Peter Bergen, a former television journalist who has become possibly the world’s foremost authority on Osama bin Laden, has written riveting new details of the 10-year campaign to bring the world’s most recognizable terrorist to bay. Bergen was the only western journalist ever to interview bin Laden, making his torturous way to a mud hut deep in Afghanistan, an effort that produced a previous work, Holy Inc., the Story of Osama Bin Laden. Bergen turned in the manuscript of the book just a week before the 9/11 attacks that brought down the World Trade Towers in New York and shocked the entire world.
Bergen’s new book reveals new details of the Al Qaeda leader’s flight from the formidable Tora Bora mountains, in which he barely escaped with his life. Bergen followed that thread for a decade, until US Seals descended on Bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout to kill him. He later became the only journalist to gain access to the compound before the Pakistani government demolished it. It is a fast-paced book that paints a vivid picture of bin Laden’s life during those 10 years and of the al Qaeda leader’s struggle to maintain control of the organization as the Americans closed in on him.
Bergen, now a national security expert for CNN, gave this exclusive interview to Victor Fic.
Q. You have now written three books on bin Laden. Why are you so interested in him?
A. It is mainly because of this attack on the World Trade Center. That was not the first time he attacked US targets. When the Cold War ended, there was an absence of other significant threats. Bin Laden became the big story because he had a major impact on history.
Q. Recall the details of your meeting with him in 1997.
A. Getting to see him was not easy. It took months of negotiations through people who knew him in London. There were concerns we were the CIA or would give away his location. They went to great lengths to check us out. We were blindfolded, changed vehicles and went through three concentric rings of security in the middle of the night. It was in eastern Afghanistan probably around Jalalabad.
Q. What impression did he make?
A. I did not know what to expect. I found bin Laden low key and mild mannered — he never raised his voice. He was tall at 6 feet, 4 inches. But his words were full of rage at the US and he declared war.
Q. You write that some al Qaeda operatives claimed after the US invaded Afghanistan that bin Laden wanted to draw Washington into the trap of war. Why do you dismiss that theory?
A. That is an ex post facto rationalization that is false. The real intent was something bin Laden laid out in 1997. He said the US is a paper tiger like the former USSR. Washington withdrew from Vietnam and Somalia. If he attacked the US, it would retreat from the middle east. Then bin Laden and his followers would get Taliban style theocracy in the region. Also, there was no planning for the US attack on Afghanistan. Bin Laden and the Taliban carried out a disorganized retreat to Tora Bora. The US destroyed the one regime that al Qaeda supported — the Taliban. So bin Laden’s tactic backfired.
Q. Your book emphasizes the role of female analysts and experts on the US side in finding bin Laden. Is this a unique contribution of yours?
A. Yes. Of course, there were many guys involved, too. But the striking aspect of the bin Laden unit that the Americans founded six years before 9/11 is the disproportionate number of women analysts. In those days, the unit was a backwater and so had fewer men. But it proved to be instrumental in seeing him as a threat and in figuring out where to find him. The biggest cultural shift in the US’s intelligence world was the rising role of women, who were uncommon in the 1970’s.
Q. You write that when the American commandoes landed, bin Laden’s last words were when he told his wife not to worry about the outside noise. How do you know what he said?
A. I do not know that 100 percent as a fact. But I was told that by Pakistani investigators who debriefed the wife. I had many high level sources whom I won’t name.
Q. You were the only Western journalist at bin Laden’s house after the strike. What stood out?
A. Yes, two weeks after I was there, the Pakistani’s demolished it. It was a squalid set up. A total of 24 people lived there such as bin Laden, his three wives, adult kids and his protectors. They lived a very humble life, grew their own crops, raised their own animals such as chickens for eggs. It was not the luxury villa initially portrayed in the media. They were careful with money. Bin Laden was confined to his bedroom and study. But the world’s most wanted man was hiding there for six years.
Q. Many Americans blame Pakistan for sheltering bin Laden. Why do you exonerate them, for instance insisting that President Pervez Musharraf did not know the terrorist was in Abbottabad?
A. There is no evidence that Pakistani officials knew bin Laden was in Abbottabad.
Q. What is the global reaction to your book?
A. As for Pakistan, I am not sure. It is available there. People who can afford books and buy them will know English. There is no deal for an Arabic translation. But it is appearing in Danish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Dutch and Marathi in India. The German and French ones will come out in the next several months. The book has received good reviews in the UK and US.
Q. Is al Qaeda dead as a terrorist organization?
A. It is mostly finished. There will always be a disaffected young man out there inspired by its ideology. But as for him hooking up and doing organized, large attacks, the US interrupted that and caused the weakness of the group.