A conversation with Lawrence Wright

The two most prominent members of al-Qaida known to be in Iran are Saif al-Adl, the organization's security chief, and Saad bin Laden, one of Osama's most committed sons.

lawrence wright 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
lawrence wright 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Are reports that Iran is grooming Saif al-Adel to replace bin Laden and Zawahiri true? Iran has worked with al-Qaida (AQ) in the past, especially during the time when Osama bin Laden was in the Sudan from 1992-96 - when Iran and Hizbullah trained AQ operatives. Ayman Zawahiri supposedly sold information to Iranian intelligence, and he may have maintained those contacts. Moreover, many al-Qaida operatives took refuge in Iran after the invasion of Afghanistan by US and coalition forces in November-December 2001. One Saudi paper said that as many as 500 AQ members were in Iran, which sounds really inflated to me. The two most prominent members of al-Qaida known to be in Iran are Saif al-Adl, the organization's security chief, and Saad bin Laden, one of Osama's most committed sons. The nature of their sanctuary there is unclear. So there is a long-standing association between Iran and al-Qaida. But that doesn't mean that the two entities can function together, because AQ is an entirely Sunni organization, and part of its dogma is that Shi'ites are heretics. The FBI tells me that Saif al-Adl and Saad bin Laden are under a form of house arrest in Teheran. In one of Zawahiri's letters to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [leader of al-Qaida in Iraq] before an American bomb found him, Zawahiri chastised him for promulgating a war against the Shi'ites, and reminded him that Iran was holding al-Qaida hostages. Al-Qaida strategists would like to see Iran pulled into open conflict with the US and the West, and to that extent I think the leaders would be willing to work with Iran. But there's no possibility that AQ will ever become an organ of a Shi'ite state. Is Iran providing assistance to al-Qaida units operating in Iraq? It's very difficult to know what's true now in Iraq, but if there was any substance to such reports it would indicate that Iran has decided that chaos serves its immediate goals, though not its long-term ones. Iran is in a dilemma in that it doesn't seek a regional war - at least not until it's secured a nuclear weapon - and that is a lively prospect if Iraq's civil war begins to spill over the borders; on the other hand, a democratic Iraqi state, even a shaky one, poses a threat to the Iranian example. The Iranian goal is to keep the Iraqi state weak enough to not ever be a threat again, but not so weak as to utterly fail. That's a difficult balancing act. Does the al-Qaida that masterminded the 9/11 attacks still exist? The old, hierarchical al-Qaida, where a member had to fill out forms in triplicate to buy a new tire, the organization that offered health benefits and paid vacations - that's gone, but AQ strategists had planned, as early as 1998, for a new model, one composed of smaller groups that may not be networked at all, functioning more like street gangs. We've already seen this in Madrid and London. That's not to say that bin Laden and Zawahiri are irrelevant. Every day they are free is a propaganda victory for AQ. Moreover, they are still able to give direction to the movement and inspire followers. Some Israeli analysts here are talking about al-Qaida having set up operations in Gaza. So al-Qaida still lives? Yes, of course. It still lives as an organization, although the mother ship is much reduced. But as a movement it has certainly grown, especially in Europe. What can Israel do to undermine the al-Qaida idea? Israel doesn't really matter to bin Laden. He's never attacked it, except peripherally, although he talks about it all the time. If the Israeli-Palestinian problem were resolved tomorrow, he would be heartbroken. No issue has served AQ propagandists better than the chronic stalemate that has fueled the anger of Muslims all over the world. [That's why] I have been urging that the US administration renounce the settlements. Half a million [settlers] should not be allowed to stand in the way of a just resolution to the Palestinian cause. There are many causes of terrorism, but what they have in common is that they usually spring from the hopelessness and sense of futility that is so common in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Al-Qaida really is an engine that runs on despair. And it's going to be with us as long as there is not sufficient hope to change that balance.