Author Peter Bergen on Bin Laden's Death 'The War on Terror Should Be Retired'
US author and security expert Peter Bergen, 48, discusses this week's killing of Osama bin Laden and why it is time to end the US-led war on terror. The al-Qaida leader's death, he argues, is likely to fuel a debate in Congress over the Afghanistan deployment and future aid for Pakistan.
SPIEGEL: After President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, you declared the end of the war on terror. Isn't that premature?
Bergen : It is hard to think of two events that would more suggest that the war on terrorism should be retired as a kind of operating concept. One is the Arab Spring which undercuts al-Qaida's ideology, and the second is the death of bin Laden, which undercuts al-Qaida as an organization. There will never be a Treaty of Versailles with al-Qaida -- and, in the absence of that, these two events suggest that it is time to move on. The world and the United States have other issues to contend with, like climate change, China and globalization.
SPIEGEL: So you don't think there is anyone within al-Qaida who could be lined up to replace bin Laden?
Bergen : There will be replacements, but it would be as if Hermann Göring had replaced Adolf Hitler. There are a lot of differences between bin Laden and Hitler, but the one similarity is that when you joined elite Nazi organizations, you pledged a personal allegiance to Hitler, not to Nazism. When you join al-Qaida, you pledge a personal allegiance to bin Laden. That is also true of the affiliates of al-Qaida. Without bin Laden in the picture, it is hard to imagine that Ayman al-Zawahari, or any of the others that we know, would command the same loyalty.
SPIEGEL: Why has it been so difficult to track down bin Laden?
Bergen : It took 15 years after the Holocaust for the Israelis to find Adolf Eichmann, the chief architect of the extermination of the Jews, but not for a lack of trying. They put a lot of resources into that search.
SPIEGEL: But the Americans have access to better technology. Could the world's best-outfitted intelligence service really be unable to find a fleeing man with kidney trouble for almost 10 years?
Bergen : Bin Laden was off the grid, not communicating electronically. It actually made him harder to track down because the United States is so reliant on signals intelligence.
SPIEGEL: But they came close many times.
Bergen : The closest they came to it in the past was probably between Dec. 10 and Dec. 14, 2001, when bin Laden was surrounded in the Battle of Tora Bora -- his left shoulder had been wounded and there were multiple strands of intelligence indicating he was there.
SPIEGEL: How would it have changed the war on terror if bin Laden had been captured or killed back then?
Bergen : It might have been easier to declare victory and move on. Of course, the Bush administration was very keen to invade Iraq, which was a huge strategic blunder that obliterated Muslim support for our search for bin Laden. I think they probably would have wanted to do that whether he was around or not.
SPIEGEL: Obama prides himself on the fact that he made the search for the top terrorist a top priority again. Is it an exaggeration to say that his predecessor, George W. Bush, was no longer very interested?
Bergen : The Bush administration more or less closed the bin Laden file in 2005. The CIA decided back then that the fight against new terrorist cells was more urgent than the search for the al-Qaida chief. Obama came in and re-energized things. But that isn't to say that Bush and (then-Vice President Dick) Cheney didn't really want to find bin Laden too. If you look at the drone strikes, they really began rapidly accelerating in the last six months of Bush's second term, so they wanted to leave office having captured or killed him, but it didn't happen.
SPIEGEL: Even before bin Laden was killed this week, your assessment of al-Qaida had already declined.
Bergen : If you look at polling data in countries like Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Muslim world, support for al-Qaida, bin Laden and suicide bombing has been dropping like a stone for years now. The Arab Spring just underlines the fact that they were losing the war of ideas. Bin Laden's death now is the final nail in the coffin.
SPIEGEL: Must the West fear retaliation for bin Laden's death? Or is al-Qaida so weakened that its supporters are no longer capable of executing major attacks?
Bergen : There will still be events with al-Qaida or jihadist terrorists, like the suspected jihadist who shot two American soldiers at the Frankfurt Airport in March. The difference now is that their large-scale public support and their ability to conduct large-scale attacks has eroded over time.
SPIEGEL: These days, the Americans appear to be more worried, for example, by the effects of a high national deficit than by terrorism. Will bin Laden's death speed up this trend?
Bergen : There's going to be a very healthy public debate about how much we continue to spend in Afghanistan, given our limited resources. Members of Congress are already asking pressing questions about the sense of our billions of dollars in support for Pakistan.
SPIEGEL: Did the Pakistani government truly not know that bin Laden has been living for years in a conspicuous mansion right in the middle of Abbottabad, a garrison city?
Bergen : Lots of people live in compounds like this in Pakistan with high walls, and I think it's very credible that very few people knew. He never went out. The United States didn't know if he was there until they had actually entered the building.
SPIEGEL: And until they did they didn't share any details of their plan with Pakistani authorities. Has the level of distrust fallen that deep?
Bergen : They didn't tell the British or the Afghans, either. They didn't tell very many people in their own government. That is how secret missions work.
SPIEGEL: But this mission was conducted in Pakistan -- allegedly a US ally in the war on terror.
Bergen : The Pakistanis didn't want to be told anyway. If this thing blew up in their faces, they had plausible deniability. They didn't want that fingerprints all over it. In fact, they're happy they weren't told.
Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz