LOS ANGELES — To terrorism expert Peter Bergen, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida are hiding in plain sight as the force behind the alleged plot against trans-Atlantic airliners.
Bin Laden's tenacious influence five years after Sept. 11 is why, Bergen said, he felt compelled to write about him and to participate in "In the Footsteps of bin Laden," a new CNN documentary based in part on Bergen's book, "The Osama bin Laden I Know."
The two-hour special, reported by CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, airs 9 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, Aug. 23, and repeats 7 p.m. EDT Saturday and 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. EDT Sunday, Aug 26 and 27.
While U.S. and British officials investigate links between the airplane bombing plot and al-Qaida, Bergen already sees a clear connection.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden and his chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri, have released dozens of video and audio tapes that Bergen characterizes as "the most widely distributed political statements in history."
"Hundreds of millions of people see them or hear them or read about them .... to people who are part of the jihadist movement, these words are akin to a religious order," Bergen said. When bin Laden calls for assaults on members of the Iraq war coalition, "people react to that in Madrid and London."
‘These tapes get the message out’
As he dodges capture (he's believed to be in Pakistan), bin Laden is not in operational control of al-Qaida but "he doesn't need to be because these tapes get the message out."
Bin Laden's organization may have done more than inspire last week's failed jetliner plot: It's "a classic al-Qaida operation," said Bergen, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University and is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
(Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Friday the plan had the "hallmarks of an al-Qaida-type plot." Western government officials told The Associated Press this week they don't yet have hard evidence tying the plot to bin Laden, al-Zawahri, or other key al-Qaida operatives.)
CNN's film constructs an account of bin Laden's life based on dozens of worldwide interviews, 21 of which were with people who had direct contact with him, including childhood friends, university classmates, fellow jihadists and a former English teacher.
"When there is somebody like bin Laden who's done what he's done, there's the natural reaction of pigeonholing, making him the monster. ... But I think it's interesting to try to know more about them," Amanpour said in a recent interview.
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"You can never understand them, if understanding means sympathizing. ... But in battle you have to know your enemy," she said.
In trying to comprehend the "fatal switch" that turned bin Laden from what Amanpour calls a "comfortably off, establishment person" into an extremist, the CNN documentary sidesteps armchair analysis.
There are details that carry the potential for such scrutiny: bin Laden, the son of the late Saudi construction magnate Mohammed bin Laden, lived apart from the sprawling family that included his father's 22 wives and 54 sons and daughters.
Avoiding bin Laden's personal demons
But the CNN special deliberately avoids theorizing about bin Laden's personal demons, Amanpour said.
"It's tempting and there may be other kinds of histories written about him that try to psychologically profile him. But I personally was very clear in my mind that wasn't what I was going to do. ... until we can talk to him, or talk to more people, I just felt it was inappropriate."
The facts themselves paint a striking picture, Amanpour said. One particular element that came into focus was how bin Laden used international media to clearly communicate his plan of attack.
"Every time he's progressively ratcheted up his attacks and his hatred he's telegraphed it along the way. ... I wonder if it was obvious to people before," she said.
Bergen, who in 1997 obtained the first TV interview with bin Laden for CNN, found two elements of his research on the man particularly intriguing and unexpected.
One was the sharp criticism from within al-Qaida that bin Laden faced after Sept. 11, initially seen as a tactical error. Bin Laden thought it would drive the United States to withdraw from Mideast involvement; instead, it fueled attacks on his group and Afghanistan's Taliban.
(The Iraq war, which Bergen said reinvigorated the al-Qaida and its terrorist efforts, ultimately reversed its attitude toward the attack on America.)
Bergen also was struck by another, more intimate detail about bin Laden. He named a daughter Safia, after a woman from the prophet Muhammad's time who was known for killing Jews.
"Just the kind of mental state of calling your infant daughter" after such a figure is striking, Bergen said. "I think that gets inside that he's a really rabid anti-Semite. ... I didn't take that seriously enough. I don't think we can make that mistake this time around."
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