Former CIA worker analyses bin Laden threat

Michael Scheuer worked for the CIA for 22 years, eight of them as chief of the bin Laden unit, which he set up in 1996. He resigned from the CIA late last year after becoming frustrated with political and bureaucratic inaction on intelligence indicating that bin Laden was going to kill thousands of Americans if he was not stopped. He joins us now in Washington. Michael Scheuer, thanks for being there.
Broadcast Lateline ABC 08/02/05

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Former CIA worker analyses bin Laden threat

Reporter: Tony Jones

TONY JONES: Well, only yesterday it was reported that one of the key members of the conspiracy to bomb the Australian Embassy in Jakarta last September has claimed links with Al Qaeda. The alleged bomber, Rois, claims that the $10,000 which funded the operation came directly from Osama bin Laden and that Australia was targeted because it was an "American lacky" which was leaning on Muslims, especially in Iraq. If true, bin Laden's influence is still profound in our own region. So does Osama bin Laden still command global terrorism or is he now a symbol emulated by thousands of would-be Jihadies in a global insurgency? Well, tonight we'll ask one of the world's foremost experts on Al Qaeda. Michael Scheuer worked for the CIA for 22 years, eight of them as chief of the bin Laden unit, which he set up in 1996. He resigned from the CIA late last year after becoming frustrated with political and bureaucratic inaction on intelligence indicating that bin Laden was going to kill thousands of Americans if he was not stopped. He joins us now in Washington. Michael Scheuer, thanks for being there.


TONY JONES: Now just like in Washington there's been a fierce debate in this country over whether the war in Iraq has made Australia more vulnerable to a terrorist attack. What's your assessment?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, it's hard for me to imagine that there's any doubt about that, sir. You know, Australia was really the first of America's allies to be attacked at Bali. Bin Laden has been very clear with his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that those people supporting the US in Afghanistan and Iraq would be hit and I think we can certainly see that right up through the bombings in London earlier in July this year that Al Qaeda and its allies have gone down the list of people who have supported America. So, I don't know why that's still open to debate, but it seems to be still a question in some people's mind.

TONY JONES: It's open to debate in both countries, isn't it? Donald Rumsfeld seems to deny it as well.

MICHAEL SCHEUER; Yeah, Mr Rumsfeld is sort of lost in space on this issue. The facts are so clear and irrefutable. As in almost always the case with Osama bin Laden he matches his words to his deeds. And to continue to ignore that, either in Australia or in America, is to proceed in the world at our own peril.

TONY JONES: Alright. You've actually described the invasion of Iraq as a "Godsend" to Osama bin Laden. Tell us why you think that?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Yeah, if bin Laden was a Christian, it was the Christmas present he always wanted but never expected from his parents. It basically validated all of the things he had said about America over the past decade. The Americans, he said, want our oil. The Americans will destroy any Arab government that is a threat to Israel. The Americans want to destroy Islam and occupy our sanctities and of course Iraq is the second holiest place in Islam. And besides validating what he had said, the invasion of Iraq in the Islamic world is viewed as an invasion by the infidels of Islamic territory. And so, the view that there should be a Jihad against the Americans is no longer just what our president calls the "lunatic fringe". It comes from very mainstream Muslims. Muslim leaders, Muslim clerics. So Iraq is really - I think in the future will be seen as a turning point - and not a good one - in the war against Islamic extremism.

TONY JONES: Alright. Here is what the Australian Prime Minister John Howard said in London just after the second wave of terrorist bombings there. He said, "Australia was a terrorist target long before the operation in Iraq and all the evidence suggests to me that this is about hatred of a way of life." You've also heard that argument in Washington, haven't you?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Ad nauseam, sir. If that was true, Al Qaeda and its allies would be a lethal nuisance, rather than a threat to our survival as a great power. The only way you can come around to say that, and say that repeatedly, is to ignore all of the evidence that the intelligence services and the media, for that matter, have produced in the Western world. The idea that they're attacking our way of life because we wear blue jeans and we have R-rated movies and we have elections is just so much hooey. They are whistling past the graveyard if they think that's the answer to our enemy's motivation.

TONY JONES: Alright. Let me go back to the rest of Prime Minister Howard's argument because it is more complex, more developed than what I've just stated. He also makes the point that when 88 Australians were murdered in the Bali bombings, as you referred to earlier, bin Laden said that Australians have been targeted because of this country's role in liberating East Timor. What the Prime Minister is effectively saying is that bin Laden will always come up with some excuse and that no-one is suggesting that we shouldn't have been involved in the liberation of East Timor.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, whether or not we should have been involved in it, that's kind of our decision, but the idea that bin Laden is just looking for excuses is surely incorrect. In the Muslim mind in the Islamic mind, the Americans and the Australians in the UN ripped a part of an Islamic country away from its owner, if you will. East Timor was part, in Islamic view, of the Islamic nation of Indonesia and certainly it's viewed as an aggression against Islam, just as the invasion of Iraq was. So, unfortunately our leaders have not paid enough attention to the consistency of the argumentation, not only of bin Laden, but of other Islamist leaders, sir. This is not a question of...

TONY JONES: Alright. Go ahead. Finish your point.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: I was just going to say, sir, that this is not a question of evilness on the part of the West or depravity that these policies were made to cause a war with Islam. That's certainly not the case. But a war we have and the motivation comes from the policies, not from the way we live.

TONY JONES: There is another theory that bin Laden deliberately targeted New York in the September 11 attacks to somehow draw the West and the US in particular into a front-on conflict with Islam.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, that's again if you go back to the caucus of bin Laden's writings and speeches, that's clearly the case. Since '96 he's been very eager to get America to Afghanistan because he thought that the Taliban and Al Qaeda would treat America the same way they treated the Soviets there. I think he must be extraordinarily frustrated that the great bulk of the Western forces in Afghanistan don't come out of their Garrisons.

TONY JONES: Looks like we've actually lost that line to Washington. We'll try and get it back but in the meantime, we'll have to move on. Now I'm please to announce we have that satellite back to Washington. Sorry for the interruption Mr Scheuer.


TONY JONES: I was actually going to come to you with - one of the points you appear to be making is that you seem to be ascribing to Osama bin Laden's legitimate motives.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Certainly in the Islamic world, the perception that bin Laden describes of Islam being under attack are entirely legitimate. That doesn't mean that they're accurate or true or that we need to sympathise or empathise with him. But the broad perception that Islam is under attack by the United States and its allies is there and until we've assessed that as the motivation of our enemy, it seems very unlikely to me that we'll be able to defeat the enemy. You know, it's the old Sun Tzu saying from centuries ago, "Know your enemy and you can defeat him."

TONY JONES: You have referred to bin Laden as a very worthy enemy. In fact, on one occasion I think you even referred to him as a "great man". Can you tell us in what context you believe he's a great man.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: He's indisputably a great man with affecting history. Not with a positive connotation, of course. To live in America these days, to try to get on an aeroplane, to see our budget deficit really spiralling, to try to take your children into a museum without having them searched it's almost to me unbelievable that people don't recognise that he's changed the course of history in the last decade. Certainly for America, it's a hard thing to deny.

TONY JONES: Now, I appreciate that there are subtleties here because after all you actually led efforts to assassinate him in the late 1990s and essentially only stopped, as I understand it, by CIA lawyers.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, we didn't try to assassinate him. What we tried to do, sir, is to do two different things. First, to either capture him and take him to a place where he could face justice or to provide the US military with precise targeting locations so the military could kill him. If you look at the 9/11 Commission report here in the United States, we provided that information to the Clinton Administration eight to 10 times and it was never acted on. By all rights, sir, if there was fairness in the world bin Laden today would be just a smouldering memory.

TONY JONES: Indeed, there was one occasion where you had him targeted for a cruise missile attack, but it was called off, I believe, because there were members of the royal family from the United Arab Emirates being entertained by him at the time.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, in fact the princes were entertaining bin Laden. It was the other way about. And it was more than just cancelled. The National Security Council warned the government of the United Arab Emirates at the time. Clearly they put a prince above the safety of Americans and that's pretty much traditional in American - the governing elite tends to think more about what the world thinks of us than actually protecting Americans.

TONY JONES: I gather you'd have pressed the button without any qualms?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Sir, the world is lousy with princes and I'm a Democrat with a small D. He would have been yesterday's news.

TONY JONES: Do you still believe that it is close to inevitable that bin Laden will obtain and use a nuclear weapon on US soil?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Sir, I think it's pretty close to a certainty for several reasons. First, he has religious authoriser to do it which is for him the most important thing. Second, we've known for the better part of a decade he has a very professional organisation made up of physicists, engineers, technical experts, trying to purchase such a weapon and making sure his organisation doesn't get scammed in the process. But most importantly during the presidential election last year we became aware that the Soviet nuclear arsenal wouldn't be under control until 2010. And as kind of a coda to that we know of course that the Soviets have told us they've up to 100 small nuclear devices that aren't accounted for, as they say. I think we would be silly not to assume that at some point, whether it is bin Laden's organisation or another, those devices will fall into the hands of people we don't want to have them.

TONY JONES: Do you still believe he has those resources? We continually hear from the President that Al Qaeda has been decimated.

MICHAEL SCHEUER; Yeah. Well, that's another I think whistling past the graveyard statement, sir. What we have really is a body count. When the President and Mr Rumsfeld or your Prime Minister say that we've killed two-thirds of Al Qaeda's leadership since 9/11, that is true and it's also irrelevant. Al Qaeda is an organisation that's tremendously supple and spends a lot of time training people to succeed leaders they expect to be killed because they're always fighting a more powerful enemy. So we have a lot of dead or captured Al Qaeda fighters and that does not necessarily mean that the organisation has been destroyed. In fact, the secondary series of attacks against America's allies seems to contradict the idea that Al Qaeda has lost its functionality.

TONY JONES: Let me ask you this - it's obviously the critical question in a way. If Osama bin Laden is, as you suggest he is, completely rational in his motives, how can that threat ever be neutralised? What can be done to neutralise Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the general global threat of insurgency?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, for America the key lies in two-fold process. First, we have to kill as many of the first generation of Al Qaeda people as we can. We need to unleash our military and our intelligence services to really treat these people as they deserve, which is to be sent to their maker. But the second key for America is disengagement from the Middle East. We have to find a way to back away from being so prominent in that area. We're under attack because of our policies. Our policies put us in the way of Al Qaeda and the other Islamists doing what they want to do most of all, which is to destroy the police states that rule the Islamic world, whether it's the al-Sauds, Mubarak in the Egyptians or the Algerian generals Algeria. The road to safety for the West is disengaging - not continuing to pursue policies that are the motivational factor that empowers our enemy.

TONY JONES: Very briefly because disengagement would obviously have big implications for the Middle East and possible Taliban-style theorocracies set up across the Middle East. So that won't happen, we suspect. So do you see any end to this at all?

MICHAEL SCHEUER; Not right at the moment. Certainly America will continue until it's defeated. If it continues to pursue this course of believing that they hate our liberties and they hate our freedoms. People that are fighting the al-Sauds and the Mubaraks as well as us clearly don't hate freedom or liberty. They are looking for something like that in their own cultural context.

TONY JONES: OK, Michael Scheuer, we'll have to leave you there. We're just about out of time. Thank you very much for coming to talk to us tonight.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: It was an honour, sir. I appreciate it.

2005 ABC

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