Peter Bergen: Osama bin Laden & the Interview of the Century 


Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst, addressed the
SPYSCAPE Festival, Spies & Storytellers event in New York City.

Journalist Peter Bergen produced CNN’s electrifying Osama bin Laden interview from a cave in Afghanistan in 1997. In it, the al-Qaeda leader declared war against the US for the first time to a Western audience.

No one knew what to make of it - even Bergen wasn’t sure if bin Laden would follow through on his threat. The interview - conducted by Bergen, CNN war correspondent Peter Arnett, and photographer Peter Jouvenal - landed with a thud when it initially aired in 1997. “There were people at the US government who were interested in him, but it was a very small group,” Bergen said.

CNN’s interview became one of the most compelling television moments in history four years later, however, when jets crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field killing almost 3,000 people on September 11, 2001.

The Islamist group al-Qaeda claimed responsibility and its leader, Osama bin Laden, became the World's Most Wanted man. The incredible story behind how Bergen brokered the bin Laden interview has all of the hallmarks of a spy thriller tinged with the dogged determination of a journalist intent on interviewing a terrorist even if the situation turned dangerous. And the situation was very dangerous - more so than Bergen realized at the time.

"When we went to  interview Osama bin Laden, they were very paranoid that we were members of the intelligence community, and I had to really persuade them," Bergen told the SPYSCAPE Festival, Spies & Storytellers event in New York City. They were also very unsophisticated about the media. They had never really dealt with members of the media."

“When we went to  interview Osama bin Laden, they were very paranoid that we were members of the intelligence community, and I had to really persuade them,” – Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst, journalist, and author, at the SPYSCAPE Festival, Spies & Storytellers.


CNN Journalist Peter Bergen and Osama bin Laden in 1997
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Peter Bergen in 1997


The rise of Peter Bergen

The prolific author, documentary producer, and VP of Global Studies and Fellows at the New America think tank was born in Minneapolis in 1962. He grew up in London and attended Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire before studying modern history at Oxford University. In 1983, Bergen made a documentary, Refugees of Faith, about Afghan refugees flowing into Pakistan and began studying the region.

After NYC’s first World Trade Center bombing killed six people in 1993, it was clear to Bergen that some of the terrorists trained in Afghanistan.

Bergen set off to the region once again to find out more about how the NYC attack was planned. He was also interested in Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the ‘93 Trade Center attack who was associated with followers of Osama bin Laden. 

“Increasingly, it looks like a dress rehearsal for the events of September 11,” Bergen said in a C-SPAN interview.

Peter Bergen: Osama bin Laden & the Interview of the Century 

BY
Caroline Byrne
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Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst, addressed the
SPYSCAPE Festival, Spies & Storytellers event in New York City.

Journalist Peter Bergen produced CNN’s electrifying Osama bin Laden interview from a cave in Afghanistan in 1997. In it, the al-Qaeda leader declared war against the US for the first time to a Western audience.

No one knew what to make of it - even Bergen wasn’t sure if bin Laden would follow through on his threat. The interview - conducted by Bergen, CNN war correspondent Peter Arnett, and photographer Peter Jouvenal - landed with a thud when it initially aired in 1997. “There were people at the US government who were interested in him, but it was a very small group,” Bergen said.

CNN’s interview became one of the most compelling television moments in history four years later, however, when jets crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field killing almost 3,000 people on September 11, 2001.

The Islamist group al-Qaeda claimed responsibility and its leader, Osama bin Laden, became the World's Most Wanted man. The incredible story behind how Bergen brokered the bin Laden interview has all of the hallmarks of a spy thriller tinged with the dogged determination of a journalist intent on interviewing a terrorist even if the situation turned dangerous. And the situation was very dangerous - more so than Bergen realized at the time.

"When we went to  interview Osama bin Laden, they were very paranoid that we were members of the intelligence community, and I had to really persuade them," Bergen told the SPYSCAPE Festival, Spies & Storytellers event in New York City. They were also very unsophisticated about the media. They had never really dealt with members of the media."

“When we went to  interview Osama bin Laden, they were very paranoid that we were members of the intelligence community, and I had to really persuade them,” – Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst, journalist, and author, at the SPYSCAPE Festival, Spies & Storytellers.


CNN Journalist Peter Bergen and Osama bin Laden in 1997
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Peter Bergen in 1997


The rise of Peter Bergen

The prolific author, documentary producer, and VP of Global Studies and Fellows at the New America think tank was born in Minneapolis in 1962. He grew up in London and attended Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire before studying modern history at Oxford University. In 1983, Bergen made a documentary, Refugees of Faith, about Afghan refugees flowing into Pakistan and began studying the region.

After NYC’s first World Trade Center bombing killed six people in 1993, it was clear to Bergen that some of the terrorists trained in Afghanistan.

Bergen set off to the region once again to find out more about how the NYC attack was planned. He was also interested in Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the ‘93 Trade Center attack who was associated with followers of Osama bin Laden. 

“Increasingly, it looks like a dress rehearsal for the events of September 11,” Bergen said in a C-SPAN interview.

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Afghanistan market, the country where Osama bin Laden based himself and trained fighters
Americans knew little about Afghanistan and bin Laden in the 1990s

Bin Laden, the media junkie

As the years progressed, Bergen identified bin Laden as a potential threat to the US and began interviewing scores of other al-Qaeda members, the Taliban, bin Laden family members, insiders, and CIA officials to learn more about al-Qaeda’s leader. He circled bin Laden much like an intelligence Targeting Officer would circle their mark.

Bin Laden was a news junkie who listened to the BBC World Service on the radio and watched Al Jazeera, the Arabic network, on satellite television, Bergen wrote in his book The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.

Bergen also tracked down Khalid al-Fawwaz, bin Laden's de facto media advisor in London, and asked for a CNN interview. Bergen then spent weeks in London building up trust with his contacts, meeting Fawwaz and other Islamist militants who knew bin Laden. Bergen had finally reached the inner circle. His perseverance and the network's reputation for fairness during its Gulf War coverage in Iraq won over the militants.

Bergen’s CNN bosses were supportive when he pitched another Afghanistan trip in 1997. “I said there’s this guy, bin Laden. I think he’s behind the Trade Center attack in 1993,” Bergen recalled. “And they didn’t know who bin Laden was but they had a lot of faith in me, and us, and the process, and they let us go and do it, to their credit.”

The mountains of Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden based himself
After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, bin Laden met resistance leaders and raised funds

CNN meets bin Laden

Bergen’s crew were stripped of all equipment and told they could only bring the clothes they were wearing. They were blindfolded, driven through remote mountains, and brought into Afghanistan via Pakistan. Al-Qaeda provided the camera that filmed the interview.

“I wasn’t very clear what he was going to look like,” Bergen told The Wrap. “He was very tall. He spoke relatively quietly. I thought he might be a table-thumping revolutionary, but he carried himself like a cleric.”

The al-Qaeda leader spoke Arabic so he could be very precise using his native language. “People around him treated him with a lot of respect and they called him the ‘sheik’. They hung on his every word,” Bergen recalled. 

The Osama bin Laden interview

In his first interview with Western media, bin Laden called the US “unjust, criminal and tyrannical” and declared war on the US. According to CNN, bin Laden also revealed that ‘Arab holy warriors’ trained in Afghanistan banded with Somali Muslims in 1993 to kill 18 US soldiers in Somalia.

It was about 3 am by the time the interview wrapped up and the CNN crew returned to their hotel and the US where they edited the interview. At the time, Bergen didn’t realize how determined bin Laden was to kill Americans. During the interview, the al-Qaeda leader also discussed his ‘victory in Aden’, a city in Yemen. Years later, Bergen worked out that bin Laden’s militants had bombed two hotels in Yemen in 1992 that housed American servicemen en route to Somalia. It was one of many attacks on Americans.

On August 7, 1998, al-Qaeda blew up two US embassies in Africa, killing more than 200 people. “He killed 12 Americans and 200 Africans, and he didn’t have any problem about it at all,” Bergen said.

Still, the US was not yet convinced that bin Laden posed a serious threat to national security. “The Clinton administration responded and then the Bush administration came in and they didn’t see bin Laden as a big deal, which is strange,” Bergen said later.

Before long, the Bush administration was listening. Between 8:46 am EST and 9:03 am EST on September 11, 2001, the entire world would change.

_______

Peter Bergen is a journalist, documentary producer, vice president for global studies & fellows at New America, CNN national security analyst, professor of practice at Arizona State University where he co-directs the Center on the Future of War, and the author or editor of nine books, three of which were New York Times bestsellers and four of which were named among the best non-fiction books of the year by The Washington Post. Documentaries based on his books have been nominated for two Emmys and also won the Emmy for best documentary.

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