Newly Pulitzer Prize winning author Lawrence Wright gives a state of the West, and a state of al Qaeda, and what we are or are not learning about them.
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HH: I’m pleased to welcome back the author, Lawrence Wright. Congratulations, Lawrence, for winning the Pulitzer. That’s quite an acknowledgement of the importance of The Looming Tower.
LW: Thank you so much, Hugh. I really appreciate that.
HH: Now the book concludes in March of 2002, as bin Laden and Zawahiri scatter into the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since then, you’ve done some important reporting on al Qaeda, including your September, 2006, article in the New Yorker. I’d like to focus on picking up from 2002 and find out what’s happened since. Are you going to make this study, are you going to write a successor volume to The Looming Tower?
LW: I haven’t decided. You know, I’m interested in doing it, but I just haven’t quite determined what the story is that I’m going to tell.
HH: All right.
LW: And so I’m kind of on the fence, Hugh.
HH: How do you go about keeping tabs on al Qaeda? How do you report these stories?
LW: Well, you know, for one thing, al Qaeda does a very helpful job of posting its own story on the web. And so there’s tons of material. By comparison, with the situation before 9/11, al Qaeda’s much more prolific in terms of reposting material on the web. There are lots of videos that come on Al Jazeera. There’s a lot of news. And then, there are a lot of people that have been captured, or are defectors. So there’s a great deal of inside information, much more so now than prior to 9/11.
HH: Now as we record this in early, in late April, 2007, al Qaeda is announced to be planning a large-scale, Hiroshima terrorist attack on Britain and other Western targets, according to the Sunday Times of London yesterday. There is another report out of Spain by Reuters that an attack is planned by the African branch. When we say al Qaeda, what do you mean, Lawrence Wright?
LW: Al Qaeda is more diversified now than it was in the past. It’s really four separate organizations. There’s al Qaeda in North Africa, which is very much more important an entity now than it had been, an organization called the Salafist group for preaching in combat, which is centered mainly in Algeria, has now switched its allegiance to al Qaeda. And they have a training camp in Mali. And you know, they had this big bomb in Algiers just last week. So they really are making a statement, and they pose a real threat to Europe, because the commerce between Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Spain and France. So that’s one group of al Qaeda. Secondly, there is al Qaeda in Iraq, which is really the heart and soul of al Qaeda right now, and that’s where the main effort is. It’s where the jihadis are going to be trained. And when that conflict is over, they will be returning to their own countries, and into the West to cause additional havoc. And then there is al Qaeda in Europe, which is a very widespread, loosely connected, centered largely in London in England, but also in the outskirts of Paris, and in Italy. It’s all over, really, all over Europe. And then finally, there’s the mother ship, which is headquartered in Pakistan. So those four entities are loosely connected, but have a common cause, and are still directed overall by bin Laden.
HH: Now when you say directed overall by bin Laden, does he have operational control of these entities? Or do they sort of treat him as head of stateless state?
LW: He’s able to direct traffic. He’s able to give ideas about where he wants people. For instance, he’s been indicating for the last couple of years that he wants jihadis going to Kashmir and Darfur. And really, he was pointing them away from Iraq, interestingly enough. But there’s no one else in al Qaeda with his authority. That’s why bin Laden remains relevant. He can tell them where to go, he can resolve disputes. If bin Laden weren’t on the scene, al Qaeda, I think, would dissolve much more into some sort of mafia-like entity.
HH: Lawrence Wright, with the knowledge you have, and the study you give to the four branches of al Qaeda, what do you estimate their numbers actually at?
LW: There’s no really way of saying that, Hugh, because if you start thinking about people that are affiliated with al Qaeda, you know, there’s a kind of maid member quality. If you pledge allegiance to bin Laden, that’s, you know, the definitive al Qaeda insider. And there are probably just several hundred of those in Pakistan. But beyond that, there are many people who are al Qaeda imitators, and they are affiliated in loosely organized cells. And I think that it’s fair to call them al Qaeda, even if they haven’t been to Afghanistan, even if they haven’t pledged allegiance to bin Laden. They have dedicated themselves to following his principles, and those are in the thousands.
HH: And of those thousands, how many of them are, or what percentage of them, or any kind of estimate, are actually willing to sacrifice themselves in the cause, as, for example, the hijackers of September 11th did?
LW: Well, that’s the real lure of al Qaeda, you know, Hugh, is that it’s at bottom, it’s a death culture. I was very struck when I was in Pakistan talking to Rahimullah Yousufzai, a distinguished Pakistani journalist who covered the Arab jihad, covered the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. And he ran across a group of these Arabs, they were called the Arab Afghans, who had come to fight against the Soviets on behalf of the Afghans. And he recalls they were camped outside in white tents on an open field. And he said what are you thinking? You know, the Soviet Air Force can easily see you. They’ll wipe you out. And one of the Arabs responded by saying but we came to die. Now that is, I was so struck when I would be talking to these Arab jihadis in London or Cairo, or wherever I’d run into them, and they would freely say that it was death that they sought, not victory over the Soviets. That’s why they went to fight. They wanted to become martyrs. That’s the soil in which al Qaeda was planted. That’s where it grew up from. It has this, you know, this death culture that offers nothing to the young men that join it, except the promise of their own oblivion.
HH: Now when that takes root, how does it run its course? Have we seen al Qaeda spring up, put down roots, and then run its course in any country? Do we have a cycle that we can predict or hope will replicate itself somewhere?
LW: Well, it’s been brutally suppressed in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but that doesn’t mean that it’s been extinguished. It tends to get squeezed out in some places, and then go off into others. So it’s more like having water in a bag. You know, you can put your hands around it, but the liquid moves elsewhere. And then as soon as you let up your grip, it comes back. It’s not…it has not really been completely extinguished from any of these countries. It’s simply been pushed aside. Even in Iraq, you can see with our surge effort, you know, that a number of the jihadis moved out of Baghdad, and are just biding their time elsewhere. It doesn’t mean that they’ve been extinguished.
HH: Is that how you refer to them now, Lawrence Wright? Jihadis? Is that the easiest way…
LW: No, I should say that there are jihadis, and there are al Qaeda. They are often times linked together, and al Qaeda recruited its original membership from people who went to fight the jihad. That doesn’t mean that there are, that to be a jihadi is necessarily to be an al Qaeda.
HH: All right, and does al Qaeda enjoy anywhere in the world right now the sort of sanctuary it enjoyed in Afghanistan that allowed for the operational detail that permitted a 9/11 attack?
LW: Unfortunately, and this is really important, because even though al Qaeda has turned in some respects into a kind of virtual organization that has all its training manuals on the web, and the propaganda and so on, the actual training is very important. So eliminating the sanctuary in Afghanistan was extremely important. But far from being homeless now, al Qaeda has new sanctuaries in Mali as I mentioned, in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where they essentially are sanctioned in there, in Somalia as we saw, and probably they’re not gone out of Somalia yet, in the western provinces of Iraq, and probably once again in Afghanistan. So in many respects, al Qaeda is once again reconstituted with training, and with the ability to draw people from all over the world to get trained in their camps, and make the networks that make them so dangerous.
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HH: Lawrence Wright, before we go back to the specifics of al Qaeda post-2002, March, are you surprised by the success of The Looming Tower? It’s a difficult book. It’s riveting, but it’s not exactly something that people rush to read.
LW: Well, also, there were so many 9/11 books that came out during the time that I was working on it, it was sometimes discouraging to think that there might not be any market for it at all. So it was, yeah, I was very, very gratified that there was a market for it when it came out. It did very well, and you know, it’s been rewarding in every sense.
HH: The penetration of the book into some leadership circles is profound. In other places, I still find myself amazed that leading public figures are not only unacquainted with it, but unacquainted generally with the nature of al Qaeda. Is that a phenomenon still surprising to you, that our political leadership is often in the dark about the nature of our enemy?
LW: I get so discouraged about this, and it’s not just the political leadership. It’s, you know, our intelligence community, which is supposed to know all of this. I mean, one can expect that it’s hard for politicians to keep up to date with everything, and they rely on our intelligence community to keep them supplied with the relevant information. But you know, it’s not a joke when the head of the counterterrorism division for the FBI testifies under oath that he doesn’t know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, and that he thinks that’s an irrelevant question. It’s not irrelevant. It’s at the heart of things. It’s the reason that we are so handicapped in our battle against this enemy, because we don’t understand the first thing about them.
HH: How about when the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee confesses the same ignorance of the difference between the Sunni and Shia?
LW: There’s no excuse for it, Hugh. It’s…you pretend, you say that you are trying to ensure the nation’s safety, but part of…you know, the first act that you would take in that capacity would be to learn something about the enemy that you’re fighting against. But the arrogance and the ignorance that’s been displayed in our intelligence and political life is almost breathtaking. It’s…certainly, we don’t deserve to win this battle if we don’t make the effort to find out who these people are, and why they’re fighting against us.
HH: As we record this, there is a controversy within the Public Broadcasting System over the airing of a film, Islam Vs. Islamists. PBS thinks it’s too harsh, I gather, too negative in its portrayal of the Islamist threat within the Islamic community. Have you been following that controversy?
LW: No, I haven’t, but I think that Islam is in the middle of a huge period of introspection, and it’s, in my opinion, if Islam is able to change and adapt, and root out this terrible heresy in the middle of it, it’ll have to happen in the West, because Muslims have so much more freedom to discuss their situation in the United States and in Europe, and that’s where the confrontation with modernity is at its keenest. So I think that it’s, it’s Western Muslims that have to address this question and resolve it, and then carry it back to their comrades in the Middle East.
HH: Now I want go back to your organizational chart of the al Qaeda, with sanctuary, really, in Mali, the tribal lands of Somalia to some extent, and the western provinces of Afghanistan, again to some extent, under pressure. You didn’t mention the West Bank and Gaza. Is al Qaeda there?
LW: There’s a lot of evidence, yes, that al Qaeda’s making inroads into the Palestinian community. And of course, this is a terrible development. The Hamas and Hezbollah have been nationalistic institutions, and have never really condoned, in fact, for instance, the head of Hezbollah, Nasrallah, condemned al Qaeda, condemned its actions. But at the same time, I think there’s a nihilistic element involved in these young men that turn to al Qaeda increasingly, and so al Qaeda used to have more pragmatic political goals. But they’re becoming increasingly nihilistic, and I think that’s reflected in the kind of despair that runs through so many of these Muslim communities.
HH: Now let’s talk a little bit about what the vision is, not just of bin Laden and Zawahiri, though they are the heads, in many respects, of this vast and disbursed organization. But you chronicle in the New Yorker article from September of ’06 a five stage plan. Is that the dominant planning document? Do the individuals subscribe to that vision?
LW: This…what you’re referring to came from a book by a Jordanian journalist called Fouad Hussein, who wrote a biography of Zarqawi, the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. And this Zarqawi legacy that we’re dealing with in Iraq now, he’s the one that instigated the civil war between the Sunnis and the Shia. And it was no doubt from him, but also from Saif al-Adil, the al Qaeda security chief who has taken refuge in Iran, that Fouad Hussein drew from them this plan, the master plan as I call it, of al Qaeda. And it begins with the strikes on America, on 9/11, the first stage called awakening. And the idea was to strike at America, and cause it to, as he says, act chaotically in response. And the first stage ends with the fall of Baghdad. And then, the next stage begins with the training of jihadis who stream into Iraq to fight against the Americans. And then that stage was, according to their plans, to last to 2006. And then they would go back to their own countries and topple the repressive regimes there, and set up a caliphate that would reach across national boundaries. And then by the year 2016, they would create a pan-Islamic army to engage in a final apocalyptic war with the unbelievers that would finally be resolved, be won by the Islamists in the year 2020, you know, with complete victory, as they call it, which would mean the end of all suffering. That’s the master plan for al Qaeda.
HH: When did they articulate that?
LW: It was about four years ago in that Fouad Hussein book.
HH: So after the invasion of Iraq? After the toppling of Saddam?
HH: But then…so there’s a little bit of post-hawk…
LW: Oh, it’s very, very self-serving, and very much so, as are many of these al Qaeda documents. They’re meant to be read in the West.
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HH: Lawrence Wright, as I mentioned in the London Times, Sunday Times, reported this past weekend of a vast plot to try and arrange for a mass casualty in London or Europe on the scale of Hiroshima, and it is linked back to al Qaeda in Iran. Now the Shia millennialists who run that country, whether it’s Ahmadinejad or Khatami, or Yazdi, et cetera, they don’t have anything but contempt for the theology of al Qaeda. Why would they cooperate with them?
LW: It’s fascinating, isn’t it, because they are, they’re bitter, bitter enemies, and yet going back to the early 90’s, there was a correspondence between al Qaeda when it was located in Sudan between ’92 and ’96, and Iran, which arranged for the al Qaeda members to train with Hezbollah. There are still al Qaeda members such as bin Laden’s son, Saad, and his security chief, Saif al-Adil, who are in kind of nominal house arrest in Iran, as well as maybe as hundreds of other al Qaeda members, according to a Saudi newspaper I translated. So there are many al Qaeda people who have…even Zarqawi, who instigated the war against the Shia, he used to, he had taken refuge in Iran. Now this…al Qaeda’s an entirely Sunni organization, and they believe that the Shiites are heretics, and deserve to be killed. So why is there this nominal alliance? And I think that from the Iranian point of view, that there’s a certain kind of strategic element in trying to keep Iraq in a weakened state. And they even, there seems to be some supplying of explosive devices to even Sunni groups in Iraq. So there may be some kind of strategic overall alliance for Iran, but I find it wildly self-defeating, an unbelievably stupid thing to do, because al Qaeda cannot be trusted by anybody.
HH: But if, in fact, they subscribe to the 12th imam, the occulated imam theory…
HH: …of chaos bringing forth the end of these times, that’s the only way I can figure it out, is that chaos is good all around, even if it’s chaos directed at us.
LW: Yeah, chaos has an appeal to both sides. There is a book by one of the al Qaeda insiders, Abu Bakar, and he wrote a book called The Management of Savagery, and he talked about the need to create chaotic situations, and savage behavior which frightens people, and causes the government to retreat to its vital centers, and leaves the margins unprotected. And in those kind of chaotic margins, that’s where people will turn to any strong force, even al Qaeda, which is the organization that created the chaos in the first place, to give them a sense of security, and you can see how that worked, for instance, in Somalia. It was modeled on the Taliban, this kind of thinking, and that’s what’s going on right now in the mind of al Qaeda in Iraq. They’re intentionally creating chaotic situations in order to have people become so despairing that they will turn even to the instigators of that chaos for their salvation.
HH: You know, that’s a sort of fascinating reverse, negative Thomas Barnett’s The Pentagon’s New Map theory of connecting the world. He wants to connect the world, they want to disconnect the world.
HH: Let me ask you about the nominal house arrest of bin Laden’s son and his security chief. What do you understand that to be? Are they free to organize and conspire? Is Iran allowing them that much maneuverability?
LW: Well, apparently, this Jordanian journalist was able to talk to Saif al-Adil, so you know, he must have some freedom of movement. I’ve heard from sources at the FBI that there’s like a single guard outside the house of, outside the Saad bin Laden house. So he may be under guard, but not a very strict one.
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HH: Mr. Wright, back to the situation at hand. In the United States, how, how deep is the penetration of al Qaeda into the American Muslim community?
LW: Oh, we are so fortunate, Hugh, by comparison with the situation in Europe. And people are always asking me, you know, what makes us safe? Are we safer? And what makes us safe is not the contact lens solution they might take away from you at the airport. What makes us safer is the fact that the average American Muslim makes a higher wage than the average American, is twice as likely to go to college, is much less likely to go to prison. Compare that with the situation in France, where you have about 10% of the population is Muslim, 50% of the prisoners are. The degree of alienation and marginalization that is felt in the Islamic communities in Europe is so stark by comparison with the integration of American Muslims into our society. That is just…it’s a profound difference. And there are radicals in America, plenty of them. But I remember one night in Birmingham, England. I was having Iftar with a group of radical Islamists, and one of them, this was maybe 2004, and one of them was talking about how he approved of the kidnapping and beheading of aid workers in Iraq. And as he was saying that, I thought you know, this guy is dangerous, and I know there are guys like him in the U.S. But I looked around the room, and there were these other people nodding their heads in agreement. And I thought it’s those nodding heads that are really dangerous, because they surround him with an approving community that allows him to conspire, and allows him to think these wicked thoughts. And that’s the difference, I think, between the Europe situation and the American. We don’t have the nodding heads. We might one day, but that’s the thing that makes it so difficult for sleeper cells and that kind of thing to organize in this country, because they don’t have the approving community they do in Europe.
HH: Do you, from your conversations with American intelligence analysts and police officers, do you believe that the cooperation with American authorities within the American Muslim community is to such an extent that we can spot and prevent jihadi attacks, as opposed to London where they say it’s a matter of time before they get hit again?
LW: No, I think it’s a failure on both sides. I think the American Muslim community, although successful by comparison, has always been a very reticent and self-enclosed and unwilling to be very open to American intelligence. And on the side of American intelligence, they have a pronounced discrimination against the hiring of Muslims, and Arabic speaking peoples. So they don’t know anything about those communities. And I mean, their ignorance is so dismal that they wouldn’t know how to…the first thing about approaching a mosque, or whether it was a Shia or a Sunni mosque, or any of those things. It’s just really…you know, it’s a failure on both sides that we really need to address.
HH: Are we essentially blind then to whatever level of al Qaeda exists in America?
LW: Not entirely blind. I mean, there’s certainly a tremendous amount of scrutiny that’s going on, but you know, and I’ll give you an example. This is the kind of thing that is, I think, unfortunately characteristic of the state of American intelligence right now. I had the FBI come to my house a couple of years ago, and they wanted to know about some calls that had been made from my phone to a number in England. It was a 44-207 number. And they wanted to know if I could tell them who it was. And I said well, you know, first of all, I’m surprised that they didn’t know. And so I thought it was a business number in London. So I looked it up and it belonged to a solicitor that represented some of the jihadis that I’d been interviewing. And then they asked if I could identify a person named Caroline Wright. That’s my daughter. And they had gotten the idea that it was Caroline Wright who was involved in these calls. And you know, Caroline is not on any of our phones. So I didn’t know how she’d gotten, they’d gotten her name. She’s not a terrorist. She went to high school with the Bush twins. And she…yet now, she’s on the link chart as an al Qaeda connection. Now that’s the level of incompetence that we’re talking about.
HH: Oh, my gosh.
LW: First of all, they’re snooping on my phone, they get everything wrong, and I’m going into speechlessness right now. But you know, it’s…
HH: I am…it’s despair.
HH: It’s both, it’s both despair, and it’s also…if it wasn’t so dangerous, it would be hilarious.
LW: Yeah. If there were a level of discretion and understanding…but you know, illegally snooping into my phone records, and then bungling it to the point that they get my daughter mixed up in it, it’s just…you know, you don’t know where to begin.
HH: Let me ask you about the learning curve, though. At the outbreak of the Cold War, before the CIA existed, it took an Angleton to come in and really figure this out. Are we developing the capacity to catch up with the level of sophistication on the bad guy side?
LW: So far, no. Just as one example, last year, the FBI…
HH: You’re not giving me a lot to work with, Lawrence Wright (laughing).
LW: Last year, the FBI graduated a new class of agents, 50 new FBI agents. Only one of them speaks a foreign language at all.
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HH: Lawrence Wright, in the last segment, we pretty much went close to despair here. What is your estimate of the near term for al Qaeda and the West? Are there going to be these spectacular attacks? Are we keeping the thumb on them in enough places that they have to stay on the run? We’ve got only two and a half minutes, so I’m kind of looking for a summary of where you see us in the second quarter of 2007.
LW: You know, if you read al Qaeda the way I do, they see terrorism as theater, but also, they have an appetite for blood. This really sets them apart from most terrorist groups in history. They want to kill as many people as they can. So they would like to have a big spectacular, and I think one of the reasons we haven’t had smaller attacks in the U.S., and you know, it is a little puzzling, because we are a very vulnerable society, and even within our group, even within our own country, there are plenty of people that would happily do us harm. Zawahiri, the number two guy in al Qaeda, issued a statement a couple of years ago, where he essentially gave his blessing to everyone who wanted to attack Americans or Jews, and the West in general, but he said if you’re going to do something in America, you have to clear it with us. And I think that that’s the good news and the bad news. It’s good that they’ve kept the brakes on the kinds of actions, you can imagine, you know, suicide bombers in shopping malls, and truck bombs in Times Square, and all the things it would be easy to envision.
HH: They just don’t want us to wake up? Is that it?
LW: I think that what they want to do is they want to escalate, they want to make a big statement. You know, America is Broadway, and so they’re saving their big show for us if they can pull it off. It’s hard to do these things, and it’s going to be very difficult for them to operate in America, which is why Europe has become more of a venue for them. But it doesn’t mean that America is off their list. It’s always been at the top.
HH: And is there, in the conversations you have with intelligence agencies, is that vision of their close to coming true, do you think?
LW: No, I don’t…this is, actually, I think al Qaeda is distracted by Iraq, and that right now, that’s occupying most of their energies. And what I worry about is when that conflict begins to wind down, and the people that have gotten all that training there begin to return to their own countries, or back into the West, and they form contacts with established networks.
HH: Wow. Lawrence Wright, we’re going to continue our conversation via tape in hours two and three. I want to thank you for an encore, and congratulations again on The Looming Tower’s Pulitzer Prize. I look forward to many more conversations, hopefully before more bad things happen.
End of interview.