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An interview with Abdel Bari Atwan
Abdel Bari Atwan is editor-in-chief of Al-Quds al-Arabi, the London-based
Arabic daily newspaper. His articles and commentaries appear in the Economist,
the International Herald Tribune, as well as leading British newspapers.
He is one of the very few reporters who has interviewed Osama bin Laden.
He is also the author of The Secret History of al-Qaida.
Abdel Bari Atwan is editor-in-chief of Al-Quds al-Arabi, the London-based Arabic daily newspaper. His articles and commentaries appear in the Economist, the International Herald Tribune, as well as leading British newspapers. He is one of the very few reporters who has interviewed Osama bin Laden. He is also the author of The Secret History of al-Qaida.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: The conventional picture of al-Qaida in the United States is that it is a coherently structured organization, tightly controlled, and directed by its mastermind, Osama bin Laden, and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri. Is that accurate?
ABDEL BARI ATWAN: Al-Qaida is completely different now. It was transformed since the war of terrorism, as they call it, started in October 2001. Al-Qaida now is a loose, decentralized organization. Its not a pyramid-built organization, as it was before. There was one al-Qaida in Afghanistan, in Tora Bora. Now there are many more. We have al-Qaida in Afghanistan, which is regrouping again. We have al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia, which is very active. We have al-Qaida in Iraq, which is deadly and ruthless. We have al-Qaida in Europe and we witnessed the attacks in London and Madrid. We have al-Qaida in North Africa. There is al-Qaida regrouping in Somalia again.
Osama bin Laden is the spiritual leader of al-Qaida. Ayman Zawahiri, his deputy, propagates the theory.
Zawahiri is an Egyptian-born surgeon.
Yes, and he is the ideologist of al-Qaida and maybe supervises certain Internet sites. So al-Qaida is definitely ten times stronger than it was when it was in Afghanistan before the war against terrorism started.
Al-Qaida is growing horizontally rather than vertically.
Yes, because the situation changed. Al-Qaida now is an ideology, not just an organization. This ideology is on the Internet and on certain satellite televisions. People can access al-Qaida literature, they can adopt its ideology, they can carry out attacks without coordination with the top or with the second layer of command, as it was before September 11.
Every branch of al-Qaida has the authority to determine what to do. They dont wait for instructions to come from Osama bin Laden or Ayman Zawahiri. They may receive guidelines. For example, Britain is the enemy, the United States is the enemy, so go for them. They leave the details, the plans, the carrying out of attacks, to the local leadership to do what is appropriate for their organization.
So this idea of bin Laden getting on a cell phone or sending an email message to the people here in Britain who attacked the Glasgow airport and London in late June is completely fallacious?
Bin Laden is not in control of al-Qaida. He is trying to stay alive as long as he can in order to traumatize President Bush and his allies. This is his strategy. Osama bin Laden, as far as I know, never used cell phones or satellite phones. He never used any technology. He knew a long time ago that technology could be a fatal trap, so he avoided it completely. He depends now on written or oral messages through certain envoys.
He is wise in this because, if you notice, some of his lieutenants, such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, Ramzi Binalshibh, Abu Farj al-Libhi, and Abu Musab al-Suri, were captured because they were tempted to use cell phones. Thats why he always advised them not to use them, not to be exposed by the media. I think thats why he has managed to stay alive until now.
He is reputed to have great personal wealth. Presumably, much of that money has been spent over the years. How is he funding al-Qaida?
Osama bin Laden used to enjoy a huge network of businesses, donations, and financial support from people in the Gulf region in particular. But after September 11, most of these sources dried up because the FBI located secret accounts in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf region, and Europe. They traced the money routes and dried them up.
But Osama bin Laden doesnt need a lot of money now. Before, he spent money wisely. He wanted it to recruit people, to spend on bases, on soldiers, on plans, on movement, on air tickets. Now he doesnt need it because his men are not traveling as they did before from Yemen to Afghanistan or from Afghanistan to Europe. As I said, he is relying on sleeper cells, on many al-Qaidas all over the world. I heard that September 11 cost al-Qaida less than $300,000. So his men are not keen on money because they want to die as martyrs. Materialistic things are the last things they are thinking about.
It is reported that bin Laden was greatly influenced by the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the destruction of Beirut.
He said several times in his tapes that he was shocked with the Israeli destruction of Beirut, also with what happened in Palestine. He was moved by the atrocities committed by the Israelis against the Palestinians during the 2002 Jenin invasion in the West Bank and the bombardment of Gaza. When I met him, he was following every detail of U.S. involvement in Iraq. So he was very moved by this and he wanted to take revenge. But what probably hurt him the most was the presence of 500,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia under the pretext of liberating Kuwait. He thought that he was deceived by the Americans. He said to me, Look, I went to Afghanistan. We fought the Soviet troops there to liberate Afghanistan. And the Americans also were talking about the liberation of Afghanistan. And look what happened. After we got rid of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan, now we have the same thing in our country, in the Arabian peninsula. He never says Saudi Arabia. Usually he calls it the Arabian peninsula, al-Jazeera al-Arabi.
Does he believe that he was responsible for the Soviet Union leaving Afghanistan, that he was militarily triumphant?
He was very proud of his achievement in Afghanistan with other Arab mujahideen. But he is not a show-off man. He doesnt say, I fought, I killed. He never talked with vanity about his experience, but definitely he was proud of his achievement.
He always considered himself different from the Arab rulers. He considered them atheists, nonbelievers, tools of American imperialism, as he put it. He said, They are not actually fit to rule our part of the world. And they dont apply the sharia law as it should be applied. So he hated all of them, and he wanted to topple them.
He never was tempted by money. I remember he told me that the Saudi government had frozen his assets in Saudi Arabia and they opened a bank account for him where his share of his family fortune goes into. He told me there was about $200 million in that account frozen by the Saudis. The money can get in, but you cannot get it out. And he told me, They sent me a delegation, including his uncle and also his mother, in order to tempt him to go back to Saudi Arabia. And he said, They offered to double my credit in that account, the $200 million, to make it $400 million or $500 million, as a bait to go back to Saudi Arabia. He said, I refused to go back. Money doesnt mean anything to me. What shall I do with money? I want to die as a martyr. And he turned the offer down. He hates those extravagant Saudi royal family members and Arab leaders who just indulge themselves and their families in business.
The issue of bin Laden will certainly transcend his death. Al-Qaida, in your view, will continue without bin Laden.
It is like an ideology. It is like communism, with huge differences. Communism started in the Soviet Union and after that spread all over the world. It doesnt mean that Lenins death will affect that theory. The same thing could happen to al-Qaida if Osama bin Laden is captured or killed. Effectively he is dead now. He is not conducting meetings or organizing a network or contacting his followers.
There are certain what I hesitate to call schools of thought in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere that say that it was not bin Laden and al-Qaida that carried out the attacks on September 11. Is there any doubt in your mind that it was, in fact, bin Laden and al-Qaida?
From day one I said it is most likely the work of al-Qaida because I knew they were planning something really big. I remember after the 1998 embassy attacks in East Africa by al-Qaida, President Clinton sent about 75 cruise missiles to hit al-Qaida bases in AfghanistanKandahar, Jalalabad, Khost, and other places. I remember at that time I was phoned by Mohammad Atef, also known as Abu Hafs al-Masri. He was the second in command; the military brain of al-Qaida. He phoned me to say, Look, we want you to carry a message from Sheikh Osama bin Laden to President Clinton and to the American people. Yes, we were bombed. Five of our colleagues were killed only. They died as martyrs, as he put it. But we are going to take revenge. And it will be a huge one. It will be something to be remembered. We will teach the Americans a lesson which they will never forget.
So when the attacks took place, I realized that this could be the revenge. When the first plane hit the Twin Towers, I said, Maybe this is an accident. But when the second one hit, I said, This is it. It is al-Qaida. And the World Trade Center was always a target of al-Qaida. I cannot say it is 100 percent al-Qaida. I have to leave 5 percent at least for skepticism. But when you listen to the words of those people who actually carried out these attacksand I did listen to them and they were talking about it and they prepared themselves for itall the indications are clearly that al-Qaida was behind it.
Many of these theories circulate on the Internet. There are documentaries and articles. And in the Arab world as well. Ive met people in different countries who told me Mossad, Israeli intelligence, was behind it, or it was the CIA, almost not believing that Arabs could do this.
The problem is Arabs lack confidence in themselves. We lost all our wars against the Israelis. We dont have the capabilities to do anything right. So they did not expect Arabs to be so efficient in organizing such a big attack. Thats the problem with the Arab mentality. Always, we are defeatist. We are not people who believe in ourselves because of the humiliation of 1948, of 1967, of 1973, the humiliation of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
But when you look at it, it doesnt need a lot of planning. You can go on the Internet, and you will find all the American internal flight schedules. They did not use guns, hand grenades, or explosives. They managed to overpower the flight crew and then they carried out their missions. And they were trained for this.
Youve raised an interesting point about the sophistication and training of many of those who carry out these operations. Years ago, the typical bomber profile was a destitute Palestinian orphan in a refugee camp in Gaza or the West Bank. The attacks in July 2005 and June 2007 were not carried out by impoverished, uneducated kids. So that stereotype has gone by the wayside.
There is a huge transformation process taking place in the Muslim world. It is not only the poor who are angry. It is also the rich who are angry and frustrated. The great majority of Muslims feel humiliated. They have money, they are educated, but they are humiliated. They can see they are targeted by the West. They can see that this Administration is launching wars against Muslims to humiliate them, to prevent them from making progress, to prevent them from using their money in a productive way. And some of them say, Look what happened to Iraq, for example. Why are they bombing and killing Iraqis? Why are all the American wars now against Muslims? They are not against Scandinavians or Asians or Indians. Why are they against Muslims? And there is another war coming against Iran. Why are they determined to break us, to destroy us?
So there are two types of Arabs and Muslims now: the poor ones, who are frustrated because of the corrupt regimes and dictatorships, because of the suppression. The educated and well off can see that they are not living like human beings. Im not surprised if those wealthy people join al-Qaida.
Besides that, when you are frustrated and depressed, you turn to Islam, you go to the mosque, you go to God, you go to religion. Thats something common in the Arab world. We dont go to psychiatrists. Psychiatrists are the poorest doctors in our region because there is no business for them. People go to the mosque and start praying. And radical Islam tells them to die as a martyr, to go to the eternal life, as soon as possible. And they turn to radical organizations like al-Qaida or Hamas.
I have studied al-Qaida. Most of its members are wealthy people or from wealthy educated families. They are not poor and frustrated, looking for $100 or $200 from bin Laden to send to their families. They want to die. They want to go to Bosnia to die, they want to go to Kosovo, they want to go to the Philippines, Thailand, Chechnya, Kashmir. Everywhere they can fight until they are killed as martyrs, as they call it.
The attacks in Britain in 2005 and 2007 shocked many people there because they were carried out by local young men.
In certain cases, Islam supersedes nationality. Many people dont understand that. You are a Muslim first and a Pakistani second. You are a Muslim first and an Egyptian second. You are a Muslim first and a Saudi second. Those people were influenced by whats happening in Iraq. They believe that Muslims are one umma, community, and we have to feel for one other. Thats how they look at things. They say, for example, Why do the Americans and the British and the Europeans go and bomb our brothers in Afghanistan or Iraq? What can we do about this?
When somebody like me was saying in the media, Look, those people were influenced because of whats happening in Iraq. There are a million people killed in Iraq in a brutal, unjustified, immoral, and illegal war, thats when people like Tony Blair came out, saying, There is no connection between these atrocities, these crimes, and whats happening in Iraq. In the end, a joint intelligence service in this country confirmed that those people were influenced by what happened in Iraq. After that we had the videotape of Ayman Zawahiri. He got the will of Muhammad Sidiq Khan, the ringleader of the July 7, 2005 attack, actually saying on camera, We did this simply because we were influenced by the atrocities committed by British and American troops against our brothers in Iraq. And he said, We are going to deal with you the way that you are dealing with our brothers in that part of the world.
On top of that, the Arab community in the UK is actually facing terrorizing practices by the government since 9/11. If you are a Muslim, you are 17 times more likely to be stopped by the police than any other religion or any other race. You can see with these emergency laws how they are looking at every Muslim as a potential terrorist. You have to prove you are not a terrorist, you have to prove you are innocent, you have to prove you are a good citizen. Also, you have to be on the defensive all the time, whether you are educated or not. Thats the problem. Radical organizations try to manipulate the repressive atmosphere in this country against Muslims and use it for their own advantage. As I said, you dont need to recruit 2,000 or 3,000. You need to recruit 15, or maybe 5, and then the damage will be inflicted.
You use a couple of terms in The Secret History of Al-Qaida, electronic umma and cyber jihad.
Nowadays you can see that these radical organizations are making use of the latest technology. Now, Al-Qaida doesnt need Al Jazeera anymore. Osama bin Laden doesnt need any media outlet, as he used to. Nowadays what happens is he puts his tapes on certain Internet sites and gets a message to Reuters or Agence France Presse or CNN or Al Jazeera saying, If you look into this particular site, you will find a tape. You can download it and use it. So media people immediately go to these sites, get the tapes and broadcast them. Al-Qaida is sophisticated and independent. They create these sites anywhere in the world just for half an hour, and then they disappear. They cant be traced. Thats the way they are using technology effectively.
And we discovered that with al-Aieeri. He used to be the mastermind of these Islamic sites of al-Qaida. He was in Saudi Arabia, the safest place in the world, the closest ally of the United States. Al-Aieeri was killed. Now somebody else took over. Who? I dont know.
Your newspaper published what can only be described as a business plan that al-Qaida issued a couple of years ago, almost like any other corporation making public its proposals for the future.
Before 1996, al-Qaida had an office in London. Its representative in London was Khalid al-Fawwaz who moved around freely. He used to visit me and other newspapers, delivering materials and communications from Osama bin Laden when he was in Sudan. So it was legal. It wasnt yet a clandestine or underground organization. Al-Qaida, at that time, wanted to change the Arab regimes and apply sharia law. They wanted to shape the Arab world according to their criteria, they wanted to set up the Islamic caliphate as it was during the Ottoman Empire and before that.
They were heavily supported by wealthy men in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf. They used to have a lot of money. Osama bin Laden, when he went to Sudan, invested his money in agricultural, industrial, and construction projects. He attracted many of his radical ex-colleagues from the Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan, to go and work for him in Sudan. They have a well-prepared plan to rule the Muslim world.
What are the salient weaknesses and strengths of al-Qaida?
The weaknesses are clear. It is not very popular. The majority of Muslims would like to distance themselves from radical Islam and from al-Qaida because they were horrified with what happened in the World Trade Center. They cannot see Muslims killing innocent people. Thats why al-Qaida is not very popular. It is only popular among the minority of the minority of Muslims. The majority of Muslims are moderate, and they dont want violence or to be seen supporting radicalism or terrorism.
Many people ask why al-Qaida does not attack Israel, which is occupying Palestine and killing our brothers there? So this raises a lot of question marks about al-Qaida in certain parts of the Muslim world. Al-Qaida tried to rectify this by attacking a hotel full of Israeli tourists in Mombassa in Kenya and attempting to shoot down an Israeli charter flight. But it didnt work. So they are trying desperately to answer this shortcoming.
A third weakness of al-Qaida is it is followed by all the intelligence services in the world. You cannot openly say, I am a member of al-Qaida. For example, the Palestinian organizations that used to carry out attacks against Western interests were known, they had a headquarters, a leader, an address. But al-Qaida is a secret organization. They cannot have a headquarters, they cannot have a recognized leadership which is accessible. So these are the weaknesses of al-Qaida. The points of strength of al-Qaida are numerous. First, they dont need to have a headquarters, they dont need to have a street address, they dont need to have a lot of money, they dont need allies in government. And it is a clandestine organization. Thats what makes it very, very strong.
The second thing, they are adopting a certain interpretation of Islam that appeals to frustrated people in certain parts of the Muslim world.
The third and the most important strength of al-Qaida is the stupidity of the U.S. administration. I believe President Bush served al-Qaida by brutal policies, by invading Iraq and by giving al-Qaida another failed state to establish itself closer to the Arab world. Afghanistan was far away from the Arab world. Afghans dont speak Arabic. Al-Qaida used to be a foreigner there. The invasion of Iraq actually gave al-Qaida about ten lifelines.
How significant is U.S. economic, military, and political support for Israel?
This is the point of weakness of the American administration and the West in general. They are supporting the Israelis. They put Israel above international law. They let the Israelis do what they want and get away with it. The Israelis can kill, destroy, assassinate, impose sanctions, and nobody interferes. This creates huge resentment in the Arab world. It wont make the U.S. a friend of the Arabs and the Muslims. As long as they are doing so, the Americans will lose in the Middle East.
I can see the Americans are preparing for war against Iran. This could be fatal for American interests in the region. You cannot just go and prevent Iran from possessing weapons of mass destruction, you cannot go and destroy Iraq because you accused Saddam Hussein of having weapons of mass destruction, when the Israelis have an arsenal of 300 nuclear warheads.
Israel is the killing point of American foreign policy and American interests in the Middle East. It is one of the elements that make al-Qaida and other radical organizations flourish and expand.
Bush said he will destroy al-Qaida, he will end terrorism or weaken it. But whats happening? He is strengthening terrorism. We used to have one al-Qaida and now we have ten al-Qaidas. Its like Kentucky Fried Chicken. They are expanding, opening branches all over the world. Franchises, yes. Thats the problem. The Americans are not safer. Their country is a fortress now, the United States of Security.
It seems to fit in, though, with part of bin Ladens strategy. He wanted to provoke the United States into bleeding wars, as he called them.
I remember, I asked bin Laden, Whats your strategy? You are challenging the biggest superpower on earth? Do you think you can defeat this superpower? He said, No, I cannot defeat it, but I can launch a war of attrition against them. I asked, What do you mean? He said, If I manage to bring them to our part of the world and fight them on our own turf, in the middle of the Arab and the Muslim world, this will be fatal for them. It will be another Vietnam.
David Barsamian is founder and director of Alternative Radio. He is a radio producer, journalist, author, and lecturer. His interviews and articles appear regularly in The Progressive and Z Magazine. He is the author of several books, including Eqbal Ahmad: Confronting Empire and The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile: Conversations with Arundhati Roy.
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