Bin and gone
CNN terrorism expert Peter Bergen tells Matt Fleming that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda have lost America’s ‘longest war’
Few people in the world can claim they met the late, not-quite-so-great Osama bin Laden in the flesh. And only a handful of Western journalists could write a letter home after interviewing the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. But Peter Bergen could – and probably did. The American CNN expert on terrorism interviewed bin Laden in 1997 (the first time the al-Qaeda founder declared his jihad against the USA to a Western audience) and has been writing about him ever since.
When bin Laden was unexpectedly discovered and killed by American troops in Pakistan in May, Bergen had more fodder to add to his new book, The Longest War. And with the Arab Spring in full swing, he was able to update the work, which essentially charts the history on the ‘war against terror’ up to now. Bergen, 48, spoke to Time Out just before he delivered a speech at investment group CLSA’s 18th Investors Forum in Hong Kong, which also boasted George Clooney.
“The premise (of the book) is the war between America and al-Qaeda,” says Bergen. “It’s called The Longest War because, by almost any standard, it’s America’s longest war.” He adds: “Clearly, al-Qaeda as a quasi-existential threat to America or any other countries – I think that’s history.”
The Longest War is Bergen’s third book, with the hardback hitting the shelves in January, and the updated paperback just out. Bergen says his main points are that ‘America and al-Qaeda made a symbiotic set of mistakes – except the United States learned from them and al-Qaeda didn’t’. He calls al-Qaeda’s attack on the USA a ‘dumb idea’ and was ‘recognised as such’ even within the group. He says: “The whole thing was a disaster for them.” But he claims that the USA’s ‘big mistake, of course, was in invading Iraq’.
“I’m trying to make an argument (in the book) about the Bush administration’s failures and successes, and an argument about al-Qaeda’s successes and failures,” says Bergen. “When I finished the book it was before the Arab Spring and the death of bin Laden and what I said was al-Qaeda was losing the war of ideas in the Muslim world – not because the West and the United States was winning them but because al-Qaeda lost it as Muslims began to notice that this was a group that came to defend Islam but was killing mostly Muslim civilians. This is a group with no positive vision of the future.”
The paperback update in The Longest War sees Bergen making the point that ‘bin Laden’s foot soldiers, ideas and his other leaders were totally absent in the Arab Spring’. He says: “I didn’t see a single picture of Osama bin Laden being held aloft by protestors in Cairo or Benghazi or Bahrain. I didn’t see a single American or Israeli flag burning. Bin Laden’s ideas and his men were just absent.”
One of the ‘great unsung stories’ for Bergen is the collapse of South East Asia’s Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaeda affiliate, which killed hundreds in the Bali bombings. He puts the collapse down to ‘very effective Indonesian police’, among other factors. “All that means that Jemaah Islamiyah is just out of business,” he says.
Bergen, who headed to Pakistan after his stay in Hong Kong to research his next book on the hunt for bin Laden, was interviewed on CNN immediately after his death. “My first reaction – and I didn’t prep this response at all – I said ‘the war on terror is over’, by which I meant not that terrorism is abolished but the War on Terror, capital W capital T, the central organising principle of all of our national security, surely it’s time to move on. If it’s not time to move on after the Arab Spring and the death of bin Laden… you know, we didn’t kill every Nazi to win World War Two.”
The Longest War is published by Free Press, priced $116.