Bin Laden's Game

Most officials thought last month's Osama bin Laden tape was no big deal— maybe even a gesture of weakness. Author and ex-CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who founded the Agency's bin Laden unit 10 years ago, thinks they're dead wrong.

And so, in terms of perception, the Iraq war was a validation of what bin Laden had said. In addition, bin Laden and Zawahiri are not trained Islamic clerics or jurists. The argument was always made that they had no authority, therefore, to declare a jihad. Well, when we invaded Iraq, it was kind of a textbook example of an event that necessitates jihad in the Islamic world. Now, any number of well-credentialed clerics and jurists and scholars have authorized jihad against the United States around the world, because we invaded a Muslim land. In my view, the invasion of Iraq accelerated the transformation of al Qaeda from a man and an organization into a philosophy and a movement.

We're at the point where it's still very important to kill—preferably to kill, or else to capture—Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri. But because of Iraq, our problem is far from over if that happens.

CP:From the standpoint of practical politics, do you think bin Laden and his associates feel obliged to make the next attack on U.S. soil more spectacular than the last?

Scheuer: That's certainly what they have promised. And one of the things I've tried to point out when I've been interviewed is that, objectively, if you examine bin Laden's rhetoric, the correlation between words and deeds is pretty much—close to perfect. One of the things he always stressed from the very first days of al Qaeda was, I intend to incrementally ratchet up the severity of the pain I cause Americans until they begin to listen and change their policies. So my answer would be yes. To keep true to his world, which seems to be a major concern for him, the next attack on America will have to be more damaging than 9/11.

CP:You spoke on 60 Minutes over a year ago about bin Laden's seeking and obtaining the fatwa to use nuclear weapons against the U.S. Do you think it's his wish to use nuclear weapons in his next attack?

Scheuer: Sure. If he has them, he'll use them. It's not like he's looking for a deterrent. In old Cold War terms, he's looking for a first-strike weapon. One of the problems we have in the West, and particularly in America, is we view him as kind of a person who wouldn't have anything else to do if he wasn't killing and fighting. Clearly he would. America is not their first target. Their first targets are the Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, that are tyrannies, and Israel. We're being attacked because bin Laden has argued that the other targets, the more important targets, are easy pickings if they can drive us out of the Middle East. One of the ways they look to do that is to create a situation in the United States that is so destructive, in terms of the economic impact and casualties, that it would take the U.S. military to administer the after-effects of the attack. Clearly their preference is for a nuclear-type weapon.

CP:How feasible do you think it is for an organization of their profile and resources to obtain a nuclear weapon?

Scheuer: Well, you know, money is never a problem. We make a lot of noise about taking their money, but we've taken very little of their money. To put it bluntly, they're not stupid enough to use the Western economic system. So that's one thing we shouldn't bank on. In 1996, we acquired the information that since 1992 they'd been trying to get one of these weapons, and have developed a unit that features technicians and engineers and hard scientists, to prevent themselves from being scammed.

We know—well, I didn't know it until the election campaign, when Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry were arguing about whether the Soviet nuclear arsenal should be under control by 2007 or 2010, but the Soviet nuclear arsenal is not all accounted for. When you add all these things up—the availability, the expertise available to them, and the virtually unlimited amounts of money they can bring to bear—I think we would be foolish not to think that they could do it.

There's a book called Nuclear Terrorism by a man named Graham Allison from Harvard, who is kind of the premier expert on the possibility of nuclear terrorism in the Western world. In that book, he points out that the only really difficult part about constructing a nuclear weapon is acquiring the fissile material, the highly enriched uranium or the plutonium. After that, the machining of the trigger and the containers and all the rest is not very hard at all. It's college-level physics. Certainly that kind of expertise is available to Osama bin Laden. I sat in on an unclassified briefing from a couple of our national laboratories, Sandia and Los Alamos, and they basically mirrored what Graham Allison had said. That basically, if you can acquire the fissile materials, you've done the hardest part of the job. I think we would be silly to assume they can't do it. Which is one reason I've been so outspoken about trying to control our borders.

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