Lawrence Wright assess radical Islam in Pakistan, Iraq, and other parts of the Muslim world.
HH: Every few months, we try and find Lawrence Wright, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda And The Path To 9/11, and to catch up with him on the state of the jihad around the world. And today is one of our lucky days. Lawrence Wright, welcome back to the program, always a pleasure to talk to you.
LW: It is for me, too, Hugh.
HH: I’d like to start by asking you given what is going on in Pakistan as we tape this for the first time on November the 6th, 2007, are the Takfiris in Pakistan in a stronger position now than they were in the immediate days before 9/11, or are they weaker?
LW: Well, in Pakistan, I think they’re stronger. I think previously, their headquarters were really in Afghanistan, and they were allies with the Taliban. But now the tribal areas have become the headquarters of al Qaeda, and that area has been pretty much sealed off from the government. They’ve had free rein in that territory, and they’re beginning to spread out a little bit outside the tribal areas. There’s a lot of insurgent activity in Northern Pakistan right now.
HH: In The Looming Tower, you chart how al Qaeda would move through Pakistan back and forth to Afghanistan, sometimes with the assistance of the ISI, sometimes without their assistance. What do you think is the relationship now between Pakistan security services and the jihadists in Waziristan and the border regions?
LW: You know the truth is, Hugh, they haven’t really tried very hard, I don’t think, to get to those people. It’s true that the Pakistani military has lost a number of soldiers, and I’m not discounting that effort. But most of the work of patrolling the tribal areas falls on a very lightly armed group called the Frontier Patrol. And they are completely outclassed. You know, in the recent weeks, the insurgents have captured hundreds of them, put them on parade, beheaded several of them. They’ve really humiliated the Frontier Corps, and it’s a stark demonstration of the imbalance of power within that area.
HH: I’m unfamiliar with that. Has that been widely reported that the Frontier Patrol is getting whacked?
LW: I don’t know how widely reported, but you know, they’re the main force responsible for policing that area. And when we are giving, you know, we have over the last six years, we’ve given nearly $11 billion dollars to Pakistan, about $7 billion of that for counterterrorism efforts, mainly, but a lot of that money has gone into building up the Pakistani military to defend against India, which is their real concern. And they’ve given very little in the way of arms or protection to the Frontier Corps. So the counterterrorism effort, I think, is really very puny right now in Pakistan.
HH: Do you think that Musharraf and his closest aides are genuinely committed to the war against the jihadists? Or are they doing the minimum they can do to maintain relations with the United States?
LW: I think that’s the case. And you know, my feeling…I was there in Peshawar, which is where al Qaeda was born in 1988. I was there in 2004, and there was firefight outside the city in the tribal areas, which are right adjacent to that region. And the information came out that they had just caught the son of Ayman al Zawahiri, who is the number two man in al Qaeda. And they said they had caught Ahmed al Zawahiri. And I thought well, that’s strange, Zawahiri doesn’t have a son named Ahmed. And then the next day, there was a banner headline, you know, Ahmed is talking. And then the next day, nothing at all, because there was no Ahmed. It was like changing the shop windows. Every year, we put on a show about how we’re going to round them up, and then really, for the last four years, we’ve got nothing to show for our efforts for countering al Qaeda in Pakistan.
HH: Would it be different under Bhutto? Do you believe that the military would be more responsive?
LW: Well, no. Pakistan is in a real odd state right now, very volatile. Certainly, I think her rhetoric is good. She’s got great intentions, and she’s got more than enough motivation after they tried to murder her a couple of weeks ago. So I think that she would be very interested in doing something about it. Whether she could gain the cooperation of the military is another thing. Pakistan is really at a moment of divide between whether it is going to be a democracy, however chaotic that might turn out to be, or a straightforward military dictatorship. And it seems to be inclining in that direction right now.
HH: Lawrence Wright, let’s step back a second and have people who are new to this subject, have you explain to them what the Takfiri approach to Islam is, because my next question’s going to be how deeply rooted is that particular virulent strain of Islam within Pakistan. But let’s start by having you explain to them what the Takfiris believe.
LW: Well, let me go back a little bit to explain that, Hugh, if you don’t mind.
LW: The philosopher behind the radical Islamist movement is a man named Sayyid Qutb, who wrote a book called Ma’alim fi-l-Tariq, Signposts Along the Road, which is a book everyone of these guys, bin Laden, Zawahiri, they all read. And it’s the creed of their movement. He was imprisoned, Qutb was, in Egyptian prisons in the early 60’s, and he was a member of the Muslim Brothers. At one point, a group of guards opened the cell where many of the Muslim Brothers were kept, and they just shot them down, killing twenty-something of them, but others were wounded. Qutb was in the hospital when that happened, and they brought the wounded men into the prison hospital, and he said to himself, what kind of Muslim would do this to another Muslim? And his answer was they are not Muslims. In his mind, he had excommunicated them from the faith. And the word for that, in Arabic, is Takfir, to excommunicate. Now it’s an ancient heresy in Islam, but it was revived by Zawahiri and others, who believe that only those who believed exactly as they did were real Muslims, and all the others were heretics, and therefore, capable of being killed.
HH: Now…and that spread, and they, as a result, could take up the idea of killing other Muslims, and contrary to what was obviously some injunctions in the Koran, and it spread.
HH: How deeply into the Pakistan Muslim world did it sink?
LW: Well, when you have…the evidence of it is who are the victims? And if you see Muslims killing other Muslims, that is Takfir, because in the Koran, it is strictly forbidden to kill another Muslim. And if you…the only rationale that anyone can possibly put forward who is a Muslim is to say well, they’re not Muslims. I didn’t kill Muslims, so that whenever you see bombs going off in a crowd, assassinations and so on, that’s evidence of Takfir, and I think you can see it’s getting much more widely distributed, that kind of thinking, in Pakistan.
HH: Now obviously, they have attempted on three or four occasions, the Takfiris, to assassinate Musharraf.
HH: What’s that tell us about their understanding of Musharraf, and our relationship with him?
LW: Well, they want to create a theocratic government. That is the goal of the radical Islamists from the beginning. So Musharraf stands in the way of that. He is really playing, I think, a very dangerous and careless game. Certainly, he would have plenty of personal motivation to go after them, but I think he’s, you know, he and the Pakistani army are in the looking for bin Laden business. It’s a good business. If they found him, they’d be out of business. So to some extent, I think this is being strung along. Now if I’m right, if I’m right about this and you know, we can look into General Musharraf’s mind, he’ll have to be looking toward the next administration, which will be in place in less than a year and a half. And he’s going to have to deal with someone other than President Bush. I would, if I were in his place, I would be producing something before the election. So I’m not a prognosticator, but it would stand to reason that we’ve had a drought of any productive effort of our counterterrorism in Pakistan for the last four years. In order to justify what he’s done, he’s got to put something on the table. And I bet that’ll happen before the election.
HH: Lawrence Wright, you’ve studied these people more than anyone I know other than perhaps Bernard Lewis, and perhaps even his equal over the last few years. The nukes in Pakistan have everyone’s attention.
HH: What do you think, after everything you’ve surveyed and read and studied, about the security of those weapons, vis-à-vis the radicals?
LW: The government, the American government seems to be fairly confident that those weapons are right now secure. But they’re paralyzed by the idea that Pakistan would be taken over by radical Islamists, and those weapons would fall into their hands, and maybe you would see another kind of AQ Khan network, where they would distribute the weapons and the knowledge to other radical groups and regimes. That fear is like a cobra in front of the American policy community. They’re paralyzed by it.
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HH: Lawrence Wright, I’m always curious how you find the knowledge curve in America about the jihadist Takfiris. Where…are we a lot further along in the general understanding of them since we last talked three or four months ago? Or are we still at one and two percent penetration of knowledge?
LW: Well you know, there are different tiers of understanding, Hugh, and let’s start with…let’s say the academic community. The 9/11 Commission pointed out that at the time of 9/11, in the entire country of the United States, there were only eight students at the undergraduate level majoring in Arabic language. Now you know, that is really dismal.
LW: And now you see a lot of young people who are studying Arabic, and I think that has completely changed. But I looked on Pro Quest, which is a review of the PhD theses that have been filed, and in the whole country, there are only three dealing with al Qaeda, which shows you that the academic community still has a long way to go before it shoulders its responsibility in trying to understand this phenomenon.
HH: How about our elected elites, and especially the Pentagon and our strategic elites?
LW: Well, in the intelligence community, this is, I would say that they have made some progress, but the truth is, Hugh, in order to really understand al Qaeda and its affiliates, you need people who actually speak and understand, natively, Arabic, as well as Pashto, Dari, Urdu, these other languages that they communicate in. But the absence of Arabic speakers in our intelligence community is really stark. One of the heroes in my book, Ali Safan, was one of eight Arabic speaking agents in the FBI on 9/11. There are six now. I’m not saying that the FBI’s not trying to recruit more Arabic speaking agents, but all across the intelligence community, they’ve erected security barriers that prohibit first and second generation Americans, especially Arabs and Muslims, from being hired. And the starkest example I can give you of that is I talked to the head of the Army Translation Corps. He said that after 9/11, many Arab and Muslim-Americans came forward and offered their services to American intelligence, and they were spurned. But the Army picked up many of them, and what happened? They became translators in Iraq, the most dangerous imaginable assignment. And he said that after four years of serving their country, they can’t get a job in American intelligence because they’re considered a security risk. Well, there is a security at risk. It’s our security. And what other declaration of loyalty do they need to make?
HH: That’s well put. Now what about at a cultural level? One way to wage a war is to make sure that your arms of culture are embodying at least good knowledge about the enemy. We’ve got movies like The Kingdom and things like that.
HH: But do you think it’s a general attempt by our entertainment culture to communicate who we’re up against?
LW: I think that the entertainment culture has made some movement, but it comes from such a low level. Until, I would say, until last year, there was really no evidence that the creative community in America had really shouldered its responsibility to try to understand this phenomenon, and the threat that it really does pose to our country and to our freedoms. And lately, you see a lot of, you know, there’s a whole of movies about Iraq. There’s some movies that are taking place in other Arab arrangements, you know, so I do think that there are some efforts to try to broach some understanding. But it’s coming late, and the truth is, a lot of those movies, for instance, don’t do so well at the box office. It indicates that people don’t want to hear about it.
HH: Did you see The Kingdom?
LW: I haven’t seen The Kingdom yet.
HH: Okay. I want to go and talk to you about something that came out of the real Kingdom, which was a fatwa by a senior religious figure a couple of months ago, condemning bin Laden for the indiscriminate use of violence against women and children. Are you familiar with that, Lawrence Wright?
LW: I am, and I think it’s one of the most important developments. I mean, it’s been completely unheralded, and I’m proud of you for noticing it. Sheik Salman al Awdah is a very prominent cleric in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden himself lionized this man. But on two occasions, most recently at the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month which just concluded, Sheik Awdah condemned, personally condemned bin Laden. You know, my son, Osama, how long will this go on? You know, this stain on Islam. I mean, it was a direct repudiation of everything that bin Laden stood for.
HH: Has it generated conversation on the internet and back and forth among the Takfiris in the Saudi elites?
LW: Not as much as I would have hoped. There is, you know, there’s another thing going on that has gotten more attention in those circles, and to some extent, it’s discredited because it’s coming out of the Egyptian prisons. But some of the founders of Zawahiri’s group called al Jihad, the terrorist organization that he created, and Gama’a Islamiyya, another one of the terrorist groups in Egypt, who are now, these guys who are now in prison, and who are the authors of the Takfiri philosophy in many respects, are recanting, and they’re writing pamphlets and books that are being distributed and published. As I say, I mean, the fact that they’re in prison undermines the credibility of it, but they seem sincere, and they are a subject of discussion within radical Islamic circles.
HH: What do you make of the reaction to al Qaeda in Iraq out in Anbar and the Baghdad belts? Has Iraq been effectively immunized against al Qaeda, given the virulent nature of their invasion, their terrible tactics, and now the counterattack against them?
LW: al Qaeda’s losing in Iraq.
LW: And I think this is terrific news. Maybe we haven’t talked enough about this, but this is, the surge is working, and it’s not just the surge. It’s the Iraqis, especially the Sunnis, who have turned against al Qaeda, and are sick of the say that these guys are coming in and trying to impose their own way of life on people that have no interest in living this, I think, bizarre interpretation of early Islam. They’ve rebelled, and that has given American and Coalition forces a chance to really begin to impose order in the Sunni areas. I was talking to my colleague, George Packer at the New Yorker, who’s spent quite a deal of time in Iraq, and he said that he’s been talking to some generals, American generals, who say that they can’t find the Sunni insurgency now.
HH: Wow. Is that generally understood among media elites in the United States?
LW: Well, I had a conversation last night with Terry McCarthy, who is the ABC Iraq correspondent. And he reiterated the same information, that it is, the insurgency is being beaten down, and al Qaeda’s on retreat. Now that might be just a moment, it might change. But at this particular moment, it looks like al Qaeda’s on the run.
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HH: Lawrence Wright, we were talking when we went to break about how Iraq is waging successful counterinsurgency against al Qaeda in Iraq. I’m reminded that Algeria waged a brutal counterinsurgency against al Qaeda in the 90’s, and I thought it was over, but now al Qaeda is back. How much staying power does al Qaeda have, even when the full force of a state turns against them?
LW: Well, you know, it’s not just an organization, it’s a movement. And so you can stamp out the guerrilla fighters that are on the forefront of it. But that doesn’t mean that you thought you’ve gotten rid of the thinking behind it. And until people really turn away from that, we’re going to constantly see outbreaks of it. I’m most worried about it right now in Europe, where it’s not…you can’t resort to those kinds of Algerian tactics. It’s…in London, for instance, the assistant commissioner for the London police told me that they had stopped 30 plots in the last year and a half. Well, I mean, good for them, but that is an amazing number of plots. And the tempo is really quite frightening to think about.
HH: Stepping back from the entire world of Islam, how widespread is the movement?
LW: Well, it’s grown considerably since 9/11, and that’s the most discouraging feature. I mean, there are many encouraging things about our war on terror, but the worst feature of it is that it’s now deeply rooted in many countries where it wasn’t really present before 9/11. You see there are several different levels of this. One is the formal affiliates. The first of these was al Qaeda in Iraq, which when it started, which was started by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, it was not al Qaeda. It was really a competitor. But then he made application to join al Qaeda formally, and it took about a year for bin Laden to consider that request and grant it. But that set up a kind of franchise organization. And the next formal affiliate was the organization for preaching and combat in Morocco, Tunisia, North Africa. And they changed their name to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. So they became the next one. Now there is a kind of formal affiliate of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, and then there’s al Qaeda central, the old organization, the mother ship, in the tribal areas of Pakistan. That is the formal organization. But beyond that, there are al Qaeda affiliates and wannabes that are scattered all through the Muslim world, and in the West. So the future of those organizations is, in some respects, more worrisome to me because they are…they tend to spring up spontaneously, and it’s very hard to spot them as they arise. And increasingly, you see native born Europeans becoming a part of that.
HH: After the break, I want to talk about Europe and the U.S., but just speaking generally, how many would you number in the al Qaeda affiliates or franchises, willing to use violence? Is it the thousands, the tens of thousands, or the hundreds of thousands?
LW: No, it’s not that large. I mean, it’s very difficult to put numbers on al Qaeda, but it’s in the low thousands, I would think. It’s not a…the number of people that are actually involved in creating violence is not that many. But the thing that gives them a certain amount of power is the training in Iraq has given this organization network and experience. These guys have been engaged in intensive urban warfare for four years now. And that is a really dangerous amount of experience to have.
HH: How’s their money situation after seven years of chasing, or six years of chasing their financing?
LW: You know, the truth is, they’re making money. And one of the interesting things to me about al Qaeda is that it’s turning into a group of criminal gangs. If it weren’t for bin Laden, I think it would be easier to see that this is really a group of mafia families now. They make their money off of the opium smuggling in Afghanistan, off of stealing the oil shipments in Iraq, off of kidnapping, big game poaching in Africa. These are really criminal activities that really aren’t of religious political movement at all.
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HH: He’s been my guest three previous times. Each time he comes back, we learn more. I very much appreciate the time, Lawrence Wright. When we went to break, we were talking about al Qaeda as a criminal gang. One of the compelling parts of The Looming Tower that affected me as sort of guided my reading is they really do believe this stuff, that bin Laden is a sincere Wahabist, as is Zarqawi, Zawahiri, as is most of the senior leadership.
HH: When you call them a criminal gang, are you suggesting that the next generation is not so sincere, or that their ambitions are less expansive as bin Laden and generation one?
LW: I think there have been, one might say, three generations of al Qaeda now. At least that’s the way that they are being studied in Europe. And what’s really remarkable about…if you look at the first generation of al Qaeda, bin Laden, Zawahiri, any of those, and probably Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, these are well educated men, middle to upper class. They are religious fanatics, and deeply committed to the idealism of their cause. And then, in this second generation, you began to get a certain criminal element, you know, people that were skilled in counterfeiting, in doing some of these credit card frauds and so on, and that’s how al Qaeda was able to raise some of its money. But that was sort of the second generation. Now, there’s a new generation, a third generation, which is much more proletarian, and I’m talking mainly about the situation in Europe now, in the poor communities on the outskirts of the affluent cities of France and Germany and so on, and in parts of the UK. A Dutch study was done of this group, and what fascinated me about that is that their political goals are absurd, so vague they could hardly put them into words. Now at one point, bin Laden had a political goal. It was to drive the crusaders, as he said, out of the Arabian Peninsula. He wanted to get the American Army out of Saudi Arabia.
LW: Well, he succeeded. In April of 2003, the Bush administration said that we were withdrawing all of our forces from Saudi Arabia. The very next month, al Qaeda began its assault on the Western housing compounds. So victory wasn’t enough for him. And if you look at the ideology, if you could call it that, of the younger al Qaeda members, they’re really nihilists. They don’t really believe in anything except striking back. And that’s part of the appeal, I think, of the criminality of it.
HH: Now recently, we had a report on the Muslim Brothers in America, based upon documents that came out of the Holy Land Foundation trial in Texas, but authored in part by Douglas Farah. Are you familiar with that?
LW: I haven’t studied it. I’m familiar with the Holy Land Foundation, but I’m not an expert on it.
HH: Is that, is the Brothers in America a definite affiliate of this sort of al Qaeda generation three? Or does it stand alone and a very different phenomenon.
LW: Oh, it’s completely different, and you know, in fact, they’re almost polar opposites now. When I started my research right after 9/11, if I were talking to a member of the Muslim Brothers, and I ask him what his political agenda was, his political agenda really was to put head scarves on all the women. That was it. There was no real political thinking. Now, these guys are actually getting closer to power, and people are demanding real answers from them, and that’s hard for them, because they’ve never been a sophisticated political organization by any means, but they’re beginning to see that democracy might be the route to power for them. And Zawahiri hates the Muslim Brothers. He wrote a book called Bitter Harvest, in which he denounced the Muslim Brothers, this was more than fifteen years ago, for compromising with the government, and agreeing to work with established norms. He hasn’t got…you know, he’s a complete nihilist in that sense. He wants to demolish the state completely and impose this Islamic theocracy. The Muslim Brothers are more practical than that.
HH: Well, let’s turn, then, to Hamas. Bernard Lewis in The Crisis Of Islam talks about how many among the jihadists believe in one man and only men, one vote once. Hamas seems to have gotten that. Is Hamas an affiliate of this third generation of al Qaeda, or are they different?
LW: They are different, too, in that they are a nationalist group. When we talk about al Qaeda, we are talking about an internationalist universalist group with no real particular nationalist cause. I mean, Hamas wants to eliminate the state of Israel, and recreate Palestine over the whole area. That’s their goal. But for the young jihadist, or the young radical Islamist in Belgium, for instance, he doesn’t think about those things. In fact, you know, bin Laden doesn’t think about those things. If you had the opportunity to have bin Laden on your show, and you…suppose he was able to take over Egypt or Saudi Arabia, and you were going to ask him, well what are you going to do with it now, what are you going to do about the real problems of the Muslim world, joblessness, illiteracy, and by the way, what kind of economic model do you follow, I don’t think you’ve ever said if you’re a Marxist or a Keynesian, or a free marketeer. You know, he criticizes us for not signing the Kyoto Treaty. Well, what’s al Qaeda’s environmental policy? They’ve never thought of any of these things.
HH: Do you think that Hamas has?
LW: I think Hamas and the Muslim Brothers and Hezbollah have a tradition of working as charities, actually working in the communities. We’re setting up hospitals after earthquakes, for instance, when the government of Egypt, for instance, is notably not there to help its own citizens. Well, the Muslim Brothers are. And so they have some tradition of working with people, and creating social services. Al Qaeda has never had anything like that, nor any interest in it.
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HH: I want to thank you, Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower, for joining us. I want to close with sort of one of the bigger questions, which is, is the al Qaeda movement within Islam a variant that’s never been seen before? Or is it an extension of Wahabism, and unless and until Wahabism is reformed within Islam can we expect al Qaedaism to go away?
LW: No, it’s tricky to try to just pin it on Wahabism. Because bin Laden is a Wahabi, and Saudi Arabia is a very strict Wahabi society, but so it Qatar. And yet, it doesn’t have at least anywhere near the same levels as Saudi Arabia the kind of extremism and violence nature that bin Laden and al Qaeda have exhibited. I think that there are many reasons that give rise to the radicalism that we see in al Qaeda. Religion is one of them. But in the West, for instance, I think that these are conflicts of identity. You’ve got young Muslim men who really don’t feel at home or welcome in Europe in particular. The situation’s much different in the United States, thankfully. But they are really having a kind of crisis of identity. And radical Islam gives them an identity ready made for them. Now in the Muslim world, there are other reasons why people become radicalized. There’s, for one thing, the economies are so wretched. If you take the example of the Arab world, which reaches from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, larger than the United States, 300 million Arabs. And in the entire Arab world, the 22 countries that only a few of them produce oil, if you took oil out of their economies, the 300 million Arabs produce less for export than the five million Fins, less than the Nokia Telephone Company, really, which is a main product of Finland. And if you put oil back into those economies, their economies are still, altogether, less than half of the state of California.
HH: Let me close with this question then. Al Qaeda can’t be negotiated with because it’s radical. Do you see a Hamas, for example, dominated Palestine, as being a participating member of the world of nations as being an ordinary state actor? Or does the nature of its theology require it to be radical and constantly at war?
LW: It’s a little hard to say right now, because you know, I think Hamas has been sidelined, and has managed, created this coup in Gaza. But now that it has Gaza, it’s effectively isolated itself. The truth is, there are enemies of peace in that region when, if you go back to when this current intifada started, the leader of the Palestinian people, Mahmoud Abbas, has scheduled a vote. And the Palestinian people were going to vote for a two state solution. It was going to be a complete repudiation of Hamas. And what Hamas did was to kidnap an Israeli soldier that Hezbollah helped in, with two more kidnaps, and nobody’s talking about the two state solution.
HH: Lawrence Wright, I’m sorry we’re out of time. I look forward to another visit in another few months. I appreciate it.
End of interview.