ROBERT FISK: Well, the first one was in Sudan. A Saudi friend of his, who had fought with him against the Soviets in Afghanistan, who, mind you -- he was now a journalist -- he met me at an Islamic conference in Khartoum, and one Sunday morning, he said, “Robert, I want you to come and meet someone.” And for him, it was a bit of a joke. He knew bin Laden was out in the desert, where bin Laden’s construction teams -- he was, of course, in the construction business, as most his family were -- had been building a new road from a little village to the main highway between Port Sudan and Khartoum to link up so that the villagers could take part in the national economy.Culture Clash
AMY GOODMAN: Bin Laden's father was a great Yemeni construction magnate in Saudi Arabia?
ROBERT FISK: A billionaire so, yes. And, indeed, most of bin Laden’s -- or some of bin Laden's money came from the construction business. He built the roads upon which the Afghan guerrillas took tanks to fight the Russians. I mean, I actually went in an air raid shelter twenty-five feet high, built into the living rock of a mountain in Afghanistan, built by bin Laden during the Russian war, next to a camp built by the CIA, of course.
But, no, I went out with this guy. We went across the desert past pyramids you’ve never seen before. I mean, they’re not even in guidebooks. And we ended up in this desert village, and there was this man in this long white robe with all these kids dancing in front of him and people slaughtering chickens and goats and sheep. And my journalist friend, who knew bin Laden well, went up and spoke to him in his ear. And I saw bin Laden's eyes flick towards me with palpable concern. He had never met a Western journalist before. And I was invited to meet him. I shook hands with him, and he thought I was going to ask him about terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, because he was already being implicated. There were comments by State Department officials that bin Laden was plotting world terror.
ROBERT FISK: Yeah, I’m about ten years older than him. Yes, that's right. I don’t think -- I mean, he always -- we never discussed age, but, I mean, he must have guessed I was slightly older than him. He was always very courteous towards me. And when he stopped to eat, I would sit on the ground with the al-Qaeda fighters and eat yoghurt and drink tea with him. He broke off occasionally to pray, as well, which I, of course, didn’t do with him.Can We Help You With That?
But certainly, the next time I met him in Afghanistan, he was a much more angry man. He was filled with fury at the corruption of the Saudi royal family. He went into great detail on how many millions of dollars they stole on this occasion, how many princes have taken these dollars, and so on. And it looked at that stage as if what he really wanted to do was to overthrow the Saudi royal family and become caliph of Arabia. He didn’t say that, but I suspect. I mean, Arabia is what he’s interested in. At the end of the day, it’s Arabia, not because of oil, but because of the holy places of Mecca and Medina and his own religious Salafi beliefs.
But he was already beginning to talk about people having dreams. You know, in the Wahhabi sect, people believe in what I call “dreamology.” They think that when they have a dream, it's a message coming from somewhere outside the world. Obviously, you know, you can interpret the Prophet Mohammed’s receiving the message of God as being in a kind of trance or a dream. Remember, the first message he received, he talked about how he was wrapped in, and it was felt tight -- that an angel wrapped him and squeezed him tight. And I think that bin Laden believes in dreams. I think a lot of al-Qaeda people do. They have ideas that come to them. We don't. We believe that this is an inactive but still living brain taking over, just things come through like stars pass through the heavens, but I think they interpret them or want to interpret them, which is a very -- something we basically gave up in the Middle Ages in Europe.
And, in fact, the last words he said to me, as we sat in a very freezing mountaintop -- I spent the night with his al-Qaeda people in a tent sleeping. I woke up with ice in my hair. And the last words he said to me, and I have my notebooks, which, of course, I will research for this book, and his words were, "Mr. Robert, from this mountain upon which we are sitting, we destroyed the Soviet army and helped to destroy the Soviet Union," which was an element of truth, though obviously a usual bin Laden exaggeration. And then he said, “and I pray to God that He permits us to turn America into a shadow of itself.” Those were his words. And in my notebook, which I actually took these words down in, I put two lines on each side of the quote. At the time, I wrote, “Rhetoric?” It wasn’t, of course."Iraq is better off today..."
And I remember that, you know, on 9/11, I said before, I think, to you, that I was crossing the Atlantic that day. The plane turned around, and I got back to Europe and saw, you know, the biblical crashing of the Twin Towers. I remember thinking, well, New York is now a shadow of itself, all that dust and fog going across the city. I was pretty convinced, from the start, that bin Laden was involved. I still am, of course.
[reading] “The Americans and British benefited from these accounts of terror under Saddam. Would you rather he was still here in Iraq torturing and gassing his own people? they would ask. Don't you think we did a good thing by getting rid of him? All this, of course, because the original reasons for the invasion -- Saddam's possession of weapons of mass destruction, his links with the outrages of September 11th, Mr. Blair's 45-minute warning -- turned out to be lies. But it was a dark comparison that Bush and Blair were making. If Saddam's immorality and wickedness had to be the yardstick against which all of our own iniquities were judged, what did that say about us? If Saddam's regime was to be the moral compass to define our actions, how bad -- how iniquitous -- did that allow us to be? Saddam tortured and executed women in Abu Ghraib. We only sexually abused prisoners and killed a few of them and murdered some suspects in Bagram in Afghanistan and subjected them to inhuman treatment in Guantanamo. Saddam was much worse. And thus it became inevitable that the symbol of Saddam’s shame -- the prison at Abu Ghraib -- subsequently became the symbol of our shame, too.Mercenaries and black water:
“What was interesting was the vastly different reaction in East and West to our abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. We ‘civilised’ Westerners were shocked at the dog-biting and humiliations and torture ‘our’ men and women administered to the inmates. Iraqis were outraged, but not shocked. Their friends and relatives -- some of whom have been locked up by the Americans -- had long ago told them of the revolting behaviour of the American guards. They weren't surprised by those iconic photographs. They already knew.
“By early 2004, an army of thousands of mercenaries had appeared on the streets of Iraq’s major cities, many of them former British and American soldiers hired by the occupying Anglo-American authorities and by dozens of companies who feared for the lives of their employees in Baghdad The heavily armed Britons working for well over 300 security firms in Iraq now outnumbered Britain's 8,000-strong army in the south of the country. Although major US and British security companies were operating in Iraq, dozens of small firms also set up shop with little vetting of their employees and few rules of engagement. Many of the Britons were former SAS soldiers -- hundreds of former American Special Forces men were also in the country -- while armed South Africans were also working for the occupation authorities.
“The presence in Iraq of so many thousands of Western mercenaries -- or ‘security contractors,’ as the American press coyly referred to them -- said as much about America's fear of taking military casualties as it did about the multi-million-pound security industry now milking the coffers of the US and British governments. Security firms were escorting convoys on the highways of Iraq. Armed plain-clothes men from an American company were guarding US troops at night inside the former presidential palace where Paul Bremer had his headquarters. In other words, security companies were now guarding the occupation troops. When a US helicopter crashed near Fallujah in 2003, it was an American security company that took control of the area and began rescue operations. Needless to say, casualties among the mercenaries were not included in the regular body count put out by the occupation authorities.”
The latest figure that I have as a journalist now is that we now have in Iraq 120,000 Westerner mercenaries. That's almost equal to the total number of American troops.
ROBERT FISK: Oh, they would turn up and stay in the same hotel I was in. They turned up during checkpoints on roads, sometimes wearing hoods or masks. Why? Why hoods? Why masks? What were they doing? I would come across them driving vehicles through the streets of Baghdad, guns pointing out the window. “Get out of the way! Get out of the way! Get out of the way!” Tch-tch-tch-tch-tch, in the air. Very similar to the same gangs that Saddam used to use for security purposes to get people out of the way in vehicles. In fact, the way in which the occupation authorities have sealed off vast areas of Baghdad with walls is classic. It wasn't as bad under Saddam. There weren't so many walls, but it's very similar to the same practice that Saddam's regime used. In fact, in many ways, what we do has become a kind of pale mirror of the regime we got rid of. You know, hanging people and their heads come off when you hang them, this is incredible.In one more F.U., we'll be one more F.U. further along...
ROBERT FISK: Look, we've been through Abu Ghraib so often. First of all, it was liberated, and we all went in and saw the hangman’s noose and where Saddam's people were executed. Then they announced they would have to use it briefly as a prison. I said -- immediately I went to prison. I said, “They’ll use it as a prison again,” because they always do, and they did. And then, one Iraqi historian said it should be turned into a museum of Saddam's horror. This is Kanan Makiya, of course. And then, after the abuses were made photographically evident at Abu Ghraib, it was announced by the then-Iraqi government that it was going to be bulldozed to the ground. And then it was announced that, after all, it was still needed as a prison, so it would stay as a prison for more abuses, perhaps. And now, again, we have this suggestion it should be razed to the ground. Later on, it will be stated that it will be still needed as a prison. Then we'll hear yet again that it has to be razed to the ground. You don't realize, unless you go to Iraq, that this is a circular track. All the stories we report, we reported last year, and we're going to report them again next year, believe me.R.I.P. Democracy
ROBERT FISK: Well, you've got to remember that at one point it looked as if the Brits might pull out of the original invasion, and Rumsfeld made a statement rather similar to Cheney's, saying, well, we can do it without them. You know, I mean, I’m still wondering what on earth Britain is doing in Iraq and how we ever got into it. You know, one of the extraordinary things at the moment about both Iraq and Afghanistan is that our leaderships, British just as much as Americans’, have lied continually. They've lied about weapons of mass destruction, links between Saddam and al-Qaeda, 45-minute warnings, as I said.The Surge is Not Enough
But this is the first war I’ve ever covered in which the leadership in the West bases its policies on its own lies. I mean, it's one thing to lie to the people, and then you have your own policy of how to pursue a war, but to pursue the war on the basis of the lies you're telling the people, this is an entirely new concept in war and strategy in foreign policy. I’ve never seen it before.
You know, you have Blair standing up now in the British parliament -- well, less and less, thank goodness; I mean, soon he's going, because of Iraq, of course, and because of his relationship with Bush-- and he keeps saying the same thing over and over again: “I absolutely and completely believe I was right.” And that's not good enough. You know, we can all believe we're right. We can jump off the Empire State Building believing we can fly, but we won't fly, will we? And Blair actually thinks that his conviction, his own self-regard, is sufficient to make up for the factual mistakes that he makes. It's OK, because he really believed it. That's not the way you go to war.
You know, one story, which has not really come out in the American press -- I know it's a fact, because I’ve investigated it fully in Iraq -- is that in the first battle of Fallujah -- remember, when there was a ceasefire and then the Iraqis came back, then they had the second battle and they took the city and managed to destroy much of it -- in the first battle of Fallujah, there were twelve US Marines guarding the mayor’s office at Ramadi, the neighboring city to the west, and they were attacked by hundreds of Iraqi insurgents, and that twelve-man US Marine unit was liquidated. They were totally eliminated. They were killed, all of them. They were wiped out. And that is not a story that's gotten the front page, as far as I know, of the New York Times, but that's what happened. So the dangers you see that we're now facing, very much -- I don't mean to make too facile a comparison -- very much the same dangers that the crusaders faced with overwhelming force from the Muslim armies of the 12th century, is that the local populations are now so full of fury and anger against us that they are attacking us in their hundreds, overwhelming force.Winning Hearts & Minds v. Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out!
AMY GOODMAN: And the latest news out of Afghanistan, thousands of angry demonstrators taking to the streets after US forces were involved in a panicked shooting, which left sixteen civilians dead and twenty-three injured -- at least that's how it was described -- panic shooting in The Independent.No wonder there is no plan B. No wonder:
ROBERT FISK: No photos, please. That's what you were talking about also. We will delete you if you take pictures. Look, this is happening over and over again in Baghdad. A car blows up, a suicide bomber attacks, so everyone in the area is shot at. You know, at the very beginning of the invasion, when the Americans reached Baghdad, there was a frightening circumstance of Highway 11, I think it was. I went there afterwards, and a US tank column was moving down the road. They were ambushed, and the tank commander believed that every car on the road was a potential suicide car, and he ordered his men to fire at every civilian car. So when I got to the scene, there were smoking cars. There were women, their clothes blasted off them, naked in the backs of vehicles, children lying with rugs over them, dead beside the road. It was a massacre. Now, there was an ambush by the Iraqis. The Americans were attacked there, but their response was to kill everything in sight. And I actually talked to the US tank commander -- he’s quoted in my book by name -- who said, “Look, I have to defend my men. I have a duty to defend my men. I’m sorry if innocent people get killed.”
Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution last month released the most comprehensive public exploration of containment. The two national security experts seemed to wince even as they proposed keeping up to 80,000 troops along Iraq's borders, cautioning that "there would be no end in sight either for the war or for their mission." But it is "the only rational course of action," they wrote.Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends....