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Robert Fisk: The Progressive Interview

By Matthew Rothschild

Two common items circulating among progressives on the Internet after September 11 have been Robert Fisk's dispatches for the London Independent and W.H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939." The last stanza of that poem begins: "All I have is a voice/To undo the folded lie." That's what Fisk does: He uses his voice to expose falsehoods and highlight injustice and, as Auden put it, to "exchange messages" with the rest of us who are in this together.

The most decorated British foreign correspondent, Fisk has been based in the Middle East for the last twenty-five years, and his knowledge of the area is unparalleled. He has interviewed Osama bin Laden three times, once in the Sudan and twice in Afghanistan, and his take on the man is instructive. So, too, is his warning about the current war, which he views as a trap. Here's what he said in his article of September 13: "A slaughter by the U.S. in retaliation for the New York and Washington bloodbaths might just move the Arab masses from stubborn docility to the point of detonation.

Three years ago, I interviewed Fisk when he came through Madison (see our July 1998 issue). This time, I called him in his hotel room in Islamabad on October 24 and spoke with him for an hour and forty-five minutes.

Unique in his ability to mix first-hand reporting with trenchant analysis, Fisk is a storyteller at heart, and he interrupted his conversation several times to check his notebook to make sure he was giving me precise quotations. Toward the end, he cited the British pacifist poet Siegfried Sassoon, and before we signed off, he invoked Auden, whose "Epitaph on a Tyrant" is about Stalin, Fisk said, "but is perfect for Saddam Hussein." Auden wrote, "When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter, And when he cried the little children died in the streets."

Just then, the operator broke in on the line, and Fisk said, "Matt, we'll have to stop the poetry session.

Here is an excerpt of our talk:

Q: Where were you when you first heard about the September 11 attacks?

Robert Fisk: I was actually on an airliner, about to head from Europe across the Atlantic. The plane hadn't moved away from the stand when I got a phone call from the office saying that it looked like two hijacked planes had just flown into the World Trade Center. I walked back and immediately told the crew members, and they told the captain, who came out and asked me what I knew. We took off anyway and started over the Atlantic. The pilot was talking to Brussels, and the co-pilot was coming back and telling me what they were being told. Then we heard there was a fourth aircraft that had somehow crashed into the ground in Pennsylvania. After a while, they came on in French--it was a French airliner--and said that America had just closed all its air space, so we're turning around. Back I went toward Europe again.

Q: Do you think Osama bin Laden is responsible for the attacks?

Fisk: When you have a crime against humanity that is so awesome in scale and death, it is more than permissible to look around and say, who recently has been declaring war on the United States? Of course, the compass points straight to bin Laden.

But why is it that we go to immense lengths getting the Serbs who were responsible for the massacre of 7,000 at Srbrenica--that's slightly more than the total figure for New York--and we take them to a tribunal in The Hague, and one after another, we arraign them, try them, convict them, and punish them in front of the world, but no plans have been brought forward to get bin Laden and his friends and put them on trial?

Q: What do you make of the evidence against bin Laden?

Fisk: I was very struck by the fact that Colin Powell said he would produce evidence and then never produced it. Then Tony Blair produced a document of seventy paragraphs, but only the last nine referred to the World Trade Center, and they were not convincing. So we have a little problem here: Ifthey're guilty, where is the evidence? And if we can't hear the evidence, why are we going to war?

Q: At the beginning of the war, you said the U.S. might be falling into a trap. What did you mean?

Fisk: If it is bin Laden, he's a very intelligent guy. He's been planning his war for a long time. I remember the last time I met him in 1997 in Afghanistan. It was so cold. When I awoke in the morning in the tent, I had frost in my hair. We were in a twenty-five-foot-wide and twenty-five-foot-high air raid shelter built into the solid rock of the mountain by bin Laden during the war against the Russians. And bin Laden said to me (he was being very careful, watching me writing it down), "From this mountain, Mr. Robert, upon which you are sitting, we beat the Russian army and helped break the Soviet Union. And I pray to God that he allows us to turn America into a shadow of itself." When I saw the pictures of New York without the World Trade Center, New York looked like a shadow of itself.

Bin Laden is not well read and he's not sophisticated, but he will have worked out very coldly what America would do in response to this. I'm sure he wanted America to attack Afghanistan. Once you do what your enemy wants, you are walking into a trap, whether you think it's the right thing to do or not.

Q: And what is that trap?

Fisk: To bring the Americans in, to strike so brutally and with so much blood at an innocent Muslim people that an explosion comes throughout the Middle East. Bin Laden was constantly revolving in his mind the fact that he had got rid of the Russians; therefore, the Americans can be got rid of, too. And where better than in the country where he knows how to fight?

As things continue, it will be more and more difficult for the dictators, kings, and princes in the Middle East to go on justifying this. They are going to have to start saying, "No, stop." When they do that, the United States is going to have to ignore them. Once they are ignored, they lose the last element of respect. The longer this war goes on, the better for bin Laden.

Q: You've interviewed bin Laden three times in the 1990s. What's he like?

Fisk: He's very shrewd. But he struck me, even in 1997, as being remarkably out of touch. I remember thinking this does not look like the type of guy who walks to the top of a mountain with a mobile phone and says, "Operation B, attack."

Bin Laden was very keen to point out to me that his forces had fought the Americans in Somalia. He also wanted to talk about how many mullahs in Pakistan were putting up posters saying, "We follow bin Laden." He even produced a sort of Kodak set of snapshots of graffiti supporting him, which had been spray-painted on the walls of Karachi four and a half years ago. He gave me some of the snapshots and said, "You can keep them, you can keep them. See, this is proof that my word is getting out."

So when the Americans put a million-dollar reward on his head, I thought, first of all, it probably isn't high enough; he could out pay anyone who tried to get it. Secondly, I can't think of anything he wanted more. Now he is America's number one enemy. He's always wanted to be that. The bin Laden I met each time was in a simple Saudi white robe, with a simple, cheap kafiya and very cheap plastic sandals. But a videotape released before September 11, which I saw on Lebanese television, had him in a gold embroidered robe. When I saw this, I thought, whoa, has this guy changed? I wouldn't have imagined him ever appearing in such golden robes when I met him.

Q: What is bin Laden after?

Fisk: At the end of the day, bin Laden's interest is not Washington and New York, it's the Middle East. He wants Saudi Arabia. He wants to get rid of the House of Saud. There's a great deal of resentment, even inside the royal family, at the continued military presence of the United States there. Saudi Arabia is the most fragile of all Arab states, though we're not saying so. And, unfortunately, bin Laden puts his finger on the other longstanding injustices in the Arab world: the continued occupation of Palestinian land by the Israelis; the enormous, constant Arab anger with the tens of thousands of Iraqi children who are dying under sanctions; the feelings of humiliation of millions of Arabs living under petty dictators, almost all of whom are propped up by the West.

Whether he's doing it cynically and has no interest in these matters, or whether he's doing it out of genuine conviction, his voice has a tremendous resonance throughout the Arab world. One editorial in a Lebanese paper said it is a matter of great humiliation for the Arabs that the only man who can outline, truthfully, what our humiliations are is an Arab who has to say it from a cave in a foreign country.

I've lived in the Middle East for twenty-five years. I know exactly how these issues come up. Even my landlord, who is a moderate Lebanese guy, says, "But bin Laden says what we think." These people believe that bin Laden is being targeted not because of the World Trade Center and Washington; they are not convinced by the evidence that has been produced. They believe he's being targeted because he tells the truth.

Q: Bush says this is a war of freedom-loving people against the evil ones. What do you make of that?

Fisk: The three main Muslim partners of this so-called coalition are Uzbekistan, whose president, Islam Karimov, has 7,000 political prisoners, no opposition, and no free press; Saudi Arabia, which is a complete autocracy, with absolutely no representation, and women treated more or less as women are treated by the Taliban, with regular Friday amputations and head-choppings; and Pakistan, which has a military dictator running the show. The three main local Muslim props of a famous coalition have nothing to do with democracy at all, nor are we trying to bring democracy to these countries. This isn't a war against terror; it's a war against America's enemies.

Q: What's your opinion of the Northern Alliance?

Fisk: The Taliban are iniquitous, but so is the Northern Alliance. Some of the guys in the Northern Alliance are war criminals. One of the Northern Alliance commanders ran a slave girl network in Kabul in 1994. Remember that there was a period when every woman on the streets was at risk of being raped. This was the Northern Alliance period of glory. These are our new foot soldiers. What was it that Cheney said the other day? "Some of the people who are on our side are not the kind of people we would invite to dinner or we would want as neighbors." Now that's sarcasm gone to obscenity.

Q: Do you think Mohamed Atta was the mastermind of the attacks, or do you think he was taking orders?

Fisk: You know, the whole issue of orders is something I've been debating. We live in a society in the West, where, when men do violent things, they do them under orders. They are soldiers carrying out orders or mafia men carrying out killings for bosses. But the way things happen in the Middle East is not the same as in the West. Look, international capital has been globalized, so bin Laden is globalized. It's not surprising to find followers of bin Laden in all these countries. There are followers of Dunkin' Donuts and Colonel What's His Name, if you see what I mean. Individuals in various countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia listen to the tapes of bin Laden. They gather in groups of four or five. They feel they want to do something to express their support for what they've heard. The idea that they were taking orders is a particularly Western idea.

I still wonder if the United States realizes how much planning went into this. When we talk about "mindless terrorists," we are lying to ourselves. Because none of them--not the guy who walks into an Israeli pizzeria full of kids, I was down that street, I covered that story--get up in the morning, eat some hummus, have a cup of coffee, and say, "Hmm. Let's go and set off a suicide bomb today." I've invariably found out they'd spent weeks and weeks and weeks planning it. It's not like they got this religious feeling, and one week later they blow themselves up. For example, the guys who drove cars into Israeli convoys would for weeks practice driving the same car on the same piece of road over and over again. Dummy runs, right?

Now these guys must have done dummy runs on the airplanes. They must have spent months buying airplane tickets, going on the same aircraft over and over, actually doing the whole journey, checking to see if the flight deck was normally open and how many crew members were on board. And of course, they worked out that a full fuel load would kill everyone and bring the World Trade Center down. These guys must have traveled up the elevators looking at the buildings, deciding which side to hit, and how many floors down you have to go. They must have worked out the structural instability of the building. They must have taken many pictures of it.

Q: What do you think are the roots of terrorism?

Fisk: These terrible acts occur because of political situations and injustice in various parts of the world. The Middle East is heavy with injustice. After September 11, Bush announced that he had always had a vision of a Palestinian state. Why didn't he tell us that before September 11, when it would have been a bit more impressive? Then Tony Blair announces that he's always wanted a viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as the capital, and Arafat gets invited to Downing Street. Then Powell arrives here in Pakistan and announces he wants to solve the Kashmir crisis. All of which shows that the United States and Britain realize that there is a connection, otherwise why are they trying to patch up all these longstanding injustices suddenly now?

Q: What about other causes of terrorism, like poverty and Islamic fundamentalism?

Fisk: We love to think this is all about poverty, and, of course, it has a connection. You can see that these people not only are poor but they have no outlets. These governments allow no opposition. So what do people do? They go to Islam. It's the only organizational institution where they can express their feelings.

But it's not about poverty. I've never seen a single demonstration in Pakistan, in the streets of Gaza, in the West Bank, in which the people have come out with signs saying, "Please give us better roads. Please give us new prenatal clinics. Please give us a new sewage system." I'm sure they'd like those things, but it's not what they demand in the demonstrations. In the demonstrations, they talk about justice, they talk about an end to Israeli occupation. In the demonstrations here in Pakistan, they talk about their anger at the killing of innocent Afghans. They talk about their need for democracy. But they do not talk about poverty. Fundamentalism is not bred in poverty. There are plenty of poor countries in the world that don't have violence because amid the poverty there is a kind of justice and in some countries a democracy. The violence stems from injustice, because people feel they have been treated unfairly, whether that means military occupation, starvation under U.N.! sanctions, whether it means that they have a dictatorship imposed on them, propped up by the West. This is why people turn to violence, because they have no other avenue left.

Q: And what about Islamic fundamentalism itself?

Fisk: The Muslim world has not begun to ask about the bin Ladens, and the Mullah Omars, and the Mohamed Attas. There hasn't been a single sociological inquiry, not one serious discourse about how these people came to be what they are. When are Muslims in the Middle East and in the subcontinent going to ask these questions? How could believers, people who regard themselves as true Muslims, get on those planes, quoting the words of God delivered through the Prophet to themselves, knowing they were going to kill innocent people? They saw the other passengers on the plane. They could see the woman with her little daughter. They saw people making phone calls to their wives or their husbands. They knew who they were killing. These guys got on airplanes with kids and women and innocent people on board, knowing that they were going to vaporize them. And they came on board allegedly rereading quotations from the Koran. There is a problem here. And I don't think that problem has got any! where near being addressed in the Muslim world. Whatever the political injustices are that created an environment that brought this about, it was not Americans who flew those planes into those buildings. And we should remember that. The crimes against humanity were perpetrated by people who were Arab Muslims. And I haven't seen anyone address that issue out here. And they should.

Q: What's your take on the theological language coming out of Bush's mouth, as when he said: "God is not neutral"?

Fisk: All I can say is that I remember the Siegfried Sassoon poem in which God is listening to the soldiers on the German front lines and on the British front lines, both praying for victory. The line goes: "God this, God that. 'My God,' said God, 'I've got my work cut out.' "

Q: What happens if Bush gets bin Laden?

Fisk: I don't know what happens if they get bin Laden. I'm much more interested in what happens if they don't get bin Laden.

Q: Then what?

Fisk: We're going to have to produce a whole plate load of things that we've achieved and say that he's been neutralized, and that he may be dead. But when the next videotape comes up, I don't know what we do. It's very easy to start a war but the muftah, as the Arabs say, the key to switch off a war, is very difficult to find. Invariably, if this goes on, the civilian casualties will go into the thousands. That's what happens in wars. And when we reach 5,000 are we going to say, "OK, that's equal"? Or are we going to go to 12,000 and 24,000? In about three or four weeks time, this could turn into a tragedy of biblical proportions, as the starving and dying of famine arrive at the borders. They're going to die in front of the cameras. At which point, there's going to be a most unseemly and revolting argument in which we're going to say, "It's the Taliban's fault. They got all the food; they didn't distribute it. If they weren't there, we wouldn't be bombing." And the Taliban and a lot of Muslims are going to say, "These people are dying because they are fleeing from your bombs, and now you're not going to help them." That's where this war is going to go off the tracks. And that's what's going to enrage Arabs.

The Arabs have seen the pictures of emaciated Iraqi kids dying. Are they now going to see pictures of emaciated Afghan kids dying?

Q: What do you make of the talk in Washington about the possibility of going to Baghdad next?

Fisk: If the Americans really want to make the Middle East explode, that's all they have to do. I mean, how much further can you go before you turn a whole people against you? How much more provocative do you have to be? You know, when you see what is happening out here, and you see it in the perspective of how many dead over how many years, the surprise to me is that we didn't see planes flying into buildings long ago. How come it took so long? This is not an excuse for these wicked crimes against humanity, but I'm very surprised this didn't happen earlier. And if we go into Iraq as well, then stand by for more bin Ladens.

Matthew Rothschild is Editor of The Progressive.

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