Lawrence Wright: Bin Laden's Death 'Long In Coming' New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright has spent the past 15 years of his career thinking about al-Qaida. Wright assesses what bin Laden's death means for the future of al-Qaida and the United States' relationship with Pakistan.
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Lawrence Wright: Bin Laden's Death 'Long In Coming'

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Lawrence Wright: Bin Laden's Death 'Long In Coming'

Lawrence Wright: Bin Laden's Death 'Long In Coming'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When I heard the news that Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan, I had a lot of questions. And one of the people I wanted to talk to was Lawrence Wright. He's joined us several times on the show. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11," which is based in part on more than 500 interviews, including interviews with friends and relatives of bin Laden.

After the book's publication, Wright continued to investigate the story of al-Qaida. His film, "My Trip to al-Qaida," was shown on HBO last year. We called him late this morning.

Lawrence Wright, thank you for joining us. You've devoted years of your life researching bin Laden, tracking down people who knew him. What was your first reaction when you heard that he was killed?

Mr. LAWRENCE WRIGHT (Author, "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11"): Well, honestly, Terry, there was a tremendous sense of relief. This seemed like something that was so long in coming. And with all the changes that had been going on in the Arab world right now, real change in some ways couldn't come until this moment happened.

GROSS: Why? I mean, do you see this as having more symbolic difference or real, genuine leadership difference?

Mr. WRIGHT: Oh, I think it makes a profound change, in part because bin Laden and bin Ladenism stood in the way of the kind of reforms that are really needed to take the Arab world to the place where it really wants to be.

The reaction that al-Qaida was to the kind of ingrained, autocratic rule in that part of the world was one approach. It was a failure, but it would still had a residual constituency and I imagine will continue to have. But it'd be much diminished by the death of bin Laden.

GROSS: But does al-Qaida really end or get much diminished without bin Laden? There's still a leadership change. I imagine he was pretty physically disabled toward the end of his life.

Mr. WRIGHT: Listen, bin Laden is - you know, he's not irrelevant. He was important all along. Just the fact that he was able to elude capture or being killed for nearly a decade, actually more than a decade if you go back to the embassy bombings in 1998 when we first went after him.

He's been a symbol of resistance and also of the failure of American policy to reach out and stop this kind of terror. It emboldened other imitators all around the globe. So getting bin Laden is immeasurably important.

GROSS: How did the reality of his demise compare with some of the scenarios you'd imagined?

Mr. WRIGHT: Actually, Terry, I think it was in 2006, the CIA came to me to write a scenario, in their words, about what would we do if we got bin Laden because this has been a subject of concern within the intelligence community.

What if we did get him? How would we treat him? Where would we take him? Would it be better to take him alive or dead? And because I had written this movie, "The Siege," you know, and Hollywood had done a somewhat better job of connecting the dots about terrorism and the threat to America than the intelligence community.

The CIA was reaching out to screenwriters, such as I had done, and I said: Well, you know, I'm a reporter. I can't go writing screenplays for the CIA. But I'll tell you in the form of an op-ed for the New York Times what I think if we were able to catch bin Laden.

First of all, remember that bin Laden is the most famous man in the world. He's going to be one of the most famous men in history. So if you have the good luck to catch him, you have to deal with the legacy, not just the man.

And if you catch him, don't kill him because he'll become a martyr, which is what he seeks to be. But don't take him to America just yet.

First of all, take him to Kenya, where on August 6, 1998, he set off a bomb in front of an American embassy, killing 224 people and wounding, blinding 150 Africans. Let him sit in a courtroom in Nairobi and tell 150 blind Africans that he was just striking at a symbol of American power.

And then you could take him to Tanzania, where on the same day, he set off another bomb in front of another American embassy, killing 11 people, all of them Muslims. And bin Laden excused that because it was Friday, and good Muslims would be in the mosque.

I think that would be a wonderful venue to talk about what a good Muslim actually is. And then you could bring him to America and have him answer for the death of the 17 sailors on the USS Cole in October, 2000, and the 3,000 Americans who died on 9/11.

But you don't have to stop there. You could take him so many places. You know, Casablanca, Madrid, London, Bali. But just take him one last place. Take him home and try him under Sharia law, which is the only law that he and his followers would respect.

And if he's convicted, he would be taken to a square in downtown Riyadh, and the executioner is a big man with a long sword, and it's Saudi custom for the executioner to go out and ask the crowd, which is composed of the victims of the condemned man, to forgive him.

And if they couldn't do that, then the executioner would do his job, and bin Laden would be taken and buried in an unmarked Wahhabi graveyard. And I thought in that manner, you could begin to roll back some of his awful legacy.

GROSS: Wow, but of course he's gone now. So that scenario's never going to happen.

Mr. WRIGHT: Nope.

GROSS: What was the CIA reaction to that scenario?

Mr. WRIGHT: (Chuckling) Well, they appreciated that I had attempted to write a response to it, but their main concern was if we captured him, Americans would be kidnapped and held in ransom. And that is a lively scenario, and I suspect that there was not very much of an interest in capturing bin Laden.

Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, said that if we did capture him, we would put him at Guantanamo, which I think would have been a miserable solution.

GROSS: But now that American forces have killed him, what are the odds that he's going to become a martyr and continue to live as this potent symbol?

Mr. WRIGHT: He will continue to live as a potent symbol. There's no question that he's going to have an enduring appeal for a number of people, not just perhaps radical Muslims but other groups that will follow the template that al-Qaida created. That's my main concern.

Bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaida eventually will die. But the model that al-Qaida has created of an asymmetric terror group that has enormous consequences in the world well beyond the size of the group, that's going to endure. Other groups are going to try to follow that model.

GROSS: You know, you talked about some of the positive outcomes that you see in the killing of bin Laden. Are there bad ripple effects you're expecting?

Mr. WRIGHT: I do expect it. Plans that may be in the pipeline will be rushed into operation as soon as possible on the part of al-Qaida or its affiliates or its wannabes. Just last week, we had the bombing in Marrakesh and the arrests in Germany, both of which seem to be tied to al-Qaida or affiliates.

And so it shows that, you know, al-Qaida continues to be an active operation with entrepreneurial followers who are looking for an opportunity to create more damage.

GROSS: How surprised were you that bin Laden was actually hiding out, at least recently, in a compound in a neighborhood about an hour's drive from Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan, near a Pakistani military base and military academy? He was not in a remote cave.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, I was surprised, I would have to say, you know, that he was living inside an urban area. But I'm not surprised to learn that he was essentially sheltered by Pakistani intelligence and military units.

GROSS: Is that the assumption you're making, that they were complicit?

Mr. WRIGHT: I do make that assumption. I feel that, you know, that for years, the Pakistani military and intelligence complex has been in the looking-for-bin-Laden business. He was a priceless asset to them because we poured billions of dollars into their pockets to try to find him.

If they found him, they'd be out of business. So he was an irreplaceable asset, and Pakistan has a lot to answer for. This looks very incriminating. And I think it reflects on our relationship with that country, and this gives us an opportunity to reassess exactly what our relationship with Pakistan ought to be.

GROSS: A lot of people are troubled about the continuation of the war in Afghanistan. Can you envision a scenario where President Obama basically says: We've got bin Laden, now we can declare victory and wind down that war?

Mr. WRIGHT: I think that that's a possible scenario. I mean, the Taliban was not really our enemy. It has become so. The Times Square attempted bomber was sent by the Taliban, for instance. That's the first time that's happened.

But by its nature, Taliban is essentially a nationalist group, and al-Qaida is an internationalist jihad with a primary focus on the United States. We don't need to make the Taliban our principal enemy. And it was because of this alliance with al-Qaida that we turned our attention to the Taliban in the first place.

If we feel that al-Qaida is a much diminished threat, as it may be - we'll see -then our interest in fighting the Taliban could be commensurably diminished, as well.

GROSS: So, Lawrence Wright, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WRIGHT: It was a pleasure, as always, Terry.

GROSS: Lawrence Wright is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11." Our interview was recorded this morning.

Coming up, an interview with Jake Bernstein and Jesse Eisenger. They just won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for their stories about how several Wall Street firms and one hedge fund contributed to the financial collapse.

This is FRESH AIR.

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