After five years on the run, theories on the whereabouts of Bin Laden are as common as speculation about his alleged health complications.
Some analysts say he is living in a cave, wired up to a dialysis machine, while others say he is dead.
Recently, he released his first audiotape in over a year confirming he is alive and active.
Bergen, a terrorism analyst and an expert on al-Qaida, who interviewed Bin Laden in Afghanistan in March 1997, is among a handful of Western journalists to have ever spoken to him.
His latest book is based on a series of interviews with family members, former teachers, friends and al-Qaida members. Aljazeera.net interviewed him in New York.
Aljazeera.net: What is the most significant thing about Osama bin Laden’s latest audiotape and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s video tape?
Peter Bergen: I don’t think it’s entirely surprising that they came up with a videotape sort of proving that Ayman al-Zawahiri is alive. Clearly they made the Zawahiri tape a day or two after the strike in Pakistan. I think the main message of both tapes is that they are alive.
Do you think Osama Bin Laden is capable of another attack on the US?
I think his ability to attack the US has been greatly diminished over time. If you look at the 9/11 attacks, it involved people in Germany, people in Afghanistan, it involved money from the United Arab Emirates to pay for the plot, and also recruiting people from around the Middle East. It all took place inside the United States. That kind of plan is currently too complicated for al-Qaida which is split into constituent parts.
Can they try and kill Pakistan’s President Musharraf as they did twice in 2003? Yes.
Can they attempt to man an operation in London as they did in July 2005? Yes.
Can al-Qaida in Iraq recruit Europeans such as the Belgium female suicide bomber? These things, yes, but attacking the US is much harder than it used to be.
Basically the war on terrorism has shifted to Europe.
Why hasn’t the US been able to catch the “world’s most wanted man”? Did the Pentagon let him slip away in 2001 in Tora Bora?
It’s a problem finding one person. I’m not remotely surprised that they have not found him yet. Tora Bora in 2001 was a missed opportunity. The Americans made a big mistake.
And that’s the one time he was in there. Since then, why we haven’t found him is that the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is 15,000 miles long. It’s the same distance between New York and London. It’s a big place. Plus he’s obviously not making mistakes, not talking on his satellite phone, not talking on his cellphone.
The people around him are not motivated by money: the cash reward [$25 million for information leading to his capture] is not going to be picked up by somebody in his immediate circle.
So it could take four years or 14 years to find him. They will eventually catch him by the law of averages. He is a human being and human beings make mistakes.
He’ll eventually make a mistake. He’s in a very interesting Catch-22 right now. Every time either he or Zawahiri release a videotape or an audiotape, it means that it might help reveal their location. The most recent tape that was released was the 35th tape since 9/11. It’s a lot of tapes, one every six weeks on average.
So if they release the tape they remain in the game because the tapes give broad ideological guidance to jihadists around the world. If they stop releasing the tapes, they will just fade into obscurity. So releasing the tapes opens them up to the possibility of detection. I think the reason Zawahiri was attacked a few weeks ago in that house was because he’s been releasing so many tapes recently, that may have led to some information.
George Bush, the US president, wants Bin Laden “dead or alive”. Do you believe it’s in the West’s best interest to try him?
They should try him although the Saddam Hussein trial turned out to be a complete farce. I don’t think it will happen because Bin Laden repeatedly said “I am going to prepare to martyr myself for the struggle”.
I take him completely at face value. He will martyr himself. At the back of my book, I have a quote from Abu Jandal, Bin Laden’s bodyguard in the 2000 period. Abu Jandal was given a gun by Bin Laden with two bullets. He said to him “one is for you and the other is for me. I want to be a martyr. I don’t want to be captured”. It has all the ring of truth.
Many say that the CIA gave Bin Laden his start in Afghanistan in the 1980s jihad against the Soviets. Is Bin Laden an American creation that has come back to haunt them?
The real story is that the CIA did not know about Bin Laden until 1995. Often people say that Bin Laden was a CIA creation, but there’s never been any evidence.
Was there ever a link between Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden?
Iraqi intelligence played footsie with al-Qaida in Sudan in the mid 1990s. At some point in the early 1990s there may have been some meetings. Bin Laden hated Saddam. He told his childhood friend Batarfi “this guy can never be trusted”.
Is Bin Laden behind the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s attacks in Iraq?
Zarqawi is doing his own thing, but I think an indicator of Bin Laden’s continued influence is that in 2004 Zarqawi, pledged his allegiance to al-Qaida’s leader. So Bin Laden is behind the attacks from an ideological sense.
He’s never been to Iraq. He’s called for attacks on members of the coalition; we’ve had attacks in Madrid and London. He’s called for attacks on Saudi and Iraqi oil facilities; we’ve seen a lot of those. From an operational perspective, he’s not behind it but from an ideological perspective, he is.
Has the war in Iraq diminished in any way the threat of al-Qaida?
No, quite the reverse.
I mean there are two separate questions. Will the war on Iraq bring democratisation to Iraq and other countries? We don’t know yet. It’s brought some democratisation, like getting rid of Saddam and we’ve had some elections.
Has it helped the war on terrorism? The short answer is No. If you look at the terrorism figures of 2004, they are three times worse than 2003 and if you look at the terrorism figures for 2003, they are the worst yet significant attacks since 1982.
There’s a lot of terrorism happening around the world and some of it has got to do with the Iraq war which has energised al-Qaida and its affiliates.
What is the extent of his grass-roots support in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan?
A worldwide opinion poll taken by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2004 found that 65% of people in Pakistan viewed Bin Laden favourably and 50% in Saudi Arabia. But interestingly when you ask people in Saudi Arabia if they want Bin Laden to run the country, only 5% say yes.
When you first met Osama Bin Laden in 1997, did you ever feel he would become the world’s most feared terrorist?
No. He was intelligent, well informed, he was focused, he was very serious, pious and he did not have much of a sense of humour. He remained relentless on his message. He is like President Bush, he doesn’t change his tune very much. He said the same things to us in 1997 and he hasn’t really changed the reasons on why he is attacking us.
When I met him in 1997, he was going on about America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. He told us that he wanted to attack the US but it was hard for me to fathom: we were sitting in a mud hut in the middle of the night in Afghanistan, part of me was saying that was very interesting, but how will he do it? And then the embassy attacks happened in Africa in 1998 and that’s when it became clear that he was serious.
In your new book The Osama Bin Laden I Know, you say that Bin Laden is a “news junkie” who likes to watch Larry King Live. What does this say about his whereabouts?
I don’t think he’s in a cave cowering somewhere. And I am not surprised that Bin Laden is reading newspapers. He doesn’t have to have an internet connection – somebody must be printing stories up for him. If you look at the most recent tape of Bin Laden, his clothes are well pressed.
But where do you think he is now?