Today marks 10 years since the terror attacks of 9/11. Like anybody else old enough at the time, I remember exactly when I found out and have some pretty distinct memories of the day. But in addition to reflecting on those events, national security analyst Peter Bergen told those assembled in Bradley University’s Michel Student Center ballroom Thursday night to look at where the world is today.
“I’m not saying that the war on terror should be over,” he said, “but it should be a place where we can say, ‘Where are we?'”
But he almost suggested it should be over.
“Ten years after 9/11, there’s a lot of good news,” Bergen said. “If you can’t say the war on terror is over with the Arab Spring, the death of bin Laden, the fall of leadership in the Middle East, when are you going to say it’s over?”
Bergen addressed a range of issues in between talking to the White House and CNN. Literally. As about 30 students gathered for a special Q&A with him in the afternoon, a professor told us he would be late because the White House had called him. The Q&A after the lecture to the public was capped when another professor told him she believed CNN was calling. And sure enough, he was on CNN within minutes discussing the possibility of a terrorist threat.
After reviewing my notes, I’ve decided to break Bergen’s private Q&A and general-public lecture into categories. He offered so much information and I feel like not including some topics wouldn’t reflect how much ground was covered.
On meeting Osama bin Laden
Peter Bergen is one of the only Westerners to ever meet Osama bin Laden.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he told the crowd, who I can only assume was as eager to hear the story as I was.
Bergen arranged to meet bin Laden in 1997 for an interview with CNN. Though bin Laden was known after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, he wasn’t the household name he’s become since 9/11. Bergen said he’d only seen a picture of bin Laden at that point. He thinks the reason behind bin Laden’s first TV interview was so that the terrorist mastermind could explain in English why al-Qaida was at war with the U.S.
“To get to meet him was not easy,” Bergen continued. He spent weeks meeting with bin Laden’s friends and associates in London and finally convinced them he wasn’t an agent of the CIA. The two handlers have since gone into obscurity: one is in the Pakistani prison system and another has disappeared. Bergen said he didn’t realize how dangerous these people were.
After traveling from Pakistan into Afghanistan, Bergen said he felt the handlers were extremely disorganized and that it wasn’t clear if they didn’t know or just didn’t care. They told Bergen and his cameraman they couldn’t bring their camera or watches with them out of physical security concerns for bin Laden. They were instead given a camera from al-Qaida members.
Bergen said out of the darkness, a van came with three heavily armed men. His crew members were given blindfolds and driven up what he estimates to be about 6,000 feet. Once they got to the location, they were searched. Bergen said many of bin Laden’s handlers – all heavily armed – spoke English. Then, Osama bin Laden appeared.
“He was a very disciplined, secretive, paranoid guy,” Bergen recalled. “I expected he might be a table-thumping revolutionary.” Instead, Bergen said he carried himself like a cleric and didn’t raise his voice.
Bergen said bin Laden was neither unfriendly nor friendly, and they both were there to do a job. Bin Laden went on a diatribe on foreign policy critique of the United States and the Middle East, but didn’t mention anything to do with American culture.
After about an hour or an hour and a half, Bergen said bin Laden retreated into the night.
Bergen remembers leaving the encounter thinking, “How are you going to attack the United States from Afghanistan in a mud hut on a mountain?” A year later, al-Qaida claimed responsibility for bombing two U.S. embassies in Africa.
“I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what motivated him,” Bergen said. “It’s very hard to explain bin Laden without the disguise as religious zealot.” He explained bin Laden was very religious from a young age but because a fanatic in his 20s. His anti-Americanism hardened into hatred when American posted soldiers in Saudi Arabia in 1990.
Bergen borrowed a line from a friend of his when he said for al-Qaida, “the tactics took over the strategy.” It was a kamikaze attack like Pearl Habor, Bergen said. “That was a tremendous tactical success, but it led to the destruction of the entire Japanese empire.” He then quoted Sun Tzu when he said, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before the defeat.”
Where al-Qaida is today and the threat of terrorism today
Al-Qaida hasn’t landed a single attack on the United States since 2001. This is reflected by an increase in what steps the U.S. has taken to prevent another tragedy and al-Qaida’s own weakening position. There have been a few sleeper cells, such as Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri (in Peoria, of all places), but Bergen called him the exception that proved the rule.
“Nine-eleven was the climax, not the beginning, of their campaign,” Bergen said.
He said he didn’t mean to devalue any names, but compared with the thousands who perished on 9/11, only 17 have been killed in the name of Islam since then. Thirteen died as a result of the Fort Hood shootings, a shooter at LAX killed two, and one person each were killed at a Jewish community center in Seattle and a recruiting station in Little Rock. Bergen said more people die in bathtubs each year.
“If we’d live in a constant state of fear, we’d be doing bin Laden’s work him.”
On a future attack against the United States
“No state in its right mind would try to attack the U.S. right now,” Bergen said. “Look at what we did with Saddam, and that was just on the mere possibility he could do something bad. Imagine if somebody actually did something.”
He didn’t discount the possibility of another group like al-Qaida striking again because they don’t have a home base. But he said al-Qaida is being strategically defeated. “Support for al-Qaida is dropping like a stone,” Bergen said. “The Arab Spring is simply confirmation they’re irrelevant.”
Bergen offered several reasons why al-Qaida’s grip is slipping. For one, they’re killing Muslim civilians. Another reason is that Afghanis are beginning to see that life under the Taliban was pretty bad. They’ve also made a world of enemies by capturing and killing journalists, and they refuse to engage in modern politics.
Assuming al-Qaida or another group can mount an offense, Bergen said terrorist attacks in the future would mostly be the kind of things we’ve seen in the past, saying truck bombs are “easy to do, reliable, and you don’t need to be a genius to do them.” Though, it’s harder to get the ingredients to make a bomb in the U.S. now.
He discounted the idea of cyberterrorism becoming a major threat, saying it was more of a nuisance than anything. “Terrorism involves people dying,” Bergen said. “With cyberterrorism, it’s hard to get people to die.”
On continued occupation of Afghanistan
“I think we’re going to be in Afghanistan for a very, very long time,” Bergen said. “And that’s a good thing.”
According to a 2010 survey, about 70 percent of Afghanis believed their country was heading in the right direction. Bergen said the country boasts around $1 trillion in mineral wealth and they have a pretty robust agricultural economy. There is now a phone system in the country. GDP growth in 2009 was 22 percent. While it may sound like a large amount, Bergen said we have to remember what they’re coming from. “No one in Afghanistan thinks their country is going to be turned into Belgium,” he said.
Bergen agrees that the U.S. should be in Afghanistan for awhile. “We know what it looks like to abandon Afghanistan, and into the vacuum came the Taliban,” he said. “We took our eyes off the ball and that was a very expensive mistake for us.”
On Osama bin Laden’s death and objectivity
“When Osama bin Laden was killed, did I burst into tears? No,” Bergen said. But it wasn’t an abstract thing for him like it is with most people since Bergen has met bin Laden. “You wouldn’t be a human being if you didn’t have a response.”
Bergen said objectivity in journalism is almost impossible, but fairness is achievable. Reporters have their own subjective opinions, but fairness means checking with people you quote. “Not that you don’t want to strive to be objective, but … I think it’s hard to be totally objective.”
“At some point, you’ve got to have a point of view,” Bergen said. “Otherwise, you’ve got nothing to say.”
More on Peter Bergen
- Bradley University: A moment to breathe
- Bradley Scout: Security analyst speaks on Middle East, al Qaeda
- NPR: How Bin Laden’s Death Has Affected Al-Qaida
- The Daily Show: Peter Bergen on 1/11/06
- The Daily Show: Peter Bergen on 1/17/11
- New America Foundation: Peter Bergen bio
- Washington Post: Live chat with Peter Bergen on 5/9/11
- Time Out New York: Q&A with Peter Bergen about The Longest War