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US Underestimates bin Laden, says Former CIA Official

The man who once headed the Central Intelligence Agency unit tracking Osama bin Laden says the United States needs to develop a sharper understanding of the terrorist leader and his appeal in the Islamic world.

Osama bin Laden is usually portrayed in official U.S. pronouncements as a mad terrorist bent on attacking the United States out of hatred for American values of freedom and democracy.

But Michael Scheuer, who spent much of his 22-year career at the CIA tracking bin Laden, says such characterizations do little to fostering a true understanding of the terrorist leader.

"Any individual who continues to tell the American people that Osama bin Laden is simply a more lethal than usual gangster, or that he only represents the lunatic fringe of the Muslim world, or that this war has nothing to do with religion, as long as they keep spouting that sort of analysis, they will be giving the American people the wrong idea," said Mr. Scheuer.

In a lengthy VOA interview, Mr. Scheuer says the reality of bin Laden is far more complex. Bin Laden's grudge, says the former CIA analyst, is not with the American lifestyle, but with official U.S. policies.

"Bin Laden dislikes our society, without question. But his power, and his genius, if you will, comes from focusing on a specific set of United States policies that are widely viewed as antithetical to Muslim interests across the world," he explained.

Mr. Scheuer says bin Laden and his followers are angry over U.S. support for both Israel and autocratic governments in the Arab world. Understanding that motivation, he says, is key to defeating al-Qaida and its allies.

"We're clearly engaged, if not in a war against Islam, in a war against a substantial number of Muslims who are mad at us for policy reasons," he continued. "It's a war that's not going to end any time soon. And we really need to at least appreciate the motivation behind it before we're going to be able to cope with it and ultimately defeat it."

Mr. Scheuer not only tracked bin Laden at the spy agency, but anonymously authored two books, published with official CIA clearance, on bin Laden and the war on terrorism. He says al-Qaida is really closer to an insurgent organization than the typical terrorist group.

"We really need to just accept the fact that it's not a traditional terror group," he emphasized. "It's a foe that's large, talented, modern, and professional. And as long as we underestimate it, many more Americans are going to die than would be necessary."

Although there have been no attacks on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001, Mr. Scheuer believes one is on the horizon. He thinks that another videotape of Osama bin Laden will soon surface with a warning of such an attack.