Znet / Radio New Zealand, Wednesday September 19th 2001
Hill: Can I talk to you about Osama Bin Laden? I don’t know whether you are in favour of him becoming public enemy number one at the moment but I do know that you have met him and I wonder if you could give me some kind of insight into, first of all, is he capable of this.
Fisk: Well, I’ve been trying to explain this in my own paper, the London Independent over the last few days and I’m not sure. We haven’t actually seen the evidence that directly links him to not just an atrocity but a crime against humanity that took place in New York and Washington. On the other hand, the Afghan connection seems to be fairly strong.
Could he have done it? He certainly hasn’t condemned it although he denies being involved. The first time, no the second time I met him in Afghanistan when he was there with his armed fighters, I asked him if he had been involved in an attack on American troops at Al Hoba, in Saudi Arabia which had just taken place – 24 American soldiers had been killed – and he said no, it was not his doing, he was not responsible. He admitted that he knew two or three men who have since been executed, beheaded, by the Saudi authorities.
He then said, I did not have the honour to participate in this operation. In other words, he approved of it. Now, you can go on saying that kind of thing – he did, several times over about other episodes later. At some point you begin to say, “Come off it Bin Laden, surely you are saying there’s a connection, but he’s never said or admitted responsibility for any such event and he’s denied specifically the atrocities in the United States.
Is he capable of it? Look, I’ll give you one tiny example. The second time I met him in Afghanistan, four years ago, at the top of a mountain, it was cold and in the morning when I woke in the camp tent, I had frost in my hair. He walked into the tent I was sitting in and sat down opposite me, cross-legged on the floor and noticed in the school bag I usually carry in rough country to keep things in, some Arabic-language newspapers and he seized upon these and went to the corner of the tent with a sputtering oil lamp and devoured the contents.
For 20 minutes, he ignored us, he ignored the gunman sitting in the tent, he ignored me and he didn’t even know, for example, that it was stated in one of the stories in the newspaper that the Iranian foreign minister had just visited Riyadh, his own country, Saudi Arabia, well, his until he lost his citizenship. So he seemed to me at the time to be very isolated, a cut off man, not the sort of person who would press a button on a mobile phone and say, “Put plan B into action”.
So I don’t think you can see this as a person who actually participates in the sense of planning, step-by-step, what happens in a nefarious attack. In other words, I doubt very much if he said, “Well, four airplanes, five hijackers, etc.”. But he is a person that has a very large following, particularly in the rather sinister Jihadi community or culture of Pakistan. And there is such anger in the Middle East at the moment about the American’ s policies here and whether it be the deaths of tens of thousands of children in Iraq, which Osama Bin Laden has spoken about, whether it be continued occupation and expansion of Jewish settlements in Arab land which he’s also spoken about, whether it be about the continued dictatorships, Ara b dictatorships, which are supported in large part by the west, especially in the Gulf area, about which Osama Ben Laden has spoken about and condemned, I think you find in this region, enough people who admire what he says, almost to conspire amongst themselves without involving him, in the kind of bombing attacks that we’ve seen in Saudi Arabia and I suppose it’s conceivable, in the atrocities in the United States.
But if you’re looking for direct evidence, if you’re looking for a fingerprint, all I can say is, the moment I heard about the World Trade Center attacks, I saw the shadow of the Middle East hanging over them. As for the fingerprint of Bin Laden, I think that’s a different matter. We haven’t seen it yet. We may. Perhaps the Americans can produce the evidence but we haven’t seen it yet.
Hill: The corollary of that, of course, is that should they decide to strike against Bin Laden, it will do no good because, you know, there will be a thousand, a million more, waiting to carry on doing the same thing, will they not?
Fisk: Yes this is the problem. It is very easy to start a war, or to declare war, or to say you are at war and quite another thing to switch it off. And after all, let’s face it, this is a declaration of war primarily against the United States. But once America takes up the opponent’s role, saying we will retaliate, then you take the risk of further retaliation against you and further retaliation by you and so on.
This is the trap that Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, has got himself involved in Israel with the Palestinians because when the Palestinians send a suicide bomber wickedly, for example into a pizzeria and kill many innocent Israelis, the Israelis feel a need to retaliate so they fire tank shells or helicopters fire American missiles into a police post. Then a murder squad, or a helicopter fires a missile into a car of a man who the Israelis believe have plotted bombing. Then the Palestinians retaliate by sending another suicide bomber and so on and so forth.
It’s one thing to use this rhetoric, like “rooting out the weed of world terror”, “dead or alive”, “a crusade” – my goodness me, that’s a word that Mr Bush has been using – not a word that’s likly to encourage much participation on the American side in the Arab world because the word, crusade, is synonymous here with Christians shedding Muslim blood in Jerusalem in 1099 and Jewish blood actually, historically.
So, the real question is, what lies behind this rhetoric? Is there any serious military thinking going on? If so, are we talking about the kind of blind, indiscriminate attack which will only provoke more anger among Arabs, perhaps to overthrow their own regimes which Mr Bin Laden will be very happy to see, or are we talking about special forces seizing people, taking them out of Afghanistan, trying to have some kind of international criminal court where we could actually see justice done as opposed to just liquidation and murder squads setting out to kill killers.
Hill: George Bush, I suppose is entitled to his internal physical needs – the needs of Americans – to put out bellicose rhetoric, such as “the new war on terrorism”, or “we want Osama Bin Laden dead or alive” and so on, but what he will do remains entirely obscure at the moment, doesn’t it?
Fisk: Yes, yes it does. You see, I can understand – anyone should be able to understand – not only how appalled Americans are about what happened, in such an awesome way - the images of those aircraft flying through the skin of the World Trade Center and exploding are utterly unforgettable. For the rest of our lives we will remember that. And I think therefore the anger of Americans is perfectly understandable and revenge is a kind of justice, isn’ t it, but these days we have to believe in the rule of law.
Once or twice you hear Colin Powell talking about justice and law but then you hear President Bush using the language of Wild West movies. And that is very frightening because I don’t think that NATO is going to support America in a blind and totally indiscriminate attack in the Middle East. And the other question is, how do you make your strike massive enough to suit the crime. Afghanistan, after all, is a country in total ruins, it was occupied by the Russians for 10 years which is why it is seeded with 10 million mines – I mean it, 10 million mines, more that one tenth of all the land mines in the world are in Afghanistan. So any idea of America sending its military across Afghanistan is a very, very dangerous operation in a country where America has no friends.
It is very significant – though it’s been largely missed, I noticed by press and television around the world – but just two days before the attacks on Washington and New York, Shah Massoud, the leader of the opposition in Afghanistan, the only military man to stand up to the Taliban, and the only friend of the west, was himself assassinated by two Arab suicide bombers - men posing as journalists, by the way. I’ve been asking myself over the last two days, and I have no proof of this whatsoever, merely a strong suspicion, whether in fact, that assassination wasn’t in a sense a code for people in the United States to carry out atrocities which we saw last Tuesday. I don’t know, but certainly if America wants to go into Afghanistan, one of the key elements, even with a special forces raid, is to have friends in the country, people who are on your side. [But they] have just been erased, in fact erased two days before the bombings in America, and I find that is a very, very significant thing.
Hill: If one went to these people, if one went to bin Laden or any other, if one went to the Jihadians in Pakistan and said, “What do you guys want?” what would they say?
Fisk: Well, you would hear a list of objectives which will be entirely unacceptable to the west or in many cases, to any sane person here.
Hill: What do they want?
Fisk: Well, look, what you have to understand is, what they want and what most Muslims in the region want is not necessarily the same thing but they are trading and treading on the waters of injustice in the region. But what they want, they will tell you, is they want shariat imposed on all Muslim states in the region, they want total withdrawal of western forces from the Arab gulf region. They ask, for example, why does America still have forces in Saudi Arabia 10 years after the Gulf War, after which they promised they would immediately withdraw those forces?
Why are American forces in Kuwait? Well, we know the American answer is that Saddam Hussein remains a danger. Well, that might be a little bit of a dubious claim now. And why are American forces exercising in Egypt? Why are American jets allowed to use Jordan? What are they doing in Turkey? On top of that, they will demand an end to Israeli occupation of Arab land.
But you have to remember that when you go to one end of the extreme, like the most extreme of the Jihadi culture in Pakistan, you are going to hear demands that will never be met. But nonetheless, and this is the point, they feed on a general unease about injustice in the region which is associated with the west which many, many Arab Muslims – millions of them – will feel.
So, this goes back to the Bin Laden culture. It does mean, I haven’t met a single Arab in the last week, who doesn’t feel revulsion about what has happened in the United States. But quite a few of them would say, and one or two have, if you actually listen to what Bin Laden demands, he asks questions that it would be interesting to hear the answers to. What are the Americans still doing in the Gulf? Why does the United States still permit Israel to build settlements for Jews, and Jews only, on Arab land? Why does it still permit thousands of children to die under UN sanctions? And UN sanctions are primarily imposed by western powers.
So, it’s not like you have a simple, clear picture here. But where you have a large area of the earth, where there is a very considerable amount of injustice, where the United States is clearly seen as to blame for some of it, then the people in the kind of Jihadi culture – the extremists, terrorists, call them what you like – are going to be able to find a society in which they can breathe, and they do.
My point all along is, if there is going to be a military operation to find the people responsible for the World Trade Center and for the people who support them and for those who harbour them – I’m using the words of the State Department, the President, the Vice-President, Secretary of State Colin Powell – then I believe that the wisest and most courageous thing that the Americans can do, is to make sure that it goes hand-in-hand with some attempt to rectify some of the injustices, present and historic in this region.
That could actually do what President Bush claims he wants, that is, end “terrorism” in this region. But you see, I don’t think Mr Bush is prepared to put his politics where he’s prepared to point his missiles. He won’t do that. He only wants a military solution. And military solutions in the Middle East never, ever work.
Hill: Because it’s like a tar baby. I mean as soon as the United States undertakes a military solution, then a thousand more will instantly join the Jihadi or Bin Laden because, there you go, the United States has proved itself to be the great Satan once again.
Fisk: Well, there is a self-proving element to that for them, yes, but again, you see, the point is, I said before, that Bin Laden’s obsession with overthrowing the local pro-American regime has been at the top of his list of everything he’s said to me in three separate meetings in Sudan and two in Afghanistan. And I suspect, and I don’t know if he’s involved in this, but if he was – or even if he wasn’t – he may well feel the more bloody and the more indiscriminate the American response is, the greater the chance that the rage and the feeling of anger among ordinary Arabs who are normally very docile beneath their various dictatorships, will boil over and start to seriously threaten the various pro-western regimes in the region, especially those in the Arabian Gulf.
And that is what he’s talked about. And indeed, Mr Mubarek of Egypt, not you might think, a great conceptual thinker, two weeks’ ago, only a few days before the World Trade Center bombing, and it’s always interesting to go back before these events to see what people said, warned what he called “an explosion outside the region”, very prescient of him and he also talked about the danger for the various Arab governments and regimes - he didn’t call himself a dictator, though effectively he is - if American policy didn’ t change. And indeed, he sent his Foreign Minister to Washington to complain that the Egyptian regime itself could be in danger unless American policy changed. And what was the Foreign minister told? He was told to go back to Cairo and tell Mr Mubarek that it will be very easy for Dick Cheney to go to Congress and to cut off all American aid to Egypt.
Hill: The trouble with arguing, as you do, as many other people do, that, you know, 1800 people were killed in Sabra and Shatila, maybe half a million people have died in Iraq as a result of the sanctions, how many Palestinians have died as a result of the Israeli attacks, it begins to sound like moral relativism in some peculiar way. I talked to David Horovitz [editor, Jerusalem Report] earlier this morning. You won’t be surprised to hear that he disagrees with a lot of the things you say. And he said, look, this terrorist attack on the United States last week was beyond the pale, was unacceptable, cannot be compared with anything else. This is it. How do you respond to that?
Fisk: I’m not surprised that David, who I know quite well, would say that. I don’t think it’s a question of moral relativism. When you live in this region… I go to New York and I’ve driven past the World Trade Center many times. This is familiar architecture for me too, and familiar people, but when you live in this region, it isn’t about moral relativism, it sometimes comes down to the question of why when some people have brown eyes and darker skin, their lives seem to be worth less than westerners.
Let’s forget Sabra and Shatila for the moment and remember that on a green light from Secretary of State Alexander Haig, as he then was, Israel invaded Lebanon and in the bloody months of July and August, around 17,500 people, almost all of them civilians – this is almost three times the number killed in the World Trade Center – were killed. And there were no candlelight vigils in the United States, no outspoken grief, all that happened was a State Department call to both sides to exercise restraint.
Now, it isn’t a question of moral relativism, it isn’t a question in any way of demeaning or reducing the atrocity which happened – let’s call it a crime against humanity which it clearly was – is it possible then to say well, 17,500 lives, but that was in a war and it was far away and anyway they were Arabs which is the only way I can see you dismiss the argument that, hang on a minute, terrible things have happened out here too. That does not excuse what happened in the United States. It doesn’t justify by a tiny millimetre anything that happened there but we’ve got to see history, even the recent history of this region if we are going to look seriously at what happened in the United States.
Hill: That’s like setting out on a marathon though. I mean, of course David Horovitz says, look, we made the Palestinians a fantastic offer and they turned it down. What more can we do? They keep coming at us. We’re trying, we’re trying, we’re trying. If you say, yes…
Fisk: Wait a second, there’s an inaccuracy in this, and this is not meant to be a criticism of David, this is my view, they were not made a great offer, they were not offered 96% of the West Bank, they were offered 46% roughly, because they were not being offered Jerusalem or the area around it, or the area taken illegally into the new Jerusalem and its municipality, or certain settlements elsewhere, and they were to have a military buffer zone that would further reduce the so-called 96%. It was not a good offer to the Palestinians. You see, it has become part of a narrative to get away from the reasons for injustice and not to deal with these issues.
Hill: I didn’t reproduce it in order to say, it was a fantastic offer. I did it to illustrate that very point, that there are narratives going on and the narratives are of different pages, different books, different libraries and they are getting increasingly different. I can’t see how we can ever align those narratives and it’s getting harder and harder. How do we do it?
Fisk: Well, I think this is wrong. I think I disagree with you. Look, you can’t say that you don’t understand the narrative of children dying in Iraq. Nobody is going around claiming that they are not dying. They are. They clearly are. And if they were, and I’m going to stick my neck out, if they were western children, believe me, they would not be dying.
Now this is a major problem. Again, you see, anyone who tries to argue this, then you get smeared with, “O, you are on Saddam Hussein’s side”. Now Saddam is a wicked, unpleasant, dirty dictator. But the fact remains, there are children dying. And if they were western children I do not believe they would be. And this is a major problem.
And many, many Arabs put this point of view forward, not in hating the United States, but simply saying, why? And of course why is one of the questions you are not supposed to ask in this region is about the motives of the people who committed this mass murder in the United States. Actually, I have to point out, they haven’t told us, have they, the people behind this haven’t even bothered, they’ve just given us this theatre of mass murder, which is the most disgusting thing.
But you’ve got to come back and realise, these things don’t happen in isolation. These 20 suicide bombers did not get up in the morning and say, let’s go hijack some planes. Nor did the people who organised it and funded it. They knew they were doing it in a certain climate. Otherwise it would never have been able to happen. That is the problem. That is why we need to get at the question, why.
Hill: It’s very nice to talk to you. We hope to do it again soon. Thank-you, Robert Fisk.