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Fareed Zakaria GPS
Interview With Ex-Terrorist; Is Cuban Revolution Over?
Aired September 19, 2010 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE.
Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria.
Last Sunday I talked about the ninth anniversary of 9/11. This week we mark the second anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Now, there's been lots written about whether this was a bigger turning point than 9/11 and, of course, whether it was a huge blunder. But I want to focus on the month after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when Washington, incredibly, actually worked.
Let's remember what happened in those weeks. It was pretty grim.
Credit came to a standstill. Banks simply stopped lending. Companies couldn't get their hands on short-term loans to just pay their employees and suppliers. Private sector borrowing, which is the heart of modern economics, dropped more dramatically than at any point since the 1930s.
The effects on the broader economy were massive. In the fourth quarter of 2008, real GDP dropped by six percent. The American economy lost 1.7 million jobs, which is the largest drop in 65 years, and net household worth dropped by $5 trillion, the largest and fastest such drop ever recorded.
The crisis was spreading everywhere. There was a contraction of global trade larger than in the first year of the Great Depression.
In the middle of this crisis, after a week or so of failure, Democrats and Republicans came together. George Bush was working with Barney Frank. And together, we passed a huge rescue package that began to restore stability to the system.
Now, the Troubled Assets Relief Program, TARP, may not have been exactly the right idea or even the right amount, but in the midst of a galloping crisis and an accelerating loss of confidence, it saved the day. It sent a signal to markets that government would, in the end, guarantee the financial system, and that betting against the system, shorting the financials, would not work.
We've ended up with a bad recession instead of a depression, with 10 percent unemployment instead of what the former Fed vice chairman, Alan Blinder, estimates could have been 25 percent unemployment, as in the 1930s. Oh, and by the way, it would cost the government almost nothing, a fraction of the appropriated $700 billion, because the financial system recovered so fast, that most of the government's investments will make a healthy profit.
The ultimate proof that TARP worked, of course, is that it is now widely seen as unnecessary. Republicans now say what crisis? There was no crisis. We didn't need to do anything. Democrats run away from it because the public hates the idea of having given money to banks.
And thus, the most effective bipartisan government program of recent decades is now a lonely orphan, claimed by no one. It's a pity, because we need more of this kind of bipartisan problem-solving that TARP represents, not less.
We have a great show for you today, an incredible GPS exclusive. We are going to introduce you to one of Osama bin Laden's brothers in arms. He'll take us inside pre-9/11 meetings, where he says he told Osama bin Laden not to attack the United States. Now this man, Noman Benotman, has written an open letter to bin Laden urging him to recognize that his strategy of terrorism has failed.
Also, what in the world is happening in Cuba? Is Fidel ready to declare the revolution over?
But first, a terrific GPS panel with CNN's new primetime anchor, Kathleen Parker; French philosopher extraordinaire Bernard-Henri Levy, and others. We'll tackle U.S. politics, Middle East Peace, Iran, and much more.
Finally, a last look, fighting poverty one step at a time.
Let's get started.
ZAKARIA: To discuss all of the news from this week, both at home and abroad, we have one of our star-studded GPS panels.
Kathleen Parker is the anchor of CNN's new show, "PARKER SPITZER," which debuts two weeks from tomorrow. She's also one of America's most widely syndicated columnists.
Bernard-Henri Levy is France's best known -- some people would say most notorious -- intellectual and philosopher.
Daniel Senor is a senior fellow at the Council On Foreign Relations and the author of a wonderful book on Israel's economy.
And Chrystia Freeland is global editor-at-large at Reuters.
Welcome to everyone.
So, first let's talk about the economy has been improving, public anger still seems high. And as a result, it appears not only that the Republicans are going to do well, but that the Tea Party, among the Republicans, are doing well.
Is this a good thing for the Republicans or a bad one? The most recent news being, of course, Tea Party candidate does well in Delaware, ousting the Republican establishment.
KATHLEEN PARKER, CO-HOST, "PARKER SPITZER": Right. Well, the Tea Party is quite the phenomenon. And I think it's actually, ultimately, going to be bad for the Republican Party.
You know, they're -- the Tea Party groups are so animated, and they're electing people that we don't think are going to do very well against Democrats in the general. And the example in Delaware is perfect.
Christine O'Donnell, who defeated the more mainstream Republican candidate, has -- you know, she has a very difficult record to defend once you get into it. And the establishment Republicans are fairly appalled that she has won.
ZAKARIA: But "The Wall Street Journal" editorializes that, actually, this is a one-off. For the most part, this is good news for the Republicans.
Do you agree?
DANIEL SENOR, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Yes, I agree. I think that O'Donnell was an exception.
I think most of the candidates, the Tea Party candidates that won, and particularly those that took on the establishment, will probably win their general elections. I think what's interesting about the Tea Party movement is in the 1980s and the 1990s, the fringe right of the Republican Party, those fights were fought and they were culture wars. Right? They were fought over abortion, they were fought over prayer in school and flag burning.
What's motivating the Tea Party movement are not those issues. This is about spending. It's about bailouts. It's about the growth of government.
And I think what's interesting is that a number of these Tea Party candidates are actually quite tolerant of people who are liberal on the social issues because the motivating force and the energy behind the Tea Party movement is about fiscal issues, not about social issues.
CHRYSTIA FREELAND, GLOBAL EDITOR-AT-LARGE, REUTERS: Well, I agree with Dan. And I think what is really interesting about the Tea Party, but sort of about the Republican anger more generally is I think it is really, this is an "it's the economy, stupid," election.
I think that what they are voting about is the economy isn't working for them.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right. FREELAND: And what's really happened now is, you know, globalization and the technology revolution are great for Silicon Valley, they're great for Wall Street, they're great for super-smart Americans. But the middle class is being hollowed out. And people don't know what to do about it.
PARKER: And the new figures are just out that we've got the highest level of poverty in 50 years. So, you know, there's plenty of people other than the Tea Party activists who are suffering right now.
ZAKARIA: Yes. And you're saying this not so much about cultural issues. And I think you're basically right.
But I am struck by the fact that, you know, on immigration, you look at John McCain as a kind of fascinating case. I mean, here's a guy who was the author of the immigration bill with Ted Kennedy, having to run away from it and run hard right in the Arizona primary. You look at Ground Zero Islamic Center/mosque.
To you, does it seem as though, from France, that what you're watching in America is the rise of certain kind of nationalism that is also raising in Europe?
BERNARD-HENRI LEVY, AUTHOR, "LEFT IN DARK TIMES: A STAND AGAINST THE NEW BARBARISM": Not really. You know, we often say in Europe that Europe is a country of ideology and America is a country of pragmatism. America deals with facts, growth and so on, and Europe with great ideas. It is not so true.
Today you have a huge rise of ideologies in America. And these Tea Parties are not so sure that they are going back to facts and the root problems and so on. I hear ideology as we had in the '60s and the '70s in France.
ZAKARIA: What is the ideology you hear?
LEVY: For example, the hate of the state, the ideas that he (ph) spent too much, the ideas that the welfare system state is socialism -- this mosque issue, which was completely mad. You have one percent of Muslims in America -- one percent. We have 10 percent in France.
Is that really a problem which should inflame all the nation? No.
The great America, which was pragmatic, would have had another attitude toward this problem, which was not such a big problem. At most, two blocks away from the sacred land of Ground Zero?
Come on. This is not the facts. This is not economy. This is ideology of the worst sort.
PARKER: But it's an emotional response, I think, to our economic situation. People are very insecure. They're not -- there are no jobs. It's not going to get better anytime soon. And so you're looking for some place to put blame. And so there's this anti- immigrant -- FREELAND: Well, it's classic. I mean, the mosque, in particular, is classic displacement, right? It's looking for --
FREELAND: -- the other, looking for the enemy. I think immigration, actually, is more concretely tied to the economic situation. And I think, you know, if you are lower middle class, then you really do feel that immigrants lower your bargaining power in the marketplace. And it's probably true.
PARKER: I think we can't -- it would be remiss to skip the race factor, because what you're talking about when you talk about immigration now, especially these more highly-skilled workers, are people from other countries with darker skin, and we are seeing -- the Tea Party is primarily male, primarily white, primarily over age 45. And there is the sense that despite our wonderful history of immigration and immigrants, that this country is going elsewhere.
And we know the statistics down the road. What is it? By what year whites will be the minority? I mean, there's a very strong, emotional sense that the country is becoming something else that is exclusive to them.
FREELAND: And it's not just that. I mean, I do really think that both on the right and on the left, elites haven't done a very good job of thinking about and responding to the insecurity of the less educated middle class or lower middle class Americans. And that insecurity is real. And if you're in the middle, especially as Kathleen said, if you are over 45, it is absolutely terrifying.
ZAKARIA: You're talking about the middle class getting squeezed. And I think this is actually the big problem for the western world, which is that you still have a very competitive, high-value-added sector, whether it's making, you know, BMWs and Mercedes, Google, Apple, all that stuff, the stuff -- there's always stuff to do at the bottom. You know, you still have services that are needed that can't be outsourced.
But in the middle, the average guy or woman in France, in the United States, in -- you know, in most of the western world, they're facing competition from about, you know, a billion people all over the world. And what happens to the politics of western societies when you have this kind of pressure?
LEVY: Well, number one, it is not the first time America and the western world is in this situation. Remember the '30s. Remember the '60s, when you had, in America, riots going to blood, to death, racial riots and so on. So, you have in your very close past some situations which are much worse than the situation of today.
Number two, you can consider all that we are saying today also like a sort of boiling, a sort of General, national, huge brainstorming. America is, today, under brainstorming. Ideas are launched, exchanged. Always when ideas are brainstormed, you have some stupid ideas and you have some great ideas. You have both. And out of that will come some solutions.
So, the world is changing. We lost our north and south and west and east. And we are -- and you are, in America -- in the process of recovering it.
And when I see this boiling situation in America, I am more optimistic than pessimistic, because you really had -- were serious and you're always triumphant of that. And you will again.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I love that.
ZAKARIA: With that moment of optimism, we're going to make some money, take a commercial break. And we will be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LEVY: You are America, the greatest democracy in the world. America is founded on the ideas that anyone can --
PARKER: I agree. We have to do it for ourselves.
LEVY: And what keeps this faith? The way he (ph) wants.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAKARIA: And we are back with our star-studded panel to talk about all kinds of politics all over the world -- Kathleen Parker, Dan Senor, Chrystia Freeland, and Bernard-Henri Levy.
Kathleen, you were talking about, during the break, how it's been difficult to even have a rational discourse about the mosque.
PARKER: Right. Well, I wrote a column, as I guess probably most of us at this table have, in support of building the mosque near Ground Zero -- not on it, but near it. And I got these -- just, you know, floods of letters from people, many of whom were appreciative. And, by the way, my column is translated all over the world. I've gotten letters from countries -- Muslim countries all over, which has been really gratifying and lovely.
But from the United States, I've gotten quite a different taste of support for the -- not support for the mosque. And what I've seen is this leap of logic from "Oh, if you support the mosque, then the next thing you know, you're going to be living under Sharia law and I will be the next stoning victim." The assumption is that you give one Muslim, you know, a cookie and he's going to impose Sharia law, and that's the end of freedom as we know it. FREELAND: But doesn't the American opposition to the Islamic center near Ground Zero feed into a similar -- a similarly stereotypical understanding of America? And doesn't it justify that kind of an attitude about America? I mean, if you lived in a Muslim country --
ZAKARIA: Let's allow Dan, who is an opponent of the mosque --
SENOR: I am an opponent of the mosque.
ZAKARIA: -- to speak.
FREELAND: You are?
PARKER: I just don't see how you can just -- all right, go ahead.
SENOR: Well, I think that the imam has the right to build the mosque. I'm not suggesting he doesn't have the right to do it. And he's actually absolutely constitutionally protected in pursuing it, and he can't be formally stopped by government. But just because he has the right to do it, doesn't mean it's the most constructive thing to do.
I think it was divisive and --
PARKER: I understand. I've made that argument 100 times about other things. But in this case, if you are saying that one imam should not build a mosque here, then you are saying -- then you are essentially saying that all Muslims are culpable for what happened on 9/11.
SENOR: No, I'm not.
SENOR: Hold on. Those are your words. Those weren't mine. As someone who lives in the neighborhood --
PARKER: No, but that is the logical --
SENOR: No, no, no. We're simply saying that Muslims or anyone else have the right to build this kind of religious center there, but it's an issue that's still very raw for the majority of New Yorkers. A majority of New York residents are opposed to the mosque.
FREELAND: They could still be wrong. Majorities can be wrong. SENOR: I would venture to say -- I agree, but I'm just simply saying a majority of New York City residents who voted for Obama are extremely liberal and progressive.
SENOR: There's something going on there beyond --
FREELAND: You know what? Here's a shocker. Even people who voted for Obama and are liberal, they could be wrong.
LEVY: We have to say the truth. You are America, the greatest democracy in the world. America is founded on the idea that anyone can --
PARKER: I agree. We have to do it for ourselves. That's why we have to do it.
LEVY: -- worship his faith the way he wants to.
ZAKARIA: All right.
LEVY: If he withdraws this point, this will be a wound on the American flag.
ZAKARIA: This show was founded on the idea that we're going to talk about more than one subject.
FREELAND: He's running for office in New York.
ZAKARIA: Nobody has ever lost money betting against the Arab- Israeli peace process. So, here we are again.
Kathleen, would you say that this --
PARKER: This is the one, this is the time?
ZAKARIA: -- initiative, is it going to happen?
PARKER: You know, I've been watching this on the front page of my newspaper for my entire life. And so I have to say, I'm not very optimistic. But there's no basis for optimism.
SENOR: I am a little more optimistic than I was a few months ago for two reasons.
One, when President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu met on July 6th at the White House, the one-on-one meeting, not the one with the other members of the NSC, that one-on-one meeting, something happened in that meeting, because Netanyahu came out of that meeting and was ready to go full steam ahead on these direct negotiations dealing with final settlement issues.
And President Obama's language also changed on Iran. He went from saying, before that meeting, a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, to I am determined to stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. It was much more active.
I think there's a connection between the two that is giving Netanyahu some confidence. If the Americans are serious about doing something on Iran, he will be more committed on the Israeli-Palestinian track. And I think that's more progress than anyone would have thought. It's limited, but it's more progress than anyone would have thought a few months ago.
ZAKARIA: You have been following this all your life. What do you think?
LEVY: I am a little more optimistic for two reasons, two technical reasons. Not big ideas, technical reasons. The first one, the peoples there are fed up.
LEVY: Exhausted. The moderate Palestinians and the Israelis are just fed up of seeing this problem, this puzzle, always the same pieces in one way, in another way, since 40 years.
I'm like you. I'm older than you, much more, but it's such a long time. I see the same pieces. They are fed up.
And number two, you have a president today, for the first time, he did not wait the last year of his second mandate, the last year of his last mandate, to take care of the problem as W. Bush did and as Bill Clinton did. Remember (INAUDIBLE), the last year of the last months, racing to have his credit on the possible peace. Obama did one new thing the first year of his first mandate. He took the problem in his hands.
So it doesn't mean that he will succeed. It means that there is, for the first time since long, a real American will to help, a real good will between the two parties. And that is the second technical good news.
ZAKARIA: Practical, not philosophical.
LEVY: It is not philosophical. It is practical. I'm fed up of philosophy in this country.
FREELAND: I'm on the side of optimists, Fareed. And I have one more argument for optimism which actually should have been Dan's, because it's Dan's book which has made me -- given me one more reason for optimism. And it's a startup nation, that Israel actually is one country which has been remarkably successful in this post-industrial global economy. And to me, that has to be hopeful.
You know, Israel really is a Silicon -- a whole country of Silicon Valleys. And I think that that sort of rise of this highly technical, you know, well off, affluent, middle class Israel has to be helpful for the peace process.
SENOR: Well, and you're seeing venture capital investors in Israel, like Chemi Peres, Shimon Peres' son, and others, who are actually starting venture funds to invest in Israeli-Arab entrepreneurs, and even in part of the Palestinian Territories. I mean, Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, says, look, we've got some promising startups in Ramallah. But we need the mentoring from Israeli technologists and Israeli venture investors.
And that has opened, albeit it's between Israel and the West Bank, versus Israel and Gaza, but that has opened up the channel of communication that I don't think existed before.
ZAKARIA: Bernard-Henri Levy, Chrystia Freeland, Dan Senor, Kathleen Parker, thank you all very much.
And we will be back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would like bin Laden to understand the Muslim world is really against his point of view. 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAKARIA: Now for our "What in the World?" segment.
There's been lots of understandable anger here in the United States about the unemployment rate, which continues to hover around 10 percent. But imagine a country firing 10 percent of its workforce, essentially in one fell swoop.
That's what Cuba did this week. The government in that country announced that 500,000 workers, one out of 10 in the labor force, would lose their jobs by spring.
Now, Cuba's official unemployment rate was under two percent last year, the eighth lowest in the world. That unemployment rate must now technically go up sixfold.
Of course, the reality behind all these make believe numbers is that Cuba's economy is in deep trouble. After being devastated simultaneously by a hurricane and the world financial crisis, the Cuban government, operating an absurd socialist system, simply cannot afford to keep paying all the people that it promises to pay, even though it pays them a pittance. Now, forced by all these troubles, Cuba has finally been putting in place a series of reforms that have at least a whiff of capitalism to them. The government has started to allow foreigners to take 99- year lease deals on properties, opening the way for private golf courses, hotels, resorts. And if you're not interested in shaving down your golf handicap, you can actually get a shave and a trim in Cuba without paying the government for it.
Ever since the revolution, all barbershops in Cuba have been state run. But now Havana is setting some of them free, letting them set their own prices and wages and letting them make profits or losses.
In a speech last month President Raul Castro said his government would allow even more private business in Cuba. And then there's what Fidel Castro reportedly said to the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. "The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore."
Later, Castro said his words had been misunderstood. This is of course the classic definition of a gaffe, when a politician accidentally tells the truth.
Now, I think it's fair to say the future of Cuba's communist economic system probably lies in the hands of one man. But it's not Fidel Castro and it's not Raul Castro. They're not really going to change it. It's Barack Obama.
The one thing that could be truly transformative for Cuba would be open trade with America. But it can't happen because the U.S. has a strict embargo in place since 1959.
President Obama has taken some baby steps in the direction of liberalizing relations with Havana, easing travel restrictions for some, allowing unlimited remittances to be sent to families there, and expanding telecommunications between the two countries. The politicians in Washington, all scared of losing Cuban-American votes in Miami and in New Jersey, will not do what is blindingly obviously good for Cuba and America.
This is a pity, because this is the time to flood Cuba with commerce and contact, and thus transform the country. It would strengthen civil society in Cuba, weaken the Cuban government's vice- like grip on the country. Who knows? It could even lead to regime change in Cuba, which was the purpose of the embargo all along.
And we'll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bin Laden, he is like an average person.
ZAKARIA: He's not strategic?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. He's an average --
ZAKARIA: He's not particularly smart? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm Candy Crowley following the top story this morning. Deadly car bombings rocked Baghdad. Arwa Damon joins me for the latest developments there-Arwa.
ARWA DAMON, CNN BAGHDAD CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Candy.
And at least 29 people have been killed. Well over 100 wounded in those attacks that took place within minutes of each other at 11:15 in the morning. The target so far appears to be the Iraqi civilian population. One of them taking place when a minibus exploded in front of a cell phone shop. The other one happening at a fairly crowded intersection.
Additionally, there was a magnetic bomb that was placed underneath the vehicle of a minibus driver, killing him and his son. And overnight also a magnetic bomb placed underneath the vehicle of a ministry of interior official.
Just going to illustrate the fear and anxiety that Iraqis continue to live with, especially when they are out in traffic approaching these checkpoints. Many saying that checking underneath their vehicles has simply become part of their daily routine, Candy.
CROWLEY: Our Arwa Damon. Thanks so much.
Up next, more :"FAREED ZAKARIA GPS".
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: So when you were in Kandahar in 2000, you spent hours and hours with bin Laden. What is he like as a human being?
BENOTMAN: He is like very humble person. As a human being he was very humble. I feel like easy go? Yeah. Very polite. Even when there's like debate or, if I may say, like arguing. It's very hard to provoke him.
ZAKARIA: Is he charismatic?
BENOTMAN: Yes. And you know, charisma is something you can't gain. It's something you're born with. But there's something -- I should say here, a lot of people, when they work very close for any reasons -- you don't need to be Al Qaeda member. But if you have any chance to deal with bin Laden at the political level or strategic level, I believe the vast majority of the leaders or the intellectual people, they shared with me the point of view, bin laden, he is like an average person.
ZAKARIA: He's not strategic?
BENOTMAN: Yeah. He's an average --
ZAKARIA: He's not particularly smart?
BENOTMAN: No. At that level, when you talk about like developing strategies, launching a conflict like this one, you know, like at the global scale. And even a lot of issues, you know? And even it's - Doctor Zawahiri, he used to share this point, Doctor Zawahiri, the second in command. He used to-
ZAKARIA: He used to feel this way.
BENOTMAN: He used to share this point of view with me, with other people, and even his entire group, the Egyptian jihad, they strongly believe in what I'm saying. Abu Musab al Suri, other guys from different --
ZAKARIA: So did Zawahiri, Ayman al Zawahiri, the second in command of Al Qaeda, the Egyptian son of a doctor, is he -- does he see himself as the brains of Al Qaeda ?
BENOTMAN: I think he is.
ZAKARIA: All right. We are going to take a break. When we come back, we've talked a lot about the past. We're going to talk about the future of Al Qaeda. Where is it now? What should we worry about? When we come back.
BENOTMAN: It's extremely nonsense idea to just -- you know, 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 and the understanding of Islam, you know, which is a crazy idea.
ZAKARIA: And we are back with Noman Benotman, a former associate of Osama bin Laden, who is telling us about the past, present, and future of Al Qaeda . Why did you renounce terrorism?
BENOTMAN: When I became Islamist or jihadist or, as you mentioned, terrorist, if you like, despite I not agree with this term --
ZAKARIA: And you said you don't agree with the term because I'm guessing you saw yourself as a freedom fighter or a national liberation movement.
BENOTMAN: Yes, kind of this. A rebel, if you like, or whatever. Because myself at the personal level, I've never, ever committed like any crime about -- against any, if you like, civilian target or whatever. I'm proud of myself, you know, during the fight against the Soviet Union. I was a very armed soldier. I do respect my AK-47. You know. I do respect it a lot.
ZAKARIA: But you did find in the jihad against the Soviet Union?
ZAKARIA: Along with bin Laden?
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.
ZAKARIA: Noman Benotman, thank you very much. This has been a great pleasure.
BENOTMAN: Thank you very much for having me in your program. Thank you very much.
ZAKARIA: And we will be back.
Now for our question of the week. Do you think TARP, the bank bailout, restored the American economy? Or was it a waste of money? Let me know what you think.
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Now, this week's book, Tony Blair's new memoir, "A Journey."
I was really surprised by how frank and revealing this book is. It is the ultimate inside look at Britain, trans-Atlantic relations, the run-up to the war in Iraq, and Blair's personal thoughts on everybody from Lady Di to Dick Cheney, from Barack Obama to the Queen. Pick it up.
Now for the "Last Look." I bet these photographs will bring most of you back. Back to the 1980s, that great decade of excess. This was of course the amazing shoe collection of Imelda Marcos. She was the wife of Ferdinand Marcos, the president of the Philippines, who declared martial law and flaunted his elaborate lifestyle while his people starved.
Emblematic of that lifestyle, Imelda's almost 3,000 pairs of shoes. Flash forward 20-some-odd years to today. Ferdinand is long deposed and dead. And Imelda back in the Philippines, following exile, is now a member of Congress who has just been named chair of a committee that is charged with implementing the U.N.'s goal of cutting the poverty level in her country in half in five years.
I wish her the best of luck. It's a noble cause. Should might start with a shoe sale. Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week. Stay tuned for "RELIABLE SOURCES."