Pepe Escobar, born in Brazil is the roving correspondent for Asia Times and an analyst for The Real News Network. He's been a foreign correspondent since 1985, based in London, Milan, Los Angeles, Paris, Singapore, and Bangkok. Since the late 1990s, he has specialized in covering the arc from the Middle East to Central Asia, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has made frequent visits to Iran and is the author of Globalistan and also Red Zone Blues: A Snapshot of Baghdad During the Surge both published by Nimble Books in 2007.
This interview was recorded one week before the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
(TEXT ON SCREEN)This interview was recorded one week before the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: One of the things that struck me is his defense of bin Laden's statement from a couple of months ago in a tape run by Al-Jazeera. Bin Laden purportedly sort of apologized for some of the extreme activity in Iraq. It was taken, at least, at the time as an apology of bin Laden for some of the attacks on innocents, which meant, people assumed, the suicide bombing against ordinary Iraqis and Shiite mosques. Here, al-Zawahiri seems to deny that it was apology, and sort of blames Al-Jazeera for distorting bin Laden's message. Here's what he had to say on that:(CLIP BEGINS)AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Second: This television channel manipulated the Shaykh's message.REPORTER (OFF-CAMERA, SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): How did it manipulate it?AL-ZAWAHIRI (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): It manipulated it using three tricks, all of which the world only discovered after 24 hours. The first trick was the deletion of crucial portions of the Shaykh's speech.REPORTER: Like what?AL-ZAWAHIRI (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Like his mentioning that the map of the region will be redrawn at the hands of the Mujahideen, Allah permitting, and the artificial borders will be erased, and the greater state of Islam will be established from the ocean to the ocean. Like their deletion of his incitement of the Muslims in Sudan and its environs to Jihad against the Crusader invaders and armed rebellion against the one who gave them permission to come, in order to remove him. Like their deletion of his admonition to the commanders of the factions to refrain from entering the polytheistic political process.(CLIP ENDS)PEPE ESCOBAR, TRNN ANALYST: In fact, Osama bin Laden was trying to rationalize what al-Qaeda in Iraq was doing. We cannot forget that al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers, as it's officially called, is basically an off-spring of Zarqawi, the Jordanian thug who ran it and who created it in the first place. It's not directly linked to al-Qaeda in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, as we suppose they might be. And Ayman al-Zawahiri, once again he was desperate because whatever they say and whatever they rationalize, they are confronted with losses in Iraq. They are confronted with no action whatsoever in Southeast Asia for the past one or two years. They have al-Qaeda in the Maghreb with sporadic attacks like the one in Algiers. And they are not regimenting moderate Muslims, not even in Europe, because the flow of the so-called Muslim jihadists from Europe, especially from Holland, Germany, or Belgium to Iraq has stopped for the moment, for the past two or three months at least.JAY: So was bin Laden's last tape a critique of attack on Iraqi civilians? Or were they even discussing that? It's hard to tell now after Zawahiri's tape.ESCOBAR: It's interesting, because al-Zawahiri's ninety-eight minute interview comes only a few days after Osama's statement. I think they probably have made a strategic mistake and they're trying to correct it. And obviously they are shifting all the blame for everything that is happening towards Shiites, especially towards Iran, and even Muqtada al-Sadr.(CLIP BEGINS)AL-ZAWAHIRI (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Muqtada al-Sadr is one of Iran's lieutenants in Iraq, and in 2004, he announced the handover of the weapons of the Army of the Mahdi to the Americans, and that the Army of the Mahdi is a civil institution participating in the political process, and following the recent events of Shiite-Shiite fighting between the Army of the Mahdi and the Supreme Council Muqtada al-Sadr announced the freezing of the Army of the Mahdi for six months. So this is the Shiite resisting the Americans in Iraq.(CLIP ENDS)It's crazy, because al-Zawahiri says that Muqtada al-Sadr is a puppet of Iran, which is completely rubbish, because Muqtada al-Sadr is an Iraqi nationalist, although he's Shiite, and his relations with Iran sometimes can be very tense. The real puppets, if there were any direct puppets, would be the two religious parties who are part of the Iraqi coalition in government, and they are allied with the Americans.JAY: So what does this mean for the future of al-Qaeda? What do you think they must do next? Do they not need some major action to try to tell people they're still here?ESCOBAR: Well, it's very dangerous, because here we are, we are in the terrain of pure speculation. There is not a lot of al-Qaeda traffic for the past month or two months or so, according to intelligence agencies. Al-Qaeda in Europe is more or less quiet for the past few months. This could be calm before the storm, of course, or this could reveal that the leadership, the historic leadership of al-Qaeda, Osama and al-Zawahiri especially, they are trying to organize their next move, which would have to be a major move likeI don't want to sound apocalyptic, but a suitcase bomb, a small, nuclear suitcase bomb bought in the black market, probably from a former Soviet republic, and explode it in a western country. There's a lot of speculation about that. But I wonder if al-Qaeda has the network to pull off something like that. And I wonder if this would not alienate even further this vast [inaudible] of Muslim moderate opinion, which by now, as we have already saidand it's very important to say it againthey tend to recognize Sheikh Nasrallah of the Hezbollah and even Ahmadinejad as true fighters in the Islamic world against what most Muslims consider western imperialism.JAY: Pepe, he ends his statement by saying that they might call on the Pakistani armed forces to overthrow Musharraf. Does al-Qaeda actually have the influence to do such a thing?ESCOBAR: No. No, they don't. The middle rank of the ISI and some middle rank in the Pakistani armed forces, they are al-Qaeda sympathizers, as they are Taliban sympathizers, for that matter. But they could never pull it off. Musharraf's purge in the Pakistani armed forces was a very thorough one, and even in the ISI. Some people say that Musharraf does not control the ISI, it's the other way around, but I wouldn't be so sure. I think it's fifty-fifty, two-way traffic. And, obviously, Pakistan is still infiltrated with FBI agents, CIA operatives, special forces, you name it. The Americans would just listen to the radio waves and just listen to the satellite traffic, and they would know that something would be afoot.JAY: You think it's an empty threat. But the reorganization of the Taliban in Pakistan under what seems a more unified command and Taliban's close connection to al-Qaeda, is this a danger in terms of the overall stability of Pakistan? Or is this mostly rhetoric coming from al-Qaeda?ESCOBAR: This is different. This is basically an alliance between the Taliban and some sectors in the Pakistani armed forces and some sectors in the ISI. For the Pakistani establishment, the industrial-military complex in Pakistan, they need a kind of subjugated Afghanistan as their rearguard. It's what they call strategic depth. They don't want an Afghanistan that is controlled by Tajiks, for instance (the Tajiks are predominant in the government in Kabul), or western Afghanistan, where Iran has a tremendous influence. They want basically a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan like it was until 2001. This is what the military establishment in Pakistan wants. That's why they are helping the Taliban, and with great success, because the Taliban now control 50 percent, in practical terms, of Afghan territory. And NATO over there, NATO's not doing practically anything. They would have to retreat. There's serious talk of the Taliban mounting an offensive against Kabul next spring. They cannot do it right now because of the very harsh winter in Afghanistan.JAY: But what does the growing strength of the Taliban mean for the health or the strength of al-Qaeda?ESCOBAR: It depends on the kind of agreement they're going to reach again. We should not forget that, okay, Mullah Omar is still in place. He's still considered the Emir of the Taliban. But there is a new leadership of the Taliban, the so-called neo-Talibans. They are basically Afghan nationalists, Afghan Pashtun nationalists as well. I'm not sure they would embark in another al-Qaeda adventure that would mean an attack against the western power, for instance, because their agenda basically is regional, local, and national. It concerns Afghanistan in what for them means Pashtunistan. This means unifying both areas of the Pashtuns in Afghanistan and in Pakistan as well. And al-Qaeda is a pan-Islamic sectarian adventure, which has nothing to do with the Taliban [inaudible].JAY: So it leads you back again to the same conclusion. If al-Qaeda's going to really tell people they're still here, they've got to do something big.ESCOBAR: They've got to do something big.DISCLAIMER:Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
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