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

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Important Individuals

Do you have a theory of history? Because it seems that you believe -- now I'm putting words in your mouth, but I want you to correct me if I'm wrong. It seems that you see these individual personalities and their coming together and their interaction with each other -- I have in mind here especially Zawahiri and bin Laden -- created something that was a pivot for history as it unfolded.

If it weren't for Zawahiri and bin Laden we wouldn't be having this conversation, Harry. There wouldn't be an al Qaeda. Before bin Laden there were numerous radical Islamist groups that were nationalist in their focus. They were intent on taking over their own countries. It was not exactly a worldwide radical Islamist upsurge, as it has become. It was bin Laden who had the imagination to forge this umbrella and get everyone to turn their attention to America and the West, and it was Zawahiri who gave him the men and the managerial experience to accomplish what he was setting out to do. You can think of this as a vector of these two forces, but absent those two men there wouldn't be an al Qaeda. There would always be, I think, a lot of smaller groups with narrow political goals, but this is really the invention of these two men.

Let's go back to O'Neill because in a way this character -- well, I say "character," it's not a novel, but this dedicated FBI agent who sometimes was his own worst enemy confronted the bureaucratic warfare within the government. Tell us a little about him and how all of this, in a way, metaphorically came on his shoulders because he was on the hunt for the next attack and was blocked and stymied at every instance.

O'Neill was a really brilliant and extremely flawed man. Even as early as 1996, he was alerting his superiors that al Qaeda and bin Laden posed a real threat to America, despite the fact that for years after that, the director of the FBI was assuring the White House that al Qaeda posed no threat to the homeland. So, there was an antagonism between O'Neill and his superiors. He was always agitating, kind of a Cassandra figure, in some respects. And of course, the things that happened, that he predicted, did come true. He said, based on early information, that the attacks in east Africa on the American embassies, in Kenya and in Tanzania -- he said those were al Qaeda. And the headquarters didn't believe him. But it was shown to be true. He said that the [USS] Cole bombing was al Qaeda, and he got control of that investigation. He said that they're going to attack us again, they're going to hit us here. He said to his friends, when he resigned from the Bureau, and they said, "You'll be safe now, John, because you're going to work at the Trade Center and they've already struck there." He said, "No, they'll come finish the job." So, in a way, I don't think of it as being ironic that he went to the Trade Center. It seemed more an acceptance of destiny, in some respects, kind of Greek in terms of his understanding that he had fallen, and he kind of accepted that he instinctively put himself at ground zero.

There's a minor character in your book, a Muslim who works for the FBI and is the assistant to O'Neill. His name is Ali Sufan, and I was struck -- the comparison that came to my mind was with him and Qutb in the sense that he was a Muslim who accepted modernity and was integrated into American society. Talk a little about that because it just struck me that in the first case, the philosopher, couldn't -- his imagination wouldn't allow him to see reconciliation, whereas in the case of this FBI agent he clearly became an important contributor to American society and a member of American society.

Ali Sufan -- a real hero. No one came closer to stopping 9/11. When the Cole bombing happened in October of 2000, John O'Neill had the wisdom to appoint then 29-year-old Ali Sufan as the case agent. He was really young. But he spoke Arabic natively, he had the skills and the background to understand who these people are and what they're up to. He was one of eight Arabic-speaking agents in the FBI at that time, the only one in New York. I think there are fewer now that speak Arabic natively, and it's a lesson in how valuable such a person is and what a disaster it is that we haven't taken advantage of all the Arabic speakers that are in our country to help us in this enterprise.

Anyway, Ali, while he was questioning the people involved in the Cole bombing, developed leads to a meeting that had taken place earlier that year, in January of 2000, somewhere in Southeast Asia, as it happens in Kuala Lumpur. Three times he and O'Neill queried the CIA, asking for information about this meeting, and three times the CIA refused to respond. Just set aside 9/11, what happened; Sufan is investigating the death of seventeen American sailors and the CIA is essentially obstructing justice and refusing to help him. They knew about the meeting in Kuala Lumpur, they had surveilled it, they had the Malaysian authorities surveil it for them, they had photographs of the participants who included some of the plotters of the Cole bombing but also two future 9/11 hijackers who flew from Kuala Lumpur to Los Angeles and then to San Diego.

In March of 2000 the CIA knew that two members of al Qaeda were in America and they refused to tell the FBI. This is one of those parallels with my movie that I find really regrettable, the inability of these two organizations to work together. Had the CIA shared that information with the FBI, which they were really obligated to do -- once they're on American soil, they're part of the FBI's jurisdiction. The Bureau had all the authority it needed legally, because they were in al Qaeda and they were subsumed under the bin Laden indictment, to follow these men, to wiretap them, to clone any computer they [used] -- they didn't need any illegal wiretaps or warrants. They had already all the authority they needed, and they had twenty months before 9/11 to do their work, had they been given the knowledge that al Qaeda was in America, but that information was shielded from them.

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