Al Jazeera’s Hassan Ibrahim: Wounded After Bin Laden’s Death, Al Qaeda Seeks Retaliation on U.S. Soil

According to Bloomberg, the U.S. spent roughly US$2 trillion fighting Osama bin Laden in the past decade, a figure that includes military and homeland security spending after 9/11. Economists point out that the costs of the war on terror will accumulate long after bin Laden’s death.

Undermining the U.S. economy was a large part of bin Laden’s strategy, said Bruce Hoffman, the director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. "As our economic crisis deepened, this econo-jihad has only intensified," Hoffman said in an interview with Business Insider. "You had Al Qaeda saying they were responsible for the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the credit crisis. It wasn’t necessarily true but it was a theme that started to resonate."

Yet, bin Laden’s death does not spell the end of Al Qaeda, notes senior Al Jazeera producer Hassan Ibrahim. Though the organization is in disarray, it is still intact, and will decide new leadership soon, he says. Despite its reduced state, it continues to make plans to attack the U.S. on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, he adds.

A journalist with over 30 years of experience, Ibrahim gained fame for his role in Control Room, a documentary about the polarizing Arab news broadcaster Al Jazeera. Currently a senior producer with Al Jazeera’s English news service, Ibrahim also serves as a terrorism analyst for the broadcaster.

Ibrahim met with Arabic Knowledge@Wharton in Doha, Qatar, to talk about Al Qaeda as an organization, the death of bin Laden and the risks presented by the terror group’s unpredictability. Having attended school with bin Laden, Ibrahim also shared his recollections of the future 9/11 mastermind as a student.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What was the reaction at Al Jazeera to Osama bin Laden’s death? For many in the West, there has always been an association between Al Jazeera and Osama bin Laden.

Hassan Ibrahim: I work on the Al Jazeera English side, and I have many Western colleagues. I can tell you that a lot of people were surprised as anyone else. I didn’t gauge any sense of relief or gloating. People were amazed that they got him after all these years.

[Regarding Al Jazeera airing exclusive tapes of bin Laden’s statements] that was a long time ago. Now the media apparatus of Al Qaeda has really evolved. They give these statements to everybody. But we made a lot of money out of Al Qaeda. A tape in the old days would sell for US$100,000. You get the tape, and then other news organizations wanted to air it as well. So it was selling.

Al Jazeera was associated with bin Laden because [former U.S. Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld wanted to slander Al Jazeera. You can’t ask a news channel to let go if they get a breaking story. I remember being asked that at CBS, ‘Is it true you are the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden?’ I’d say that is correct, but we’d be the mouthpiece of George W. Bush, or Ariel Sharon, or anyone that is newsworthy. To me, bin Laden is newsworthy. If bin Laden were alive today, and he sent me a tape, I’d broadcast it, without even batting an eyelid. [After receiving a tape] we did it professionally; we’d edit it, authenticate it for sound, and contact the American embassy for first rebuttal. We watched it with an envoy from the American embassy before we aired it. They’d just sit quietly. They never asked us a single time not to air a tape.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: When people in the West began saying things like Al Jazeera was the mouthpiece of bin Laden, was there ever a concern that would hurt its brand as a news organization?

Ibrahim: On the contrary. We realized the more accusations we received, the better our standing was. They did us a great service by branding us that, because it gave us an opportunity to explain ourselves. For instance, I have never shied from saying that I went to school with bin Laden, that I knew him personally. People say, ‘Really?’ But that was when he was a teenager. How would anyone know then?

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Have you reflected on that personal relationship?

Ibrahim: I liked him as a person. He was always a gentleman. I met him in high school, and during one semester in college at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Then I saw him in Sudan in 1992, and he remembered me. My mother also was the academic advisor for one of his wives. She was doing a masters degree in Sudan.

Bin Laden was always quiet, soft-spoken, and never outlandish. Only when he was extremely agitated or offended would he respond. People were drawn to him. There was something in him that attracted people. This very quiet, almost pacifistic person always fascinated them. I remember he was good in math, and a cracking soccer player. A couple of other troublemakers in class and I, we’d crack jokes, get kicked out, and he’d just grimace. Even in high school, he would sit quietly in class.

He was a shrewd businessman, and very generous in places he felt safe, like Sudan. He was there from 1991 to 1996. He built roads, schools, donated equipment and money, renovated seven airports at his own expense. Hundreds of millions of his own dollars he poured into Sudanese infrastructure.

He had an austere lifestyle. If you look at that image of him watching television, if that had been someone else, it would’ve been a plasma screen, and the walls would’ve been painted, nice curtains, but no. His wives always complained about his austerity. Still, he fathered 27 children.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Considering the image you’ve presented of bin Laden, how then could he preside over a terror organization?

Ibrahim: The first communiqué of Al Qaeda was under the banner of the international front for fighting Jews and Christians. And after that era, bin Laden refused targeting civilians. There were two opinions in Al Qaeda. The one that prevailed was of [his second in command] Ayman Al Zawahiri’s, in which innocent bystanders who died in the process of jihad were all martyrs, and would go to paradise. Bin Laden refused that until the assassination attempt against his life in Khartoum. It was a gruesome attack. Al Zawahiri told him, either you kill or get killed. So that’s what basically swayed him and radicalized him.

But the organization mushroomed, with a lot of members joining in the Arab peninsula. I think his business sense affected the way he lead Al Qaeda. If you are the head of a corporation, and it becomes too bulky, you realize something is wrong. Al Zawahiri supported tight control over the organization, while bin Laden believed in the franchise idea. The result was a combination of the two.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s talk about bin Laden’s death. Was he still a threat, or was he isolated from Al Qaeda?

Ibrahim: Bin Laden had been isolated since 2004, when he fell out with Ayman Al Zawahiri over the apostasy of Shiites. Al Zawahiri, the rest of Al Qaeda and the late Abu Musab Al Zarqawi [head of Al Qaeda in Iraq] considered Shiites apostates, infidels who should be banished and killed. Bin Laden refused that, not just for ideological reasons, but also because of tribal affiliations and sectarianism. He was of Yemeni descent, and most of his constituency was Zaidi Shia. He would lose a lot of ground, especially the alliance between Al Qaeda and the Houthi tribe in Yemen. But Al Zawahiri was a puritan, and his view was, no, Shiites are apostates, and he blessed the efforts of Al Zarqawi in Iraq, while bin Laden did not. Then Al Zawahiri forged a letter from bin Laden to Al Zarqawi, and that led to the falling out between them.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Does that explain why bin Laden had so little security when he was killed?

Ibrahim: It does. A Russian general who was captured in the Afghanistan war, and then remained with bin Laden, headed his security. He’s still alive. The man who supervised his security and was his operational manager is a Mauritanian. Both men are alive and are living somewhere between Karachi and Islamabad. Why weren’t they there with him? I don’t know. They were the ones instructed to shoot him in the head if the Americans came to arrest him. He thought the Americans would like to take him alive. Maybe they wanted to save the Saudis the embarrassment. Imagine Osama bin Laden in a court of law.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What do we make of Al Qaeda now? Can anyone set off a bomb and claim they belong to them?

Ibrahim: Yes and no. There is a core organization of about 700 dedicated fighters. They are very well funded, and very well organized. But they never interfere with the operations of sister organizations, such as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: So Al Qaeda’s organizational structure is still in place and able to operate?

Ibrahim: Basically, there is a head, a deputy, something called a shura [executive council], then a head of operations, who answers only to the head; then deputies, who answer only to their boss, and then cells. It’s a pyramid. It works like a corporation. They get their financing from a fund of bin Laden’s. A lot of bin Laden’s wealth was hidden in certain banks, in partnerships with certain people, and governments. Also, a lot of the fourth generation of Saudi princes donate to Al Qaeda, and sheikhs from other Gulf countries. Then they have their African investments, mainly in Central African Republic. It is the easiest to invest in, as they are the largest producer of medicinal heroin, which can be turned into street heroin. Their only competitor in the Central African Republic is Hezbollah.

They continue to communicate. Go back in time to the days of Genghis Khan. How come from Mongolia to Baghdad Genghis Khan managed secret messages and commands over all that land? You cannot police the world. There are cracks, and people slip through them.

The idea of a franchised terrorist organization helped their cause. But parallel to that franchise, there is the solid core of Al Qaeda, which functions separately of those cells. They remain hidden already, not located in one area. But the demise of bin Laden dealt a heavy blow to the organization. They will suffer a lot. For a long time, I believed Al Qaeda didn’t have a future; that it will wither away like all old radicals do. I don’t believe they have the power of continuity. But until then, they’ll continue to be a thorn in everyone’s side.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What’s next for Al Qaeda then? Retaliation?

Ibrahim: They’re going to choose a successor before Ramadan in August. Osama bin Laden pledged allegiance to [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar. Mullah Omar sits on the council, definitely. He will preside over it, just to maintain decorum. He doesn’t vote, but he will supervise it, to ensure it is a peaceful transition. Al Zawahiri can get bloody. Bin Laden was the moderate in Al Qaeda.

Whoever comes after Osama bin Laden will concentrate on the youth. The only area where you will find recruitment easy is Egypt after the revolution. In this time of confusion, I believe there will be more Egyptians recruited for Al Qaeda, but not to Al Zawahiri’s branch. There is a huge Salafi [fundamentalist] movement in Egypt now, so they will be more drawn to a Salafi emir [leader] than Al Zawahiri.

I’ve been following the fundamentalist traffic over the past several weeks, and I noticed something strange. They communicate by code. And the code is made up of Koranic verses. The rearrangement of certain verses makes up the letters. I noticed that they are planning something big for this Sept. 11th. I don’t know if the Americans will find anything in the files recovered from bin Laden’s home. My guess is an attack on a nuclear reactor. They want to hit the U.S. big time.

But you don’t get to train 19 people for an attack every day. And before 9/11 they had a country to go to, now they don’t. Even 9/11 wasn’t a grand operation. It took just 19 people, with the computer savvy to override the autopilot on a commercial airliner. And this was pre-Homeland Security.

The problem with American analysts is that they deal with Al Qaeda like they are dealing with the former Soviet Union. To them, it’s one plus one equals two. But with Al Qaeda, it’s not like that. It’s an ideological organization; sometimes they do things, even if it’s harmful to them. That’s why you cannot anticipate its moves. With the Soviet Union, or any power in the Cold War, there was a certain utility out of any action. It had to have a certain value — they just didn’t assassinate anyone because of who they were. But Al Qaeda will kill someone just because they said something unIslamic. And that risk can never be measured correctly.

It’s Code Orange, just before Code Red. They are itching for retaliation. Very frustrated, very humiliated. They are in disarray. For a long time, they were taking orders from Al Zawahiri, but always knowing bin Laden was there. Now that he’s gone, all the regionalisms — Saudis versus Egyptians, all these Arab idiosyncrasies will emerge. Their most creative minds are either in Guantanamo or fell out with Al Qaeda. They definitely are not as agile or efficient as before. But they will definitely try something in the U.S.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Was Osama bin Laden a product of the gap in leadership that people are right now protesting in the Middle East?

Ibrahim: He wasn’t. Osama bin Laden was part of the Arab and Islamic world that believes Islam is the guiding light of Muslims, and even if these revolutions change everything, they will still say society is lacking. It’s just like what is happening in Egypt. The Salafis will never respect the change unless it is Islamic. Al Qaeda is irrelevant, but they don’t want to believe that. They are blinded by their religious zeal, and their belief that only through their brand of Islam will the Arab and Islamic world evolve.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You saw the reaction to Osama bin Laden’s death in America; what was the perspective in the Middle East? Were people debating whether his death was a good thing or a bad thing?

Ibrahim: There was a lot of mourning in many Arab countries for Osama bin Laden, and a lot of sadness over the demise of a hero. I don’t think he was considered a leader, but he was considered one of the heroes of the region — a person who dared to say no, who remained true to his principles. A lot of people will tell you that they didn’t agree with his methods, nor would they particularly want to live in a country ruled by Osama bin Laden, but they admired his courage and the stance he took.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Some of the words you’ve used in connection with bin Laden, no American would say, such as hero. How do you explain that to Americans who experienced 9/11?

Ibrahim: To the people in the Middle East, Osama bin Laden did not start on 9/11. He was a Saudi Arabian who stood up the Saudi establishment, and before that, he fought with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. To a lot of people, a person who stands against the establishment, whether it’s the Saudi government, or the United States — a supporter of Israel, the archenemy of the Arab people — they consider him a hero. Just like in the 1970s, the mood of the Arab people was more secular, and people like George Habash [founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] and Yasser Arafat were considered heroes as well. Since the 1990s, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Middle East has become more religious, and the Islamic organizations have become more active and organized. The epitome of that was Osama bin Laden.

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