In December 2004, I worked with Peter Bergen and Karen Greenberg in organizing a major conference in the US Senate titled “Al Qaeda 2.0“. Bergen, probably the world’s most famous al Qaeda and bin Laden tracker, had arranged one of the first major interviews by a Western journalist of bin Laden in 1997. Greenberg was then and is Executive Director of the NYU Center on Law & Security.
The purpose of the meeting was to try and assemble as many of the Western and non-Western journalists who had interviewed Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, or Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
The meeting was a huge success — recorded for an entire day by C-Span — and attended by more than 650 people during the day who cycled through and jammed to the rafters the courtly Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building. During the planning of this meeting, some intelligence officials visited me to express their displeasure and dismay about the New America Foundation hosting and organizing this meeting — then planned for the National Press Club. I was personally ticked off about the visit and then sought the support and sponsorship of Senators John Breaux and Chuck Hagel to get the meeting moved to the US Senate.
The good thing is that the FBI, Defense Intelligence, the CIA, and other of the many intelligence nodes in the US government sent their top tier behavioralists to study and learn what they could from the “friends of Bergen” who spoke at the meeting. We got most of the visas we needed for the non-Western writers who had spent considerable time with bin Laden and his management team; the one disappointing exception the government finally relented on later was the populist and articulate Abdel Bari Atwan, editor in chief of Al Quds in London. Atwan was one of the earliest to spend a very long period of time with Bin Laden at Osama’s request.
One of the really interesting points repeatedly made at this meeting by Peter Bergen, now director of national security studies at the New America Foundation, was that the couriers were probably the key to wrapping up the senior leadership. The couriers moved tapes containing statements by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri to Al Jazeera conduits and also communicated messages between al Qaeda’s war lords.
Bergen emphasized this in meeting after meeting in the early days of serious bin Laden-tracking that had been ratcheted up after 9/11. And of course, Peter Bergen was one that US intelligence officials were constantly meeting with to learn what he knew about these people and how they operated.
Perhaps the “courier” watch program that the government hatched was only logical in the end — but it does seem to me that Peter Bergen was one of the first to regularly and consistently say that the best track to bin Laden would be through couriers, and my gut hunch is that the focus that the Obama/Donilon/Panetta team put on the Osama hunt followed the Bergen groove perhaps more earnestly than those that preceded it, though i recognize that there may be some inside the system who could argue differently.
But Bergen does deserve attention for the role he has played on the outside, helping the inside find and eventually snuff out one of the great villains of our time.
— Steve Clemons