TODAY   |  May 06, 2011

Analyst: Bin Laden not easily replaceable

Peter Bergen, a CNN security analyst and author of “The Longest War: Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda,” tells NBC’s David Gregory that “replacing (bin Laden) is going to be very difficult” for al-Qaida and says Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s number two, is “not well-liked” within the organization.

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>> security analyst peter bergen produced the first television interview with osama bin laden in 1997 . his book is called "the longest war , the enduring conflict between america and al qaeda ." good morning.

>> good morning.

>> the details we are learning about a potential plot against america for the tenth anniversary of 9/11 or another major holiday against trains, against the rail system . what details have we learned about that?

>> i think this was, like a lot of al qaeda plots, very much in the blue sky category. they had been thinking about a lot of things.

>> still a focus on the spectacular attack.

>> what was interesting was the cities they were targeting -- new york, los angeles , washington, chicago. you know, they are not going to attack sioux city or des moines or less of an american city. people of influence have never heard of des moines . it's the iconic cities that are targets.

>> presumably we'll learn from evidence compiled from the scene but there was a picture of osama bin laden in more direct command and control . do you think that's what we can glean from this?

>> that's unsurprising. when you join al qaeda you don't swear oath of allegiance to al qaeda . it's to osama bin laden . replacing him will be difficult. they pledge to osama bin laden personally.

>> we hear about al qaeda being a franchise operation, more decentralized but he was the figurehead.

>> yeah. in the u.s. military there is a thing called commander of intent. general petraeus puts out a general order . that's what bin laden would do. attack westerners, attack jews. sometimes he would add something like, let's take revenge for the danish cartoon of the t prophet mohamed . we have seen a lot of activity trying tole kill the cartoonist responsible.

>> you are talking about the cult of personality surrounding bin laden . so the number two who is still at large, ayman al zawahiri , can he take over?

>> he'll run it into the ground. he's not well liked in his own group. he doesn't have the stature bin laden has. he's a divisive figure. i know friends, family, who have nice things to say -- humble, modest. no one describes feelings of love for ayman. love is a strong verb.

>> what about the terrorist threat we face as a country? you wrote this week, between the arab spring and the death of bin laden it is hard to imagine greater blows to al qaeda 's ideology and organization.

>> it had nothing to do with the spring. people are not carrying pictures of osama bin laden , demanding a taliban theocracy. they want accountable government, everything we want. al qaeda the organization was founded by bin laden . he's the intellectual 9/11. he's irreplaceable. if we spent hours thinking about t what better way to end this thing and the arab spring and the death of bin laden are big. it's a major national security problem for the united states , this thing is receding.

>> that's a significant statement.

>> i think it's true. we are in new york, almost ten years later. most americans would have wanted it to have succeeded by now.

>> as you look back and in the new book you talk about the mistakes bin laden made that led to his downfall. what are the top ones?

>> first of all, attacking the united states was dumb. he got an 800- pound gorilla riled up. people within al qaeda understood this was a mistake. we have recovered things on the battlefield where they say, hey, that was dumb. bin laden bought into his idea that the united states was as weak as the former soviet union , that our activities would be explained by the pull-out of vietnam. we weren't going to pull out after being attacked there. it was a misanalysis of what the united states responses were. that was the big bad idea. he should have stuck with trying to overthrow the saudi regime which was his initial