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Al Qaeda From Day One

I don't think of myself as a journalist. I never went to university, I never went to college. I was 18, came from this very crappy part of London, Acton, and had been on the dole when I got a job in the mailroom of the Sunday Times. One night I started...

The vanguard of Al Qaeda on patrol in Iraq. Photo by AP

I don’t think of myself as a journalist. I never went to university, I never went to college. I was 18, came from this very crappy part of London, Acton, and had been on the dole when I got a job in the mailroom of the Sunday Times. One night I started talking to this guy who was this sort of legendary old reporter who worked on all the investigations, and he got me working on a couple of projects with him. Initially I was just photocopying things and then I was making phone calls, and then I was going out and doing a bit of research. So it was sort of the classic old way of doing things. By the time I was 19 or 20 I was running around doing surveillance on all these incredibly dangerous people. It was just an adventure. And then I started specializing, I suppose, in studying terrorism. And then the 1993 World Trade Center bombing happened, and I began researching and studying it within hours of it happening. It became clear, after looking at it for weeks and then months, that there was a much bigger story behind it than people thought. If you looked at the conventional news on it, they were saying it was just a bunch of crazies, but what they were ignoring or not seeing was that they were just the tip of the iceberg. And that iceberg is what we now call Al Qaeda. I realized there was a book that could be written about it, so I left the Sunday times, and started researching and writing The New Jackals which was published in 1998.

When it came out, nobody was interested. We couldn’t find a publisher for it in the United States. It was a very small university press—Northeastern University Press—that eventually published it. And the amount of money they gave me for the rights was the price of a ham sandwich. Most of the money came from a British publisher. But even then it was just ridiculous. Nobody would take it seriously. And yet, when you looked at the issue and you looked at the guys who were supporting bin Laden, it was quite clear that they were capable of doing things that nobody believed possible. The whole conclusion of my book was that we were entering a new age of apocalyptic terrorism and these guys, Al Qaeda, were going to launch apocalyptic style attacks. So I can’t say I predicted exactly the attack on the World Trade Center, but certainly it was fairly simple to predict that they were going to launch attacks on that scale, if not larger.

I’m not 100 percent critical of how the American administration has dealt with the aftermath of 9/11. But I am 80 to 90 percent critical because I think they’ve failed to put in place the long-term policies that are needed not only to protect Americans, but also to make the world a safer place. The war in Iraq is the biggest engine for creating or for encouraging global terrorism that we or Al Qaeda have ever seen. It’s Al Qaeda’s greatest recruiting tool. We all know the figures. The effects of Iraq will last for many, many years. But the situation in Afghanistan as well is something that’s being largely overlooked now. Al Qaeda in Iraq was hit with a very large fist. Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But neither was obliterated. They were just sort of splintered.

You can’t destroy them; you can’t destroy an idea with military might. And that’s really what Al Qaeda is. It’s gone from being Osama bin Laden to Osama bin Laden-ism. It’s a way of thinking. You can’t defeat that by having 300,000 troops on the ground in Iraq.

I think the main issue is that the root causes are not being addressed. Now, that’s not only some fairly ludicrous US foreign policies, but also the policies of other countries. Not so much poverty, though. Most terrorists tend to be middle-class and well educated, but certainly the swamp in which they breed is largely fed by images of poverty, the idea that there’s a lot of suffering around the world, and that the United States is largely responsible for it. Which isn’t really true, of course, but it certainly doesn’t help that the United States provides ongoing backing for corrupt regimes in the Middle East and Central Asia.

The U.S. can’t really win this situation because it is the only hyper-power. It is going to be the target of a lot of anger around the world. That’s not only because people are angry about America’s freedoms, as George Bush would have you believe, but it’s also people are jealous, people feel inadequate compared to the US.

From my own experience, it’s quite staggering how high the hatred people around the world feel for America is running. Higher than any point in modern history. It never reached this stage during the Vietnam War.

There’re training camps in Afghanistan—ad hoc, temporary camps. There are places like this of varying scale all around the world. There are place in Africa where people are trained how to use weapons and explosives. There’re places in Yemen, the deserts of Saudi Arabia, the cities and tribal regions of Pakistan—loads of them in Karachi. In Afghanistan as well, but probably less there than in countries like Chechnya, or other places were there aren’t tens of thousands of troops on the ground with satellites. Camps or any new structures that spring up in Afghanistan have a habit of being overflown by predator drones and satellites. And you don’t even need to go to a camp; you can download the instructions from the Internet.

Iraq, much more than Afghanistan, is the main training ground now. Al Qaeda emerged from the battlefields of Afghanistan during the 1980s when there was a total war situation going on there, with everybody trying to kick out the Soviet Army. Iraq is now serving that purpose for the next generation of Al Qaeda recruits. I was in Saudi Arabia last year traveling around. The talk there is of the thousands of young men who have disappeared from the villages and the towns and gone north into Iraq to fight against American troops. Many of those Saudis and other nationalities will die in Iraq, but a lot of them will be battle-hardened. You only need a handful but if you’ve got hundreds, then it’s obviously more worrying. And if you’ve got thousands, you just can’t catch all of them. The dictum for the intelligence agencies for the last ten years has been that we have to be lucky every single time. They only have to be lucky once. And that’s really the cat-and-mouse game. When there’re 10,000 mice, you can’t catch them all. So yes, there is a serious risk of more attacks in London or America or Italy or Denmark or Australia. It’s a global terrorist organization, the likes of which we’ve never seen before, and it poses a very unique threat.

But at the same time, if we look a bit more long-term, there are actually positive signs out there. The number of global wars is falling, the incidences of world conflict is going down. Almost every country is reducing it’s military spending, except the United States. In fact, war is now running at a much lower rate than it has in human history. There’ve been some interesting studies that say that a human being has a smaller chance of being killed now in armed conflict than at any other point in human history. We’re all talking about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but unless you’re a Kurd or member of the Burmese minority or something, things are looking up. Eighty countries have become democracies in the last 20 years. Things can be made better—it’s not a case of “the world’s fucked and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

The threat Al Qaeda presents is nothing compared to the risk of climate change or environmental collapse. When we talk about terrorism, we have to get it in perspective.

In many ways Al Qaeda can just rest up now. If they look at what happened with Katrina, they can develop a strand of thinking whereby they don’t really need to worry about attacking the West, because the way we’re fucking up the environment is going to kill us all anyway. The response to Katrina was just absolutely gob smacking. I don’t think Americans realize how this has been playing out around the world. It just destroys any notion of America as the benevolent super power.

Working through all this has sort of been my education in journalism. I’ve found more about seeking out information and knowledge than just attempting to report on it. I go out and work on projects that are interesting for me, not because they’re interesting to everybody else or they’re things that will be news worthy. I started investigating what we call Al-Qaeda in the mid-90s when it wasn’t really clear what they were or even what sort of threat they were. It was only as the years ticked by that it became clear how huge a threat they pose.