Hood.

BERGEN: Yeah. He had an extensive email exchange with him in which the Major Nidal Hasan, who did the Fort Hood shootings, was seeking permission to kill fellow soldiers, which, you know, he didn't stand in his way.

CONAN: Now, as we saw, there was al-Qaida involvement, more and more of it, in northwestern Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, in Mali and, well, all around that area, a common(ph) front in Nigeria.

BERGEN: Yeah, in Mali, you know, the French came in in January, and they turfed out this al-Qaida affiliate. They were greeted as an army of liberation, which I think is interesting. This is a part of the world that was once part of the French Empire. So here's the French army coming, and greeted as an army of liberation. And the reason for that is very simple: It's because this al-Qaida affiliate had done what these affiliates tend to do. They had imposed Taliban-style rule on the population. They banned singing, dancing, smoking, all these things that are pretty routine in Mali, and people didn't like it.

And they weren't strong enough to rise up against them, but when a new force came in, the French military, they were happy to be liberated. That doesn't mean that this group is totally extirpated in that part of the world, but it is - you know, it suffered a defeat in Mali. It controlled half the country, which is a country about twice the size of France. And now it doesn't control very much at all.

CONAN: And is this, fair to say, part of the fallout from Libya, as men and weapons spilled out of that country from the fall of Gadhafi?

BERGEN: Yeah, I think it is fair to say, although Mali's problems predate the fall of Gadhafi. But Gadhafi's fall certainly freed up more weaponry. And, yeah, so I think that is more fair than not.

CONAN: And Boko Haram in Nigeria is another faction allied with al-Qaida that seems to be involved in a war, this time with Christians.

BERGEN: Yeah. I mean, luckily, so far, they've shown absolutely no interest or ability to attack outside Nigeria. They can be very disrupting in northern Nigeria, where they're attacking Christians, and they can attack - there's an oil business they can attack. But so far, they've kind of - you know, we haven't seen them engage or try to engage in attacks on Western targets in Africa or even, you know, Western targets outside Africa.

CONAN: Then to the other side of the continent, Al-Shabaab in Somalia once controlled large swaths of that country. That seems to be over.

BERGEN: That's pretty much over. You know, they continue to kind of control some, you know, parts of the countryside, and they are, you know, a fighting force that has had some success in the past. But again, you know, most Somalis didn't want to be ruled by the Taliban, and what the Shabaab was offering was Taliban-style rule, and a combination of Kenyan army, African Union troops, help from the United States has really ended their control of much of the country.

CONAN: There were also, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, bombings in places like Bali. There was great concern about Indonesia, concern as far afield as the Philippines.

BERGEN: Yeah. And that's why if we'd had this conversation in 2003, Neal, we would have been talking about...

CONAN: We did have this conversation in 2003.

BERGEN: OK, we did.


BERGEN: We would have been talking about Southeast Asia, and - because they seemed threatening, and they, you know, there were bombs going off in Indonesia fairly routinely. And this group, the al-Qaida affiliate there, had presence in Malaysia. They had plans in Singapore. But they'd been, you know, more or less taken apart by, you know, local governments, local militaries and local populations.

I mean, these groups don't offer much for the real problems that the Muslim world has, economic and political problems. And they tend to make the same set of mistakes wherever they go.

CONAN: Is it fair to say that in the Arab world - which, of course, is where bin Laden came from and where bin Laden-ism has its intellectual and religious origins - that it has been overtaken by the Arab Spring, leapfrogged as people on the street saw that you did not have to resort necessarily to violence to achieve political results?

BERGEN: I think that's basically true, and certainly, I have argued that that's the case. You know, what - if we go back to the early days of the Arab Spring, it was striking that no one was carrying pictures of Osama bin Laden. There were millions of people demonstrating. His rhetoric, his photographs, his people were not part of it.

You know, that said, you know, al-Qaida has opportunistically - whether it's in Syria, to some degree, in Libya or in Yemen - taken advantage of these chaotic situations. And, you know, there was a worrisome story last week that an al-Qaida - a group of guys supposedly associated with al-Qaida were targeting the U.S. embassy in Cairo.

So, you know, they're not going to go away. The question is how influential they are. And, for the moment, they're not very influential in any of these countries, barring Syria.

CONAN: And even Afghanistan reports that Chechens and Arabs - i.e., al-Qaida - were engaged in large-scale attacked in just the past week.

BERGEN: Yeah, there's been - as the United States pulls out of remote parts of northeastern Afghanistan - I'm thinking Kunar Province, Nuristan Province - al-Qaida has sort of crept back in. So - but, you know, does this a renaissance make? I'm pretty skeptical.

CONAN: We're talking with Peter Bergen, well-known for his work on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. If you have a question for him about that work and where the threat from al-Qaida lies in the future, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're watching a story out of London today: one man killed in an attack by two others near a military barracks. According to the Associated Press, two attackers were shot by police. We don't know much else at this point. British Prime Minister David Cameron said there are, quote, "strong indications it's a terrorist incident." He gave no information about why he made that assessment.

But broadcasters around the world are showing what appears to be a confession by a man holding a meat cleaver and making Islamic statements. More details as they become available - Islamic statements in the sense of justifying the killing in response to the death of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We're talking with Peter Bergen today, the latest in our series Looking Ahead, at what's next for al-Qaida, its affiliates and the terrorist threat in general. Osama bin Laden, of course, was on the CIA's radar years before September the 11th. In 1995, the CIA formed a unit dedicated to tracking bin Laden named Alec Station. Cindy Storer worked in the unit and was among the first analysts to track bin Laden. After 9/11, her unit was criticized for not connecting the dots.


CINDY STORER: You know, trying to keep track of all the threads of various threats and which ones are real and which ones aren't real and what connects to what. And, you know, people say, you know, why didn't connect the dots? Well, because the whole page is black.

CONAN: That's a clip from the HBO documentary, "Manhunt." The film traces the CIA's investigation of al-Qaida, which eventually led to the capture and killing of bin Laden. It's based on the bestselling book of the same name by Peter Bergen. You can watch it this Friday night on CNN.

If you have question about Peter Bergen's work on Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And let's see if we can start with Jason, and Jason's on the line with us from Colorado Springs.

JASON: Oh, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JASON: Mr. Bergen, I don't know if I've ever heard you comment on this, but in your opinion, do you think the Bush administration really did take their eye off the ball in trying to apprehend bin Laden? And did that, in turn, embolden him and the organization and make things worse, or even set things back? And I'll listen off the air.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much.

BERGEN: Yeah, the - the kind of - the big moment when there was an opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden before he was run to ground in Pakistan was at the battle of Tora Bora, which took place in mid-December of 2001. And it's just a matter of the historical record will show - does show - that requests by the CIA for additional U.S. soldiers on the ground were turned down by the overall commander of the operation.

And the historical record and anybody listening to this show can check the official U.S. Special Forces history of the war in Afghanistan, which is online. You know, according to that history, there were multiple radio transmissions of bin Laden's voice intercepted in Tora Bora from December 9th to December 14th, 2001.

So the fact is, is that for a lot of different reasons, there weren't enough American soldiers on the ground, and that was an opportunity that was missed. And that happened during, obviously, the first Bush administration. After that, you know, bin Laden basically disappeared, and my book is partly the detective story, almost the Agatha Christie story, about how he was found. And needless to say, it was not easy.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Susan, and Susan's on the line with us from Honolulu.

SUSAN: Oh, hi. Good morning. Where do the Saudis fit into this? You know, it's regional discussion we're having, and nobody ever talks about the Saudis.

BERGEN: Well, you know, the Saudis have a - you know, it's a - they themselves suffered, have suffered quite a lot from al-Qaida in the kingdom. Al-Qaida basically launched almost a mini-insurgency inside the Saudi kingdom starting in 2003, killed dozens, scores of Saudis, tried to - and killed, you know, Western workers working in the oil business, attacked oil infrastructure.

And I think for a long while, the Saudis, for all sorts of reasons, had sort of put their head in the sand, as it were, about the threat from al-Qaida. But once it became an internal problem for them, they did a 180, and they've, you know, really kind of tamped down on money going from, you know, from the Saudi kingdom to organizations that might have jihadi impulses.

CONAN: Does that include money to the al-Nusra Front in Syria?

BERGEN: Well, that's an interesting question. That's an interesting question. I mean, I was - it needs to be caveated in that way. I mean, so right now, the al-Nusra Front is getting its support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are countries with enormous resources. You know, quite how that money is arriving there, how it's raised, is it government money, is it stuff that's raised, you know, during the pilgrimage to Mecca to help the Syrian resistance, how it - you know, it's not as simple as somebody writing a check to the al-Nusra Front. That's for sure.

But certainly, the Saudis have tried to get a handle on this, and certainly, inside the kingdom, the reason that we talk about the threat from al-Qaida in Yemen now is because the Saudis got rid of them. And they went to Yemen because that's a very poorly controlled country with mountains, and it doesn't have a central government to speak of.

CONAN: And the Saudis are still after them in Yemen.

BERGEN: Yeah, they are. And the Saudis have also been quite helpful to us on the issue of what these guys are doing, al-Qaida in Yemen. For instance, you may recall the plot to bring down those cargo planes.

CONAN: These were the bombs hidden in the printers.

BERGEN: Yeah. I mean, the Saudis were very helpful about that.

CONAN: Susan, thanks very much for the call.

SUSAN: Oh, thank you. Bye.

CONAN: And she raises a question about Saudi Arabia, the expulsion of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law from Iran to a place where he was then arrested in Turkey and could be extradited to the United States to face charges, well, he could be in prison for life, could even face the death penalty in court in New York City. But this is an expulsion from Iran. It raises questions about Iran's involvement with al-Qaida.

BERGEN: Yeah. Iran's involvement with al-Qaida, I mean, these would make strange bedfellows, because obviously, they have very different beliefs about Islam. But Iran has sort of been a passage enabler - perhaps is the best way of putting it - for members of al-Qaida who move there under some form of house arrest after the fall of Taliban in the early 2002 time period.

And a number of al-Qaida leaders - including this guy Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who's now facing trial in Manhattan - were living in Iran. Bin Laden's family, a lot of them were living in Iran, and over time they've either left or been forced to leave. But some of them still remain there.

Why the Iranians have these folks is not exactly clear, but I think at one point, they may have regarded them as potential bargaining chips with the United States for some peace deal that clearly hasn't happened so far.

CONAN: And yet, again, there is a line of tension in Syria, where you have al-Qaida fighting against Iran, essentially.

BERGEN: Right, yes. It's quite ironic.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Diane, if I can push the button properly. Diane's on the line with us from Norfolk, in Virginia.

DIANE: Thank you for taking my call. I just have a question, asking for a comment from Peter about what would be his prediction about how al-Qaida would potentially fill the gaps in Pakistan, Afghanistan and that region when we finally do pull out of that area in 2014.

CONAN: That's U.S. combat troops pulling out, not the U.S. entirely, but go ahead, Peter.

BERGEN: Right. I mean, you know, we're going to retain some presence, and the number of soldiers who will still be in Afghanistan after 2014 is still being discussed. But - and it's not just us. It's our NATO allies. And, you know, so I don't see us sort of turning the lights off in Afghanistan. And in Afghanistan, al-Qaida and bin Laden are - you know, there's a very high degree of hostility, I think 90 percent, 95 percent unfavorable views of al-Qaida and bin Laden in Afghanistan.

So I don't see them filling the gaps while we're gone, except in very remote areas. In Pakistan, you know, groups that have an al-Qaida-like ideology have more of a purchase. It's a much bigger country. You're looking at 30 million people on one side of the border, and 180 million people in Pakistan.

And so, you know, it's - and these groups have, you know, they have resources, and they have an infrastructure. And so - and, you know, they're not going away. You know, I - so they will continue to have some kind of presence in Pakistan going forward.

That said, the Pakistani army has certainly, you know, mounted some pretty successful operations against the Pakistani Taliban, because it threatens the Pakistani state.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Mike, and Mike's on the line with us from Tulsa.

MIKE: Yes. My question is: Why weren't the Special Forces given permission to go into Tora Bora and kill Osama bin Laden? I saw on the Charlie Rose show the commander of the Special Forces there, and he said they were ready, willing and able, but could not get authorization from above.

BERGEN: Yeah. I mean, the story is - you're referring to Dalton Fury, which is a pseudonym, who was the ground commander. You know, part of the problem - there was a few problems. One was by my - if you look at his book, he says there were about 71 Special Forces soldiers from the United States and some from Britain. That was the total. So there were more - there were more journalists at the Battle of Tora Bora than there were soldiers from the United States. And I mean, so there was that issue, and...

CONAN: But that's not the sum total that were available.

BERGEN: No. Yeah. But it was the sum total on the ground. And Tora Bora is a - I've been there a few times, and it's a - you know, mountains up to 14,000 feet. It was December. It's snowing almost continuously. It's very cold, multiple exit routes to Pakistan. I mean even if you've sent in a large number of American soldiers, it's not clear you would have found bin Laden.

But the decision was just turned down, and there was a lot of reasons for them turning down the decision to send in more soldiers, and they didn't want to replicate, you know, the problems the Russians had had. They claim that the intelligence on bin Laden was sort of mixed, but I think history shows that that's not true. So you know, like a lot of things in life, a bad decision was made.

CONAN: And was there a realization at that moment that this was the chance?

BERGEN: If you go back and you look at what people were saying at the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz had a press conference at the Pentagon on December 12, right in the middle of all this, 2001, in which he said there's no evidence that bin Laden is anywhere else than at Tora Bora.

And so people were saying bin Laden's there. But I think what happened was the overthrow of the Taliban had happened so quickly and so successfully, it was like people were sort of victimized by their own success.

And don't forget also, without being a conspiracy theorist, Tommy Franks, the overall commander, was being asked, as this battle was going on, to rewrite the Iraq war plan. Now, the Iraq war plan at the time was 800 pages. It's not something you can rewrite in a sort of like...

CONAN: A weekend.

BERGEN: Yeah. He was asked to rewrite it in a week. So, you know, people's minds were elsewhere. They had had this big victory, and they, you know, they let this guy basically, you know, get away. It wasn't intentional. It was just - I think they may have made some bad decisions.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much.


CONAN: Let's see if we go next to - this is - ah, my finger is not working well today. Andrew, Andrew with us from Klamath Falls in Oregon.

ANDREW: Hi. How are you today?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

ANDREW: Good. I was wondering if your guest could share some insight into the thought process and the chain of command on not releasing videos or images from the actual raid on the compound.

BERGEN: I mean I think that's a great question. There were no videos, by the way. That was poor, inaccurate reporting at the beginning. There are videotapes, but they would not be very useful taken from a drone about two feet up. They would be very - but there are pictures of bin Laden.

CONAN: About 20,000 feet up.

BERGEN: Yeah. Yeah.

CONAN: You said two feet up.

BERGEN: Sorry. I meant to say two miles up high. Sorry. Yeah, yeah. It was two feet (unintelligible). But there were pictures taken of the dead bin Laden. In fact, there was - I think the story just came out today or yesterday that a court has basically upheld the government's view that these shouldn't be released.

I think at this point - I think the president and his advisers made a wise decision not to release them at the time. Why incite more violence against Americans was the theory of the case. At this point he's receded into history, and I think it would be interesting to have these pictures out there. But the court has, you know, upheld the...

CONAN: The court ruled sources and methods for - would disclose sources. I'm not sure how that would happen, but incite violence against Americans was the other part.

BERGEN: Well, certainly that was the administration's fear, and that wasn't just President Obama. That was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton. I mean a lot of people kind of felt the same way. So, you know, that's why it didn't happen. I think it was probably the right decision at the time. I'm not sure it's really necessary now.

I think the administration also felt, look, the conspiracy theorists will never be satisfied, you know, that - and, in fact, President Obama said - you know, his answer to that question was, you will never see Osama bin Laden walking on this world again, and we haven't.


CONAN: Andrew, thanks very much for the call.

ANDREW: Real quick. I was wondering what's the difference then there between, you know, bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. You know, we're able to see some pretty graphic images of his demise.

CONAN: Smuggled out of the cell in which he was hanged. It was not released by the United States administration. It was smuggled out...

BERGEN: Yeah. And, of course, he was executed by the Iraqis. He wasn't executed by the United States.

CONAN: So that's, I think, the distinction, Andrew, but thank you very much. We're talking with Peter Bergen as we continue our series of conversations, "Looking Ahead." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this is Sam, Sam on the line with us from San Jose.

SAM: Hello. Yes. Thanks for taking my call, and I'm glad that you have Peter Bergen on the program to talk about this issue. The question I have for Mr. Bergen is about bin Laden's fatwa. I think he had one or two fatwas about attacking the United States and Americans, and this was in the '90s, in the 1990s, long before the attacks on September 11.

And subsequent to that, I remember that there were opportunities to capture bin Laden when he was in Sudan or when he was transferring from Sudan to another location.

CONAN: Afghanistan.

SAM: And also there were opportunities to kill bin Laden. This was during President Clinton's presidency. There were opportunities to kill him while he was in Afghanistan, he was training terrorists. And those also were missed due to apparently some lawyers objected to killing him by using missiles because there may be other people killed in the process.

And I wanted to ask Mr. Bergen if he can provide some information about opportunities to kill or capture bin Laden before the attacks on September 11 and actually probably before the attacks on the U.S. embassy in...

CONAN: OK, Sam. Give Peter a chance to answer, OK?

BERGEN: Yeah. I mean, you know, there's a debate about this, about how many opportunities there were. Richard Clarke, who is the - President Clinton and then President Bush's top counterterrorism adviser, says there were three real opportunities. Mike Scheuer, who ran the bin Laden unit, says there were 10.

There's little debate that there were some pretty good opportunities. The best opportunity was when bin Laden was hanging out with a group of Emirati princes who were hunting buzzards in the deserts outside Kandahar. And the question really became, you know, do we also want to blow up the Emirati royal family, and you know, and then what if bin Laden isn't there? And by the time the decision kind of, you know, the NSC had this discussion, it was too late. So, yeah. There we're definitely some missed opportunities. It was a different time. It was before 9/11. Yeah, again, it was just, you know, bad decisions were - or decisions that make sense at the time but don't make sense now were made.

CONAN: Peter Bergen, his latest book "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad"; an HBO documentary called "Manhunt," based on his book, airs on CNN this Friday at 9:00 p.m. He's a director at the New America Foundation. And Peter Bergen, as always, thank you very much for your time.

BERGEN: Thank you, Neal.

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