The Looming Tower author Lawrence Wright on the state of al Qaeda, 2009
HH: Special hour of the program today with Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower, and correspondent for the New Yorker magazine. Lawrence, welcome back, always a pleasure to talk to you.
LW: Thank you, Hugh, good to talk to you again.
HH: I’m going to New York tonight. I’m sorry, I guess you’re not playing. Your blues band is not going to be playing this weekend at the Hill or any place?
LW: Look, that was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. It made me wonder how I ever got into this writing gig.
HH: Well, it is about the writing gig I’m calling. Every, at least once a year, I like to check in with you. And you wrote on 9/11 over at your New Yorker blog that eight years after 9/11, many analysts are saying that al Qaeda is finished. That’s not true. What is the status of al Qaeda as we round into the end of 2009, Lawrence Wright?
LW: Well, the core of al Qaeda is very much reduced. The Egyptian intelligence told me they thought it was about 200 guys. And the CIA says three to five hundred. But whichever figure you take, it’s still a lot less than it was before 9/11. And you know, they’re under siege. There’s no doubt about it. But on the other hand, they’ve developed these affiliates in North Africa, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia. You know, some of those places, Somalia, Mali, that they really weren’t present before 9/11. So the banner has spread. And then there are a lot of al Qaeda wannabes who are like pirates. They just run up the al Qaeda flag, although they might not have very much real connection to them. So you can say that the idea has spread, the affiliates have spread, but the mother ship itself is in hiding. And that’s good. I mean, I think that the war on al Qaeda is going pretty well, except that we haven’t gotten bin Laden, and we haven’t gotten, really, any member of the inner council since Abu Hafs al Masri in December of 2001.
HH: How do you understand our efforts to cut off their financing to be going?
LW: You know, they are under financial pressure. There’s no doubt about it. But Hugh, the truth is that terrorism is a really cheap enterprise. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to be a terrorist. And if you look at, say, the first, big operation was the Embassy bombings in 1998 in East Africa. And that was financed by a couple of guys with a fishing boat. You know, I mean, they just didn’t have very much money. And they’ve been pretty scrupulous about accounting for that money. For instance, the 9/11 hijackers, 9/11 cost about a half a million dollars, but at the end, the hijackers were sending money back, because they had more than they needed. So the concept that you need suitcases of cash or vast resources to operate al Qaeda, I think, is mistaken.
HH: Before we walk through the practical situation in these various countries, Lawrence Wright, since you read what they write, has their ideological fervor diminished? I know about 18 months ago, you wrote in the New Yorker about a split that was developing with one of the ideological godfathers of al Qaeda in an Egyptian prison. Has that chasm widened? Or does the fever remain at high pitch?
LW: No, actually, I think this is the most hopeful development in what I see as the final game, the end game of al Qaeda, is that their ideology is fracturing. The guy you’re referring to is Dr. Fadl, Sayyed Imam al-Sharif is his real name. And he was the chief ideologue of al Qaeda. He was also the emir, the leader of the group that Ayman al-Zawahiri had in Egypt. But he’s the guy who wrote the books that al Qaeda gives to its recruits. And they are, they’re the books that say that every Muslim must be at war with non-believers, and that all the leaders of the Arab countries are infidels and must be killed, and so must everybody that follows them, and so must everybody who votes, and works for the government and other police. That’s the kind of takfiri ideology that al Qaeda raises its recruits on. Now Fadl was captured in Yemen after 9/11 and sent to Egypt, where he’s in prison now. And he wrote a renunciation of his views. It’s very strident, very fascinating. And yes, of course, he’s in prison, so you have to discount that. But it is closely reads, and very much a threat to Zawahiri, who wrote an entire book in response. And since then, there have been a number of other developments, for instance, the Libyan fighting force, which was an affiliate of al Qaeda, about ten days ago renounced al Qaeda’s violence. And the most prominent cleric in the Sunni portion of the Islamic world, Yusuf Qaradawi, just recently contributed his thoughts in declaring, saying that al Qaeda was a mad declaration of war on the world. And this is just, these are just a series of developments that have been going on for a while that show that within radical Islam, there is a tremendous controversy, and al Qaeda’s not very well defended to take care of that kind of controversy.
HH: Within radical Islam, of which al Qaeda’s a variant within that…
HH: Has there been any kind of, outside of al Qaeda, a rethinking of how to achieve its goals through proselytizing as opposed to conquest? Is that underway?
LW: You know, they can’t achieve their goals that way. The…al Qaeda is essentially built on action. It gets its recruits from dramatic strikes against the West, and as it turns out, against other Muslims. And it’s failed in that regard. I mean, if you look back at the Embassy bombings, and the Cole bombing, and 9/11, there were three years where you had major attacks one after another each year, and then eight years and no attacks against America. The only real attacks that you can attribute to al Qaeda in the West, London and Madrid, and Madrid is pretty, you know, tangential. So al Qaeda’s really been marginalized, as far as its actions go. And other people are acting in its name, and where it’s been able to strike, it’s been against Muslims.
HH: Now Lawrence Wright, we’re talking the day after the arrest in Massachusetts of a would-be jihadi…
HH: And a month after the arrest of at least one jihadi who drove the bus at Denver. What did you make of those two incidents?
LW :Well, the question is, you know, what occurred to me when these things began to happen, there are other incidents as well that happened prior to this, are we becoming more like the situation in Europe where you have home grown jihadis turning against the country? And that could be true. We have a population of about two and a half million Muslims in this country. But the truth is, our Muslims in this country, we’re so blessed by this community, it’s so much better off than, it’s the wealthiest Muslim community in the entire world, Saudi Arabia included. They make about as much money as the average American, they’re just as likely to go to college or graduate school as the average American, far less likely to go to prison. And those kinds of things are, I can’t tell how…like France, let’s take France for a minute. 12% of the French population is Muslim, about. 60% of the prisoners are. Now that shows you what a tremendous difference there is…
LW: …in the kind of alienation and marginality those people feel in that society as compared to this one. So yes, we have bad actors. And I remember a few years ago, I was having iftar in Birmingham, England with some radical Muslims. And iftar is the meal you take to break the fast at the end of the day in the month of Ramadan. And one of the companions said that he supported the kidnapping and beheading of aid workers in Iraq, which was taking place at that time. And I thought to myself, you know, this guy is really dangerous. And we have people like him in this country. But I looked around the table, and I saw all these nodding heads, you know, these guys agreeing with him. And I thought well, you know what’s really dangerous are those nodding heads, because they surround him with a community of approval. And they allow him to think those thoughts out loud, and maybe recruit others to his thinking, and actually act out the consequences of those thoughts.
HH: Yeah, I’ve had a number of law students who are Muslim over the years, and so I know what you speak about the fact that the American Muslim community is simply not radicalized in the way the European Muslim community is.
HH: But I was wondering about the command and control structure of al Qaeda. There are some reports that both of these recent characters had connections back to the mother ship, as you called it. Do you credit those?
LW: Well, the Afghan, he went to Pakistan, and actually met Abu Yazid al Masri, who’s the head of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. That’s pretty impressive. So the other guy wasn’t able to hook up with jihad at all. So I am concerned that he can get to al Qaeda that quickly.
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HH: Lawrence Wright, I taught the terrorism cases this week to my Con Law students. And of course, the Supreme Court took certiorari again in another terrorism case this week. But I asked the 60-65 students I’ve got how many of them anticipate an attack on America in the next year. Not one. And I generally believe that America has now discounted the threat from Islamist extremism in the United States to the point where very few people expect it anytime soon. Do you concur with that assessment?
LW: Yes, in general, I think that the chances of an attack are low, but not zero. And so if you ask me if there was an attack tomorrow in the U.S., would I be surprised, no I would not be surprised, but I don’t expect it. I know that they are relentlessly attempting to make another strike.
HH: That’s what I was going to ask you next. Have they abandoned the attack on America because of its tactical futility, or because they simply lack the ability to do so?
LW: Well, I think that they are, first of all, the sanctuaries have been pretty much taken care of, and that was a key thing, because it’s one thing to have the internet and so on, but you really, you know, if you look at all the successful attacks that have taken place since 9/11, and well, go back to 9/11 and the Embassy bombings, they all had training. They all had on the ground training. And so al Qaeda’s handicapped in that way. It doesn’t mean that there might not be some cell somewhere secretly getting some training right now, but the other thing is I noticed, and I don’t know if this is still in effect, but five or six years ago, maybe it wasn’t that long ago, Zawahiri wrote a note to his followers, and essentially said go forth and do whatever you want. You know, kill Americans, strike at the embassies, the oil facilities, whatever you can do. But if you’re going to hit America, you have to clear it with us. And I thought that was an interesting clause, and it suggested to me that he didn’t want to follow up 9/11 with some strip mall bombing or something like that. He wanted to make an effect, because America is Broadway for them. And you know, if they’re going to have an attack, they want it to reverberate. So if you look at how diminished their news value is now, a lot of times they make statements that don’t even get into the newspapers or on television. They…in order to recover some of that, they’re going to have to make a big strike, and I think they’re going to be very hard-pressed to follow up with something like 9/11.
HH: That brings us then, Lawrence Wright, to Afghanistan, and the question of if we reduce pressure there, and if the President declines General McChrystal’s request for troops, or if over the next two years we draw down or retreat closer to Kabul, does al Qaeda reconstitute itself? Would the Taliban, in your estimate, treat them now as they did prior to 9/11?
LW: Honestly, Hugh, I’m going through kind of soul searching with myself about both Afghanistan and Pakistan right now. And I haven’t clearly decided what I think. But here is some of the elements of my thinking. Our presence there is very destabilizing. And if, it seems to me that there are only two possible outcomes that are realistic for Afghanistan. One is that we succeed in creating a semi-stable narco-state that’s run by warlords. And that’s the good scenario. The bad one is that the Taliban takes over, and it becomes a massive sanctuary for al Qaeda. That’s a pretty disheartening set of alternatives. And so I don’t think we ought to fool ourselves that we’re going to create a really successful democratic state that has anything like a prosperous economy. It’s a long way from our ability to do that. And yet we went in, we capsized Afghanistan. We do owe the Afghan people the effort to try to create some safety for them. Maybe the best way of doing that is by making our footprint a little smaller, and trying to operate less conspicuously, and stick to areas that are populated cities and things like that.
HH: Is a semi-stable narco-state such a bad thing for us? And second question, is it better for the average Afghan than the return of the Taliban?
LW: I think anything’s better for them than the return of the Taliban. The Taliban was a catastrophe when they were in government, and I don’t, even though there’s some talk about how they’ve wised up, if you look at their action, you know, just see what the Taliban in Pakistan has done with the burning of girls schools and so on. I don’t think they really learned their lesson. My feeling about the Taliban, and this is what I believe of all radical Islamists, they’re not really interested in government. They’re interested in purification. And they want to bring, make people become pure Muslims. And they leave the business of government sort of aside. I mean, when Mullah Omar was running the thing, he kept the treasury in a silver box under his bed. He really had no interest in government at all. And I don’t, you know, I look at where radical Islam has come to power. And you can say Afghanistan under the Taliban, Sudan when Hassan Turabi initiated the revolution, Somalia in part, and now you can see what’s happening in Iran, the first of the radical Islamic regimes. In every case, it’s a disaster. And I tell my radical Islamist friends, it’s like the crash test. You know, some of the dummies survive, but the car is always wrecked.
HH: Now in terms of, then, the choice before America, even though a semi-stable narco-state is horrible…
HH: It’s a lot less horrible. Is that what you’re saying, Lawrence, Wright, than a Taliban state, and especially in that al Qaeda would be issuing forth again?
LW: I think that’s true. But you know, it’s still unappetizing. I mean, look at how disheartening it is to see the fraud underway in this recent election, and to think that we are so critical, for instance, of Ahmadinejad for stealing the election in Iran. But he’s not our ally. He’s not our guy. Karzai is. And we’ll be kind of stuck with him, and to some extent, we have to live with that. I don’t know how long the American people can take the complexity and the messiness of being deeply engaged in that part of the world.
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HH: Lawrence, I try and keep up with the books that are well-reported on this subject. And whether it’s Robin Wright’s Dreams And Shadows, or Amir Taheri’s The Persian Night, nobody quite gets the relationship, in my opinion, between Khomeinist Iran and al Qaeda, and Sunni Islamists, which hate each other, but appear to me to be operating at least sometimes in coalition as is now the case, I think, in Afghanistan and some regions of Pakistan. What’s your assessment of that operational compatibility?
LW: I think it’s fascinating, frankly. I agree with you. First of all, after we went into Afghanistan, a lot of al Qaeda guys took refuge in Iran, including bin Laden’s son, and the, Saif al-Adil, the al Qaeda security chief who’s still there, and according to a Saudi paper, there were at least five hundred al Qaeda guys that took refuge in Iran. I don’t know what’s happened to all of them, but some of them are still there. You go back to when Khomeini first took over in 1979, it was a tremendous shock to a lot of Sunni Muslims who had been talking about how they wanted to do this, and suddenly, in the Shia world, a major country becomes an Islamist institution. So it showed them it was possible. It game them hope, even though they felt that it was a heretical regime. Zawahiri, this was particularly true of him. He was very inspired, and yet, when we were in Iraq, remember deep in Iraq, when Zarqawi was murdering all the Shiites, and in the name of al Qaeda, still, Iran did not throw out the al Qaeda guys. They continued to cause mischief in Iraq. They, for instance, help out Hamas, which is also a Sunni group. So…in the eyes of radical Sunni Muslims, Shiites are heretical. And so why do they help them? The only answer I’ve come up with so far, Hugh, is it’s the Middle East.
HH: Now what about in Pakistan, where we have so many different players…I try and keep track. I really do, but it’s almost impossible to figure out who is fighting whom in the border regions, and in the Swat Valley, et cetera. What’s your assessment of radical Islam inside of Pakistan?
LW: This is another area where I’m, you know, re-jiggering my thoughts. I had, there was a conference, I’m in Washington right now, and there was a conference about al Qaeda the other day, and a retired Pakistani general and ambassador to the U.S. was talking about the current campaign that the Pakistani army is engaged in, in Waziristan, in the tribal areas. And he was saying frankly, the hardware that we’ve been given, in other words, by the Americans, is peanuts. And I said well, General, we’ve given you $11 billion peanuts over the years since 9/11, and is it really our fault that you don’t have the right equipment if you used all that money to build up your forces against India, and developed your nuclear arms, and by the same token, swell the Pakistani military into this outsized presence into Pakistani society, and make it one of the major investors. For instance, the Pakistan military owns banks and real estate and insurance companies. Where did all that money come from? I don’t mean to demonize Pakistan, because it’s suffered terribly since the war on terror. But I don’t think it’s America’s fault that the Pakistani military doesn’t have the right kind of equipment to go into Waziristan.
HH: Does anyone have a path forward there, though? Is there a strategic thinker in the whole country?
LW: I can’t answer that, but I can say that there’s a lot of conflict, yet probably we are closer together now in our strategic goals than we have been since the beginning of the war on terror, because the Taliban is waging war on the military itself. They killed a brigadier general just yesterday. They attacked the headquarters of the military a couple of weeks ago. It’s outright bloody war.
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HH: Lawrence, at the beginning of the hour, you mentioned al Qaeda in North Africa, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Somalia, in Mali. And I’ve got to go back there, because we only have two segments left. This is only an eight minute segment. So while progress has been made in Iraq, certainly, in other places, they’re back in Somalia again. And I don’t know that they’ve ever been crushed in Algeria, and I’ve read some very alarming things about the tribes of Yemen. Just take us on a tour of al Qaeda or radical Islamist ideology around the globe.
LW: Well, I think the first thing is, al Qaeda started by taking what were very disparate groups like the ones we’re talking about and putting them all under one umbrella. That was al Qaeda. It was a coalition. And it still is. But these were mostly nationalist groups. They had national aims. They didn’t have international aims. And what bin Laden was able to do was focus them on the idea that their problems are really international problems. In jihadi language, the terms are the near enemy and the far enemy. For instance, the Egyptian groups like Zawahiri were focused on the Egyptian regime, the near enemy. And the al Qaeda discourse says you know what? The far enemy is actually the near enemy. Look at America. It’s everywhere. It’s in the skies. It’s in the seas. It’s all around us. Our regimes would not be able to operate if it weren’t for America. And so the idea that there is a distant enemy is wrong. And that was a very persuasive argument for a lot of these groups. But the trouble is, from al Qaeda’s point of view, is they still are mainly interested in their own countries. The Libyan fighting forces, they’ve been now negotiating with Gaddafi’s regime, and they’re kind of pulling out. There are other places where it’s a little dicier. I think that Yemen is in a pretty rocky spot right now, because it’s a fairly new country. I mean, it had been two countries, and then North and South Yemen, and they tried to put them together, and they may break apart again. So it’s a very fractious country. And in a chaotic situation, al Qaeda does really well. In Somalia, historically, al Qaeda hasn’t done very well. But the Somalis are getting assistance from al Qaeda, and al Qaeda’s really trying very hard to make a presence there. I look at the geography of the Red Sea, and how Somalia and Yemen form a kind of Pincer at the opening of the Red Sea, and I wonder if in the minds of al Qaeda strategists they’re not thinking if we could control Yemen and Somalia, we’d be able to control the entire access to the Red Sea and the route through the Suez Canal. And of course, if they get Somalia, they’ll have a navy, too, of all those pirates.
LW: So I guess I have more concern about that area of the world. bin Laden has been directing energy right now to the front line states against Israel – Jordan and Lebanon in particular.
HH: They have traditionally tried to topple the Egyptian government.
HH: They have traditionally tried to attack the Kingdom and the monarchy. Have they given up the ghost? And do you see any progress there by these tottering, very dictatorial regimes to try and reform themselves to make al Qaeda a less, or radical Islam a less appealing alternative?
LW: Not a lot. I mean, I think that Mubarak’s reign is going to be over in the coming year, and his son will probably take over. And that’s, you know, he’ll be younger, but he’ll still be Mubarak. And I don’t know that that’s going to make any Egyptian feel any better about the state of democracy in that country. Saudi Arabia is a different situation, a different culture. I frankly think that King Abdullah’s done quite a lot to try to create civil society in a place where there’s practically none. But it doesn’t mean that there have been real gains. I have some Saudi friends, the last time I was there, that were showing me their voting cards, which were beautiful. They’re like passports. They have the official stamp of the Kingdom, and their photos inside, and it’s a real work of art. And with that voting card, they could vote for 49% of the city council. The King gets to vote for 51%, and the mayor. And with my crummy, little cardboard stub of a voting card, I can overthrow the government.
LW: So you know, there’s a long, long way between what they have on their plate, and what will make them into a more moderate, stable country. But I actually think that King Abdullah wants to move in that direction. Whether his successor, who is right now Prince Nayef, has those same inclinations, I don’t really believe that.
HH: Now last question this segment, the young people of Europe about which we have heard so many alarms raised…
HH: …especially the young Muslim population, does it continue to be radicalized? We’ve all seen the pictures of the cell phones playing the beheading videos, and things like that. Is that still moving as virulently through that population as it was, say, five years ago?
LW: Maybe not as virulently, but it’s still present. And the kind of socioeconomic situation that gave rise to that movement hasn’t changed. I think that there have been more moderate Muslim voices raised that have kind of helped to blunt that. But it’s, you know, I think the future of Islam, to some extent, is going to be found in Europe and America, which is where it comes face to face with forces of progress and modernity and democracy. And when Muslims learn well how to negotiate in those kinds of environments, they’ll be able to take those lessons back to their own, their previous cultures. And I think that that will make a change. But it’s going to be a while.
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HH: Thank you, Lawrence Wright, for joining us again. I wanted to ask, you’re not meeting your demand curve. A lot of people are waiting for the next book after The Looming Tower, or another New Yorker article. I mean, you’ve got this…
LW: Well, the only thing I can say, I’m desperately looking for a new book. I just finished an article about Gaza that will be out in a couple of weeks in the New Yorker. So…but I’m, the shop doors are open. So I’m eager to find a new idea that would mean as much to me as my book on al Qaeda did.
HH: Give us a preview of what you found in Gaza.
LW: The place has been crushed, and there’s been no…well, first of all, just so people understand, Gaza Strip is 25 miles long, and 7 miles wide at its widest point. There are a million and a half people there. And for the last two years, they’ve been under a strict blockade that the Israelis have controlled whatever goes in there, have calculated more or less the calories needed to sustain life. And that’s how many truckloads of supplies they let in. Most people, half the population is under 18. And most people under 25 have never been out of there. So they’re really in this kind of open-air prison. And in December of last year, through January of this year, there was, one can’t really call it a war, because it was such a mismatch. But the Israelis just crushed the place. And most of the buildings are lying in rubble. All the buildings of government, many houses and so on, and because of this, there’s no supplies coming in, they’re just lying there. It’s really shocking and disheartening to see. I mean, whatever Hamas has done, and should be held to account for, a million and a half people in Gaza didn’t do those things.
HH: Does Hamas show any sign of moderating, to your view, Lawrence Wright?
LW: Yeah, I was interested in that. I got some signals, you know, for instance, they’re embarrassed about their charter, which is a ridiculous document, and even quotes the protocols on the elders of Zion, that famous forgery. They are actually engaged in talks that would try to…so they could release this prisoner of war that they captured, this Israeli, the young man named Gilad Shalit. Of course, they want hundreds, they want thousands, more than a thousand prisoners in return. So there is some movement that honestly, it’s a stalemate.
HH: We will look for that article in the New Yorker, and perhaps we can get you on to talk about it specifically. I appreciate, Lawrence Wright, the time always. Thanks for joining us.
End of interview.