Is al-Qaida planning an attack to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11?
"Of course they'd like to," says national security analyst Peter Bergen. "And some of the materials recovered in the [Osama] bin Laden compound indicate a desire to do something. But a desire to do something is quite different than actual implementation. I think that this is a group that has not only suffered the loss of its leader, but was already in very bad shape before that happened."
Bergen, one of the first Americans to ever interview bin Laden, is CNN's national security analyst. In his book, The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda, he examines the history and motives of al-Qaida and gives a comprehensive account of the U.S. response to the terrorist organization over the past decade.
On today's Fresh Air, Bergen explains how al-Qaida's influence has changed in recent years. He also paints a portrait of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian eye doctor who served as bin Laden's deputy before taking over the top post in al-Qaida after bin Laden's death. Bergen tells Terry Gross that unlike bin Laden, al-Zawahiri focuses on micromanaging the organization and is what he describes as a "black hole of charisma."
"I've interviewed multiple people who know bin Laden ... who tend to have a universal picture of what he's like, which is: modest, retiring, unassuming, kind of thoughtful — lots of things that don't fit with a mass murderer, which he is as well," says Bergen. "And I've also interviewed people who know al-Zawahiri pretty well and they say he's a prickly, irritable, irritating, [and] not-a-happy-camper."
Bergen recently returned from a two-week visit to Pakistan, where he visited bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad.
"Pretty much everybody that I spoke to didn't believe that he actually lived there," he says. "So Pakistan is a country that I'm very fond of and have spent a lot of time, but it is a country where conspiracy theories have a life of their own."
And some recent U.S. activities feed into those conspiracy theories, says Bergen. He points to a report published last month in the New York Times, which said that the CIA had recruited a Pakistani doctor to run a fake vaccination drive in Abbottabad in an attempt to get DNA from bin Laden's family members and confirm his location.
"That feeds into conspiracy theories that Pakistani clerics have said that vaccination programs are a Western plot to undermine Pakistan," he says. "There are a lot of conspiracy theories in Pakistan, but we've done some things that tend to feed them or fan the flames."
Sex At Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, And What It Means For Modern Relationships
by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha convincingly argue that our current sexual practices — pair bonding in marriage, monogamy (which historically we've imposed only on women) and even the nuclear family — are by no means hard-wired into us by our evolutionary history. Using evidence from anthropology, comparative zoology, and evolutionary biology, Ryan and Jetha argue that we are evolved to be highly sexualized creatures, who use sex as a form of social communication and bonding. And that in our natural state, females enjoy and exercise as much sexual freedom as males, if not more. What makes the book so captivating — beyond its good humor, sharp writing and its remarkable asides on issues such as "female copulatory vocalization" — is the way it casually and effectively demolishes a Solomon's Temple worth of conventional wisdom.
432 pages, $15.99, HarperPerennial
Origins: How The Nine Months Before Birth Shape The Rest Of Our Lives
by Annie Murphy Paul
While reflecting on her own second pregnancy, science writer Annie Murphy Paul explores an emerging body of research demonstrating that our health and well-being are influenced by our time in the womb. The prenatal period, which one scientist calls the staging ground for well-being and disease in later life, may hold the origins of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other conditions, as well as possibilities for preventing them before birth. Drawing on current research and interviews with experts, Paul looks at the effects of diet and nutrition, stress, environmental toxins, exercise and alcohol. Ultimately, she writes, her immersion in fetal origins research made her "less anxious about being pregnant, not more. It made me see pregnancy in a new light: as a scientific frontier, and an opportunity to improve the health and well-being of the next generation."
320 pages, $15, Free Press
The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America And Al-Qaeda
by Peter L. Bergen
In The Longest War, CNN national security analyst Peter L. Bergen gives a comprehensive account of the development of al-Qaida and the U.S. response to the terrorist organization and addresses the strategic missteps made by both sides. Bergen says he believes the single most important battle in the conflict came in December 2001, when bin Laden and al-Qaida fled from their bases in Afghanistan to their mountain retreat in Tora Bora. Could something have been done at the Battle of Tora Bora that would have turned it into a decisive victory for the U.S.? Bergen thinks it's possible. Yet he acknowledges the ongoing debate within the national security community about whether, with bin Laden on the run and now dead, al-Qaida is basically a spent force or has remained a potent threat in its new form as a network of semi-autonomous killers.
496 pages, $16, Free Press
A Privilege To Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions And Their Endless War Against Israel
by Thanassis Cambanis
In A Privilege to Die, journalist Thanassis Cambanis traces the growth of Hezbollah and its ideology-based militancy across the Middle East. He explains that Hezbollah has thrived because of a complete vacuum of Arab leadership in the region. "That's why it's had tremendous influence in regions way beyond its context," he says. "Though it's a small Shia group, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is the most popular leader in the entire Arab world. ... That frankly speaks to a region that has been stripped of meaningful discourse and is really open, receptive or vulnerable — depending on your perspective — to this kind of ideology." In Cambanis' view, Hezbollah has two goals: to construct an Islamic resistance society and to continue a perpetual war against Israel. But Cambanis says it's unlikely that other military forces in the Middle East will join Hezbollah in attacking Israel — at least, for the time being.
336 pages, $15, Free Press
Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also leads a weekly chat on books and reading in the digital age every Friday from 4-5 p.m. ET on Twitter. Follow her at @charabbott or check out the #followreader hashtag .
In the nearly 10 years since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. has launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and entered bitter debates over interrogation techniques and renditions. This decade has also seen the spread of terrorist networks linked to al-Qaida around the globe.
In The Longest War, Peter Bergen gives a comprehensive account of the development of al-Qaida and the U.S. response to the terrorist organization. He talks about the strategic missteps made by both sides.
Bergen says he believes the single most important battle in the conflict came in December 2001, when bin Laden and al-Qaida fled from their bases in Afghanistan to their mountain retreat in Tora Bora.
"I assembled accounts of the battle from both al-Qaida's perspective and also CIA, U.S. Special Forces, and some of the Afghan warlords who were there on the ground," Bergen tells NPR's Neal Conan.
Bergen says he learned from the Special Forces' official history of the battle that during the period of Dec. 9 to Dec. 14, 2001, "multiple sources of intelligence placed bin Laden at the battlefield."
And that's the last time, says Bergen, that "we really knew where he was."
Bin Laden chose Tora Bora for a reason, he says.
"He knew this area like the back of his hand," says Bergen. "He'd been visiting this area on and off for 15 years, he built roads in the mountains — he knew this place intimately."
So it was no accident that "he fled there, and then staged one of history's great disappearing acts from Tora Bora," he says.
Following the battle at Tora Bora, "the hard core of al-Qaida lived to fight another day," Bergen says.
Could something have been done at the Battle of Tora Bora that would have turned it into a decisive victory for the U.S.? Bergen thinks it's possible.
"Certainly, the CIA on-scene commander in Afghanistan requested more troops on the ground. Certainly, the U.S. Special Forces Delta commander on the ground ... requested more soldiers, and that never happened."
There were a variety of reasons that the requests for more troops went unfulfilled.
"It was a concern that more American boots on the ground would annoy our local Afghan allies," and there were concerns about search and rescue, and about helicopters, Bergen says.
"But the point is, that this was never tested," he says. "The most significant battle in the war on terror was left up to 70 U.S. Special Forces, some CIA guys, a handful of British special boat service operators, and thousands of our not particularly effective Afghan allies."