Part II of Our Interview with Michael Scheuer
Posted by Joshua Price on September 5, 2007
Here is the second of a three-part interview with Michael Scheuer, a 22 year CIA veteran and former head of the Bin Laden Unit.
Price: Do you believe that the fundamental reason for us being attacked is our position in Saudi Arabia?
Scheuer: That’s certainly one of the fundamental reasons. That was the last straw for Bin Laden-moving Western forces into the kingdom in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. But there’s really six items that he has stressed and his allies have stressed for the last decade, and those have been: Our presence on the Arabian peninsula; our military activities, initially in places like the peninsula, Yemen, the Philippines, Somalia, and now including Iraq and Afghanistan; our ability, until recently, to keep oil prices at levels that are satisfactory to Western consumers; our unqualified support for Israel; our support for nations that are perceived in the Muslim world as oppressing Muslims-the Russians in Chechnya and the Indians in Kashmir, the Chinese in western China; and probably most damaging, insofar as America is concerned, our support for Arab police states and tyrannies over the last fifty years-Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Algeria. That’s the package. That’s a very limited package, but it all points back to U.S. foreign policy. And to argue that their motivation is our civilization-there’s just no evidence for it.
Price: Let me ask you this: Do you believe, for one minute, that if we pulled our presence from Saudi Arabia and addressed the other items in the package you described, that the attacks would stop?
Scheuer: But not because we had appeased anybody. You should never change your policy to appease someone. But also, you should never refuse to look at your policy because you’re afraid someone will view it as appeasement. And that’s the kind of situation we’re in at the moment.
Our policies in the Middle East were basically set up for the Cold War era, and we have not really examined them; they’re the same now as they were then. And I think we need to examine policy to see if it’s still serving American interests.
At the most basic level, we have sacrificed our abilities to decide when or if we’re going to go to war because we’re dependent, and our allies are dependent, on Arab oil-the Persian Gulf. If something happens for example, in the eastern kingdom-the eastern province of Saudi Arabia-tomorrow, America will go to war because we can’t afford that kind of disruption.
And it’s not just in the Arab world; it’s in the Gulf of Guinea. If something happens in the Niger Delta that disrupts oil production significantly, we will go there to re-establish it.
So, you know, I think energy policy we were following during the Cold War is clearly no longer applicable. So that’s one step we would do in America’s interests. And if we did that one, we would have no reason to be the spectacular hypocrites that we are by urging democracy in places like Iraq while we’re supporting Arab police states on the Arabian Peninsula.
If we began to solve the oil problem, there’s nothing on the Arabian Peninsula that’s worth the life of a marine-if it wasn’t for oil. So there are reasons to look at these policies just to see if they’re protecting America, not to please the enemy.
I think one thing we need to keep in mind is that America is not the major enemy of the Islamists, Bin Laden and his allies. They have determined that we’re in the way. Their principle enemies are the Saudi Government, the Egyptians and the rest of the Arab governments, and Israel. And to the extent we disengage, probably to that extent, the war will become Muslim versus Muslim.
Price: Is the Saudi government an enemy of Bin Laden primarily because of his being exiled from that country?
Scheuer: It’s an enemy of Bin Laden’s to the extent that Bin Laden is active in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have never cared about what Islamist terrorists or insurgents do outside the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden is not an aberration in Saudi society; he’s the “poster boy” for their educational system; he’s the kind of person they want to produce; and as we make all these noises about Saudi Arabia being an important ally of the United States-they (the Saudis), of course, hold a death grip on our economy because they own so much of our debt and they control the oil. And at the same time, they’re spending many billions of dollars a year educating Muslims around the world-on all continents-in a form of Islam that’s verilently anti-American and anti-Western.
If you want to look for the people who would like to eradicate Western Civilization it’s the Saudi religious establishment; it’s not Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden is a defensive fighter; the Saudis are offensive-imperialists.
Price: Could you walk us through the incident in the late nineties where we had a pretty good opportunity to kill or capture Bin Laden but the attack was called off, ostensibly because there was a UAE prince in the camp with Bin Laden?
Scheuer: I believe it was in March of 1999. We found out that some princes from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had traveled to Afghanistan with the permission of the Taliban to go hunting in the desert-I believe it was southwest of Kandahar in the southern part of the country.
They go there once a year to hunt a migratory bird called the bustard, and they hunted with their falcons. When the Emiratis-when the princes-go hunting they don’t go in a pup tent and with a fishing hook; they go with all the opulence of Gulf royalty.
They were delivered on a landing strip in the desert that they had refurbished; they were landed; their equipment was landed with an Emirati Air Force C-130. We caught that on overhead imagery and through other kinds of reporting. They set up a camp and the camp was, as I said, it wasn’t a few tents and a campfire, it was very large tents. Also, they drove in from Karachi, some tractor trailers carrying generators so they would have air conditioning. They had a thirty meter mast for communications capabilities; they laid out very fancy Arabic rugs in a circle so at prayer time they could go out and all kneel on the rugs and pray; and of course there were the poles that were set up for the hunting birds-falcons. So this was a big time deal. They also brought in about forty 4×4 all-terrain vehicles from Karachi to serve them while they were in the desert. So this was a big place.
We found out that Bin Laden was not staying at the camp. He was too smart for that; he knew it was a big signature for American satellites. He stayed at a smaller camp on the periphery of the bigger one. We could never find it because it was so small.
What happened was we had human assets who are in the outer ring of security for the Arab princes and they were able to determine when Bin Laden was visiting. He would come in to talk to them, to pray with them, to have dinner with them. It didn’t happen on an exactly regular schedule but we had the ability to get almost real-time information-within an hour or two-of Bin Laden’s arrival at the place.
So we tracked the information, established the pattern, and sent the information over to the National Security Council for Richard Clarke and Sandy Berger, and for the president (Clinton). This was really, in terms of all the Clinton Administration’s worries about collateral damage and women and children being killed, this was a no collateral damage target. They were all there. There were no women and children. It was in the middle of the desert and yes, some princes would’ve gotten killed and their entourage would’ve gotten killed, but it’s like Sister Mary Lawrence told you in the second grade, “You’re known by the company you keep.” These guys were wining and dining Bin Laden after Bin Laden had attacked us three or four times, most recently destroying our embassies in East Africa.
So we thought this was the ideal occasion, but as we were tracking it, we usually got, as I recall, two satellite passes a day. The satellite would pass overhead, take a picture and we’d be able to see what they were doing down there. On the first pass of this particular day everything was fine; on the next pass, all there was left was a pile of burning rubbish-tires and other stuff. The camp was gone; the generators were gone; the poles for the falcons and the communications mast was gone, the 4X4s-everything was gone. And we couldn’t figure out what happened because the hunting season wasn’t over, and we couldn’t figure out what happened but we felt we just had waited too long to shoot.
Well, as it turned out, three or four days later a friend of mine sent me a copy of a memorandum conversation that was written by Richard Clarke after he had called the United Arab Emirates and warned them that we knew they were in the desert and we knew Bin Laden was close by, and Mr. Clarke suggested it was not a good place to be for the UAE princes. And that was the trigger that caused that camp to be shut down, as I understand it today.
Later on we found out that the princes who were on the bulls-eye, if you will, their father was about to buy six or eight billion dollars worth of F-16 aircraft-our, I guess, top-of-the-line export fighter craft. And that was what cost us the chance there.
It appears, at least from my experience, that the president (Clinton) decided that it was more important to sell those aircraft than to kill the guy who he knew had already attacked us twice in Saudi Arabia and destroyed our embassies. So that’s really that story.
And the story is pretty well tolled by two of Clarke’s assistants, Dan Benjamin and Steve Simon in a book called The Age of Sacred Terror, but of course they leave out the fact that The White House warned the UAE that it was time to pull out of the desert.
Please Check back Thursday for the third and final part of our interview with Michael Scheuer. Please feel free to comment on any parts of the interview by clicking on the Comments feature located at the end of the post. You will be asked to provide a screen name and an e-mail address, and then you’re free to comment.