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An Exclusive Interview with Oliver North

The Retired U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Discusses Osama Bin Laden, the War on Terrorism and President Bush
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02

(continued from page 2)

A: I don't think anybody was looking at it back then, except maybe at Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad as kind of the blueprint for al Qaeda. Surely the guy who drove his truck bomb into the Marine barracks in 1983 and some of the terrorist bombings that we saw in Beirut from '83 onwards were suicide bombers. So, yes, people were looking at it in the context of the Middle East. We created the CIA counterterrorism center in those days, because William Casey was very concerned about where this was heading and it was a new dimension. Up till that point you didn't worry about attacks against U.S. targets inside America. Yeah, you had the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and you had the Black September organization and a bunch of organizations like that, but you didn't have it aimed specifically at the United States. There wasn't this kind of rampant, a-bombing-a-day kind of thing. All of the sudden in the '80s, there's this explosion of it.

Q: Hadn't there been terrorist attacks for years before that?

A: Sure. The British have dealt with it for years in Cyprus and in the Middle East; they'd had a lot of those kind of attacks addressed against them. Abu Nidal worked against them. But that's nothing compared to what happened to King Hussein. I think it was forty-one times they tried to kill him. Why? Because he was willing to sit down and talk to the Israelis. People looked at him and said, "Look. Our relationship with Israel is going to be a problem."

Islamic radical terrorism the likes of which we are now seeing was never on the table as big a threat as it is now. I don't think that anybody ever anticipated that the Wahabi movement in places like Saudi Arabia would get to be as big and as dangerous as it's been. I mean, if the financial backing, and if you will, the general guidance for terrorism in the '70s and early '80s was coming out of the Soviet Union, the financial and, if you will, the philosophical guidance today is coming from places like Saudi Arabia. There's a lot of money there, but there's probably less control over the organizations.

There's probably less ability for somebody in Saudi Arabia to say stop to Hamas, because that organization has got money in the bank. We started tracking financial transactions back in the '80s. We were all over the Libyan movement of money, for example: from Tripoli and Benghazi to the Peoples Committee for Libyan Students in Germany and in McLean, Virginia. We watched it. When the FBI detected the attack on my family on February 11, 1987, it was because we'd been watching those guys. But nobody was watching the growth of al Qaeda and its type of organization in mosques and in college campuses around the country.

Q: But you believe the transformation of radical Islamic fundamentalism had already started at that point?

A: In fact, it starts in 1979 with the Ayotollah Khomeini coming back to Iran. He leaves Iraq, goes to Paris and then comes back to Tehran. That's where it begins and at that point, it's under the control of the religious mullahs. Tehran could say to the Islamic Jihad or to the Hezbollah, "OK, guys, knock it off." But there's separate money for it now and you've got separate leadership. I mean, the Iranians couldn't control somebody like Osama bin Laden if they wanted to. And I don't think the Saudis could, either. Even so, what we've got is something that may ultimately be more easily controlled than the Soviet support for the global terrorist network, because it was so widespread back then. The Soviets just kind of supported it with concrete things. Their questions to the terrorist groups were things like, "You need some more munitions? You need a little training? You need a little refuge? You need medical treatment?"

Q: Would you say giving terrorists refuge, a place to rest and recuperate, may be as important as anything else you can give them?

A: Exactly. And, today, the number of places where these people can go take summer vacation has gotten a whole lot smaller. The commitment of their followers is much more zealous. Case in point, the Mukhabarat, which is the foreign intelligence service of the Iraqi government, have long been sponsors of terrorism. They're just like what Khadafi used to be. I mean, they've got their operatives running around the world bumping off opponents of the regime all over the place. It happens all the time. But the fact of the matter is, that no terrorist was ever willing to die for Saddam Hussein or even Mohamar Khadafi. They were willing to plant a bomb for him, but they didn't want to ride the bomb in. What makes Osama so dangerous, and what makes radical Islam so dangerous today, is that they not only are willing to die, they want to die. So, that's what the Israelis have been up against now for the last fifteen years and what we're now up against in reality for at least the next fifteen years.

Q: In your conversations since September 11, do you have a sense of when the intelligence community realized that Osama was the focal point that they needed to be worried about?

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