Peter Bergen: What is Osama bin Laden's next move?
Peter Bergen is CNN's terrorism analyst. He is the author of the recently released book, "Holy War Inc." In 1997, he produced the first televised interview with Osama bin Laden for CNN. Bergen has written about Islamist militants and related subjects for many national and international publications. His honors include The Leonard Silk Journalism Fellowship, and a 1994 Edward R. Murrow Award for best foreign affairs documentary.
CNN: Now that the Taliban are losing strength, is Osama bin Laden losing his cloak of protection? Will it soon become easier to find him?
BERGEN: I think undoubtedly, the area he can operate in is smaller, and inevitably he will be captured or killed, but the hardcore Taliban and bin Laden's inner circle will not surrender.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How close are we to finding bin Laden?
BERGEN: I think it will still be some time. I don't think bin Laden is anywhere other than the south central area of Afghanistan. It's not going to happen tomorrow, but maybe in the next several weeks.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Would it be easy for Bin Laden to change his appearance or something to elude capture?
BERGEN: I doubt it, because he's 6'4" and can't change his height, and he has one of the world's most recognizable faces right now. So, I doubt that.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Can their food and supply sources be shut off?
BERGEN: I don't think that's going to really work, because bin Laden and the Taliban leadership are used to fighting guerilla wars, and are used to living off the land. It's not like there's a Safeway around the corner from which they've been getting food.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is it possible that someone from his inner circle will rat him out for the reward money?
BERGEN: I think that's unlikely for the following reasons. Before September 11, there was a $5 million reward for his capture, already in place since 1999. So the people in his inner circle chose not to pick up that reward, and I don't see them picking up this larger $25 million reward, either.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: What guarantee is there that there won't be new bin Ladens in the Islamic world or could his capture radicalize more sections of Islamic countries?
BERGEN: No guarantees of either of those things, but the elimination or capture of bin Laden and his top leadership I think would have a significant impact on the al-Qaeda organization.
CNN: Are reports of his ties to Saddam Hussein true, particularly in the area of receiving chemical and nuclear weapons?
BERGEN: While bin Laden has met with a senior Iraqi intelligence agent in the past, one meeting does not make a Iraqi-bin Laden conspiracy. Right now, it seems evidence of an Iraqi-bin Laden link is pretty thin.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How much weight do you give Mullah Omar's threat of a new plan to destroy the USA?
BERGEN: I don't think Mullah Omar is in a position to destroy the United States, obviously, but I am concerned about a statement bin Laden made in the past few days saying he has some kind of nuclear or chemical capability.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How successful can the bombing campaign be on cave entrances only, when the caves are built with entrances that suddenly have sharp angles to protect themselves from the bombing?
BERGEN: I'm not a military analyst, but my understanding is that the U.S. military has bunker busting bombs, which would operate effectively against caves.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is it possible that bin Laden was out of Afghanistan before Sept. 11?
BERGEN: As far as I know, bin Laden has never left Afghanistan since he first arrived in May of 1996 when he left Sudan.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How will the lack of democracies in this area of the world contribute to future terrorists?
BERGEN: Afghanistan will never be a Jeffersonian democracy. It will be an Islamic state of some kind. However, that doesn't mean that a future Islamic state of Afghanistan would tolerate terrorism.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How big of a circle is the hardcore Taliban?
BERGEN: Hard to tell. U.S. government officials estimated there were 20,000-40,000 Taliban troops. Obviously, some of those have either been captured or melted away now. One has to presume there has to be several thousand still left or willing to fight.
CNN: Is the sudden retreat of Taliban forces logical? Is there any chance that they are reassessing their strategy and will resort to chemical and biological warfare instead?
BERGEN: What they're certainly going to resort to is guerilla warfare. Afghans tend to excel in this.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Isn't it possible that bin Laden was just an inspiration for the attacks, and the real mastermind was his lieutenant?
BERGEN: You may mean Ayman Al Zawahiri, his top lieutenant, and who is significant in the organization, and who has encouraged bin Laden to be more anti-American. September 11 was a significantly important operation, and everyone in the top leadership would have signed on for it.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: I was impressed that the Taliban did not hurt the eight relief workers that were captured. Even though most of their ideals are demented, don't you think that makes them out to be a little less than the ruthless murderers that we all have come to know?
BERGEN: Good point. The Taliban have been a repressive regime, but certainly there have been other regimes in history that are infinitely worse. I'm not trying to defend them, just making the point. They weren't involved in mass murder.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think that the Taliban are laying a trap for the allied forces by retreating so easily?
BERGEN: I am concerned that Osama bin Laden may have baited a trap of some kind and is willing to die in some kind of final battle in his holy war.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think bin Laden has nuclear dirty bombs already here?
BERGEN: I think that he has the capability for that kind of thing. I'm not sure it's here, but I think he has acquired the capability for that. I think it may be inside Afghanistan.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are there any think tanks trying to determine a long-term strategy against terrorism, possibly identifying the "root" cause?
BERGEN: Everybody is trying to work out what terrorism is, obviously the U.S. government as well, and how to deal with it.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Can the Northern Alliance be trusted not to do the same things to the people that the Taliban has done?
BERGEN: I think they can be trusted. The kind of Islamic state they're hoping to create, I know from my own experience being in Kabul when they were sort of in charge, is fair. Women were allowed to work, to uncover their face. Plus, this time, there will be a UN peacekeeping force, and the international community won't turn its back on Afghanistan.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Has Mullah Omar always hated the U.S. or has his opinion been influenced by his proximity to bin Laden?
BERGEN: Mullah Omar is even more reclusive than bin Laden, so his thinking is not that clear. He has not given a lot of interviews. But one thing is clear is that bin Laden says that Mullah Omar is the commander of the faithful, which means that bin Laden will ultimately do what Mullah Omar tells him to do.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Given what you know of Afghanistan, how successful will a coalition government be?
BERGEN: It's tricky, because Afghans have been at war with each other in one way or the other since 1978, and ordinary Afghans are of course looking for peace, so all we can hope for is that peace will come finally to Afghanistan.
CNN: Do you have any closing comments for us today?
BERGEN: The only good thing that can come out of this is a more moderate Afghanistan that does not tolerate terrorist training camps, that allows its people to pick up their lives and finally allow them lead a peaceful existence.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Peter Bergen.
BERGEN: My pleasure.
Peter Bergen joined the chat room via telephone from Washington, DC and CNN.com provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Thursday, November 15, 2001 at 1:30 p.m. EST.
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