Michael Scheuer was the first chief of the CIA’s Alec Station, otherwise known as the bin Laden Unit, which was created in 1996 and specially tasked with hunting down the terrorist leader. Now an author, consultant, and commentator, Scheuer has written a biography of the al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden. He recently spoke with U.S. News about the elusive terrorist’s agenda, future, and location. Excerpts:
Why does Osama bin Laden hate us?
I’m not sure that he does. He does hate the U.S. government because of what he sees as an attack on the Muslim world by our foreign policy. He has hewed very close to those views since 1996 without either expansion or much amplification. For so long, U.S. politicians have lied to us by saying that al Qaeda is attacking us because we have free elections, liberties, gender equality. Many Americans would be surprised to read 800 pages of bin Laden’s writings because there is nothing in there about those things.
Why don’t more Americans read bin Laden’s own words?
All the information is there on the Internet. The private sector has done what the U.S. government should have done, which is make all this information available for Americans to read. It is so odd, because during the Cold War, the U.S. government made sure through translations that Americans could read almost anything said in public by a Soviet leader. U.S. politicians don’t want to talk about bin Laden’s grievances [that U.S. policies support corrupt regimes in the Muslim world]. They haven’t done it this time because the government has called him a terrorist, and therefore, you don’t have to think about what he says. [See a slide show of 15 major post-Cold War uprisings.]
Does the Muslim world understand bin Laden’s message?
They do. Surveys have shown that 80 percent of Muslims around the world agree with bin Laden in thinking that U.S. foreign policy is directed against Muslims. He would make a tremendous politician for either U.S. political party because he knows his audience and stays on message.
What surprised you in your research?
There’s no evidence of mental illness, nihilism, criminality, or anything that would make him into what presidents from both parties have described him as.
Why has he been made into a one-dimensional monster?
If you’re an American politician, you don’t want to talk about the issues that bin Laden talks about. You don’t want to . . . tell the American people that your sons and daughters are being sent to fight and die in order to protect the Saudi police state. No one wants to talk about Israel. It’s cowardly, but it is understandable why politicians don’t want to discuss these things. [Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.]
If you could, what would you ask bin Laden?
How he sees all this ending. It’s not clear to me that he expects to live through the process that he thinks he has set in motion. I think he’s very comfortable where he is now.
Does he still believe in reestablishing the Muslim caliphate?
So many people try to scare monger with this. All Muslims believe in this [the caliphate], but maybe only one or two of them actually think it will happen in the foreseeable future.
Does he think that his words will be studied in the future like other religious scholars?
Yes, he does. He is speaking to, and is most accessible to, the educated Muslims, the upper class, who can read and understand these religious ideas. Poor Muslims are hustling to make a living every day and don’t have the money to go off and fight in Afghanistan. His words are designed to be studied across cultures. He wants to have an impact on how Muslims think about themselves. He’s probably the first important Muslim leader who will leave not only a written record of himself, but also the recordings.
Where is he?
Not where we’re looking in Waziristan. I would guess that he is in the northeastern part of Afghanistan. It’s among the most remote places in Afghanistan and is an area that has been the site of missionary work by the Saudis [and] the Kuwaitis, since 1975. Religiously, it is the most congenial area of the country for bin Laden. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]
Will he be caught?
I think he’ll die of old age.
What do you think he thinks of Egypt?
They’re very happy about it. The U.S. is not al Qaeda’s main target. They just want us to pull out our support for tyrannical regimes and Israel, so they can be overturned. Watching one of the most tyrannical of those regimes being overturned must be a joy for them. [See editorial cartoons about the Egypt uprisings.]
What is bin Laden’s greatest fear?
That the U.S. changes its foreign policy. It would undermine his message. That’s the first strategic threat to al Qaeda.
Do you think the United States will consider changing its foreign policy?
I was convinced that the U.S. government would do what it could to break the appeal of al Qaeda’s message, and I was wrong. To this day, we are unable to have a frank conversation about al Qaeda’s true motivations.