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After Bin Laden's Death, Are We Safer?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. A year ago today, U.S. Special Forces launched a secret mission to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, so we thought it appropriate to spend the first part of our program today getting different perspectives on what the death of bin Laden has meant to the security of the United States and the world.

Later we will hear from an internationally known journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon who's written widely on what he calls the roots of bin Laden-ism. But first we want to hear from a man whose job for many years was to track bin Laden. Michael Scheuer served in the Central Intelligence Agency for more than two decades. He served as the leader of the CIA's bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999.

Even while he remained at the agency, he published a book - anonymously then - that challenged many of the assumptions of U.S. policymakers about Osama bin Laden, and most recently he's the author of a new book - called, simply, "Osama bin Laden." Currently, he is an adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University, and he's kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios on this momentous day.

Michael Scheuer, thank you so much for joining us. And welcome back to the program, I should say.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, thank you very much for having me back.

MARTIN: Osama bin Laden has been dead for a year now. Are we safer?

SCHEUER: I really don't think we are. I think the killing of bin Laden was a terrifically important tactical advantage for the United States and a strategic advantage in the limited sense that he's no longer able to talk to the Islamic people, but what seems to escape our notice is that if we took a map of the world on 9/11 and a map of the world today, we would see al-Qaida hanging its hat in the largest sense - being able to train people, store arms, meet people in Afghanistan, and that's all there was in 2001, basically. Today, they're still active, supporting the Taliban. They're very prominent in a large swath of Pakistan. They're heavily involved in what's going on in Yemen.

And in fact, in Yemen they actually hold territory. They're involved on the east coast of Africa, in Somalia and Kenya, across the northern rim of Africa with a group called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is now moving down toward a very central point of issue for the United States, which is the oil from the Niger Delta.

They're in Palestine. They've recovered to a great extent in Iraq, and we saw armed al-Qaida people being supported by NATO airpower in the overthrow of Gaddafi, and part of the people that are fighting Assad in Syria right now are al-Qaida and its allies. So it's a much bigger problem today than it was in 2001.

MARTIN: Was it a worthwhile mission?

SCHEUER: Oh, absolutely. Osama bin Laden was an absolutely unique person in his - both in his credentials as a pious person and an experienced insurgent, having been wounded four times, but he was a master of communications. In many ways, he very early on decided al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden can't defeat the United States alone and so they really - he decided that al-Qaida's primary job would be to instigate other Muslims to join.

MARTIN: To create a movement.

SCHEUER: To create a movement. Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: But you know, we haven't seen any large-scale attacks since then.


MARTIN: Particularly in the West. I mean, there have been some terrible attacks in other countries - like India, for example, some traumatic and bloody attempts, but not in the United States.

SCHEUER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Certainly. And those attempts that we have seen have been incompetent, attempted by people who either did not seem to be very well trained or very bright. And I'm just wondering why you think that is.

SCHEUER: Well, the attack on the United States on 9/11 was not only to hurt us, but to draw us into a place where it would be easier to fight us. And the net result of the 10 years, 11 years now since 9/11 is America has lost two wars to men who are armed with weapons that were new during the Korean war.

We withdrew from Iraq without winning and we're going to withdraw from Afghanistan without winning. Now, when you look back in time, what galvanized bin Laden and his people at first? And that was the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan. So I think one of the reasons is they don't need to attack us here because we're there.

MARTIN: What would be winning?

SCHEUER: For us?


SCHEUER: Winning is a military option which would require an enormous amount of killing, not only of al-Qaida fighters or Taliban fighters, but also of their civilian support people and the physical infrastructure. When you hear generals say there's no military solution, it means they've been told by their political masters that there's no political solution. There's always one.

MARTIN: But what do you mean by - I mean, what would a military solution look like? Would it be occupying these countries? Would it be running these countries in a way that...

SCHEUER: Just the opposite.

MARTIN: ...the United States did in Japan after World War II?

SCHEUER: No, ma'am. I think just the opposite. I think the mistake we make is we are in both parties addicted to democracy-spreading, and had we gone into Afghanistan, for example, and spent about 15 months destroying as much as we could both in terms of physical infrastructure and humans who were - who are fighting us, and left, we would've been much better off than going there, not defeating the enemy, and also trying to build a democracy in a place that's devoutly Islamic.

MARTIN: There are those, of course, who have heard you say this over the years who argue that that is exactly the recipe for spreading bin Laden-ism per se, and that the quest in many of these countries - that bin Laden's followers are, in fact, a small group of zealots and that they have never captured the hearts and minds, as it were, of the Arab and Muslim world, but that these large-scale military encounters, engagements, are kind of creating - create kind of an environment that makes people more receptive to them than they would be otherwise.

SCHEUER: I think that's nonsense, frankly, Michel.

Do people like people getting killed? No. Do we think that because we bombed the heck out of the Germans that the Germans liked us more or less? It's, yeah, people don't like getting bombed. But the real question is, who's conducting the war of civilizations? Right now the perception is Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama are the ones who are driving this war of civilization, trying to install secular democracy and women's rights and parliaments into Muslim culture.

And had we been there for 15 months and left, leaving them with the idea that you don't want to mess with the Americans, we would've been much better off than to leave 12 years later, defeated, with them remembering that we tried to destroy their cultural, their political system.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Michael Scheuer. For years he was in charge of the CIA unit tasked with tracking Osama bin Laden. So I'm not sure we pinned down your perspective on why you think there has not been another attack.

SCHEUER: Yeah. I think we're better off than we were, but I - in terms of our domestic security, but I also think that we have made - in both parties, again - a tremendous mistake for the past 15 years by not listening to what the enemy has said. We haven't had an enemy since General Giap and Ho Chi Minh who has been so eager for us to know what he's mad at, why, and how they were going to defeat us.

If you looked at the metrics bin Laden established in 2002 for how do you defeat the United States and drive them from our part of the world as far as possible, first one was to take care of - take advantage of the international economic situation, to help lead us to bankruptcy. Second was to create problems in so many areas that our military and intelligence forces would be spread very thin and lack reserves and flexibility.

And third, to strip us of allies and to create political dissent at home. If I'm an al-Qaida and I'm looking at the world and using those metrics, I have very little reason to be unhappy, aside from them having succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden.

MARTIN: Craig Whitlock, who is a national security reporter for the Washington Post, says that no American knows or knew bin Laden better than you, so I wanted to ask, just in looking back for a few minutes here - the few minutes we have left - are there things, still, that you feel that we don't understand about bin Laden, that we don't get?

SCHEUER: I think there is a great number of things, but it's not because they're not knowable. I haven't written anything that's rocket science. I've just simply written materials based on what the enemy has said and done. But in the United States, it is not politically acceptable to regard Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida as anything else than criminals and madmen. And I think we would be very lucky if we were fighting criminals and madmen.

Bin Laden and what he represents and the people that fight under his flag - whether in his group or another group - are motivated by a very real belief that the United States, through its actions and the actions of its allies, are trying to destroy Islam and to kill Muslims. And whether we agree with that or not is largely irrelevant, because it forms the basis of their motivation.

MARTIN: How do you respond, though, to polls that repeatedly show that a majority of Muslims look upon him unfavorably? Does that mean anything?

SCHEUER: It means - what it means to me is that America does not recognize leadership, but rather celebrity, that we treat bin Laden like he was a Kardashian. You know, he's gone. It's over.

The only important question in any of those polling numbers, from my perspective, is how do you regard American foreign policy? And the answer is 75 to 80 percent as an attack and as an emblem of hatred on Islam and Muslims. As long as that number remains that high, all bin Laden has to do, or his people have to do is reach out and hurt us somewhere, and their popularity will go back up.

They had a tremendous problem with their public portrayal after the first couple of years in Iraq because of Zarqawi. He killed everyone, you know, without discrimination: Sunni, Shia, men, women, children. Once they got rid of him, it was a long road back. But right now, the government we established in Iraq is challenged most seriously by al-Qaida. So they're getting some public support from somewhere.

MARTIN: We only have less than a minute left. Five years from now, Michael, if you and I were to connect again, what conversation will we be having about this?

SCHEUER: I think I would build...

MARTIN: Very briefly.

SCHEUER: I would build on what you said, ma'am. I think what we're seeing is a gradual improvement in the talent and the capabilities of the people who are operating in our own country. You're exactly right. They started out stupid and almost foolish, but the recent attacks have come very close to being effective. I think five years from now, you'll see U.S. military forces somehow engaged in the United States trying to fight what will be a growing number of those kinds of attacks.

MARTIN: A very sobering thought. Michael Scheuer served in the Central Intelligence Agency for more than two decades. He was in charge of the team tasked with tracking Osama bin Laden from 1996 to 1999 and consulted with that unit after that. He's the author of a number of books, most recently, "Osama bin Laden." He's an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

Michael Scheuer, thank you once again.

SCHEUER: Thank you kindly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.