Sitting across from Osama bin Laden in 1997, CNN correspondent Peter Bergen didn’t know whether to take bin Laden’s declaration of war against the United States seriously.
Four years later, he found out.
“I took it as a rhetorical device,” Bergen told about 150 people Monday afternoon in Fisk Hall. “But it obviously wasn’t.”
In his Crain Lecture Series address, Bergen discussed his book “Holy War, Inc.,” which describes the corporate organization of al-Qaida, the terrorist group led by bin Laden. The book depicts the terrorist leader as a man deeply committed to his cause.
“Here’s a guy who could be sitting around in his palace in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), living it up,” Bergen said. “He was very serious about what he was doing.”
While interviewing bin Laden in 1997, Bergen was impressed by the solid logic of the al-Qaida leader’s anti-America arguments.
“This was somebody who was quite well informed,” Bergen said. “He wasn’t psychotic in any way. It’s easy to dismiss him as crazy.”
Yet bin Laden has been unable to convince the rest of the Muslim world of his views, Bergen said. The attacks on Sept. 11 only hurt his cause.
“There’s no language in Islam that can justify 9/11,” Bergen said.
Moreover, the American reaction to the Sept. 11 attack has put al-Qaida on the run, limiting its power, Bergen said.
“I think, in the long term, al-Qaida is out of business,” Bergen said.
While in operation, al-Qaida was successful in carrying out a number of attacks on American interests.
Bin Laden’s terrorist organization has been implicated by the FBI in the 1994 attack on U.S. soldiers in Somalia, the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.
“They were able to take terrorism to a whole other level,” Bergen said.
Now, however, it will be more difficult for terrorist organizations to attack American territory as a result of new security measures, Bergen predicted.
“America on 9/11 was a very soft target,” he said. “It’s now a much harder target. Terrorists generally select soft targets because they’re easier.”
America is a natural target because of its status as a world superpower, Bergen said, and bin Laden’s war, against the United States is fueled primarily by U.S. support of Israel.
“He is doing this because of our policies in the Middle East,” Bergen said. “Does that make him right? No.”
Though bin Laden may not be just, he is always direct, Bergen said. The CNN reporter rejected the Bush administration’s theory that bin Laden would put coded messages in his videos.
“I always thought that there was a sort of uncoded message that was ‘Kill America,'” Bergen said.
He suggested these videos should be aired if they have newsworthy content.
Evanston resident Lionel Edes, 48, said he was impressed with Bergen’s analysis of bin Laden’s message.
“His emphasis that the jihad is not so much a religious war against American values, but it’s really that bin Laden has had a consistent message – that he’s angry about three or four more political things,” Edes said. “That makes the possibilities for a solution of this issue different.”