Abdel Bari Atwan is editor-in-chief of Al-Quds al-Arabi, the London-based
Arabic daily newspaper. His articles and commentaries appear in the Economist,
the International Herald Tribune, as well as leading British newspapers.
He is one of the very few reporters who has interviewed Osama bin Laden.
He is also the author of The Secret History of al-Qa’ida.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: The conventional picture of al-Qa’ida in the United States
is that it is a coherently structured organization, tightly controlled,
and directed by its mastermind, Osama bin Laden, and his deputy, Ayman
Zawahiri. Is that accurate?
ABDEL BARI ATWAN: Al-Qa’ida is completely different now. It was transformed
since the war of terrorism, as they call it, started in October 2001. Al-Qa’ida
now is a loose, decentralized organization. It’s not a pyramid-built organization,
as it was before. There was one al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan, in Tora Bora.
Now there are many more. We have al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan, which is regrouping
again. We have al-Qa’ida in Saudi Arabia, which is very active. We have
al-Qa’ida in Iraq, which is deadly and ruthless. We have al-Qa’ida in Europe
and we witnessed the attacks in London and Madrid. We have al-Qa’ida in
North Africa. There is al-Qai’da regrouping in Somalia again.
Osama bin Laden is the spiritual leader of al-Qa’ida. Ayman Zawahiri, his
deputy, propagates the theory.
Zawahiri is an Egyptian-born surgeon.
Yes, and he is the ideologist of al-Qa’ida and maybe supervises certain
Internet sites. So al-Qa’ida is definitely ten times stronger than it was
when it was in Afghanistan before the war against terrorism started.
Al-Qa’ida is growing horizontally rather than vertically.
Yes, because the situation changed. Al-Qa’ida now is an ideology, not just
an organization. This ideology is on the Internet and on certain satellite
televisions. People can access al-Qa’ida literature, they can adopt its
ideology, they can carry out attacks without coordination with the top
or with the second layer of command, as it was before September 11.
Every branch of al-Qa’ida has the authority to determine what to do. They
don’t wait for instructions to come from Osama bin Laden or Ayman Zawahiri.
They may receive guidelines. For example, “Britain is the enemy, the United
States is the enemy, so go for them.” They leave the details, the plans,
the carrying out of attacks, to the local leadership to do what is appropriate
for their organization.
So this idea of bin Laden getting on a cell phone or sending an email message
to the people here in Britain who attacked the Glasgow airport and London
in late June is completely fallacious?
Bin Laden is not in control of al-Qa’ida. He is trying to stay alive as
long as he can in order to traumatize President Bush and his allies. This
is his strategy. Osama bin Laden, as far as I know, never used cell phones
or satellite phones. He never used any technology. He knew a long time
ago that technology could be a fatal trap, so he avoided it completely.
He depends now on written or oral messages through certain envoys.
He is wise in this because, if you notice, some of his lieutenants, such
as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, Ramzi Binalshibh, Abu Farj al-Libhi, and Abu
Musab al-Suri, were captured because they were tempted to use cell phones.
That’s why he always advised them not to use them, not to be exposed by
the media. I think that’s why he has managed to stay alive until now.
He is reputed to have great personal wealth. Presumably, much of that money
has been spent over the years. How is he funding al-Qa’ida?
Osama bin Laden used to enjoy a huge network of businesses, donations,
and financial support from people in the Gulf region in particular. But
after September 11, most of these sources dried up because the FBI located
secret accounts in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf region, and Europe. They traced
the money routes and dried them up.
But Osama bin Laden doesn’t need a lot of money now. Before, he spent money
wisely. He wanted it to recruit people, to spend on bases, on soldiers,
on plans, on movement, on air tickets. Now he doesn’t need it because his
men are not traveling as they did before from Yemen to Afghanistan or from
Afghanistan to Europe. As I said, he is relying on sleeper cells, on many
al-Qa’idas all over the world. I heard that September 11 cost al-Qa’ida
less than $300,000. So his men are not keen on money because they want
to die as martyrs. Materialistic things are the last things they are thinking
It is reported that bin Laden was greatly influenced by the 1982 Israeli
invasion of Lebanon and the destruction of Beirut.
He said several times in his tapes that he was shocked with the Israeli
destruction of Beirut, also with what happened in Palestine. He was moved
by the atrocities committed by the Israelis against the Palestinians during
the 2002 Jenin invasion in the West Bank and the bombardment of Gaza. When
I met him, he was following every detail of U.S. involvement in Iraq. So
he was very moved by this and he wanted to take revenge. But what probably
hurt him the most was the presence of 500,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia
under the pretext of liberating Kuwait. He thought that he was deceived
by the Americans. He said to me, “Look, I went to Afghanistan. We fought
the Soviet troops there to liberate Afghanistan. And the Americans also
were talking about the liberation of Afghanistan. And look what happened.
After we got rid of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan, now we have the same
thing in our country, in the Arabian peninsula.” He never says Saudi Arabia.
Usually he calls it the Arabian peninsula, al-Jazeera al-Arabi.
Does he believe that he was responsible for the Soviet Union leaving Afghanistan,
that he was militarily triumphant?
He was very proud of his achievement in Afghanistan with other Arab mujahideen.
But he is not a show-off man. He doesn’t say, “I fought, I killed.” He
never talked with vanity about his experience, but definitely he was proud
of his achievement.
He always considered himself different from the Arab rulers. He considered
them atheists, nonbelievers, “tools of American imperialism,” as he put
it. He said, “They are not actually fit to rule our part of the world.
And they don’t apply the sharia law as it should be applied.” So he hated
all of them, and he wanted to topple them.
He never was tempted by money. I remember he told me that the Saudi government
had frozen his assets in Saudi Arabia and they opened a bank account for
him where his share of his family fortune goes into. He told me there was
about $200 million in that account frozen by the Saudis. The money can get
in, but you cannot get it out. And he told me, “They sent me a delegation,”
including his uncle and also his mother, in order to tempt him to go back
to Saudi Arabia. And he said, “They offered to double my credit in that
account, the $200 million, to make it $400 million or $500 million, as a
bait to go back to Saudi Arabia.” He said, “I refused to go back. Money
doesn’t mean anything to me. What shall I do with money? I want to die
as a martyr.” And he turned the offer down. He hates those extravagant
Saudi royal family members and Arab leaders who just indulge themselves
and their families in business.
The issue of bin Laden will certainly transcend his death. Al-Qa’ida, in
your view, will continue without bin Laden.
It is like an ideology. It is like communism, with huge differences. Communism
started in the Soviet Union and after that spread all over the world. It
doesn’t mean that Lenin’s death will affect that theory. The same thing
could happen to al-Qa’ida if Osama bin Laden is captured or killed. Effectively
he is dead now. He is not conducting meetings or organizing a network or
contacting his followers.
There are certain what I hesitate to call schools of thought in the United
States, Canada, and elsewhere that say that it was not bin Laden and al-Qa’ida
that carried out the attacks on September 11. Is there any doubt in your
mind that it was, in fact, bin Laden and al-Qa’ida?
From day one I said it is most likely the work of al-Qa’ida because I knew
they were planning something really big. I remember after the 1998 embassy
attacks in East Africa by al-Qa’ida, President Clinton sent about 75 cruise
missiles to hit al-Qa’ida bases in Afghanistan—Kandahar, Jalalabad, Khost,
and other places. I remember at that time I was phoned by Mohammad Atef,
also known as Abu Hafs al-Masri. He was the second in command; the military
brain of al-Qa’ida. He phoned me to say, “Look, we want you to carry a
message from Sheikh Osama bin Laden to President Clinton and to the American
people. Yes, we were bombed. Five of our colleagues were killed only. They
died as martyrs,” as he put it. “But we are going to take revenge. And
it will be a huge one. It will be something to be remembered. We will teach
the Americans a lesson which they will never forget.”
So when the attacks took place, I realized that this could be the revenge.
When the first plane hit the Twin Towers, I said, “Maybe this is an accident.”
But when the second one hit, I said, “This is it. It is al-Qa’ida.” And
the World Trade Center was always a target of al-Qa’ida. I cannot say it
is 100 percent al-Qa’ida. I have to leave 5 percent at least for skepticism.
But when you listen to the words of those people who actually carried out
these attacks—and I did listen to them and they were talking about it and
they prepared themselves for it—all the indications are clearly that al-Qa’ida
was behind it.
Many of these theories circulate on the Internet. There are documentaries
and articles. And in the Arab world as well. I’ve met people in different
countries who told me Mossad, Israeli intelligence, was behind it, or it
was the CIA, almost not believing that Arabs could do this.
The problem is Arabs lack confidence in themselves. We lost all our wars
against the Israelis. We don’t have the capabilities to do anything right.
So they did not expect Arabs to be so efficient in organizing such a big
attack. That’s the problem with the Arab mentality. Always, we are defeatist.
We are not people who believe in ourselves because of the humiliation of
1948, of 1967, of 1973, the humiliation of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
But when you look at it, it doesn’t need a lot of planning. You can go
on the Internet, and you will find all the American internal flight schedules.
They did not use guns, hand grenades, or explosives. They managed to overpower
the flight crew and then they carried out their missions. And they were
trained for this.
You’ve raised an interesting point about the sophistication and training
of many of those who carry out these operations. Years ago, the typical
bomber profile was a destitute Palestinian orphan in a refugee camp in
Gaza or the West Bank. The attacks in July 2005 and June 2007 were not carried
out by impoverished, uneducated kids. So that stereotype has gone by the
There is a huge transformation process taking place in the Muslim world.
It is not only the poor who are angry. It is also the rich who are angry
and frustrated. The great majority of Muslims feel humiliated. They have
money, they are educated, but they are humiliated. They can see they are
targeted by the West. They can see that this Administration is launching
wars against Muslims to humiliate them, to prevent them from making progress,
to prevent them from using their money in a productive way. And some of
them say, “Look what happened to Iraq, for example. Why are they bombing
and killing Iraqis? Why are all the American wars now against Muslims?
They are not against Scandinavians or Asians or Indians. Why are they against
Muslims? And there is another war coming against Iran. Why are they determined
to break us, to destroy us?”
So there are two types of Arabs and Muslims now: the poor ones, who are
frustrated because of the corrupt regimes and dictatorships, because of
the suppression. The educated and well off can see that they are not living
like human beings. I’m not surprised if those wealthy people join al-Qa’ida.
Besides that, when you are frustrated and depressed, you turn to Islam,
you go to the mosque, you go to God, you go to religion. That’s something
common in the Arab world. We don’t go to psychiatrists. Psychiatrists are
the poorest doctors in our region because there is no business for them.
People go to the mosque and start praying. And radical Islam tells them
to die as a martyr, to go to the eternal life, as soon as possible. And
they turn to radical organizations like al-Qa’ida or Hamas.
I have studied al-Qa’ida. Most of its members are wealthy people or from
wealthy educated families. They are not poor and frustrated, looking for
$100 or $200 from bin Laden to send to their families. They want to die.
They want to go to Bosnia to die, they want to go to Kosovo, they want
to go to the Philippines, Thailand, Chechnya, Kashmir. Everywhere they
can fight until they are killed as martyrs, as they call it.
The attacks in Britain in 2005 and 2007 shocked many people there because
they were carried out by local young men.
In certain cases, Islam supersedes nationality. Many people don’t understand
that. You are a Muslim first and a Pakistani second. You are a Muslim first
and an Egyptian second. You are a Muslim first and a Saudi second. Those
people were influenced by what’s happening in Iraq. They believe that Muslims
are one umma, community, and we have to feel for one other. That’s how
they look at things. They say, for example, “Why do the Americans and the
British and the Europeans go and bomb our brothers in Afghanistan or Iraq?
What can we do about this?”
When somebody like me was saying in the media, “Look, those people were
influenced because of what’s happening in Iraq. There are a million people
killed in Iraq in a brutal, unjustified, immoral, and illegal war,” that’s
when people like Tony Blair came out, saying, “There is no connection between
these atrocities, these crimes, and what’s happening in Iraq.” In the end,
a joint intelligence service in this country confirmed that those people
were influenced by what happened in Iraq. After that we had the videotape
of Ayman Zawahiri. He got the will of Muhammad Sidiq Khan, the ringleader
of the July 7, 2005 attack, actually saying on camera, “We did this simply
because we were influenced by the atrocities committed by British and American
troops against our brothers in Iraq.” And he said, “We are going to deal
with you the way that you are dealing with our brothers in that part of
On top of that, the Arab community in the UK is actually facing terrorizing
practices by the government since 9/11. If you are a Muslim, you are 17
times more likely to be stopped by the police than any other religion or
any other race. You can see with these emergency laws how they are looking
at every Muslim as a potential terrorist. You have to prove you are not
a terrorist, you have to prove you are innocent, you have to prove you
are a good citizen. Also, you have to be on the defensive all the time,
whether you are educated or not. That’s the problem. Radical organizations
try to manipulate the repressive atmosphere in this country against Muslims
and use it for their own advantage. As I said, you don’t need to recruit
2,000 or 3,000. You need to recruit 15, or maybe 5, and then the damage
will be inflicted.
You use a couple of terms in The Secret History of Al-Qa’ida, “electronic
umma” and “cyber jihad.”
Nowadays you can see that these radical organizations are making use of
the latest technology. Now, Al-Qa’ida doesn’t need Al Jazeera anymore.
Osama bin Laden doesn’t need any media outlet, as he used to. Nowadays
what happens is he puts his tapes on certain Internet sites and gets a
message to Reuters or Agence France Presse or CNN or Al Jazeera saying,
“If you look into this particular site, you will find a tape. You can download
it and use it.” So media people immediately go to these sites, get the
tapes and broadcast them. Al-Qa’ida is sophisticated and independent. They
create these sites anywhere in the world just for half an hour, and then
they disappear. They can’t be traced. That’s the way they are using technology
And we discovered that with al-Aieeri. He used to be the mastermind of
these Islamic sites of al-Qa’ida. He was in Saudi Arabia, the safest place
in the world, the closest ally of the United States. Al-Aieeri was killed.
Now somebody else took over. Who? I don’t know.
Your newspaper published what can only be described as a business plan
that al-Qa’ida issued a couple of years ago, almost like any other corporation
making public its proposals for the future.
Before 1996, al-Qa’ida had an office in London. Its representative in London
was Khalid al-Fawwaz who moved around freely. He used to visit me and other
newspapers, delivering materials and communications from Osama bin Laden
when he was in Sudan. So it was legal. It wasn’t yet a clandestine or underground
organization. Al-Qa’ida, at that time, wanted to change the Arab regimes
and apply sharia law. They wanted to shape the Arab world according to
their criteria, they wanted to set up the Islamic caliphate as it was during
the Ottoman Empire and before that.
They were heavily supported by wealthy men in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf.
They used to have a lot of money. Osama bin Laden, when he went to Sudan,
invested his money in agricultural, industrial, and construction projects.
He attracted many of his radical ex-colleagues from the Arab mujahideen
in Afghanistan, to go and work for him in Sudan. They have a well-prepared
plan to rule the Muslim world.
What are the salient weaknesses and strengths of al-Qa’ida?
The weaknesses are clear. It is not very popular. The majority of Muslims
would like to distance themselves from radical Islam and from al-Qa’ida
because they were horrified with what happened in the World Trade Center.
They cannot see Muslims killing innocent people. That’s why al-Qa’ida is
not very popular. It is only popular among the minority of the minority
of Muslims. The majority of Muslims are moderate, and they don’t want violence
or to be seen supporting radicalism or terrorism.
Many people ask why al-Qa’ida does not attack Israel, which is occupying
Palestine and killing our brothers there? So this raises a lot of question
marks about al-Qa’ida in certain parts of the Muslim world. Al-Qa’ida tried
to rectify this by attacking a hotel full of Israeli tourists in Mombassa
in Kenya and attempting to shoot down an Israeli charter flight. But it
didn’t work. So they are trying desperately to answer this shortcoming.
A third weakness of al-Qa’ida is it is followed by all the intelligence
services in the world. You cannot openly say, “I am a member of al-Qa’ida.”
For example, the Palestinian organizations that used to carry out attacks
against Western interests were known, they had a headquarters, a leader,
an address. But al-Qa’ida is a secret organization. They cannot have a
headquarters, they cannot have a recognized leadership which is accessible.
So these are the weaknesses of al-Qa’ida. The points of strength of al-Qa’ida
are numerous. First, they don’t need to have a headquarters, they don’t
need to have a street address, they don’t need to have a lot of money,
they don’t need allies in government. And it is a clandestine organization.
That’s what makes it very, very strong.
The second thing, they are adopting a certain interpretation of Islam that
appeals to frustrated people in certain parts of the Muslim world.
The third and the most important strength of al-Qa’ida is the stupidity
of the U.S. administration. I believe President Bush served al-Qa’ida by
brutal policies, by invading Iraq and by giving al-Qa’ida another failed
state to establish itself closer to the Arab world. Afghanistan was far
away from the Arab world. Afghans don’t speak Arabic. Al-Qa’ida used to
be a foreigner there. The invasion of Iraq actually gave al-Qa’ida about
How significant is U.S. economic, military, and political support for Israel?
This is the point of weakness of the American administration and the West
in general. They are supporting the Israelis. They put Israel above international
law. They let the Israelis do what they want and get away with it. The
Israelis can kill, destroy, assassinate, impose sanctions, and nobody interferes.
This creates huge resentment in the Arab world. It won’t make the U.S.
a friend of the Arabs and the Muslims. As long as they are doing so, the
Americans will lose in the Middle East.
I can see the Americans are preparing for war against Iran. This could
be fatal for American interests in the region. You cannot just go and prevent
Iran from possessing weapons of mass destruction, you cannot go and destroy
Iraq because you accused Saddam Hussein of having weapons of mass destruction,
when the Israelis have an arsenal of 300 nuclear warheads.
Israel is the killing point of American foreign policy and American interests
in the Middle East. It is one of the elements that make al-Qa’ida and other
radical organizations flourish and expand.
Bush said he will destroy al-Qa’ida, he will end terrorism or weaken it.
But what’s happening? He is strengthening terrorism. We used to have one
al-Qa’ida and now we have ten al-Qa’idas. It’s like Kentucky Fried Chicken.
They are expanding, opening branches all over the world. Franchises, yes.
That’s the problem. The Americans are not safer. Their country is a fortress
now, the United States of Security.
It seems to fit in, though, with part of bin Laden’s strategy. He wanted
to provoke the United States into “bleeding wars,” as he called them.
I remember, I asked bin Laden, “What’s your strategy? You are challenging
the biggest superpower on earth? Do you think you can defeat this superpower?”
He said, “No, I cannot defeat it, but I can launch a war of attrition against
them.” I asked, “What do you mean?” He said, “If I manage to bring them
to our part of the world and fight them on our own turf, in the middle
of the Arab and the Muslim world, this will be fatal for them. It will
be another Vietnam.”
David Barsamian is founder and director of Alternative Radio. He is a radio
producer, journalist, author, and lecturer. His interviews and articles
appear regularly in The Progressive and Z Magazine. He is the author of
several books, including Eqbal Ahmad: Confronting Empire and The Checkbook
and the Cruise Missile: Conversations with Arundhati Roy.