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"Bin Laden should have been dead long ago": Mehdi Hasan on the CIA hunt

Michael Scheuer led the CIA’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden, until he scolded his superiors for missing the signs.

In September 2007, in the run-up to the sixth anniversary of the 11 September attacks, Osama Bin Laden released a video message. Addressing the "people of America", the al-Qaeda leader denounced US foreign policy, from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the invasion of Iraq. He also had a piece of advice for ordinary Americans. "If you want to understand what's going on, and if you would like to get to know some of the reasons for your losing the war against us," he said, "then read the book of Michael Scheuer."

It may have seemed an odd choice, given Scheuer's past role as head of and chief adviser to the CIA's Bin Laden Issue Station, a unit dedicated to tracking the al-Qaeda leader between 1996 and 2005. Scheuer wrote two books on al-Qaeda while working for the CIA - Through Our Enemies' Eyes (2002) and Imperial Hubris (2004) - both of which he was made to publish anonymously. He quit the agency in November 2004 so that he could speak more openly about Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and what he regards as the US government's failure to understand the threat from Islamist terrorism, and has since published Marching Towards Hell (2008) and Osama Bin Laden (2011).

I meet Scheuer in London and ask him about being named by the terrorist leader in the 2007 video. "I got a call from the agency early in the morning," he remembers. "Mike, we have a copy of a speech by Bin Laden that the NSA [National Security Agency] just translated," the CIA official told him. "You're mentioned in it - but it's not a threat."

As Scheuer discovered when he watched the video, it was an unexpected endorsement of his writing from his former prey. Paperback sales of Imperial Hubris skyrocketed - as did sales of books by Noam Chomsky, who was also cited as an authority in the al-Qaeda leader's taped message. Four years on, Scheuer jokes about the connection. "It was bad enough that Bin Laden mentioned me, but to mention me in the same breath as Noam Chomsky . . ." He rolls his eyes.

Scheuer, 59, is a lifelong Republican voter. Scruffy, chubby and bearded, he is an avuncular figure, but one with elaborate good manners - he tends to address his interviewers as "sir". Looking at him, you would find it difficult to believe he once led the CIA's hunt for Bin Laden.

The terrorist leader was little known when the Bin Laden Issue Station was set up in 1996 with the aim of gathering intelligence on him and disrupting his growing finances and activities. Scheuer, who had worked as an analyst on the CIA's Afghanistan project between 1985 and 1992, was selected as the first head of the unit, and it was soon code-named "Alec Station" after Scheuer's son. It was also, however, nicknamed "the Manson Family", such was the relentlessness with which Scheuer and his team of 12 talked up the al-Qaeda threat.

So, what does Scheuer think motivated Bin Laden to namecheck him in that video? "He understood that I was trying to kill him, maybe, but he also understood that I took him seriously, I guess." He pauses. "And he probably liked that."

In his writings and his interviews, Scheuer reliably makes provocative statements about the late al-Qaeda leader. "If there's such a thing as a Muslim educated by Jesuits, it would've been Bin Laden," he tells me. "Because I was educated by Jesuits . . . [Like them] he matched words and deeds very well. And that's what worried me more than anything. It wasn't the rhetoric itself - but he said he was going to do X and he did X. He said he was going to ­incrementally increase the pain and he did incrementally increase the pain."

Does he see something of himself in Bin Laden - his own "Jesuit" temperament? Surprisingly, Scheuer nods. "Yeah, I do . . . as someone who's educated [to think] . . . that it's not enough to talk your religious or moral beliefs, you have to act on them. And that's exactly what I saw in him as a danger."

What did Scheuer make of the video that showed Bin Laden watching himself on television, which emerged from his compound in Pakistan after he was killed by US navy Seals in May? "It was perfectly in character," Scheuer says. "We knew he was obsessed with the idea that Arab leaders have to be very well-spoken, and that he spent an enormous amount of time having his texts checked for grammar. And so when I saw him I thought, well, he's checking how he looks, he's checking how he portrays himself, in order to improve [his image]. That was my impression based on what I knew about him - but maybe he was just an egomaniac." Then he shakes his head. "I don't think so."

Given the way he talks about Bin Laden, I can't help but ask Scheuer if he admired him. He shrugs. "How can you not have an admiration for a man who kept the greatest power the world has ever seen on tenterhooks for 15 years?" He adds a caveat. "Admiration doesn't connote empathy or sympathy or support. What it means is what the British used to call a 'worthy enemy'. Whether it's a guy like [Field Marshal Erwin] Rommel or, in the United States, a guy like General Robert E Lee, who came closest to destroying the Union. He was a traitor, but someone you had to respect and understand before you could defeat him. Just because a guy is your enemy doesn't mean he's a dummy; it doesn't mean he's pathological. And who does it hurt if you have an enemy and you say, 'Well he's a madman, I don't have to listen to him'? You hurt yourself."

Modern Saladin

For Scheuer, Bin Laden was not crazy; he was a rational, ruthless and talented leader, a "modern Saladin". As he writes in his new biography: "[M]y view of Bin Laden is far out of the mainstream. I have long seen him as America's greatest mortal enemy; I have never thought it enough . . . to curse him and condemn him simply because his views and faith are antithetical to our values."

His critics have accused him of being obsessed with the al-Qaeda leader. The neoconservative academic Fouad Ajami, reviewing the biography in the New York Times in February, compared the author to Moby-Dick's Captain Ahab. Does he miss OBL? "How can you miss somebody who wants to blow up your country? You don't," he says. Then he qualifies his response: "But I really did enjoy the challenge of understanding what he was up to."

Was the news of Bin Laden's death a big ­moment for him? "It was a big moment for America." But what about him personally? Scheuer doesn't take the bait. "Well, I'm an American. I think he was a danger to our country. He was never anything more to me than a threat that needed to be taken care of."

What motivated him to write his first two books anonymously while still serving as a CIA analyst? "I wrote [them] because I didn't think we were getting it. The message [of Bin Laden] was there - it was clear, it was available in English - and yet we still had presidents talking about, you know, 'Here come the bombers because they don't like primary elections in Iowa every four years.'"

Scheuer was frustrated by his government's unwillingness not just to understand Bin Laden, but to kill him, too. In The 9/11 Commission Report, where he is named only as "Mike", he is portrayed as being annoyed by the Clinton administration's failure to target Bin Laden aggressively in the late 1990s. The fact is, he says now, "we had a chance to kill Bin Laden for five consecutive nights in the third week of May 1999; we knew each night where he was staying in Kandahar. They didn't shoot at all." Why not? Were his superiors worried about collateral damage? "Yeah, collateral damage," he says sarcastically. "The shrapnel might hit a mosque."

He couldn't contain his rage at the lack of action. "So what I did was write a memorandum to the top 12 or 14 people in the agency. I said: 'Listen: a) the intelligence is not going to get any better, and b) this is a guy we need to take seriously and if you don't do anything not only are a lot of Americans going to die, but you're going to have an 'intelligence failure' on your hands." It was the end of his career in charge of Alec Station. "The agency's a very small 'd' democratic place. You can argue, you can bitch, you can debate, but you cross the line if you put it on paper. And if you put it on paper and put it in an electronic system where it can't be purged, they really get mad."

Bill, Dick and Sandy

On the morning of 11 September 2001, Scheuer was sitting in his office at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, having been reassigned as to the agency's counter-narcotics programme. A friend called and told him to turn on the television. Scheuer switched it on to watch United Airlines Flight 175 fly into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Did he know instantly that Bin Laden was behind the attacks? "Instantly." Scheuer says the mood among the rank and file at the CIA's HQ on the day was one of anger. First, because "Bin Laden should have been dead long ago"; second, because it was clear from that moment that politicians and the media would blame the attacks on an "intelligence failure".

Scheuer believes that weak, short-sighted and incompetent politicians should take their share of the blame - chief among them the former president Bill Clinton, his national security adviser Sandy Berger and his counterterrorism tsar Richard "Dick" Clarke. "Bill, Dick and Sandy helped to push Americans out of the windows of the World Trade Center on that September morning," he wrote in 2006.

Does he regret making such an inflammatory statement? Can he really believe that? "They did," he says in a low voice. Does he think Clinton was worse than George W Bush when it came to handling the threat from Bin Laden? "I think they were both terrible presidents." Yet, in Bush's defence, Scheuer says that between the end of the Clinton administration and 9/11, "we didn't know where Osama was". This, he suggests, makes Clinton more culpable.

But didn't Bush exacerbate the terrorist threat by invading Iraq? "Oh, absolutely," he says. "Iraq moved Osama and al-Qaeda from man and group to philosophy and movement." And he hints, ominously: "I don't think we've begun to see the disaster Iraq is going to cause
in the years to come."

Scheuer also blames the Bush administration for the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment. "The Islamophobia in the United States is directly attributable to the [Bush] White House, because of the endless lies about 'Muslims hate us because we're free, because there's women in the workplace, because we drink beer'. And the American people say, 'Well, if that's true, we've got to be afraid of them.'"

In Marching Towards Hell, he excoriates the Democratic and Republican "bipartisan governing elite", who are equally to blame, he believes, for the west's failure to defeat al-Qaeda. He has little patience for the successors to Bush and Blair, Barack Obama and David Cameron: their advocacy of regime change in Syria and implementation of regime change in Libya, he says, make them "recruiting sergeants" for the next generation of terrorists.

Nonetheless, he is full of praise for Obama's handling of Bin Laden's killing. "There is no taking away from him for doing the right thing. We've become so used to the American president not doing the right things in terms of protecting his country that it's a great change."

Does he not think Bin Laden should have been tried in a court of law for his crimes? "It would have been hard to try him. If you tried him, he was going to be speaking to the Muslim world from a courtroom for two or three years."

I ask him the $64,000 question - is US foreign policy to blame for the rise of al-Qaeda and its affiliates? His answer is cryptic: "I believe it is the chief means by which the United States can extricate itself." Later he explains: "We have given birth to a movement - through the invasion of Iraq and through our inability to cope with the fact that so many people in the Muslim world, whether or not they're willing to pick up a gun, regard us as malignant because of our policies."

His critics say it is too simplistic to blame foreign policy for suicide terrorism against the US. Even if the US withdrew its troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and disengaged from the wider Middle East, wouldn't there still be groups of Islamist terrorists bent on causing harm to the west? Scheuer concedes the point, but contends that it would then be "a manageable problem". "I don't think there are a lot of people who want to blow themselves up because my daughters go to university . . . People are going to come and bomb us because they don't like what we've done."
Scheuer often singles out Israel for criticism, arguing that the US's "unquestioning support" for the Jewish state's dispossession of the Palestinians has helped radicalise young men across the Muslim world, boost al-Qaeda's status and endanger US national security. He has received hate mail and death threats in response, and says: "The anger within the Jewish community in the US towards me is quite extraordinary." He argues that he was sacked from a post at the Jamestown Foundation in 2009 for his anti-Israeli remarks.

Some have claimed - the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat included - that Bin Laden had little interest in the fate of the Palestinians, and that he cynically exploited the conflict after 9/11 to garner support from ordinary Muslims in his war against the west. "That's a complete lie, sir," Scheuer counters. "If you read the first thing [Bin Laden] wrote, there are probably nine or ten different references to Israel/Palestine . . . The idea that he was a Johnny-come-lately is completely made up."

Scheuer has admirers on the left and the right. The former quote his views on the link between US foreign policy and the al-Qaeda threat; the latter point to his support for near-indiscriminate military action against terrorist groups, the use of "extraordinary rendition" and CIA special prisons, and his relaxed attitude towards "collateral damage". "Killing in large numbers is not enough to defeat our Muslim foes," Scheuer insists in Imperial Hubris. "With kill­ing must come a [General] Sherman-like razing of infrastructure."

His argument seems to be that Washington has two options: either it changes its "failed policies" in the Muslim world or it embarks on a mass killing spree against suspected terrorists. He remains unapologetic about this. "America today is one big Israel," he says. "All it has to
defend itself is the intelligence services and the military, because our politicians will not address the issues that are at play."

Raised threat

By the time Scheuer left the CIA in 2004, he had served in the agency for 22 years. How did his wife cope with being married to the CIA's Bin Laden hunter? "She was always very supportive of what I did. But the toll it took from late 1995 until 2004 was that I missed nine years of my children growing up, from the ages of two and three."

Was it worth it? "It was," he says. "And it's certainly not as bad as fathers who went to fight the Japanese or the Germans for four or five years. I wasn't getting shot at."

He never served as a field operative, instead devoting his intellect and energy to rigorous analysis of his enemies' words and deeds - a task that he has continued in his "retired" life as an author and academic (he is now an adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University, Washington).

Scheuer disagrees with former colleagues in intelligence circles who believe that al-Qaeda is in decline, marginalised by the Arab spring and Bin Laden's death. "I think, potentially, they're stronger than they were on 9/11," he says. "On 9/11 they had [only] one main platform, which was Afghanistan."

Whether or not you agree with everything he says, it is hard not to be impressed by his self-confidence and clarity of thinking. I ask him what he would do if he were in charge of his nation's security. How would a President Scheuer reduce the terrorist threat?

“You square with the American people. You say, 'I'm sorry, we've been lying to you for 30 years - your daughters can go to school without burqas, you can have beer after work, they're not going to blow us up for that. But they are going to blow us up because we're supporting Israel, because we protect the Saudis . . .' And none of that stuff is necessarily a condemnation of a policy; it's just an adult view."

But he remains deeply pessimistic. "I think the only thing that changes anything in America any more is calamity. And unless there's a calamity of some sort, this foreign policy of ours will stay the same," he says morosely.

In an interview broadcast in July 2009, Scheuer caused outrage by suggesting that "the only chance we have as a country right now is for Osama Bin Laden to deploy and detonate a major weapon in the United States".

Ten years on from 9/11, does he still worry that there will be another al-Qaeda attack on US soil? "I think there will be."

Mehdi Hasan is the NS's senior editor (politics)

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11