A venture capitalist for terrorists

Stephen Cohen explains how Osama bin Laden's organization functions and what the U.S. has to look forward to if it really wants to fight terrorism.

By Max Garrone

Published September 13, 2001 12:31AM (EDT)

American government and law-enforcement officials are pointing their fingers at Osama bin Laden as the only figure capable of coordinating Tuesday's attacks on New York and Washington, but little is known about the man and his shadowy world in Afghanistan, where he is thought to be living. Salon spoke to Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute who served as a member of the U.S. Department of State's policy planning staff from 1985 to 1987, about the Saudi-born terrorist.

What can you tell us about bin Laden's organization and how he operates?

Generally bin Laden operates not only on his own but also as a foundation for the terrorist community. Other terrorists will come to him with proposals and he'll decide whether to fund them or not. It's really a large group of small organizations loosely arrayed around him from the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

They're like old Communist organizations with small autonomous cells all fighting for a common cause who seldom talk to one another. It's not a new or innovative structure, nor is it aimed exclusively at the United States. Every major power is picked on by disillusioned or angry people for their own problems.

So how will the United States gather the intelligence necessary to find and capture terrorists?

The reality is that we don't have very good intelligence in these parts of the world. We have to work with people like the Pakistanis to get that information. We can't put a blond, blue-eyed guy in a turban and put him there. He'd be dead in a minute.

Working with governments that we don't like or people that we don't like could be a big problem because the CIA has a restriction against working with people with criminal backgrounds. So once again it's a question of how far we want to go, what we're willing to sacrifice, in order to defeat terrorism.

What do you think about the "blowback" theory, which basically says the United States is responsible for terrorists like bin Laden's training and equipment because the CIA spent tons of money to arm and train the mujahedin [native Afghani freedom fighters] in order to fight the Soviets?

I find blowback theory astonishing. During the Afghan war against the Soviets I was in the State Department. I didn't work in the Afghanistan department, but I followed Afghanistan closely. We had evidence that Arabs were going to Afghanistan as terrorist tourists. They wanted to go to Afghanistan to fight the infidel. There are cases where they'd hire the mujahedin to bring them a Russian captive and they'd shoot him in the head and shock the mujahedin. For the most part the mujahedin operated with funds and weapons through the Pakistanis.

But the inference that we somehow created this monster is wrong. The Taliban came later; we and Pakistan initially saw them as agrarian reformers, pure, honest sons of the soil. Genuine, not corrupt, people who established their law and some sort of order. For a while they were our brown-eyed boys. The alienation began when we began to be aware of their policies toward women. Around that time they picked up bin Laden and other Arab influences and have come to depend on these people for support and technical backup.

At the end of the war against the Soviet Union hundreds of Arabs were living up in Peshawar, Pakisan. Eventually Pakistanis forced the Arabs out of Peshawar and they found a homeland in Afghanistan. It's clear that initially Taliban policies were very different than what we know today. For example it's pretty clear that the Arabs prodded them into radical steps like blowing up Bamiyani statues.

My impression was that during the Afghan war against the Soviets the Saudis and other Arab countries exported their troublemakers to Afghanistan to fight in their version of the Lincoln Brigades, but when they returned home they caused trouble and their countries had many of them rounded up and sent abroad. These are the complicated consequence of the war. It's probably that the U.S. even brought some of those Arabs back to America.

The Taliban were initially independent of bin Laden; they grew up in madrasas [Islamic schools] in Pakistan funded by Saudi money. It's been estimated that 12 to 18 percent of the Pakistani madrasas teach a form of revolutionary jihad against the United States and Israel. It's a puritanical and Manichaean version of Islam. These were poor, uneducated kids who were partly a result of the failure of Afghanistan's own education system. Saudi sponsors send money to mostly good schools, in order to figure out which are the bad ones you'd need to go on the ground and sort them out.

But ultimately I don't think that the people that flew the planes yesterday were students in these madrasas. They were probably disillusioned kids from different countries who have been to college and received technical training. It's the general pattern for these cells; college graduates get the more rustic people to do the heavy lifting for their terrorist cells.

The question that everyone's asking now is what can the U.S. do about this most recent attack and terrorism in general?

This couldn't have happened except for the tolerance of states so the bigger question is, if we make defeating terrorism our highest priority, are we willing to sacrifice other priorities when working with states like Pakistan and Iran?

Recently there have been rumblings in the State Department about enhancing the United States' relationship with India, possibly at the expense of Pakistan.

Exactly. As the result of this recent business with the American plane that was forced to land in China, the United States has looked to India as a more important ally. [Deputy Secretary of State] Richard Armitage said the old alliance was obsolete or used another pejorative term. I hope they understand that you can't have a relationship with India without also developing one with Pakistan, especially if you're going to make fighting terrorism a priority.

The question for Pakistan is difficult. They've been nurturing a little imperial project in Afghanistan, which they never had before. Now they have a government in Kabul that's friendly to them. Most Pakistanis are appalled at the Taliban, but there are elements in the Pakistani government that view the Taliban as an important ally. I think that the Pakistanis may be forced into a choice: Do you want to have a protectorate in Afghanistan or do you want the U.S. to support India more, which is a huge question for them because they're still struggling with India over Kashmir.

Also the case in Iran. If we want to work with them against terrorism, what do we give up in exchange?

Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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