“Osama Bin Laden told me, ‘I can’t fight the Americans on the American mainland. It is too far. But if I succeed in bringing the Americans where I can find them, where I can fight them on my own terms, on my turf, this will be the greatest success.’”
Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor in chief of Al-Quds Al Arabi, a London-based daily newspaper. He has written extensively on the Middle East, and interviewed Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora, Afghanistan in 1996. He is the author of The Secret History of al-Qai’da (Saqi Books, 2006).
SoN editors, Cihan Aksan and Jon Bailes, spoke to him in his London office in January 2006.
Abdel Bari Atwan
State of Nature:As the editor in chief of Al-Quds Al Arabi, could you tell us about your newspaper’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Abdel Bari Atwan: Our position is very clear; we believe that the Israelis are occupying Arab territories. We support the Palestinian struggle to set up an independent, viable Palestinian state. We are critical of the intervention of the United States, in particular because they keep Israel above international law.
We are also critical of the media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I submitted a study to the BBC, criticising them for always giving a biased impression of what’s happening there. If an Israeli child is killed there is huge uproar, but if a whole Palestinian family or all its children are wiped out, it is barely mentioned in the news. I believe that the western media and the western governments are scared of the accusation of anti-Semitism. Because nowadays, if you criticise Israel, it means you are anti-Semitic. So that’s the problem, the media is really biased towards the Israelis because of that and because of the Israeli intimidation.
I believe that the Palestinians are entitled to fight the occupation. It is the only British colony that is still not independent. Those people are entitled to have their independence, entitled to have a state, entitled to have a normal life like everybody else. But because the occupiers are Jewish and the West has the complex of the Holocaust, they shut their eyes when it comes to Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians.
SoN: And even Jewish critical voices are stifled, labelled “self-hating Jews”. Is it a real struggle to get an opposing view out there when there is this atmosphere of silence?
ABA: Well, we are trying, we are trying very hard. But the problem is that being in London we are also scared of these accusations of anti-Semitism because here the Jewish lobby is extremely influential, and they are after us. For example, the Israeli embassy is really influencing the BBC and the media here and they are not allowing me to appear on TV with any Israeli spokesmen because they believe I can win the arguments against them. So yes, they are after us, all the time. They have the power, they have the means, they are native English, they are native British, they know the culture, they know how to use the media, they are very organised, they’ve got the money, they’ve got the capabilities. So we are struggling against this block which attempts to tarnish anybody who tries to tell the truth.
When Robert Fisk wrote about Israeli atrocities he received more than three thousand abusive emails. When Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times wrote an article about the battleground of the suicide bomber she received more than four hundred emails. When [Brian] Sewell, who is a writer for the Evening Standard, wrote about Israeli atrocities and how Israel is behaving outrageously without any control, the Evening Standard was threatened with a boycott from the Jewish community. They stopped advertisements, they stopped subscriptions and they said: “We’ll fight you,” simply because of that.
We are fighting against all of this. We are not actually trying to confront them, we are just saying that we want the truth to reach the people. Not because we want the media not to report the views of Israelis, on the contrary, we want them to report, even to be sympathetic, but also to be sympathetic to us on an equal footing. We want them to reflect what is happening on the ground, so that’s why we are trying.
SoN: How do you explain the voting shift towards Hamas in Palestine?
ABA: Well, the first parliament of the legislative council was elected under different circumstances. At that time Arafat had come from Tunisia and there was a very optimistic atmosphere that peace would come, the independent state would be established in five years time, Palestinians would have prosperity, they would have the support of the West, they would have Jerusalem as their capital, the settlements issue would be resolved. So there was a lot of optimism about that.
Hamas of course boycotted that election. The people who were elected belonged to Arafat, so it was a one-sided, one colour parliament. This parliament was like “Arafatistan” for Arafat and for his authority. The situation has now changed completely. Ten years on, people have discovered that it wasn’t such a rosy picture after all. Arafat and his authority were corrupt and they gave a lot of concessions to the Israelis. The Israelis never respected the Oslo agreement. While the Palestinians were committed to it and refrained from any power struggle, the Israelis doubled the settlers in the West Bank from around 140,000 to about 280,000, and this is besides the Jerusalem settlers who were also around 200,000. In the end, people were fed up of this, and so we had the Intifada.
Now in a protest to the Israeli expansion and the Israeli atrocities and to the corruption of the Palestinian National Authority, people are voting for radicals. I think we first noticed that during the municipal or council elections. People voted for Hamas simply because Hamas was providing health, education and other social services to people. They voted for Hamas not because they are religious but because Hamas is tougher, stronger and maintains its position against the Israeli occupation, against negotiations which were imposed on them from above.
SoN: U.S. attention is now focused on Iran. How would economic sanctions or military intervention there affect the Palestinian struggle?
ABA: Now the Americans are in big trouble in the Middle East. They are in deep trouble in Iraq simply because after nearly three years it is not working. The cost of war at this stage is $300 billion and there are some estimations that it will be $2 trillion in the future if it continues in the same way. They are losing about $5 billion a month now, and this is without their military hardware, just their losses on the ground. They have lost about 2,300 soldiers and the number is increasing.
They will be in more trouble if they face the Iranians. If they impose economic sanctions against Iran, it means 150,000 American soldiers will be hostages to the Iranian militia or Iranian supporters inside Iraq. Now the Sunni are against them, in the future the Shia will be against them, they will have extremely serious difficulties.
And if they want to disarm Hezbollah, which is also on the cards, it means anarchy in Lebanon. If there is anarchy in Lebanon, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda will be in Lebanon, and Zarqawi has said that he’d launch missiles against the Israelis from South Lebanon. So Israel would have big problems, the United States would have big problems, the anarchy belt would extend from Iran to the Mediterranean. Israel would have anarchy on its hands, a failed state in Iran, a failed state in Syria, a failed state in Lebanon, and this doesn’t suit the Israelis. What suits the Israelis is to deal with governments that control the borders. But if you had a weaker government in Lebanon, a weaker government in Syria and then a war or something against the Iranians, then the whole Middle East would be in flames. All the radicals would come closer to the Israeli border, like al-Qaeda, like the Palestinian radical groups, so this would definitely make Israeli life extremely miserable.
SoN: How can we define al-Qaeda now? Are they a coherent organisation or are they composed of smaller units acting independently? How have they changed since the invasion of Iraq?
ABA: You know, again the Americans made a huge error when they launched their war against terrorism. They thought it would be an easy ride. At first al-Qaeda suffered a huge blow in Afghanistan when the Americans bombed their “republic” and Tora Bora, because in Afghanistan al-Qaeda used to enjoy a free hand, they used to enjoy a country which gave them training camps, bases, and they used to enjoy the protection of the Taliban. Because of this war 85% of al-Qaeda was destroyed.
But the Americans did a huge favour to al-Qaeda when they invaded Iraq. Since then, al-Qaeda has become ten times stronger than it used to be. It has completely transformed itself. Now al-Qaeda is not a cohesive organisation as it used to be. It’s not a pyramid built organisation where Osama Bin Laden has deputies, field commanders and then the foot soldiers. It is a flat, loose organisation, it is an ideology. It doesn’t need Osama Bin Laden to run its day to day affairs. Osama Bin Laden is hiding somewhere, but the ideology is there. It is like communism, for example. The communist party in Angola doesn’t need to phone Lenin or Stalin or Gorbachev or Brezhnev in Moscow to receive instructions. No, whoever’s got the ideology, he implements it.
So we have many al-Qaedas now. There is al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, there is al-Qaeda in Iraq, there is al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, there is al-Qaeda in Iran. Instead of one organisation you have several organisations and all of them act independently. So it’s the field commander who decides what to do, how to implement the ideology. Osama bin Laden issues a video tape or audio tape and he gives his vision, and the field commanders carry out his kind of vision. That’s how al-Qaeda works.
Al-Qaeda is now enjoying its best time because Iraq is the belly button of the Middle East. It is surrounded by Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, about seven or eight countries. So it is the best place for al-Qaeda; there are 50 million pieces of weaponry and 5 million tons of ammunition in Iraq left by Saddam Hussein. For the first time al-Qaeda doesn’t need to import weapons and it doesn’t need to involve people from outside, because you already have the Sunni section of Iraq, they are frustrated, they are angry, they are humiliated, so they join al-Qaeda, or organisations like al-Qaeda.
Osama Bin Laden told me when I interviewed him in November 1996, “I can’t fight the Americans on the American mainland. It is too far. But if I succeed in bringing the Americans where I can find them, where I can fight them on my own terms, on my turf, on my own ground, this will be the greatest success.” So President Bush fulfilled this wish for Osama bin Laden. Now he is fighting 150,000 American troops inside Iraq, so he doesn’t need to travel, he doesn’t need to highjack aeroplanes, he doesn’t need to put a bomb here or a bomb there.
So that’s the latest achievement of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, to make the Americans part of the Middle East, instead of far away. I think al-Qaeda is now much stronger, closer to the Israelis, closer to the Arab regimes which they are fighting to topple because of their corruption, as they put it. They are enjoying their best time, and if the Americans attack or impose sanctions on Iran tomorrow, the Americans will pay a very very heavy price and that hopefully, after that, they won’t be attacking any other countries. If it keeps going as it is now, I think eventually America will have to shrink back to its mainland and be isolationist.
SoN: You predict a very bloody, very chaotic near future for the Middle East. What will come after this, will there be calm do you think?
ABA: What will come after this? It will definitely be better than it is now. Because there is frustration in the Middle East, people are humiliated. The Israelis are blowing up houses, they are annexing land, they are doing whatever they want and nobody is saying “No” to them, simply because we have a corrupt American agent ruling the Arab world.
Now the Arabs and the Muslims are humiliated in Iraq, they can see those American cowboys with their tanks and warplanes dismember their country and divide it along sectarian and racial lines, and instead of creating democracy, they are creating havoc, creating poverty, creating destruction, car bombs, you name it. So people really feel humiliated, and that the Americans are targeting Arabs and Muslims particularly. But after all this it will definitely be much better.
Maybe there will be anarchy for a few years, but there is anarchy now anyway and it couldn’t be any worse. It would be like an operation. If you have a permanent illness you have to open the infected area and have an open heart operation and mend it. And it’s painful and blood will be shed because of this operation, but after that you will have a stronger body, or a better life and better health, and that will happen to the Middle East.
Cihan Aksan is co-editor of State Of Nature. She left her native Turkey as a child after the 1980 military coup and lived and studied for many years in England. She has an MA in Continental Philosophy from the University of Warwick, and is now an independent writer. She is co-author of Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism (London: Pluto, 2012).
Jon Bailes is co-editor and webmaster of State Of Nature. He is currently writing a PhD thesis on ideology theory at the Centre for European Studies, University College London, and has an MA in European Thought from the same department. He is co-author of Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism (London: Pluto, 2012).