Lawrence Wright Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11: Conversation with Lawrence Wright, Staff Writer, The New Yorker; November 13, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

Page 4 of 6

Origins of al Qaeda

In your book, which is a beautiful rendering of the lives of the various people that we've mentioned, these lives interface with a series of global events that that involve U.S. intervention in the region, which creates situations which lead to a mobilization and in essence a meeting of like minds.

Let's talk about this American presence. After reading your book and other [writers such as] Steve Coll and Ahmed Rashid, [it seems to me that] America over the period that we're discussing makes three strategic errors. It supports the Mujahadeen against the Soviets and then abandons Afghanistan when the Soviets leave; in stopping Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Kuwait it puts troops into Saudi Arabia and keeps them there; and then finally, we have the Iraq war. In each of these cases the unintended consequences of what we do mobilizes these people, changes the equation for them all and brings them together. Talk a little about that.

Let's start with 1979, which was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In terms of mistakes, this was the Soviet Union's biggest mistake and it was done almost accidentally. There doesn't seem to have been anybody that really talked about it. It was almost thought as a kind of gesture of support for the Afghan government, they needed bolstering, but suddenly they found themselves involved in a full-fledged invasion and they were caught. They were caught and for ten years the Red Army was in Afghanistan fighting a losing battle. This was a turning point in the perceptions of radical Islamists. 1979 also was the same year that Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran. So suddenly, the idea that Islam could come to power over a very important country was given a real shape. And with the Soviets in Afghanistan and young Muslims from throughout the world coming to fight against them, it gave focus to this aspiration of becoming a single community once again, that the umma, the Muslim community, would all be one. It's a utopian dream but it was given some substance by that. And the fact that the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989 and then simply fell apart, collapsed, it was like a magical moment in the minds of bin Laden and his followers. Not only did they push the Soviets out of Afghanistan -- and let me just make it clear, they were a negligible force, it was the Afghans themselves that did this --

And not the Arab ...

Not the Arabs who weren't there to help them. But in bin Laden's mind, or at least in his spin-doctor view of it, they had provided the mortal blow. They had rendered the Soviet Union inoperative, they destroyed it.

In the mind of every Muslim there's the memory that there was once only one superpower and it was Islam. So, for Muslims to deliver the mortal blow against one of the superpowers was extremely potent, and it was bin Laden's idea that he could provoke the U.S. to make the same mistake, to follow into Afghanistan the way that the Soviets had done, to come into the killing ground and have Muslim armies swarm upon them, and then maybe the United States become the dis-United States and that leaves the field open for Islam to reclaim its rightful place among powers.

Now Osama bin Laden was, in a way, like Zawahiri. He was a Saudi, not an Egyptian, but he was concerned about change within Saudi Arabia and changing the regime to become, I guess you would call it, a positive Islamic state instead of a corrupt Islamic state, as he came to see it. So, he goes back after this and, the next step in his radicalization, he thought that he could organize a jihadist legion to fight Saddam Hussein as he threatened Saudi Arabia after invading Kuwait. So, this is the second radicalizing impetus, and what really bothered him is when Turkey and the leaders of Saudi Arabia turned him down and then invited, or accepted the U.S. request to come in briefly. But then we stayed.

That was the mistake that we [made]; the worst mistake is staying. Former counterterrorism czar Dick Clarke told me that we went in, in 1990 to '91, for the war against Iraq, but by '92 Clark says he had already negotiated base leasing agreements with enough different places outside of the Saudi peninsula that we could have left. But these were really nice bases and they were very comfortable, and you know, there is a real reason that this was provocative for bin Laden, and not just bin Laden but many Muslims.

When the prophet Mohammed died, on his deathbed he said, "Let there be no two religions in Arabia." Now at the time of his death there were many Jews and Christians living in the Arabian peninsula, so what that meant was a little mysterious. And some decades after that, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina were declared off limits. But for some absolutists like bin Laden the entire Arabian peninsula is holy because of the prophet's injunction. And so, to have half a million infidels, as he would see them, Jews and Christians and, more galling, women come in and defend the Arabs, this was an intolerable insult. Yet I think it could have been sustained if we had simply removed ourselves to those other bases after Saddam Hussein was [pushed back]. We were there to enforce the no-fly rule against the Iraqis, but that could have been done elsewhere.

Your book tells the story by weaving the profile of especially these actors on the terrorism side. If I could draw out one important set of results that comes from this period that we're talking about, from the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, and Osama bin Laden's and Zawahiri's turn toward global terrorism. They over time came to meet and reach decisions collectively which involved two very important changes in the world of ideas among jihadists. One was, you identify, the decision that innocent people could be killed, and the other was that the real enemy was not the near enemy, not the Saudi government, not the Egyptian government, but the United States. Talk about that and why these two changes in thinking were so important.

The first one, Zawahiri was really the innovator. He bombed the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad in 1995, and it was a subject of a lot of controversy in his own movement because the Koran is very specific about not taking innocent lives. Zawahiri maintained that there were no innocents, everyone who was working in the embassy was working for the Egyptian government, and okay, there were children who died, and maybe some true believers, but we're in such a state of emergency and we're so weak that these rules have to be relaxed.

The other thing about the near enemy and the far enemy -- this is a fundamental distinction in jihadi discourse. The tradition that Zawahiri comes from maintains that you fight the enemies close at hand first, and that's why he wanted to take over the Egyptian government, that was his immediate goal. But the Egyptian government crushed his movement. America's a softer target, and the argument was, it's not distant, it's everywhere. Look at the planes in the sky and the ships in the sea and the aid that's given to support Mubarak and the rulers of Egypt and other repressive Arab regimes. America's not a distant enemy, it's right at hand. So, with that kind of argument the guns were turned on America.

It is also the case that the jihadists came to believe that it would be ideal if American troops would be drawn back into the Middle East, and their idea was that if they attacked and then we came back at them in Afghanistan, that the U.S. would be destroyed in Afghanistan. They were wrong about that, but then the third strategic mistake may have been -- or I will ask you -- the invasion of Iraq, because that created the situation where American forces were back on Middle East soil in a war situation.

Iraq looks a lot like what bin Laden had in mind for us in Afghanistan. If you read the memoirs of the inner circle in al Qaeda, some of their ideologues, they confess that al Qaeda was essentially dead after November, December 2001, when American and coalition forces swept aside the Taliban and pummeled al Qaeda, accomplishing in a few weeks what the Red Army had failed to do in ten years. Thus 80% of al Qaeda membership was captured or killed, according to their own figures, and although we didn't get the leaders, the survivors were scattered, unable to communicate with each other, destitute and repudiated all over the world. So, this was a movement that was in a kind of zombie-like state. It was Iraq that set the prairie on fire, that gave them another chance. Ironically, Iraq was never on bin Laden's list of a likely candidate for jihad because he knew it was a largely Shia nation, and al Qaeda, of course, is an entirely Sunni organization. So, it wasn't high on his list, it wasn't on his list, but we gave him an opportunity and he took it.

Next page: Important Individuals

© Copyright 2007, Regents of the University of California