October 19, 2011

Q&A With Peter Bergen

Acclaimed Journalist Reflects on Bin Laden's Death

Acclaimed journalist Peter Bergen, who produced Osama bin Laden's first Western television interview, is one of a small handful who actually met bin Laden in person. The following interview with Bergen, host of the National Geographic Channel special The Last Days of Osama Bin Laden, was held in 2011 six months after SEAL Team Six's successful raid that eliminated America's number one terrorist target.

Tell us a more about how you got involved in studying and writing about Al Qaeda.
I have covered the story of al-Qaeda for the past 18 years. I first became interested in militant Islam in February 1993, when the World Trade Center in Manhattan was bombed, killing six. The common thread that linked most of the plotters was that they had some connection to the civil war then going on in Afghanistan. Later, when I read a New York Times article during the summer of 1996 about someone named Osama bin Laden whom the U.S. government had identified as a significant financier of Islamist extremism, I wondered if he might be the key to the bombing. I went to my bosses at CNN with a suggestion: that we try to interview bin Laden at his headquarters in Afghanistan.

What was it like to meet Osama bin Laden in person? What was the interview with him like?
Bin Laden was intelligent, well informed and low key. The people around him treated him with great deference, calling him “sheikh,” a term of respect. The interview was conducted in the middle of the night in a mud hut in Afghanistan. We were searched carefully and blindfolded on the way to meet bin Laden. Everyone involved in protecting him was heavily armed.

Did you ever feel like you were in danger when you interviewed
Osama bin Laden?

At Bin Laden’s death you said on CNN that "Killing bin Laden is the end of the War on Terror. We can just sort of announce that right now." Do you still believe this is true nearly six months later?
Yes I do. Al-Qaeda hasn't been able to mount a successful attack in the West since it bombed the London transportation system six years ago. There is therefore no good reason for us to live in a state of permanent war.

A year ago, would you have thought that the day was going to come, when the US found and killed Osama bin Laden?
Yes, like a lot of others I believed that bin Laden’s trail had long gone cold.

What does the death of Osama bin Laden mean to al-Qaeda?
The events of the “Arab Spring” earlier this year served to confirm the fast-growing irrelevance of bin Laden and his followers in the Muslim world. No one in the streets of Cairo or Benghazi carried placards of bin Laden’s face, and very few demanded the imposition of Taliban-like rule, al-Qaeda’s preferred end state for the countries in the region.

It is hard to imagine two more final endings to the “war on terror” than the popular revolts against the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and the death of bin Laden. If the Arab Spring was a large nail in the coffin of al-Qaeda’s ideology, the death of bin Laden was an equally large nail in the coffin of al-Qaeda the organization.

Bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri will certainly feel the pressure to perform some act of spectacular anti-Western terrorism, but the organization’s ability to do this has declined markedly in recent years.

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