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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Interview With Author Jessica Stern

Aired August 21, 2003 - 20:22   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Before the Iraq war, one of the Bush administration's arguments for invasion was alleged links between Iraq and al Qaeda. Was it a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Well, in yesterday's "New York Times," Jessica Stern, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, wrote: "The bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was the latest evidence that America has taken a country that was not a terrorist threat and turned it into one."

Jessica Stern joins me now. She also happens to be the author of the book "Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill."

Thanks for joining us.

JESSICA STERN, AUTHOR, "TERROR IN THE NAME OF GOD": Thank you for having me.

ZAHN: That's a very provocative statement you made in "The New York Times." I know you've heard from a lot of folks, both pro and con, at this point. But are you really saying that the United States has created terrorism where none existed before?

STERN: No.

There is some evidence -- or at least I have found some evidence -- of contacts between al Qaeda and Saddam before. But al Qaeda has now been coming into Iraq in a way that, obviously, it wasn't in the past. And our troops have become easy prey, an attractive target, for al Qaeda and other groups, including Hezbollah, Ansar al-Islam, and now a variety of homegrown Islamist groups in Iraq.

ZAHN: Let's talk about what you think that might lead to. In your editorial, you went on to say yesterday: "The occupation has given disparate groups from various countries a common battlefield on which to fight a common enemy."

So you view Iraq now as the magnet?

STERN: Yes.

ZAHN: Long term, what do you think we're looking at here?

STERN: Well, I hope that the administration will make some decisions to forestall the worst outcome.

And the worst outcome is a center of jihad for -- as you say, for a kind of Afghanistan, another Afghanistan, as the Soviet war with Afghanistan, where there's an international jihad. Let's hope that doesn't happen. But I have to say that there is some evidence that it is already beginning. There are Saudis apparently pouring in, according to a Saudi dissident that I talked to. The border with Syria, Iran and Saudi are really essentially porous. And jihadis are coming in.

ZAHN: You actually had the opportunity to -- or have had the opportunity to interview many terrorists. And I understand one of the men you spoke to was from Hamas, a leader who happened to be killed today in an Israeli missile strike. Was he a -- not only a desirable target, but a worthy one?

STERN: Well, I don't think Israel's policy of targeting terrorists is productive. It doesn't seem to be productive.

Whether he was -- if we accept that policy as a good one, morally acceptable and productive, whether he was a good target, I'm not sure. He was involved in the political wing. But the Palestinian leadership has admitted -- well, to me, anyway -- that the distinction between the political and military wing is largely a fiction. So perhaps there was some intelligence about Abu Shanab's activities.

But he was the head of the society of engineers. He was very clever. He told me that he thought that the social welfare aspect of Hamas was the secret to its success. And I think that's right. Hamas, as you know, is very actively involved in providing hospital care, education, after-school activities and so on and really doing good works in a way that attracts families, in a way, ultimately, I'm afraid, to do evil.

ZAHN: Well, we are unfortunately going to have to end on that note. Jessica Stern, thanks for joining us. You certainly got a lot of attention.

And you said about half-half, half positive, half negative, to what you wrote?

STERN: Actually, yes, I think more positive, more positive.

ZAHN: I guess you never know when you write one of those op-ed pieces.

STERN: Right. That's right.

ZAHN: Again, thanks for dropping by.

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