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Peter Arnett: Osama bin Laden and returning to Afghanistan

In March 1997, former CNN correspondent Peter Arnett became the first Western journalist to interview Osama bin Laden. Arnett's 40-year career as a war correspondent began in Vietnam covering the war for the Associated Press. He was awarded the Putlizer Prize in 1966. In 1981 he joined CNN as its first Moscow bureau chief. By 1991, Arnett achieve worldwide attention for his exclusive coverage of the bombings of Baghdad during the Gulf War, which were broadcast live on CNN.

CNN: Welcome to, Peter Arnett. We're pleased to have you join us today.

PETER ARNETT: I am Peter Arnett, I used to work for CNN, and now I'm an independent journalist. I'm going to Afghanistan soon, and I want to say hello to everyone!

CNN: What were your impressions of Osama bin Laden in March, 1997 when you interviewed him? Back then, how much of a threat was he considered to be?

ARNETT: He was a very impressive individual, well over six feet tall. He walked into the interview wearing a camouflage jacket, and carrying an AK-47 machine gun. I had never before interviewed anyone under those circumstances. He spent one hour spelling out his dream of changing the Arab world, and his first action would be to expel all American troops and business and cultural influences. And then he would transform the Arab world into what Afghanistan was then becoming under the Taliban, which was a very primitive Islamic society.

U.S. investigative agencies by 1997 had figured that bin Laden was a major potential threat. He had not at that point established al Qaeda, but had been active in fomenting unrest and attracting young Arab people to rebel against their government. This caused the U.S. to persuade the Sudan government to expel him. So he went to Afghanistan, and most thought he was well out of the way, because Afghanistan is a long way from anywhere.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Peter, if you could interview Bin Laden right now, what would you most want to ask him?

ARNETT: I would ask him: does he realize that by attacking the World Trade Center and by attacking the Pentagon he would in fact destroy himself and his organization? Now that is the same question I asked Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War, when I was covering it for CNN. I asked him the same question: did he realize he had made a mistake by not withdrawing from Kuwait at the insistence of the coalition? Now, Saddam Hussein said, "I don't care of the consequences, Allah is beside me in this struggle." I get the impression that Osama bin Laden would answer the same, if I asked him if he had gone too far this time.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr Arnett, could Osama bin Laden be well out of Afghanistan by now? If yes, what'll be the subsequent strategy to find him?

ARNETT: I get the impression that he is still in Afghanistan at this point, but I realize that he could leave Afghanistan any time, through Pakistan's tribal areas, without immediate detection. These are wild mountain areas, and bin Laden's supporters know them well. On the other hand, if he leaves Afghanistan, no country in the world will welcome him, and he will be on the run for the rest of his life.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Based on your understanding of the man, what would have to happen for bin Laden to stop his terrorist activities and training of other terrorists?

ARNETT: Nothing short of capture and permanent incarceration or death. This is a man who has an apocalyptic vision about violent change, not only in the Arab world, but the whole Islamic world, which includes Indonesia and the Philippines. He will not change his stripes under any circumstances.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Peter, do you think you'll be able to get close enough to American troops to report on their activities, or will it be like the Gulf War where the media was under the control of The Pentagon?

ARNETT: The Pentagon has been giving increased access to American troops in the past week. Reporters from newspapers and television have been with the Marines near Kandahar, and with infantry troops, tenth division, near Kabul. This is a good start to more press coverage. I would like to think that in the future, reporters will be able to interview Americans who have actually been in combat. But at least the beginning has been made to cover what Americans are doing over there.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Peter, do you think Al-Zawahri had impacted Osama's thinking turning him into what he is today?

ARNETT: I think that bin Laden represents the aspirations of many Middle Eastern extremist groups. Their basic mission is to install Islamic fundamentalist regimes in all Islamic countries. The other part of their mission is to destroy Israel. These different terror groups found bin Laden a willing, wealthy leader to preach their gospel worldwide.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: You have covered three wars and numerous flair ups. Couldn't Malaysia be the next firestorm?

ARNETT: Not Malaysia, but I think two neighboring countries are in danger. They are Indonesia, which has fundamentalist struggles in several locations that have already caused bloodshed, and also in the Philippines, in the south, where a particularly strong Islamic terrorist group has been inflicting heavy casualties on local communities and on tourists, and is in fact holding several Western hostages today, including Americans.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: With so many of bin Laden's top deputies now dead or believed dead, how do you see this affecting his vulnerability to capture, especially from an al-Qaeda "turncoat"?

ARNETT: I think that the relentless pressure by American forces, and this includes very sophisticated weaponry, will eventually track him down ... without the assistance of an al Qaeda official. However, part of the operation against bin Laden is by anti-Taliban Afghan forces, and it is possible that they could find a turncoat who would speed up the process of locating bin Laden.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: If bin Laden's assets are frozen, how is he obtaining funds to continue?

ARNETT: At the moment, he is concentrating on surviving in Afghanistan, and it is generally believed that he has supplies of weaponry, ammunition, food, and other necessities to fight on at least through the wintertime. While much of his assets have apparently been frozen, there is plenty of other support. The tribal people of Afghanistan could give him what he needed in short term supplies and assistance. The freezing of his assets internationally could well have helped avert possibly-planned terrorism actions over the last three months.

CHAT PARTICPANT: Given that 8 journalists have lost their lives already, will you be taking extra care while you are in Afghanistan?

ARNETT: Afghanistan is fairly typical of most of the conflicts of the past 20 years, so from Beirut and Lebanon in the 1980s, where many journalists were killed and kidnapped, you know, through Bosnia and actions in Chechnya and in Africa, journalists have faced big dangers. The reason that is the case is that most of these conflicts have really been like civil wars, and journalists have had, or could provide, very little protection for themselves. Now, I know that CNN, for example, in eastern Europe, had its own armored cars, and other journalists in Afghanistan have hired guards with guns, for when they travel.

But even so, it is a very dangerous business, and I'm very proud of my colleagues, who despite the dangers, are in Afghanistan in large numbers, covering the story. There is a tradition in American and Western reporting to cover conflicts. Some of the best-known American journalists were war correspondents, and some died, such as Ernie Pyle in World War II. It is this great tradition that American journalists follow. It is part of the democratic tradition, the public's right to know and what news organizations see as their duty to their readers and viewers.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments for us today?

ARNETT: I've covered America's wars for 40 years, and this is the first that I've seen with so much unqualified public and media support. Everyone I know believes that the war on terrorism has to be won, and they're very supportive. I would just hope, speaking as a journalist, that we will have opportunities to report what is really going on, and to analyze and comment on policy without facing undue restraint from governments or from those within the public who don't fully understand the role of the media in a democracy.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Peter Arnett.

ARNETT: It has been a pleasure.

Peter Arnett joined via telephone from New York. CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Wednesday, December 05, 2001.


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