Terrorism without bin Laden
Metcalf interviews terrorist expert Yossef Bodansky

Editor's Note: Author of the New York Times bestseller, "Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America," Yossef Bodansky recently discussed with Geoff Metcalf the future of terrorism against the United States. Bodansky is director of the congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, as well as author of "Target America: Terrorism in the U.S." and "Terror: The Inside Story of the Terrorist Conspiracy in America." According to Bodansky, bin Laden's articulate -- and accurate -- message of the plight of Arabs and inspirational call to "perpetual jihad" have motivated "hundreds of thousands" of fundamentalist Muslims to continue his war against the West -- with or without Osama bin Laden.

By Geoff Metcalf

Q: Your book, "Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America," provides a wealth of insight. Why don't we start off explaining who Osama bin Laden is? How did he end up being the Abu Nidal of the 21st century from his start as an engineering student? How did that happen?

A: First, he is not the Abu Nidal of the 21st century. Abu Nidal was just a gang leader. He was running operations on behalf of the state. Bin Laden is a theoretician -- he inspires people. He's the guy who wrote the doctrine for the great confrontation between civilizations -- Islamdon and the Judeo Christian civilizations of the 21st century. He does not run specific operations and, therefore, is far more dangerous than Abu Nidal. He was born to a family of Humanite origin in Saudi Arabia, very close to the royal family. He got the best education Saudi Arabia could offer at the time -- a largely Westernized education. So he knows what the West is, and he has given up on it knowingly and willingly. In the mid- to late-70s, he started returning back to the roots, getting disappointed with the Western ability to co-exist with Islam. In the early '80s, he went to Afghanistan and joined the great jihad. There, he became a protege of Abbdallah Azzam, a radical Palestinian. Azzam is one of the ultra luminaries of the doctrine of "perpetual jihad" -- that for Islam to survive as the political force, not just as a religion, it had to continuously confront and fight the West wherever it was possible.

Q: A specific question I want to ask is about his development. He was born privileged and very well-connected. He got the best education and so forth. Did he come to his radical fundamentalism through an epiphany? Or was it a transitional thing where, eventually, over a period of time, he gradually came to this belief in a perpetual jihad?

A: It was a very slow and meticulous process. He just questioned a lot of the things he saw around him and eventually came to the conclusion that the only way for Islam to survive and try to arise to its place as a global power is by confronting the West. And to an apocalyptic, total war in which one can either vanquish or be vanquished. And that is where the danger is. In bin Landen's world, there is no compromise.

Q: Allegedly, there was a falling-out with his family. Is that for real or not?

A: No. The family had to take steps against him after he was exiled, because they still had the business in Saudi Arabia, and they still had to live in Saudi Arabia. They did business in the West. His family has never been ...

Q: So that was really more form than substance?

A: No. It was somewhere in between. First of all, it's a huge family, and you cannot generalize between the various brothers and so forth as if it were one big box. He maintained contact with the family. But the family has never been an active supporter or an active participant in his jihad.

Q: We have heard reports recently that just prior to Sept. 11, he apparently communicated with his stepmother ...

A: Yes, his stepmother. She's in Syria, a guest of -- protected by the Syrian government with some of the family. Yes, he does make contact. He does care about his blood relations, which is really natural to somebody who craves the traditional values of Islam, as he understands them, and family is extremely important to him. But to take a step from there and to say that because he cares about his stepmother or his brothers that they helped him in his war against the West is a major, major stretch. Right now, all the evidence suggests completely the opposite.

Q: If the family ostracized him -- and that was the cover story that was being presented for a long time -- because of his activities, they obviously didn't cut off the purse strings.

A: Well, actually they did. But it is irrelevant.

Q: How so?

A: Bin Laden and the Islamic Jihad are living off of drug money -- the Taliban's drug money. They (the Taliban) have got exports of about $7 billion to $8 billion a year. Bin Laden's share is about 15 percent, or somewhat over a billion dollars a year. He does not need a handout.

Q: So he's making about a billion bucks a year off drugs?

A: Yes. Then the contributions that are coming out of the Arab world one way or another -- legitimate/illegitimate contributions -- also represent probably a quarter of a billion dollars a year. But these are used for relatively legitimate purposes, as with charities and other activities in the West where legitimate, legal transfer of money is required. Legal sustenance of the organization is required, and this is where the money is funneled.

Q: So even if the Bush administration is successful in going after the legitimate business holdings and whatever financial institutions they can get into, it's not going to significantly impact bin Laden's ability to function as a terrorist, because he's still getting his drug money, right?

A: Exactly. Unfortunately, in our successes in fighting the drug world, and by going after the laundering of drug money, it has been a less-than-stellar success. Here we have yet another layer on top of the financial layer of organized crime that is shielding the money. During the criminal activity, we have yet another shield of protection of the terrorist activities.

Q: Back in 1995, Philippine officials popped some organization that resulted in, basically, an outline of what happened on Sept. 11. Was bin Laden involved in that?

A: Bin Laden was the sponsor and the guide of the operations in the Philippines. However, we should not read too much into the actual material that was found on the Ramzi Ahmad Youssuf laptop and the floppy discs.

Q: So bin Laden was the moneybags and financed the Philippine operations on the strategic side, but he wasn't actually involved in the operational stuff?

A: He funded it. He inspired it. His people provided, let us say, the religious authorization to host the operation in the Philippines. But at the same time, he didn't say go into this house or that house, no. But to go back to the issue of the various plans that Ramzi Ahmad Youssuf was working on and that were captured, including the idea of simultaneous hijacking of 11 or 12 aircraft, the idea of flying a small airplane -- a light aircraft -- into the CIA building, etc. ...

Q: How developed or imminent were those plans?

A: These were ideas that were being contemplated, up to the point of even selecting names of people who may or may not be empowered or tasked for one component of the program or another. At the time of capture, these ideas were at the very early stage. They may have been inspiration, but more likely, what we found in the Philippines were ideas thrown at Ramzi Ahmad Youssuf by the sponsoring state and by the senior intelligence officials who oversee the work of bin Laden and his people. These intelligence officials were the driving force behind the operations of Sept. 11, as well.

Q: Maybe through this congressional task force you were on -- or this international studies association may have looked into this -- but bin Laden has been linked to the Philippine operation. Maybe not directly, but he was involved in that. We know he was also linked with the attack on the U.S.S. Cole and the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. At some point, should someone have done something to mitigate his ability to continue to function?

A: As long as he is protected by the sponsoring states and he is secure in Afghanistan, there is no way that he could be stopped. Right now is the first serious effort to address the core problem, which is his hideaway. It's very difficult. But again, there is another issue that needs to be remembered. Bin Laden inspires. Bin Laden outlines the logic. Bin Laden is the guy who is convincing the Moslem world today that the only way to save Islam, as they perceive it -- a radical Islam, a militant Islam -- from the onslaught of Judeo-Christian values and the ultimate destruction of Islam is a cataclysmic world war. But he's not the guy who trains the people who eventually end up fighting the war. That's done by the sponsoring states.

Q: I have suggested frequently that even if we do succeed in whacking bin Laden, that he's really a symptom and not the core problem. I mean, if he dies tomorrow, this "perpetual-jihad" concept is still going to continue, isn't it?

A: Oh yes. There will be hundreds of thousands of people lining up to fill up his shoes. But at one point or another, we need to debunk the message. Today, bin Laden is the most popular individual in the Moslem world.

Q: Come on. You're talking about over a billion people. How can you say he's "the man?"

A: Among other things, the fact that the two most popular names given to baby boys throughout Islam are Mohammed (for the prophet) and Osama (for bin Laden). He is there at the street level. It is imperative if we want to deal with the young generation to make sure they do not become would-be terrorists and do not join the ranks of the terrorist world. We must debunk the message. But at the same time, we must address the issue of the high quality terrorist carrying out the spectacular terrorist operations of the kind like the attack on the Cole or the Sept. 11 events. And the only way to deal with that is by neutralizing the regimes of the terrorism sponsoring states.

Q: I have to ask you, Yossef, Osama bin Laden does not represent the whole of Islam. Why is there reluctance on the part of Islamic leaders who don't embrace his rabid fundamentalism to speak out against him?

A: Because he is the most popular guy on the street level. If they take him on -- not just him personally, but the message of what he says -- there is destabilization.

Q: Here's what I hear from moderate Muslims. They suggest that what he is articulating is not Islam. To a reasonable person, it would seem the leaders of Islam would want to distance themselves from this rabid fundamentalism if only for their own territorial imperative.

A: You are absolutely right. But as things stand today, portions -- if not the whole -- of bin Laden's message is the most popular message at the street level.

Q: Why?

A: Because bin Laden is the most eloquent, lucid, charismatic spokesman of the plight of the average guy in the Arab world. Bin Laden provides his own twisted radical solution to the problem. But his articulation of the plight the Moslem world is facing is eloquent and largely correct. In order to debunk him, it is not enough to have leaders do it. We need to have people who are equally charismatic, equally knowledgeable and help them reach out and win over the hearts and minds of the Moslem street. Until we do that, the radicalization will continue.

Q: Osama bin Laden presumes to speak for Allah. Allegedly, what he is saying is not in consonance with what most of Islam is supposed to be about.

A: Right.

Q: So I really don't understand why a religious leader cannot come forward and say, "Our Muslim brother Osama's reach exceeds his grasp. He does not speak for the Prophet."

A: Because, unfortunately, today the Moslem world has its own set of political problems that go beyond bin Laden. It lacks basic freedoms, including the freedom of expression. The religious leaders that do have access to the media -- the government-controlled, government-sponsored media -- they are not allowed in the absence of freedom of speech etc. to tackle the issue of the plight of the individual. For the message of a bin Laden counter (for lack of a better word) to be truly effective, the individual should say, "Brother Osama, you are absolutely right as far as the grim situation, the plight of the individual, the corruption and the oppression of the regimes under which we live etc. However, Brother Osama, your solution is wrong. This is the solution that we need to pursue."

Q: So who gives the speech and when?

A: No Moslem government will tolerate something like that on their own airwaves.

Q: Yossef, we have heard a long list of "what ifs" and "maybe" scenarios that are beyond strange. Some folks have tried to blame the Sept. 11 tragedy on the Mossad, the CIA, it was a Reichstag fire feint ... I expect eventually Art Bell will have someone telling us it was the work of extraterrestrials. However, all those "what ifs" beg the questions about the reality that planning and brainstorming for a Sept. 11-type event have been kicking around for a long time.

A: It's been worked on for a long time. There have been rumblings that something big was being prepared. Unfortunately, this is an intelligence failure of ours that we did not detect the details in time to prevent it. But the evidence is right now leading to Osama bin Laden.

Q: You suggest right now that Osama is a rock star in the Arab community. Is that because he's apparently been successful in hitting the evil Satan on the head and making him bleed?

A: Yes. He took on and delivered a very, very potent message that his supporters wanted to hear. The message was very simple: the United States as the symbol of "the West," and as the sole superpower, exercises its power in the world through two means primarily -- our economic might and our military might. And on Sept. 11, the terrorists succeeded to bring down symbolically the center of the U.S. economy by toppling the World Trade Center towers. And they were able to hit the heart of America's military might by crashing a plane into the Pentagon. That delivers a reverberating message throughout the Moslem world. If the Islamics could hit them at the heart of the two centers of power, how strong do you think that power really is? It has a tremendous impact.

Q: You indicate that the bulk of bin Laden's financing is coming from the drug trade. If we direct our resources at eradicating the opium fields, we could deliver a blow against the so-called war on drugs, and at the same time, eviscerate the financial resources of bin Laden and the bad guys.

A: If we do it only in Afghanistan, it will be good. If we were to hit the poppy fields controlled by Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, it would be wonderful.

Q: I have also heard that the Northern Alliance is financed in part through revenues from the opium business. Is that true?

A: Sure!

Q: Then is opium is the primary cash crop?

A: In the region? Yes. They are in dire need for cash, and I don't think selling excess wheat -- if they ever had any -- will get them the amount of dollars that poppies will.

Q: Is Osama bin Laden a product of the CIA?

A: No. During the 1980s, there was a decision made in Washington at probably the highest levels that we will not get directly involved with the Afghan Resistance but let the Pakistani Intelligence, the ISI, run the show for us. We would provide intelligence support, lavish funding, some weapons systems like the Stingers, strategic guidance etc., but we would not have control and manipulation or influence over the resistance. I think it was a mistake. But it was the Pakistanis of the world who helped bin Laden into prominence, not us.

Q: But what about those who suggest we helped create bin Laden, and then he bit the hand that helped feed him?

A: The United States was not involved in the day-to-day running of the Mujahideen movement in Afghanistan. We did not empower people, and we did not stop people. The Pakistani Intelligence, the ISI, was empowered to do so. We funded, we provided weapons, we provided training and we provided a lot of vital services. But we did not run and choose who would be the people at the top.

Q: So bin Laden was not a product of the CIA.

A: He was not a product of the CIA.

Q: But they did provide logistical support.

A: We provided logistical support. We helped in the design of the caves that they built, the underground tunnels that bin Laden built throughout Afghanistan in order to sustain operations throughout the 1980s. We provided a lot of things from which he (bin Laden) benefited greatly, as did the Saudis. But we did not control him or run him at the time, nor did we do it with anybody else.

Q: You mentioned earlier that this was a slow process -- bin Laden's transition from student with family benefits and a Western education to fundamentalist/terrorist. You said it was a "process" that brought him to the concept of "perpetual jihad." At what point in his life did he make the radical turn? He was an engineering student, right?

A: Yes..

Q: What pushed him over the edge? Was there an individual or an event?

A: Nothing pushed him over the edge. But if you want to look at a specific event, a threshold that was crossed, that would be the Iraq invasion of Kuwait. Bin Laden believed (and rightly so) that the invasion was a manifestation of the political trauma of the Moslem world, the Arab World, in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War. It was his claim to King Fahd, which he could bring because of his family connections, that the crisis should be addressed through Islamic channels. The religious leadership of Saudi Arabia supported him one way or another. They opposed the idea of having American forces deployed to Saudi. But the king decided it was far more important to go with the United States and overruled a lot of important people in Saudi Arabia.

Q: And frankly, the Saudis were concerned that once Saddam got to Kuwait, he was going to hook a left and come after them.

A: Yes. They were afraid, and they did not trust the abilities of bin Laden and others to devise methods that would stop the Iraqis. That was the point at which bin Laden crossed over and became part of the opposition, as opposed to supporter of the king. And it didn't take the Saudis long to exile him to Sudan, which, in retrospect, was probably a profound error.

Q: How so?

A: Because he became a protege of Hassan Abdallah al-Turabi -- the spiritual leader of Sudan, who developed him emotionally, educationally and intellectually and made him what he is today. And another thing, he met in Sudan and befriended Ayman al-Zwahiri and a host of other terrorist commanders who became his military and terrorist assistants and who do run the operations on his behalf. They are the professionals around him.

Q: I have to ask you about the Saudi royal family, because apparently, as huge as it is, there is not a consonance of opinion on almost anything.

A: No. It is a very diverse family. There are ideological disputes within the family. There are a lot of personal disputes within the family between power centers, being two brothers from the same mother or regional interests and things of that kind. Some of them are fiercely loyal to Saudi Arabia, and some of them leave much to be desired. It is a very large and a very complex leadership. And it is right now in a very precarious state of affairs, because King Fahd has been largely neutralized since the early 1990s. Therefore, the country is thrown into a protracted succession crisis without being able to resolve anything. The king is still alive, and therefore, no concrete steps can be undertaken.

Q: Some folks have suggested bin Laden has somehow been manipulated and manufactured by psychiatric doctors using drugs. Any substance to those charges?

A: No. Bin Laden lives a very straight, simplistic life. We know, more or less, what he consumes on a daily basis. He does not consume medications. He had one incident of a kidney problem that he has overcome.

Q: If or when Osama bin Laden shows up dead somewhere, what impact will that have on terrorist activity?

A: As I said before, there will be hundreds of thousands of people lining up to fill his shoes and to carry the revenge for the killing of their god.

Q: Yeah, but they won't have that central charismatic figure anymore.

A: There will be enough of them burning with hatred, and he has left behind a huge volume of literature, of guidance, of inspirational material to sustain them for a while. This is not an issue. The issue is the sponsoring states. The Third World is at a point of destitution and despair today. A lot of people are getting so angry and so full of unrest that they are willing, and even eager, to die for a cause. However, it takes the intelligence services of the sponsoring states to churn the experts, to train the individuals and make them into the effective terrorist network. We need to stop that if we really want to stop terrorism.