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Inside the Terrorist Plot [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speaker: Lawrence Wright, Author, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11; Staff Writer, The New Yorker
Presider: Rachel Bronson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
October 5, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations New York, NY

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RACHEL BRONSON: Okay, why don’t we get started today. I want to save all the time that we have to give our guest here time to talk about what is clearly, for those of you who have read it, a fascinating book. And for those of you who haven’t, I think you’ll find here today a need or an urge to read it. And for those of you who do, we conveniently have the book on sale right outside as you leave.

I’m Rachel Bronson. I’m an adjunct senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m delighted to be with you today and to be moderating, interviewing, discussing Larry Wright’s new book, The Looming Tower.

You have his bio in front of you, so I’m not going to go through it. But you’ll see that he’s a prolific writer. And he’s always got three projects going on. He’s got six books, screenplays, writes fascinating articles in the New Yorker, and we’re delighted to have him here today.

So thank you, Larry.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Thank you, Rachel.

BRONSON: What I thought I would do—well, first what I will do is do what the Council tells me to do, which is to make sure that you take a moment to turn off your cell phones and your pagers, or turn them on vibrate, or just make sure we don’t hear them; and to remind you that this session is actually on the record. So if you ask nasty questions, they’ll be with you for time immemorial.

I just want—instead of going through a whole introduction, I met Larry myself here at the Council, where he was coming to talk about a piece that was coming out on Saudi Arabia and his time spent being a journalist inside the kingdom, a very rare opportunity where he got to see parts of a country, a side of a country that until then was very hard to see. It’s gotten a little bit easier. But Larry got a visa to go in and teach journalism, and the article that came out of it with the New Yorker was a fascinating article.

But one of the next times that I met him, we were in Leiden, in Holland. And we were at a conference there, and Larry was about to go off to Hamburg in research for the book, to look at the Hamburg cell in al Qaeda, and then off to Pakistan and Madrid and London. But the book, a portion of the book, anyway, was going to be on the Hamburg cell itself. And as you read through the book you’ll see that those people in those cells who were so important to the actual plot are almost secondary. It’s almost secondary, tertiary to the story that Larry decides to focus on.

So I thought I would just open up, Larry, with a question, in addition to welcoming you, is to talk to us a little bit about how you end up scoping this book. It was so much bigger than just the Hamburg cell or just some of the things we focus on 9/11.

You really go through a full sweep of the ideas and the thoughts behind al Qaeda. So, how did you go from, as an author, from that Hamburg cell as an important piece to almost it being just almost a sidebar to what you wanted to talk about?

WRIGHT: Well, you know, I was going to write about the hijackers, but they didn’t interest me, finally. You know, they were not—they’re not the thinkers, they’re not the movers, they were the pawns. And I wanted to write about who were the people that put this into motion? Where did the ideas come from? And also, as a writer you need to have great characters, and I didn’t see them as great characters.

In order to tell a story this complex and intricate and, you know, exotic, you have to have characters that the reader really identifies with. And I couldn’t identify with these hijackers. I knew I couldn’t make them—I couldn’t use them for my readers. I had to find characters that were really compelling and whose lives were extremely consequential.

And so as a writer, you know, you’re always on the lookout for two things. You want a great character because a great character is like a donkey. You can load him up with all this information, and the reader is so patient because you’re just, wow, what an amazing person this is. And the other thing you want is a great scene because a great scene brings all these forces together. And so if you have a great character and a great scene, you know you’re in the promised land, as a writer.

And so I was on the lookout from the beginning for great characters. And when 9/11 happened I was in Austin, which is where I live, and trapped because I couldn’t fly to the scene of the crime, like we were all grounded. And so I was looking for a way to get into the story.

And so I was reading obituaries that were streaming online at that time. And one of them was for John O’Neill, who had been the head of the counterterrorism effort here in New York. He was our chief bin Laden hunter. And the obit made it sound like he was a disgrace because he’d been forced out of the bureau because of an incident where he’d taken classified information outside of the office, and he had wound up becoming the chief of security at the World Trade Center. And I thought, well, I don’t know if he’s a villain or a hero, but he was our chief bin Laden hunter, and instead of getting bin Laden, bin Laden got him.

So that’s a story I can write—you know, this character is going to take me and the reader into the story. That was the first character that I discovered, and he turned out to be an amazing figure. He’s just, you know, brilliant, and flawed and, you know, colorful. You know, I loved writing about him. And I loved meeting his circle, you know, the FBI circle that he represented and all the girlfriends he had. He had three fiancées and a wife. (Laughter.) And they all met for the first time at his funeral. So there’s a man of mystery. (Laughter.)

And then the next question was, you know, how do I write about the terror? And I couldn’t get into Saudi Arabia for a year and four months, so I went to Egypt. Having lived in Egypt some time before, I figured that some of the thinking had come from there.

And I knew that there was this other guy in al Qaeda named Zawahiri, the number two man, and I’d thought, well, I’ll write about him. And it turned out he was much more influential than I had any idea that he would be. And so he became my second character.

I always knew that bin Laden was a character, but I didn’t—you know, being forestalled by this prohibition about getting into the country was really troublesome. But when I finally did get into the country I interviewed Prince Turki al-Faisal, who had been the head of Saudi intelligence.

He had gone to school with Bill Clinton at Georgetown and then worked with bin Laden in the war, you know, this Afghan jihad against the Soviets, and then worked against him afterwards. And I thought, now that’s a character, because for one thing, all my Arabs in this are villains, and I’d like to have a more nuanced and heroic figure that, you know, balances that out. But also, he’s a member of the royal family and I can tell so much about—

BRONSON: He’s currently the ambassador to the U.S.

WRIGHT: Yeah, he’s now the ambassador to the U.S. But he’s the kind of character that moves through history and, you know, you can follow him. Especially, you know, one of my great scenes that I was so intrigued by was this mosque attack in 1979 in Saudi Arabia. Unbelievable event. And he was—you know, he was directing the forces to try to retake the mosque. So all of this stuff, you know, one man, one character leads the reader into that world.

So that’s why I settled on these four people whose lives intersect and tell the story of the rise of al Qaeda and our attempts to counter it.

BRONSON: You set the scene also for us a little bit in terms of your decision to start the book with a discussion of Sayyid Qutb. You know, you could have chosen Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. You didn’t. You could have done it through his eyes, as well. But you started in Egypt, and I think many who would have either started it in the United States or started it in Saudi Arabia, but you decided to start it with Qutb. And not quickly. You didn’t race through talking about him. You really sort of develop him as a figure as well. Why did you decide to start in Egypt for the story?

WRIGHT: Well, there were two reasons I wanted to start in with Sayyid Qutb, because one, he wrote the book that these guys all read. You know, it’s funny how a lot of times writers think you don’t have any effect, but, you know, these movements always go back to a book. Whether it’s Marxism or animal rights, I mean, there’s always at the bottom of it there’s some galvanizing book that sets these young people aflame. And the book was “Ma’alim fi’l-Tariq,” which is “Signposts Along the Road,” or “Milestones,” as it’s usually translated. Sayyid Qutb wrote that book in prison, but before he went to prison he came to America.

And his experience was something like the template; that so many young Muslims find themselves radicalized by the West, and when they move into the Western environment they tend to cling to their Islamic identity as a way of fortifying themselves against this kind of engulfing Western culture. And you could see that happening with Sayyid Qutb.

So he came to America in 1948 and it was, you know, a time when America’s standing in the world was never higher, even in the Muslim and Arab worlds. You know, a non-colonial power was—and he hated America. But seeing America through his eyes was a way of writing about the perception of the Middle East version of Islam, of the kind of corrupting and insidious and dangerous influences that the West represent.

It happens, of course, that there is a kind of familial connection, because when Nasser hanged Qutb in 1966, the last man to see him alive was his lawyer, Mahfouz Azzam., who is still alive. He’s a labor lawyer in Cairo, and he is Ayman al-Zawahiri’s uncle. And when Nasser hanged Qutb, Zawahiri started a cell to overthrow the Egyptian government. He was 15 years old. So that’s the man we’re dealing with.

But the linkage between this man coming to New York and then to Greeley, Colorado, you know, and discovering America through his eyes and carrying that back, he’s so bitter when he returned. And he writes this galvanizing book, and it really sets the prairie on fire because he calls for the vanguard of Muslim youth to rise up, and Zawahiri was his first convert.

BRONSON: Taking Zawahiri, taking him next, one of the things in the book which is fascinating is you’re able to sort of personalize the blending and mixing and eventual domination of al Qaeda over al-Jihad, or the blending and mixing of the Egyptian terrorist organization and al Qaeda and how they came together in Afghanistan to form what we know as al Qaeda.

And you do that through the sort of struggles between Zawahiri and bin Laden. And actually in the book you—let’s see if I marked it, yeah—you actually mention that al-Jihad, which was Zawahiri’s organization, and al Qaeda were still separate entities in the spring of 1993 and Zawahiri had not yet signed on to bin Laden’s campaign against America. Apparently Zawahiri, from this passage, was willing to sell out bin Laden in order to get access to American intelligence that would benefit his own organization.

Talk us through that struggle between al-Jihad, coming out of Egypt, and al Qaeda and bin Laden, coming out of Saudi Arabia through Sudan into Afghanistan. What are the difference and the competing factions between the two that come together and are eventually morphed into what we know as al Qaeda today?

WRIGHT: We can think of al Qaeda as a vector of two forces, Zawahiri and bin Laden. It wouldn’t exist without either one of them. And I think of, you know, when Zawahiri is notably uncharismatic and he’s always had trouble getting people to actually follow him, and yet he created a very powerful group of revolutionaries. And I think when—and he always had money trouble. So I think the first time that he spotted Osama bin Laden, it must have been like when Colonel Parker saw Elvis for the first time. (Laughter.) He thought, “I can do something with this young man. (Laughter.) And he’s rich ands he’s charismatic and he’s undirected. I can direct him. I can shape him. I can form him.”

And in fact bin Laden had a dream. He wanted to start this all-Arab legion, a foreign legion. And it would go off—it was an anti-communist force. His goal was to chase, you know, the retreating Soviets from Afghanistan into Central Asia and then also fight the communist government then in control of Yemen. So that was his—it was our nominal ally, you know, an anti-communist, Muslim force. And Zawahiri, you know, I mean, bin Laden had nobody, he had no organization, and he had nobody around him that could put these plans into effect.

Zawahiri had those men. He had, you know, his own terror group. They were police officers, army officers, engineers. He had a doctor. You know, they were skilled, educated men, and he surrounded bin Laden with them. And so really what al Qaeda is, is, you know, it’s a doughnut that has a Saudi inside it and surrounded by all Egyptian dough. That’s what really created al Qaeda, you know, Zawahiri saying, “Here are my men and now, you know, we merge into this organization.”

They had different goals, and Zawahiri’s goal was always to take over Egypt, and that’s been his real driving ambition. But the Egyptian government proved as savage in its response as in his assault on that state. And they rounded up his organization and pretty much crushed it. So he had to operate outside of Egypt.

Bin Laden really had a goal of driving the Americans out of Saudi Arabia. That was, once we went into Saudi Arabia to enforce the no-fly rule and protect the kingdom against Saddam Hussein, his driving ambition was to eject the Americans.

So there was a commonality of purpose because the al Qaeda theorists told bin Laden, you know, you can’t destroy the royal family. You know, the population’s not going to support that. If you attack the Americans, it will show the weakness, the dependency of the royal family on the Americans, and the people will turn against them. And so in a way, it was a strategy at that time that’s evolved over time, and of course Zawahiri also had—he had been driven out of Egypt and so he was looking for a new way to focus his organization. So the turn towards America was more strategic than really ideological.

BRONSON: But in the book there’s a lot about the debates and the arguments about whether they should form a unit. There’s a lot of Egyptians who were very angry that they were signing up with this Saudi and it was diverting them. And it seems it even continues on to this day, this constant conversation. Do you see—for some, looking at it, that’s the way to defeat al Qaeda, is to, sort of, play on that continuing tension.

Do you sense that as well? I mean, it was interesting not only how early it started, but, I mean, the conversations that you’ve pulled up, it’s just this constant fight of questioning whether Zawahiri should have allied himself, and that continues on to this day.

WRIGHT: Yeah. I just briefly want to avert to, you know, the scene that you mentioned, the 1993 incident. One of Zawahiri’s men, just to give you a sense of who these people are, Ali Mohamed, was an Egyptian army officer who was in al-Jihad, Zawahiri’s group, and Zawahiri tasked him with the job of penetrating American intelligence.

So he walks into the CIA station in Cairo. “I want to join the CIA.” (Laughter.) They’re pretty bold, you know. And they think he’s an Egyptian government plant, but you know, still it’s a nice offer and so they send out a message to all the different field offices of the agency: We got a volunteer. And Hamburg station raises its hand. Of all places, Hamburg. And, you know, that’s where they had the Islamic radical, and covered Iran and, you know, all that was in Hamburg.

So they take him on, and the first thing he does is walk into a mosque and say, “I’m in the CIA,” not knowing that the CIA already had people in the mosque, and so then all—let’s get rid of him. But by that time he’s got a visa to the U.S., gets on an airplane, meets a woman on the airplane, marries her, becomes an American citizen. You know, he’s moving fast. The CIA’s trying to raise flags about him; by that time he’s in California and he’s working for a defense industry, and he joins the American Special Forces. (Laughter.) And he goes to the John F. Kennedy School of Special Warfare.

And all those al Qaeda manuals? Those are American Special Forces manuals that he took down to Kinko’s and copied and then translated into Arabic. So that’s who were dealing with. You know, that guy is now in special—you know, he’s a witness in the Witness Protection Program. But nobody had ever—you know, he’s a guided missile. But he was willing to sell out bin Laden.

BRONSON: He’s in witness protection?

WRIGHT: Yeah.

BRONSON: So just continuing the story, if he’s still out there, he could be a member here. (Laughter.)

WRIGHT: (Laughs.) Right.

BRONSON: Terrific. (Laughter.)

WRIGHT: Well, in ‘93 Ali Mohamed went—the FBI contacted him about some small thing, and he decided this was another way into American intelligence, so he started spinning this story about bin Laden and al Qaeda nobody ever heard in ‘93. This was three years before anybody ever hears about him again, but in 1993. And so what’s Ali Mohamed doing talking to the FBI about bin Laden?

It’s clear to me, at least, that Zawahiri says, you know, get inside at any cost; I want my man in American intelligence. And it seemed pretty clear at that time that he was willing to turn his back on bin Laden.

Now, I don’t know that that’s true now, but these were very fractious groups and they all had different interests. And I’m really intrigued by the dissenters that are now in a prison in Egypt who were former leaders of Gama ‘a al-Islamiyyah and al-Jihad, who have spoken out against al Qaeda and its tactics as being un-Islamic, and spoken out against violence. They’ve written some very important brochures and books, and I think that that’s, to some extent, our partner; you know, these reformed Jihadis who are speaking to a community we can’t reach.

BRONSON: There’s an interesting character in your book, Ali Soufan, who—is he Lebanese by descent?

WRIGHT: Yeah.

BRONSON: And actually gets enormous amounts of information by talking to some of these kinds of guys but also to committed bad guys, as well; gets a lot more information than seems like we’re getting now from Guantanamo or wherever.

What was his ability to sort of draw out some information that he needed? He was one step behind solving the plot of 9/11 and he couldn’t catch up with it for reasons we’ll get to quickly, in a minute. But what was he able to do to draw that information that maybe we can learn from?

WRIGHT: Well, first of all, he spoke Arabic natively. And, you know, our intelligence agencies have a prejudice; I mean, it is an outright cultural and religious prejudice against Muslims and Arabs.

And on 9/11 Ali was—by the way, he’s going to be at the New Yorker Festival this weekend, and you’re all—

BRONSON: Let me take the opportunity to say that Larry’s got a play. This one’s associated with the New Yorker Festival. It’s Saturday. And the many things that he’s written and writing, it’s a play called “My Trip to al Qaeda”?

WRIGHT: “My Trip to al Qaeda.”

BRONSON: “My Trip to al Qaeda.” It’s Saturday night at 8:30, and just downtown on 37 th Street.

WRIGHT: Yeah, yeah. But, Ali Soufan is coming, so you might, if you have the opportunity. He was one of eight agents in the FBI, all over the country, who spoke Arabic on 9/11, the only one in New York. And he, because he understood the culture natively, he was able to interrogate al Qaeda members and get real information from them. He’s the one that broke down Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard, Abu Jandal, and got the names of the hijackers.

When we had the photographs and everything, we didn’t know really who they were. Were they actually in al Qaeda? It was Ali who got that information in Yemen. He was a case officer on the USS Cole investigation.

I’m going to avert to something that really disturbs me. You know, it seems like one lesson we would have learned from 9/11 is that you really need people who understand the enemy. If you go up on the seventh floor of the FBI Building, where, you know, the head of the FBI and all the department heads are, this is an organization that worked against the Mafia and, you know, to the IRA to some extent. Who’s up there? Irish and Italian Catholic guys.

And it’s true all over the country, Irish and Catholic—if you didn’t have Irish and Italian Catholic guys, you wouldn’t have an FBI. It’s just so, it’s like Jimmy Cagney lives there or something. (Laughter.) You just feel like you’re in an old movie.

And they don’t understand al Qaeda. They understand the Mafia. They came from those communities, they speak that language. But when I was in Saudi Arabia in 2003, the Legat was the FBI officer in charge of—in the Riyadh office, converted to Islam. They recalled him, then fired him, because he’d gone native. Well, imagine how much more open that country would be to him as a Muslim.

Two weeks ago the FBI graduated a new class of recruits, 50 new agents. Only one of them speaks a foreign language at all. So until you go up on the seventh floor of the FBI Building and you have people that speak Arabic and Urdu and Dari and Pashtu, you’re not going to understand the community that you’re working (against ?). And the same thing is true of the CIA. They take people, they teach them languages, but you can’t teach a person a culture, and they’ll never understand it until they break down that prejudice.

BRONSON: I’m going to run out of time myself on all the questions I want to ask you, but let me just turn—I wanted to do this early—to the struggles between, here at home, the CIA and the FBI. Both have come in for some enormous criticism of not seeing 9/11. I would say my read of it is that the FBI has come in for a lot more. We focus on the CIA, I think there’s a sense that it’s at least salvageable, but the FBI is so far gone that there is nothing that you can do to fix it.

And yet in your book, maybe because it’s through the eyes of John O’Neill, but in your book the FBI actually seemed to—there was characters there who were on to it and were being blocked by the CIA for important requests because CIA—that wall seemed to be more important for the CIA, and the CIA seemed to actively be blocking the FBI.

So, is that a correct read? Is it in your view that both are flawed, but the FBI seemed to have more going for it? And why are you seeing that story so much differently than others are?

WRIGHT: To start with, the wall. You know, we’ve all heard about the wall. There was a legal wall. It was a very short wall. It was designed to separate information from criminal and intelligence agents within the FBI so that intelligence didn’t flow to criminal prosecutors.

That was the original rationale for the wall. But the imaginary wall that grew up above that one was simply because these agencies are very jealous of their information, they don’t like sharing information, and so they use the concept of the wall, which didn’t legally apply to them at all, to justify holding onto information they just naturally didn’t want to share.

And the most tragic example of this is that—Ali Soufan was made, because of his skills, made the case agent on the USS Cole bombing at the age of 29. This is October 2000. He goes to Yemen with John O’Neill and they uncover leads, you know, to certain al Qaeda personalities and to a meeting that had taken place in Southeast Asia—as it happens, in Kuala Lumpur—earlier that year, in January of 2000.

Three times the FBI queries—formally queries the CIA for information about this meeting. Three times the CIA refuses to divulge any information. Now, the CIA knows about this meeting. They know about it because the FBI—to flash back a little bit, during the embassy bombings investigation, the FBI uncovered probably the most important clue they ever got about al Qaeda, which was one of the bombers, after the Nairobi Embassy blew up, made a telephone call and called a telephone in Yemen, and the FBI found out about that. And right after that bin Laden made a call to that same number. And the FBI realized that this is an al Qaeda switchboard. And every call that goes in and out of that number is like a clue to—and they use it as a map. You know, calls from here to here to here; you map al Qaeda through, you know, this is the center of it.

So with that as background, the CIA knew about the meeting in al Qaeda because they were covering that phone in Yemen, and they didn’t tell the FBI about it because the FBI doesn’t have the—they don’t share the intelligence with the FBI, which gave them the number in the first place.

So they follow two al Qaeda members, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, to—and the FBI doesn’t know about this. The CIA gets them in Malaysia. They get the Malaysian authorities to surveil the meeting. They got photographs of it. And it’s the Cole bombers and two hijackers from 9/11 meeting in Kuala Lumpur, and photographs, the whole bit.

The two hijackers fly from Kuala Lumpur to Los Angeles and then to San Diego in January of 2000. Two known al Qaeda members. March 2000, CIA finds out about it. We’re a year and a half away from 9/11. They don’t tell the FBI. They know they’re in al Qaeda. They know that they were in this meeting. They know, you know, that the Cole bombing takes place and that there’s a connection there.

Leave aside what happens on 9/11. The FBI’s investigating the death of 17 American sailors and they’re asking the CIA for information that would solve the crime. And the CIA is refusing, essentially obstructing justice.

Well, just one last detail on that. The CIA’s not the only culprit. That telephone that I told you about in Yemen, Ahmed al-Hada is the guy that owns the house the phone is in. And as it happens, he’s Khalid al-Midhar’s uncle, who’s now in San Diego. And Khalid al-Midhar’s wife is pregnant, so eight times he calls home.

Now remember, you know, this is the al Qaeda map. You know, this is the key. The NSA is all over this phone. And everybody, you know, that has any connection with it is drawing links from that phone. Now imagine eight lines from Yemen to San Diego. How obvious would it be that al Qaeda is in America; and NSA doesn’t share that information with anybody.

BRONSON: Well, with that, let me turn it to questions here from the floor. Let me remind you to wait for a microphone and to stand up and identify yourselves so Larry knows who he’s talking to.

QUESTIONER: Ralph Buultjens - New York University. I want to follow up on the last point. What is the condition of cooperation between CIA and FBI now? And has the appointment of John Negroponte as director of intelligence improved this?

WRIGHT: In my opinion, the reorganization has made things worse. I mean, first of all, we’ve added a tier of intelligence that—and ostensibly, everybody is supposed to cooperate with the new director; and the largest intelligence agency, the Defense Department, is notably not doing so. And then you create an entire new Department of Homeland Security, that Congress is so upset with, now they’re going to slash their budget, you know, they’re talking about 30 percent. Homeland Security, that were all—they’ve done such a poor job.

And how would we get better information? Well, you would get better information by having more skilled people on the street. It’s not a mystery. You don’t have to create a new bureaucracy and a new department. You just have to hire people that can get the information. That’s the way you get good intelligence.

Are they sharing more? That’s not what I hear.

QUESTIONER: Deroy Murdock with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Thank you for a very fascinating presentation.

I just want to mention, if any one’s interested in learning more about this Ali Mohamed, there was an excellent program on, I believe it was the National Geographic channel, just before September 11 th, I think a two-hour special on him. It was a very, very interesting program if anyone can track that down.

I’m wondering if we learned anything of value from the suicide tapes that, I believe, some of the hijackers left behind. Did that give us any insight into their thinking or into their beliefs or anything like that?

WRIGHT: I watched those recently, the Atta and Jarrah tapes, which are, you know, a little mysterious because there’s no sound on them. And it was to me just just very heartbreaking that especially Jarrah is one of the most—you know, I said I wasn’t really interested in the hijackers, but I was very tempted to write about Ziad Jarrah, who was secretly married to this Turkish woman and called her from the airplane that he was about to hijack to say goodbye. He looks like such a nice guy. And, you know, the only thing I learned about it is just how mysterious human nature is. Beyond that, I wish I could hear what they’re saying.

QUESTIONER: Microphone?

BRONSON: Yes, one’s coming. If you would stand and identify yourself, please.

QUESTIONER: Yeah. Bob Lifton. You talked about the ideological motivations vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia on the part of bin Laden and vis-a-vis Egypt. We’re told that the Palestinian-Israeli issue is a key factor in all of the motivations here. To what extent is that a factor in these people’s motivations? And was it a sine qua non, or if it it was absent, would they still have done all of the same things?

WRIGHT: The Israeli-Palestinian issue is a factor. It’s not so much a factor in al Qaeda’s thinking. I mean, they’ve never attacked Israel. They have, you know, attacked—you know, there was an attack on Jews in Kenya and so on, arguably, you know, Tunisian mosque and so on, I mean temple. But essentially, Israel has served more as a propaganda and a recruiting tool for al Qaeda, and they’re very happy, I think, to have it persist as a raw wound. But it is really (an effective ?)—I mean, it’s such an inflammatory issue with Muslims all over the world, and it certainly has placed us in a difficult spot.

I strongly believe that we need to—I don’t know that we can bring peace to two parties that are, after all, rather reluctant to make peace, but I do think we could shift the paradigm a bit, and the way that I would do that is by focusing on the settlers. We have no business protecting those settlements. And we should protect Israel, but I think it would make sense for us to declare that those 200,000 people cannot hold the world hostage. They can go back to Israel or they can become Palestinian, but in order to resolve this problem, we have to really help the Palestinians create a real—a state that will persist and be healthy. We can’t create a handicapped entity that will just perpetuate this problem for ever and ever. If you’re going to create a Palestinian state, you have to give it a chance to be coherent and successful. And you can’t do that if there are settlements there.

And so I think if you want to shift the paradigm, make a statement that we do not stand behind those settlements and we will—any future peace issue will have a coherent Palestine, not shattered and divided up by settlements.

QUESTIONER: Bill Drozdiak, American Council on Germany. One of the puzzling aspects is that some of the more fanatical characters, whether it’s Sayyid Qutb or Mohamed Atta, seem to have been deepened in their extremism by contact with the West. Qutb studied in Colorado, as you point out in the book, and Atta with a master’s degree, speaking fluent German, seem to have contracted this virus of Islamic extremism in their contact with the West.

How do you read that? One would think that this would make them more tempered in their regard for Western civilization, yet it only deepened their fanaticism. Why is that?

WRIGHT: Well, because you’re German, I’ll take the German example of Hamburg. Let’s say that you’re a Muslim in Hamburg, the richest city in Europe, more millionaires per capita than any other city. It’s tolerant, open. Right right by the mosque where these guys would worship, there are prostitutes in shop windows. So if you are a young Muslim and you are trying to hold on to your religion and try to obey the dictates, you have to fortify yourself. In such a rich, tolerant, open society, you naturally clench and you cling together. You form groups for solidarity. That becomes a cell. I mean, you are trying to fortify yourself against the loss of boundaries, and you’re also feeling that you’re not one of them.

This is, I think, the real problem in Europe right now, and I do see Europe having a terrible problem with its Muslim populations for a while. This is a clash not of civilizations, but identities.

If you are in Belgium and the number-one name for a new child born is Mohamed, and you’re of Flemish ancestry, you think: Well, what’s happening to my country, my history, the language? You know, where’s this going? You know, this is very precious to me, this is my identity.

And if you’re Mohamed, you’re thinking: These people don’t want me. You know, I’ll never be one of them. But you may also, for instance, not speak Arabic. You may never have been to Morocco. So you’re really no one. You’re lost. And it’s not surprising that you would go to the mosque and find people that are like you, that are similarly lost. And, it’s not surprising either that the imam would minister to that sense of anger and alienation that you all feel. And that’s why radicalism creeps up in those kinds of environments.

And I see, you know, that this—we are so much more fortunate in this country, it’s hard to—I mean, sometimes I don’t think we give ourselves credit. But the average Muslim family makes more money than the average American in America. The average Muslim is less likely to be in prison than the average American. Compare that with France, for instance, where you have about 7 percent of the population is Muslim, and 50 percent of the prisoners are.

BRONSON: There’s a question right there.

QUESTIONER: Thank you very much. I wondered—

BRONSON: Jim, just introduce yourself.

QUESTIONER: I’m Jim Zirin. Why do you suppose it is that we haven’t been attacked again? Did they lose the A-team on 9/11?

WRIGHT: Well, if you look at the memoirs that al Qaeda inner circle have written recently, and the strategists, the ideologues of al Qaeda have been writing a lot, what they will say in those memoirs is that after 2001, after American and coalition troops went into Afghanistan, al Qaeda was dead. You know, we didn’t get the leadership, but 80 to 85 percent of their membership, according to al Qaeda’s own figures, were captured or destroyed and the remainder scattered, demoralized, unable to communicate with each other, broke, hunted down, and repudiated all over the world.

And then came Iraq, which, you know, blew the embers back into flames. And so I think that during that period before Iraq, the answer to your question is al Qaeda couldn’t do that. They didn’t have the resources. Since Iraq, I would say that they’re building the resources and that, you know, one of the things that was so important about taking them out of Afghanistan is they had training bases there. Now they have an entire country to train in.

You know, they have a plan. I think it’s utopian and unrealistic and so on, but their plan is to draw us deeper into Muslim conflict. They would like to have us engage Iran and Syria. They want jihadis to run into these areas of conflict and get training, then go back to their own countries and topple their regimes, and then create a caliphate and an Islamic army and a final apocalyptic battle with the unbelievers. That’s their master plan and it’s supposed to all come to fruition by the year 2020.

Well, sometimes it sounds like a neocon think tank. You know, you feel like, well, aren’t we following along pretty well? They want us in Iran. They want us in Iraq. They want us in Syria. It’s unsettling to see sometimes how we seem to be playing their game.

But I do see that al Qaeda is—you know, they planned for the day, even in 1998 they were planning for the day when their membership—when their leadership would be taken out. They knew that the old al Qaeda structure would eventually be destroyed, and so they began writing manuals and propaganda and tactics and publishing on the Internet in order to ensure these spontaneous groups would be continually springing up. And they also envisioned fighting for territory with almost conventional forces, as you see in Afghanistan now and to some extent in Iraq.

BRONSON: Gary.

QUESTIONER: Gary Sick, Columbia University. Just in terms of the question you were asked about the better coordination these days, I had a student at Columbia who was a native Iranian speaker and who applied for a job at the CIA, actually with my encouragement. And she went through all of the process, right up to the end, and she was asked to fill out a very complicated form showing all of her relatives throughout the world.

And the CIA at that point discovered that she had relatives in Iran. And a very helpful fellow there said to her, “You know, well, you may get turned down for a clearance because of this, and if you do, it will be a very black mark on your record, and you might want to think about it.” And she withdrew from consideration at that point. And, you know, there’s something really wrong with our system when we basically close out the possibility of people working for us who might actually do some good.

With that in mind, how did you manage to do what I thought was the most impressive part of your book, and that is to get to all of these family members and teachers and all of these people who had known bin Laden and Zawahiri and the whole group, and get them to talk to you about what these guys were like when they were growing up and what their personal backgrounds were and so forth? I found that absolutely fascinating.

WRIGHT: Well, thank you, Gary.

Well, it’s just reporting. You know, there’s not a secret about how you go about this. The way I do it is that when I start a project I have a, you know, legal pad and I start writing down all the names of everybody, you know, who I read or see on TV or something. Everybody that seems to have anything to do with the universe that I’m writing about, I put their names down.

And then I start to go see them. And whenever I—you know, I come to see Rachel, and I’ll say, “And who else should I talk to?” And she’ll give me other names. And so, gradually you get a huge list of names. And then I highlight the names that I’ve done.

And this actually becomes a good sales tool, even with intelligence people, because, you know, you say, “Who else should I talk to?” and you start going through page after page after page after page after page. And their eyes get really big and (their heart sinks ?). And then they feel like, you know, “Well, maybe we should square with you on this; I want to go back to this point that I said earlier,” and then they give you more names. And that’s the way reporting is done.

But you spend a lot of time with them. And when you find a good source—you know, I’ve talked to maybe 600-something people, but some of those people I talked to a hundred times because they were great sources and they know the world. And after you have spent time with them, they grow to trust you, and then they allow you incrementally deeper into the world that you’re trying to get into.

That’s the way it’s done. One intelligence guy said to me, “You know, I’d like to do what you do.” I said, “Oh, why don’t you?” (Laughs; laughter.) Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?

BRONSON: Larry’s being also a little modest. I had gotten an e-mail from him that he’d just interviewed Turabi, I believe it was, in Sudan, for about eight hours. And I thought, I couldn’t even talk to my mother for eight hours! (Laughs; laughter.) What were you talking about?

WRIGHT: I didn’t talk to him; I listened.

BRONSON: You’re able to draw out people and they—

WRIGHT: I was really happy that Turabi—he told me that he had—he was between prisons—(laughter)—that he had just given—he used to have a lion and a leopard in his house, a house lion and a house leopard, and so he had to get rid of them because they were beginning to stalk the grandchildren. (Laughter.) And he gave them to Hashem Rafsanjani. (Laughs; laughter.)

QUESTIONER: Hi. Jim Hogue from Foreign Affairs. You mentioned that after 9/11 and the counterattacks by us, that in their own words, al Qaeda people thought they were pretty much dead and out of business, and of course they resurrected. My question to you is, how much of the vitality of the terrorism we’re going to have to live with is dependent on policies and actions, and how much is now because of very deep-rooted goals and oppositions over which we can have little control, like whether who’s going to run Egypt and so forth? In the short form, is there any way we can expect terrorism to subside in a foreseeable future, or is this something for decades?

WRIGHT: Well, now there are different theories about terrorism and how cyclical it is, and how, you know, cycles are supposed to be seven years long or something like that. And this is going to be 20 years old in two years, so I think it’s outlived the cycle theory.

And I don’t—I can’t predict the future, but I do think that the causes of this are deep rooted and are likely to persist for a long time, and that our ability to actually cope with it is very limited, but there are things that we can do.

You know, as I said, if we begin to create intelligence agencies that actually have agents that are intelligent enough and skilled enough to cope with it, that would be one thing. And I think addressing in a committed and realistic way the problems of Israel and Palestine would be a big thing. And then, of course, we have to have allies. We’re so alone in this effort, we’re getting so isolated that, you know, if we cannot create a wider and more committed alliance, then we’re going to be in trouble with that.

But terrorism comes from many sources. You know, I brought this little Nokia phone to remind me and show you that, you know, there are 300 million Arabs in the world, and this is the phone I carried with me in Saudi Arabia. Their product that they produce for export, what they offer the world, is less than that of the 5 million Finns, essentially the Nokia Telephone Company. So look at this; one product outweighs the product of the entire Arab world.

So, you know, you’re speaking about economies that are really barren. They offer so little to young people. In many cases the economies are growing, but at a rate that’s less than the population growth. So instead of getting ahead, they’re slipping behind. That’s a long-term problem.

And there are other, you know, root causes of terror. You know, repressive governments. I mean, the whole joke about al Qaeda—and of course, it’s just unbelievable—if we can’t win the war of ideas with al Qaeda, who are we? But they all offer to take people further into repression, into poverty, into know-nothingness, into—(inaudible). There’s just nothing hopeful about al Qaeda.

You know I’ve been talking to my Islamist friends. I say, you know, this has been tried before, in Sudan, in Afghanistan. You know, it’s like the crash test. You know, some of us (only ?) survive, but the car is always wrecked. Know where it’s going. And that’s what al Qaeda is offering to these hopeless and despairing young Muslims.

BRONSON: Back there.

QUESTIONER: Anita Wien—The G7 Group. To what degree do you think there are cells operating in the United States? Al-Qaeda cells? And are they coordinated?

WRIGHT: Well, I don’t know. You know, there have been in California and some other places some busts that might have something to them. So I don’t think that we are immune to native, you know, American cells. You know, our own radical Islamic community exists. The difference between our situation and that in Europe is that in Europe, especially in the U.K., they’re surrounded by an approving community.

And just an example. You know, we’re in Ramadan. And a couple of Ramadans ago, I was in Birmingham, England. I was having iftar with a group of radical Islamists. And this was when Margaret Hassan had been kidnapped. She was the director of the Iraqi CARE program. And one of them, one of my companions for dinner was saying that he approved of the kidnapping and beheading of aid workers in Iraq.

I said, “What do you mean? Someone who has given her life to, you know, helping the Iraqi people.”

“She’s a spy.”

“Well, how do you know that?”

“Well, she’s probably a spy.”

“You don’t know that, do you? You know, it’s your own paranoid fantasy. You’re willing to murder this woman. What have you ever done for the people of Iraq?”

It wasn’t him that was a problem, him saying that. It was the heads nodding around him that made it a dangerous situation.

I think that we don’t have that here. Not that it won’t happen, but, you know, that’s why England was a more dangerous place.

BRONSON: All right. We’re, unfortunately, out of time, so let me just end by thanking you for a terrific presentation, and wish you the best of luck on the book and the play, and the screenwrite and all that you’re involved with. Thank you very much.

WRIGHT: Thank you. It’s a pleasure. (Applause.)

 

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