Friday, February 22, 2002

interview with a terrorist

On Wednesday night, I rushed off with a friend to the University of Delaware, at Clayton Hall, to listen to Peter Bergen. The place brought back some memories.

It's been a few years since a speech given by ex-president Gerald Ford. An evening filled with anecdotes about golfing with Skip O'Neil and memories of the White House (Gerald Ford once quipped, "I know my game is getting better because I'm hitting less spectators.") We amused ourselves by trying to spot secret service agents by the handguns concealed in holsters under their jackets.

Another lecture I saw there back in 1995, was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., on the topic "Are We Turning Isolationist Again?" What was America's role in the world after the fall of the Soviet Union? A speech by Mr. Schlesinger from about the same time, on Winston Churchill, in Boston, captures some of his eloquence.

Wednesday night, the speaker was a reporter, best know for meeting in 1997 with an obscure Saudi (at the time) named Osama Bin Laden. It was refreshing to hear an eloquent viewpoint from a person unafraid to report on the shortcomings of Democrats and Republicans in recognizing the potential danger that terrorists from the Middle-East posed. Peter Bergen, terrorism analyst for CNN talked in front of more than 600 people from Delaware as part of the Global Agenda 2002 lecture series, with a theme of "Understanding International Terrorism Today."

Perhaps the chance to sit in the seat usually reserved for Paula Zahn, as questioner, was enticing for the crowd. Many people were enthusiastic to pose questions to CNN's Middle East terrorism expert Bergen. Amongst the intelligently phrased queries was one that asked about the role of Al-Jazeera in the media community in light of their holding back on releasing a video tape from Bin Laden. Bergen had begun to address that issue on February 1st, at the probing of Zahn. It appears that the student who asked that question had done some homework before attending the function.

Bergen had a number of things to say about his meeting with Bin Laden in 1997. Amongst them was that hindsight had made his interview a much larger story than he could have imagined. Bergen and a camera man secreted thousands of dollars worth of film equipment into Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban had made the taking of photographic images of people a crime. They had a guide who had some rudimentary "school-boy's" french in common with them.

They waited around in Jalalabad a couple of days before they were contacted by armed people who told them that they had to leave all of their cameras behind, in case they contained tracking devices. They weren't allowed to bring watches, and other implements that might similarly be bugged. Blindfolded with goggles, they were driven around for hours, up and down mountainous areas, and past guards who asked for passwords, at different points. Upon arriving, they were left indoors, until sometime around the middle of the night, armed men came in and searched, and interrogated them. Quietly amongst them, came a tall, thin, unimposing man who spoke softly, and allowed them to ask him questions.

You could tell from Peter Bergen's face that he would like to have that interview all over again. He didn't repeat much of the dialogue he had with Bin Laden on Wednesday, but said in an conversation with an Atlantic Magazine reporter of the interview:
We did the interview with him in 1997 on CNN, and basically no one paid any attention at all. It got a little write-up in some wire services, but it was not a big deal. Bin Laden's actions made him into a big deal. Not the media. Without the simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and the U.S. cruise missile attacks two weeks later against his terrorist training camps, no one would have noticed him.
Bergen finished writing a book on Osama Bin Laden at the end of August of last year. It was scheduled for release about five or so months later. After September 11th, he was asked to update and revise the book for release to the public in mid-November. After hearing Peter Bergen's lecture, I'm interested in reading some other of his views on the subject. I might have to purchase the book online. I'm certain that the local neighborhood bookstore has probably sold out of copies to some of the other visitors to Clayton Hall on Wednesday night.

The lecture series has a number of other speakers who look like they are worth spending an evening listening to, including Barbara Bodine on March 27th, and Egypt’s ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy, on April 10th, and a number of others. The series ends on Feb. 27, with Marcelle Wahba, U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. If you're in Delaware one of those nights, drop on by the University of Delaware's Clayton Hall. Maybe we'll see you in the crowd.
- William Slawski