Nov. 17, 2004 -- Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who headed the agency's Osama bin Laden unit, tells ABC News' Peter Jennings in an interview that the U.S. government has a fundamental misunderstanding of the al Qaeda leader.
Scheuer, who published the book "Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror" under the name "Anonymous," started profiling bin Laden in the mid-1980s. He resigned from the CIA this month so he could speak freely about what he regards as a general failure to understand bin Laden.
Following is an excerpt of the interview:
Peter Jennings: Can you tell me, first of all, what do you think of Osama bin Laden?
Michael Scheuer: He is a dedicated pious Muslim. An apparently devout family man. He is also that odd combination of a 12th century religious person, and a modern, almost the CEO-type, officer. He manages an entirely unique multinational organization and does it very well. His actions, of course, are reprehensible in our perception. And we need to kill him and defeat him.
Jennings: Why is his "piety," or his "religion," if you will, relevant to our security?
Scheuer: It's relevant, sir, because, many Muslims in the Islamic world regard as an "assault on their religion" -- certainly our presence on the Arabian peninsula remains a grievous offense to many, many Muslims, whether they support bin Laden or not.
Jennings: Because that's where two of the holy places are located.
Scheuer: And the homeland of the prophets, sir. It's the first holiest place in Islam. With the war in Iraq, we now occupy the second holiest place in Islam. And with the Israelis holding Jerusalem, they occupy the third holiest place. So in a sense, we have managed to portray ourselves as the "invaders of Islamic sanctities."
Jennings: When we, at the media, get a tape of Osama bin Laden, we always look for the headline. I'd like to know, when you see the tape, what do you look for?
Scheuer: This is the fourth time Osama bin Laden has talked directly to the American people, saying, "It really doesn't matter if President Bush or Mr. Kerry are elected, if the policies don't change. I know you live in a democracy. I know that you elect the leader. And if you don't like his policies, you elect a new leader. And we will only take it as an act of war, if you again elect a leader, who doesn't change his policies regarding the Islamic world."
Jennings: So what can we, either collectively or in terms of government, learn from this?
Scheuer: I think one thing we can learn is that he is truly a man of his word. The single most important thing to understand the enemy we face is to review what he said since 1995, because his actions have tracked exactly with his words. If he was a politician in the United States, the Democrats or the Republicans would love him, because he stays on message. He never slips from it. He is entirely reliable in what he is going to say.
Jennings: I think you are saying that it's not an enemy that's really defeatable.
Scheuer: I think you are exactly right. The choice, at the moment, is between war and endless war. And I think we need to devise a strategy that combines the work of the intelligence services and the U.S. military with a discussion -- at least a democratic discussion within the United States -- about whether the policies that have been identified as "amicable to Muslims," still serve U.S. interests.
Jennings: Support for the Saudis, support for the dictator in Egypt, support for the dictator in Jordan, and the complications of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
Scheuer: Right. It's a very difficult debate to have. But we need to find a way to stem the growth of support for "Osama bin Laden-ism," if you will, in the Muslim world.