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."