As the newest videotaped message from Osama bin Laden is broadcast four days before the election, we speak with veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, who has interviewed bin Laden three times. Fisk also discusses Iraqi civilian casualties, kidnapped humanitarian worker Margaret Hassan, Palestinian leader Yasser Araft’s ailing health and much more. [includes rush transcript]
This is Democracy Now!’s special election coverage "Countdown to the Showdown: The Battle for the White House," The final Gallup poll of the 2004 election was released yesterday showing President Bush and John Kerry in the closest presidential race in the history of Gallup Polls. The poll puts the two in a statistical dead heat, 49-49.
At least 10 states could end up going to either Bush or Kerry. Of six states polled by Gallup, Kerry was slightly ahead in three: Ohio, Florida and Minnesota. Bush had slight leads in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa, although a Des Moines Register poll released Sunday had Kerry up slightly in Iowa. And other polls released over the weekend showed Kerry ahead in Pennsylvania and Bush ahead in Florida. In all six states, terrorism or the war in Iraq were named by at least half of prospective voters as their primary concern.
The poll comes as the newest videotaped message from Osama bin Laden dominated the Sunday talk shows. Some are calling it a mini-October surprise. The tape was broadcast on Friday afternoon by the Arabic network al Jazeera. Bin Laden appears to be in good health and is dressed in a gold colored robe standing at a podium reading from prepared notes. The 18 minutes address was directed at the American people. Bin Laden mentioned both Bush and Kerry by name, saying that neither of them can bring security to the people of the United States.
On the tape, bin Laden says that the motivation for the September 11 attacks goes back to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the US support for the invasion. He said "As I was looking at those towers that were destroyed in Lebanon, it occurred to me that we have to punish the transgressor with the same — and that we had to destroy the towers in America so that they taste what we tasted, and they stop killing our women and children."
Bin Laden blasts Bush’s handling of the 9/11 attacks saying, "We never knew that the commander-in-chief of the American armed forces would leave 50,000 of his people in the two towers to face those events by themselves when they were in the most urgent need of their leader. He was more interested in listening to the child’s story about the goat rather than worry about what was happening to the towers. So, we had three times the time necessary to accomplish the events."
He compares the Bush administration and the Bush family to Gulf monarchies and military dictatorships in the Middle East, saying Bush "moved the tyranny and suppression of freedom to his own country, and they called it the Patriot Act, under the disguise of fighting terrorism. And Bush, the father, found it good to install his children as governors and leaders."
Bin Laden dismissed the Bush administration’s contention that the attacks were carried out because al Qaeda hates freedom. Bin Laden asks, if we hate freedom —let him tell us then, "Why did we not attack Sweden?"
- Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent. He is the author of "Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon"
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk joins us on the line right now, the chief Middle East correspondent for The London Independent, author of, Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Robert.
ROBERT FISK: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Your reaction to the Bin Laden tape.
ROBERT FISK: Well, it is clearly timed for the election, and indeed it, looks to me like he’s voting for Bush. Although he tells the American people, it is in their hands, it is not Bush or Kerry. He has always had this notion. I remember in 1996, I thought it was outlandish, I didn’t put it in my report of my meeting, he had this idea that the American people would shrug off the American government, and would — their individual states of the union would become individual countries, a bit like Yugoslavia has now become. I said to him at the time, I don’t think you seem to realize the American people vote for the government in the United States, which they don’t of course in Saudi Arabia and most other states in the Middle East. And he just seemed to let that go. He was obsessed at the time with Somalia and how the Americans were paper tigers there. I must say when I read that he was telling the American people that Bush couldn’t protect them, he didn’t do very well in protecting the Afghanistan from the Americans, did he? But no, this is clearly Osama Bin Laden coming back into the picture. You have to realize that he is, and this is a fact I can promise you, he keeps up with television news reports, writing, and so on. So, he knows what is being said. The idea of thinking that he is out of touch, he might have been many years ago but not now. He’s not a — an internationally shrewd figure. He has never traveled very much although oddly enough, he has been to Sweden. I did notice that reference to Sweden in the text. He has actually been there, but he does understand what’s going on in the rest of the world. So, therefore, this was a clear attempt to come in. My belief is that he would calculate correctly, that a tape in which there’s a further threat against the United States by the people who — well, he actually says himself, he admits it the idea occurred to me of the twin towers and the international crimes against humanity of September 11, 2001. I’m sure he realizes that further threats are more likely to help Bush than Kerry and what Osama Bin Laden wants now, of course, is a president to be elected who will further mire the country into the Middle East swamp, and cause, of course more American casualties, which Bush will surely do. So, I think that this is probably Osama Bin Laden’s vote for George W. Bush.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Fisk, who interviewed Osama Bin Laden twice.
ROBERT FISK: Three times, actually.
AMY GOODMAN: Three times? When did you interview him and how does he compare in how he looks to when you interviewed him?
ROBERT FISK: Well, it’s an odd thing to say, and I noticed this before the American bombardment of Afghanistan. When I used to see him, he was always dressed very humbly, in a white Jallabia, a cheap cotton gown and Keffiyeh headdress like any Palestinian or Gulf Arab might wear. But more and more now he appears, when he does appear in videos, in sort of gold-fringed robes. And I wonder if that is not a certain amount of vanity crept into his personality. After all, he is a fairly well known guy now. And I wonder if this isn’t — if I could see something of the Mahdi there, the person who began to believe he was a personal sort of interpreter for some higher being. It’s interesting that he constantly wants to be portrayed as did before as being in a cave. Of course, the prophet Mohammad lived in a cave. And indeed he was on a mountain outcrop when he first received the message from God. And I wonder what is actually going on not politically over the United States or attacks, but I wonder what’s going none the Bin Laden mind. That’s not the first time he has had such a smart gown on. He was wearing it like that all in 2000. But before that he was a much more humble figure, but I suppose could you say that, before he probably thought he had more to be humble about.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet interestingly, he did not make any reference to the Koran.
ROBERT FISK: Well, I think that the tape was slightly longer than the one that you have seen. And I believe he does make reference to the Koran in the full half hour tape. You thought it was 18 minutes. But it hasn’t all been aired. I have spoken to the people who got the original tape and there are a number of Koranic expressions. That’s not quite right, but it is not your fault that you got it wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read you to Walter Cronkite’s comments. I don’t know if you heard about them.
ROBERT FISK: Well, I know who Walter Cronkite is but I don’t know about his comments.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, he said this on Larry King. He said, so now the question is basically right now, how will this affect the election. And I have a feeling it could tilt the election a bit. In fact, I’m inclined to think that Karl Rove, the political manager at the White House, who is a very clever man, he probably set up Bin Laden to this thing. The advantage to the Republican side is to get rid of, as a principle subject of the campaigns right now, get rid of the whole problem of the Al-Qaqaa explosive dump.
ROBERT FISK: I don’t really think it’s worth much comment. I know the timing and the dates when this tape originally arrived in Islamabad. I don’t think anything could have been — it wasn’t — for example it didn’t arrive five weeks ago and was then held up until the right moment in the election if that’s what Cronkite was suggesting. I don’t think there is any — yeah, I think that’s a conspiratorial theory. There’s a lot of things in this, which suggest that Bin Laden is oddly enough actually trying to torture Americans. You see, at the very beginning, when he says, Bush is still misleading you and misinforming you by not telling you the truth. The odd thing about that is an awful lot of people think that Bin Laden is quite correct and accurate in saying that. He is not correct in much else, but in that he is. He never was of course in Beirut in 1982, you know, he keeps going back to the Lebanese invasion. Although he certainly would have seen pictures. And I saw the real thing in Beirut, whole apartment blocks crumbling to the ground with all of the occupants inside, with — after the Israelis had bombed the buildings from the air, claiming that "terrorists" were inside, when in fact in almost all cases, I went to, they were just civilians families, babies, children, who of course were flattened like pancakes underneath this mass of concrete and iron. They looked frankly when I saw them very much like the dead looked of September 11. So, I’m not making a dark comparison. That’s what Bin Laden is doing. But I understand what he is talking about when he talks about the destroyed towers in Lebanon. The odd thing is that there’s a slightly wrong translation from the Arabic. He says that, you know, he never thought of an attack on the twin towers in New York. What he actually says in the Arabic was, I had never thought of doing it until I saw what happened in Lebanon. Then the idea occurred to me. In other words, he’s saying that the inspiration came from Israel’s invasion rather than him sitting down and saying there’s a good target. I’m not sure I believe him because it’s quite clear that the targets, which were chosen were to represent finance and the military. And I — if indeed Ziad Jarrah’s plane, the Lebanese hijacker, I would have thought that would have gone for the legislature and Capitol Hill. Interesting enough, Ziad Jarrah himself was in the Beirut siege and his family who I met managed to get him out. He was a small boy at the time, fascinated by airplanes and flying. He was just a schoolboy. Actually attending a Christian school. And his father told me that after he had gotten out of Beirut and he had seen the air attacks, he refused to play with his sister in the park or go to the swings because he said, what had happened in Beirut was too serious. Of course, he naturally occurred to me when I heard Bin Laden speaking, that if he had met Ziad Jarrah, and I rather suspect he had, Jarrah himself may have given his childhood memories of what happened in Lebanon to Bin Laden, but that might sound as conspiratorial as Walter Cronkite. I don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for The Independent, we have to break, when we come back I want to ask you about Yasser Arafat, his health and the significance of his going to France, and his leadership in Palestine and Israel’s struggle. And I want to ask you about the deadliest weekend we have seen in Iraq over the last six months for U.S. soldiers. And then the study, 100,000 Iraqis dead.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk on the line us with, Middle East correspondent for The Independent. You wrote a piece on Saturday, Robert, the title, "The Truth is that Yasser Arafat died years ago. He married the revolution. And in the end, he became a little dictator, falsely promising democracy." Your response to the latest news of Yasser Arafat and his health?
ROBERT FISK: Well, he has been — he’s died so many times, hasn’t he? We were told originally, he died in one of the air raids in Beirut in 1982, and he didn’t. Then he had a crash in the Libyan desert in his plane and he was okay, but the pilot was killed. Then he had a blood clot in the brain on the way to Baghdad from Amman and Jordanian doctors saved him. This time, of course, it clearly is serious. Although, I mean in a way, when you look at it symbolically, this old man like an elderly owl who has been trapped inside this rubble for three years, still talking about going to Jerusalem and leading his people to a new state, and so on, peace of the brave, and then eventually, he’s hauled out on a stretcher looking like a skeleton and taken off to a foreign country from which he may never return alive. It’s not the way in which leaders should go, but the problem is, you see, all along, he never allowed a new leadership to take shape around him. He was a corrupt man. He is a corrupt man. He won’t be doing much corruption for a while now, but all this time, and this is the great tragedy of the Palestinians, apart from the fact their living under occupation, which is a greater tragedy for them, is that this is a man who didn’t allow young and educated Palestinians to take their place in a new political entity. If you look at the pictures or look at any of the pictures that you see of Arafat outside the Mukada building in Ramallah, you look at the pictures of him coming out when he was led out of the building and put in the helicopter, all the men around him are paunchy, 50-60 year olds from the days of fighting the Israelis in Lebanon in the 80’s. Whenever a bright young spokesman has popped up on television from the Palestinian side, they are being slapped out and the old men are being brought back. Like, for example, the Palestinian representative of the United Nations, who is almost incomprehensible on television or radio. Especially when the Israelis put up extremely eloquent and well educated young people to represent their country. So he’s — you know, I have said many times, even Arafat as a physical existence, that’s not a face that you would see on a student dorm window along with Che Guevara or even Castro. In a sense, he represents by his continuity, by his desire to represent the revolution, to be married to the revolution, as he put it, which is wife found out what that meant. It has a consistency and a kind of courage to it, but he had everything wrong with the Arabs in the sense that he turned into just another Arab dictator, which is exactly what I think the Israelis wanted. They want an obedient dictator to manage the occupation for them. It was interesting that when the second Intifada broke out, the Israelis asked the question, can Arafat control his own people, which of course was dutifully taken up, the Israelis set the agenda for CNN and the BBC, who said, can care fat control his people, having forgotten that the principle behind the Oslo agreement was not that Arafat would control his people but that he would represent them. And in a sense he does represent them, because in the streets there are people who say we need control, you see? One of the great sicknesses I think, the cancers of the Arab world is the desire for people to put a form of authoritarian regime over the freedoms of the kind of democracy that we think we live in. I would have to say, however, that if he was an Iraqi, living in the hell of Iraq at the moment, I might well look back wishfully on the terrible days of Saddam compared to the infinitely more violent and dangerous days today.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of which, your latest question, what’s happening in Iraq right now, as well as the capture, the kidnapping of Margaret Hassan, and the threatened, what will happen to her, the killing of the U.S. soldiers, and the 100,000 report, which we’re going to talk about in a minute, of casualties in Iraq—Iraqi civilians.
ROBERT FISK: Well, you know, the problem is that although some of us, when we go to Iraq are still moving around, most of my colleagues, and I don’t blame them at all, scarcely leave their hotels tells because it’s too dangerous. We still have the two French journalists missing. Although mostly, I understand they’re still alive. We have had journalists murdered; quite a few of them. So, when you talk like this, for example, I just listened to your questions. Excuse me. We are constantly faced by this kind of theatrical facade. Who has Margaret Hassan? We don’t know. I know Margaret very well, but there’s no claim from a particular group. There are no armed men standing in the background with the Islamic banners. Who took her? Why? We hear eight marines were killed. On operational duties. What does that mean? Were they ambushed? Were they in a tank that blew up? Were they in a helicopter that crashed? What does it mean? We hear 100,000 casualties. Well, there are two ways of getting a casualty rate, an Iraq casualty rate in Iraq. One is to go around all of the scholarly notebooks of doctors and morticians who wrote down five more bodies at 2:17 p.m. this afternoon. To go to all of the hospitals, to go the ministry of health and when we’ve done that, and of course, the associated press had a pretty good go at this before most of Iraq went outside of government control, we came up with a figure that got to around 20,000 or 30,000 Iraqis. The figure of 100,000 has been extrapolated from a series of interviews in specific locations based upon percentages. In other words, if they went to five houses in a street and found that 20 more people had died of violence in the previous year, then they would extrapolate out from that increase in violence and what it meant. But the 100,000 is not a record of actual deaths. It’s an extrapolation of percentages put forward in what is in effect a kind of opinion poll. It may be less than 100,000. It may be considerably less, but I think when you get to the point where you are sort of saying, "my god it wasn’t 30,000 but 100,000," you are beginning to forget the individual and it’s the individual Iraqi who is suffering every day, every day, and there are many, many deaths will never be recorded simply because in a small village out in the desert, they will bury the person quickly and the authorities essentially have no control there anymore. There’s no one to take down deaths and no one to notify. In Baghdad you still have to notify deaths. So you can go down to the Baghdad city mortuary, and I actually go there and meet the doctors and morticians. I actually stand there among the corpses and we can count them each day. Now that I can do. I can tell you, on a certain day 27 people were brought with gunshot wounds into this hospital. And I can do all the hospitals in Baghdad. But I can’t travel to Najaf and Samara and Fallujah and count there, too. So there is and there will be no precise statistic. That of course is precisely the way the United States and Britain and the American military and America’s appointed Iyad Allawi, so-called interim prime minister, that’s the way they want it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well Robert Fisk, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Middle east correspondent for The Independent, interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times.