ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Today President Bush again presented the war in Iraq as part of a broader fight against terrorism. Citing recordings, statements on websites and captured documents from al-Qaida, Mr. Bush said that America and its partners take the enemies' words seriously.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them. The question is, will we listen? Will we pay attention to what these evil men say?
SIEGEL: President Bush was speaking today to the Military Officers Association of America.
New Yorker Magazine writer Lawrence Wright has also been reading documents and web postings from al-Qaida and others. And in this week's issue of the magazine, he writes that the thinking of Jihadist groups has moved away from bin Laden toward that of other, less-familiar figures.
Mr. LAWRENCE WRIGHT (New Yorker Magazine): The three that I deal with are Abu Musab al-Suri and Abu Bakr Naji and then an Islamist journalist in Jordan called Fouad Hussein. And the thinking that they reflect is more what's current in al-Qaida circles, the kind of things that are going out on the Internet that young, idealist jihadis are reading and talking about. Most of the stuff that comes from bin Laden and Zawahiri is directed at the West, not at their own followers.
SIEGEL: But people who read these thinkers might very well read criticisms of bin Laden and Zawahiri, saying they brought about an untimely confrontation with the West, let's say, through 9/11.
Mr. WRIGHT: Oh yes, indeed. There's a lot of angry talk about the miscalculations bin Laden and his followers made, especially 9/11, which was a disaster for the al-Qaida community.
These critics felt that bin Laden was leading them into a battle they couldn't win and indeed, after 9/11, the American and coalition troops that swept through Afghanistan knocked aside the Taliban with astonishing ease and pummeled al-Qaida to the point that according to their own documents 80 to 85 percent of their membership was killed or captured. The remaining group was scattered, demoralized and repudiated all over the world.
SIEGEL: These theorists of jihad seem preoccupied with demonstrating a plan, a plan with several phases. In several points in your article in The New Yorker you read these sequences of phases that they see as (unintelligible).
Mr. WRIGHT: Right.
SIEGEL: I guess they're out to demonstrate that what seems an utterly - from their standpoint - utopian proposition, worldwide political Islam, is doable and they can see how to get from here to there.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well they do have a 20 year plan, a master plan. It is a little chilling to read and see how and to some extent we follow the script. They claim that it begins with the attack on American on September 11, the first stage ending with the fall of Baghdad, and that Baghdad and Iraq then become a recruiting ground for Jihadis who then spill back into their own countries and wage Jihad, and then within another six years pull down their own regimes, establish a caliphate, and by the year 2020, the Islamic army will have evolved a total apocalyptic war with the unbelievers. That's the scenario that they sketch out for their own consumption.
SIEGEL: You write that American policymakers appear to be playing into the hands of these theorists of Jihad, even though they're familiar with their texts, you write it's as if they've been slavishly following the playbook described for them. What should the U.S. do instead? What should it do differently from what it's doing now?
Mr. WRIGHT: I think the main thing that I'm concerned about is the plan that the Islamists have scripted for us is to attack Iran and to put that into play. They see that as the great opportunity. Iran will do things that they can't do. Iran will destroy the oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, driving up the cost of energy all over the world out of sight. Iran will activate Hezbollah.
They also see, they would like to have the U.S. try to take out the Iranian proxy in Syria. That's a long time Al-Qaida goal. They would like nothing more than to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, which would lay open Syria to Islamist forces and put them cheek by jowl with Israel at last.
SIEGEL: So you say that a war in Iran is appealing to these theorists of Jihad because it creates greater chaos, instability and brings them closer to a situation they feel they could manipulate.
Mr. WRIGHT: Moreover, it also overextends American forces. It makes them weak and ineffective elsewhere. So it's a double victory for them. The tasks that they would like to do, which are destroying of Western economies and overextending American forces and Israeli forces as well, would be easily accomplished by these proxies.
SIEGEL: Do you get the impression as you learn about the writings of Islamist theorists that they have a sophisticated understanding of the United States or for that matter of the West, more broadly, or is a fairly naïve picture they draw of the West?
Mr. WRIGHT: The theorists that I'm talking about, like Abu Musab al-Suri, he's lived in the West. He married a Spanish woman and has Spanish citizenship. He lived in France. He's very acquainted with the West. So I think that they are great students of the Western mind, much more so than we have been. We have been so stuck on the idea that the way to fight Al-Qaida is to kill and capture the leadership.
Obviously, the forces of Jihad are being replenished at a greater rate than we've been able to kill or capture them. So I think a better approach would be to study their thoughts and to attack them at that level, at the level of politics and practicality.
You know, Al-Qaida doesn't offer anything to its followers. It doesn't have a political platform. It's an empty vessel, and if we can point that out, we'd gain a lot of ground, I think.
SIEGEL: That's Lawrence Wright speaking to us from Austin, Texas. His article in the New Yorker is called The Master Plan. His new book is called The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11. Thanks a lot for talking with us.
Mr. WRIGHT: Thanks, Robert.
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