September 20, 2010



ZAKARIA: In the year 2000 Noman Benotman was a top-ranking commander of a successful terrorist organization, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG. It was an ally of Al Qaeda. That's how Benotman says he found himself at Osama bin Laden's mud house in Kandahar, that same year, having breakfast with bin Laden, watching bin Laden's children play.

He was attending a meeting Osama bin Laden had called, a kind of Davos for Islamic terrorists. At the meeting bin Laden told him of the plan for the September 11th attacks. And amazingly, Benotman says he dared to disagree with bin Laden, to tell him he shouldn't attack the United States. He'll explain why.

More recently, Benotman has renounced terror altogether. And last weekend, on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, he published an open letter to bin Laden, calling for the world's best- known terrorist to recognize that his strategy had failed, and to call it quits.

What was the meeting with bin Laden like? And what caused Benotman's change of heart? You're about to find out in a "GPS" exclusive. I was in London this week and spoke to Noman Benotman in our studios there.


ZAKARIA: Just this week you have put out an open letter to Osama bin Laden in which you ask him and Ayman al Zawahiri, his number two person, to renounce terror altogether. What made you write this letter now? Because you have been working against terrorism for some time. Why did you feel it was worth sending a personal message to your former associate, bin laden?

NOMAN BENOTMAN, FORMER TERRORIST: I think from my assessment it's really the right time because I believe now we are -- if you take it from a Muslim perspective and Muslim countries and societies, we are in a state of crisis. And enough is enough. From a Muslim perspective Al Qaeda really now start to -- messing around with the DNA of Islam itself. So I think it's the right time to say stop, enough, we don't need you. It's as simple as that. We don't need you.

ZAKARIA: Take us back. 2000, there was a kind of grand conference, if you will --


ZAKARIA: -- of terrorism, right? And you were brought in as the most important person heading the Libyan movement. There were others there. But bin Laden throws a dinner for you. Describe, first of all, the scene. This is now in Kandahar, right? This is taking place in Kandahar.

BENOTMAN: Yeah. Because I told him and my colleagues, you need to stop the war against the U.S. because you're provoking the United States of America and the Afghan people, they will pay the consequences.

ZAKARIA: Your basic point to him was this will backfire, if you go after the West --

BENOTMAN: And before that I told them, gentlemen, my assessment, the outcomes of the jihadi movement, after like 30 years, or maybe 20 years, of fighting and struggling, it's a total failure. It was a shock for all of them.

ZAKARIA: You said 30 years we've been doing this, it isn't working.

BENOTMAN: Total failure. But at the time they believed I was wrong. And I'm so sorry to say, but history proves me right. You know?

ZAKARIA: And you said there will be a strong response, there will be an overwhelming response.

BENOTMAN: Yes. ZAKARIA: And you won't be able to -- you will find it more and more difficult to --

BENOTMAN: I told him it's going to be the entire region if you escalate. Because I know that they talk about something big. I told them if you escalate the level of the conflict against the U.S. and you insist to attack the homeland, you know. It's going to be really, really tough retaliation. But bin Laden, when he run out of ideas, or arguments, he told me directly, OK, I've got one operation, it's already there. And I cannot like cancel it because it's going to demoralize my organization. I cannot do this. But he doesn't --

ZAKARIA: This was the September 11th operation?

BENOTMAN: Yeah. After that I recognized. But at the time he -- like he didn't tell me exactly it's going to be the 11th of September, because I know a lot of people even from the level -- the leadership level, they've never been told about exactly what's the plan.

ZAKARIA: Until then they viewed the American responses as quite feeble. They said to you, the last time when we bombed the embassies in East Africa they launched 75 cruise missiles at us, and they killed maybe 15 people. So what was that -- what were they predicting the American response to 9/11 would be?

BENOTMAN: Yeah, what they mentioned at the time, they said this is going to be, OK, because of the -- if we escalate the level of the conflict it's going to be 200 cruise missiles. And we can manage that as Al Qaeda organization, you know, because they can deploy the group and the personnel in rural areas, in the mountains and caves. So it's not going to be problem for them. They never, ever imagined they're going to fight against the U.S. soldiers or even the NATO soldiers like in very direct or close contact. They believed they are paper tigers. [...]

ZAKARIA: And why did you renounce it all?

BENOTMAN: That's it. Because it's the political agenda. Always I believe it's just a political agenda. It's manmade. It's not Islam. Because Islam, it was there more than 1,500 years ago. I've never, ever subscribed to this idea of like fighting against the world. I am politician. I understand exactly what's the meaning of politics. It's a very crazy idea. It's extremely nonsense idea to just -- to commit your life to fight against the entire world, you know.

To believe like your duty is to force every single human being to be a Muslim by force. This is exactly the bottom line of Al Qaeda understanding of Islam, you know, which is a crazy idea. That's why I'm strongly believe, 100 percent committed to complete disarmament of all Islamic groups, complete, without a doubt about this.

ZAKARIA: What kind of person agrees to become a suicide bomber?

BENOTMAN: I see a lot of people, they said OK, Al Qaeda giving me meaning. I live here in this X country but have no hope, I have no meaning. I'm not associated to my country. So Al Qaeda here comes and tell them, OK, you are Muslim. I will tell you exactly who you are. You are a Muslim. And -- which is Islamist. I will give you the meaning. I can make you make good use of your life and then you'll be in paradise. If you see how the way they've been recruited, then they carry on their operations, it's a very, very limited time. Usually, at all days --

ZAKARIA: A limited time meaning?

BENOTMAN: It means like some of them just within two months, three months. Usually, to be a real fighter you need to go through like many years of training.

ZAKARIA: So it's almost -- are you saying that they've been brainwashed and you can't --


ZAKARIA: -- that the spell won't last too long? You push them out the door pretty fast.

BENOTMAN: I'll tell you something, Al Qaeda comes via the Internet, which is strategically they located them in very good and strategic position in the virtual, or the Cyber world. And explaining to people, OK, what you see and -- this is our position as a Muslim, and this is because we are Muslim. The whole world against us and we can help you to do something to sort out the problem. This is the solution. ZAKARIA: So Al Qaeda today. You said something when we were talking earlier, you said -- I talked about Osama bin Laden being in a cave in Kandahar, and you smiled and said he's not in Kandahar. You think he's in Pakistan?

BENOTMAN: Yeah, it's -- it's a very sensitive issue. But I don't believe he's back in Afghanistan. I don't believe that. Here's my assessment. I don't believe that.

ZAKARIA: There's only one other country he could be in.

BENOTMAN: Some people, they believe he's in Washington, D.C., you know. Crazy people.

ZAKARIA: But what is your sense of how many people are left in Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan?

BENOTMAN: I think a few hundreds. It's an insignificant number. Al Qaeda presence now, I think there's a shift, if I might say, in terms of like the -- at the operational level from-now they call it Al Qaeda, the headquarter there in Pakistan, Afghanistan, they call it the general command, which means like the leadership of Al Qaeda. That's the official name.

I think there's a shift from the general Al Qaeda, general command to Yemen, towards Yemen. Now, I think if you assess the situation there, the number has been increased recently. We talk here about a few hundreds, maybe 200, 400 personnel there, mainly in Shabua (ph) and Abiyan (ph), southern part of Yemen. But they're very active.

ZAKARIA: Do you think the United States is fighting this battle correctly?

BENOTMAN: I think the United States, it's very important. You cannot ignore the U.S., whether you like it or not. This is politics. But the problem, I think we have failure of communication between the Muslims, including governments and officials, with the Americans.

So we need to improve the level of communication so the American efforts to control extremism and terrorism doesn't appear-as if Al Qaeda would like to market it, you know, to the Muslims-like America fighting against Islam itself.

That's why I really appreciate many American officials recently, the issue about burning the Koran where President Obama, he was very clear about his like position against this issue. And he said we are not in a war against Islam, we fight against Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda harm us, not the Islam. Secretary of State Clinton, when she said like she was against the burning of Koran. Even secretary of Defense, you know, Gates, he phoned the guy himself. He spoke with him. I really appreciate this. And we should admire this. This is exactly the kind of cooperation we need.

ZAKARIA: So you wrote this letter. And the end of it, you say "I believe I am expressing the views of the vast majority of Muslims, who wish to see their religion regain the respect it has lost, and who long to carry the name of Muslim with pride." And you give a lot of details in this letter to convince bin Laden of your credibility. Do you think he will read this letter? And do you think it will make an impact?

BENOTMAN: Yeah. I am 100 percent sure he will read it and the people around him. So I'm thinking about the young Muslims, which they still at the age, maybe they will, as I told you, want to be a terrorist, want to be Al Qaeda. It will give them like a second thought about it. I'm giving them, because terrorism, I believe it's a circle. It used to have just one gate, which allows you to get in. The problem is we need to open gates to help you to get out of that circle.

This is my work. I believe it will help a lot of people, you know, our youth or young Muslims. To think about other choices, other opinions from someone like me. I know exactly this business, you know, the field of jihad, or terrorism, or organizations. So I'm giving them my experience. Please don't do it. Al Qaeda, it's a human being organization. Bin Laden, he's just a human being. He's not a prophet. And he's capable of doing a lot of deadly mistakes.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 20, 2010 8:24 PM
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