Ex-Terrorist Takes CBN News Inside Al Qaeda

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Western leaders are often at odds over how to take on the threat of Islamic terrorism. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, appears totally focused on its mission.

The terrorist group is obsessed with destroying the United States. And according to one former colleague of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, they don't care how many innocent civilians are killed in the process.

Face-to-Face with Bin Laden

CBN News recently spoke with former terrorist Noman Benotman in an extensive interview about the inner workings of Al-Qaeda's leadership.

These days, Benotman lives a quiet life in London with his wife and children. But it wasn't long ago that Benotman stood face-to-face with Osama bin Laden.

"He insists on inflicting pain to his enemies," Benotman said of bin Laden. "Beyond your imagination. You can't miss it when you talk with him."

Just one year before 9/11, Benotman joined some 200 of his fellow jihadist leaders from around the world for as meeting in Kandahar, Afghanistan. They were summoned there to discuss strategy with bin Laden and his top deputy, al-Zawahiri.

Attacking the 'Paper Tiger'

The two al Qaeda leaders were planning to attack the U.S. homeland - and based on previous weak American responses to acts of terror, they weren't concerned with the repercussions.

"They said, 'Okay, the first time when we attacked the U.S. embassies in Africa, there was maybe about 75 cruise missiles launched against Afghanistan,'" Benotman recalled. "They said, 'Okay, maybe this time there is going to be 200 that will be launched in an attack.' I'm telling you literally: This was their understanding of the conflict."

Benotman told CBN News he warned al-Zawahiri repeatedly that the American response to a major terrorist attack would be massive.

"And he laughed about it, you know?" Benotman recounted. "And he said, 'No, no, no.' He didn't believe it at the time."

Benotman said al-Zawahiri and other jihadists believed that the U.S. was a "paper tiger" whose bark was worse than its bite. Bin Laden told Benotman at that Kandahar meeting that he had one more big operation to conduct - then he would retire.

Things obviously did not go according to plan for the al Qaeda mastermind. That "big operation" -- 9/11 -- did occur. But the punishing U.S. response decimated much of al-Qaeda's senior leadership. And it was Benotman, not bin Laden, who ended up leaving jihad behind.

Jihad 'Part of Islam'

Benotman had spent most of his adult life as an Islamic holy warrior--or mujahideen.

"If any Muslim appears and says 'Okay, there is no jihad in Islam whatsoever,' please believe me, he is a liar," said Benotman. "A pure liar. People, they need to face it because it is a serious issue. Jihad, it's part of Islam because it is something that's in the Koran. There is more than 40 verses, I think, in the Koran that mention jihad."

Benotman left his native Libya for Afghanistan during the 1980s to join the fight against the Soviets.

"My first aim at the time was to just be a martyr, you know?" Benotman explained. "Fighting the enemy for Islam, that was my aim."

He returned home and became a commander in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group - or LIFG. The deadly terrorist organization was dedicated to toppling the Qhaddafi regime and establishing an Islamic state in Libya.

It was also closely tied to al Qaeda.

"Once you start your own group, as a jihadi group, whether you like it or not, you have to communicate, to look for help, training knowledge, logistical support: you name it," Benotman told CBN News. "That's why the LIFG had to communicate with all these leaders and all these groups, including bin Laden, al Zawahiri -- everyone, you name it. The Taliban."

Benotman says his group had major differences with al Qaeda from the start.

LIFG wished only to wage jihad against the Libyan government. Al Qaeda, meanwhile, sought to attack Jews and Christians worldwide.

Bin Laden: Calm, Sadistic Mind

Despite their differences, the relationship continued and allowed Benotman to form personal impressions of Osama bin Laden from their meetings.

"Even when sometimes you had to be aggressive with him, debating his ideas, he always kept his calm and coolness and smile," he said of bin Laden. "I'm telling you from my personal point of view, from my experience with him."

Bin Laden's calm exterior masked a sadistic mindset.

"He was always happy about everything that happened, you know?" Benotman recalled. "And how big any operation is or how it has been described by the media, the Western media. It always makes him proud."

One such operation was the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa. Al Qaeda killed 200 people and wounded thousands more.

According to Bentoman, "It took bin Laden like half an hour talking about the amount of the explosives and how it was being regarded or labeled by the Western governments, including the U.S. Sort of like it was a 'weapon of mass murder.' He was very proud about that."

Benotman said bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was even more ruthless.

"He is the most extremist person in al Qaeda," Benotman explained. "He is extremely extreme. More than bin Laden. The word, or the concept, 'civilians,' it doesn't exist in al-Zawahiri's reality or ideology."

That's why Benotman decided to write a personal letter to his old colleague in 2007. He slammed al-Zawahiri for targeting innocent civilians and called on al Qaeda to cease all operations against the West and in Muslim countries. The letter was widely publicized in the Islamic world.

Cutting Ties with al Qaeda

Around that same time, Benotman was approached by an old foe: the son of Libyan leader Moamar Qhaddafi. Seif al-Islam wanted Benotman to help mediate a peace agreement between LIFG and the Libyan government.

The negotiations were successful. LIFG formally cut any ties with al Qaeda and agreed to end all operations against the Qhaddafi regime.

"They de-legitimized clearly--which is a good achievement and, I think, is a huge success -- using arms in the struggles against governments," Benotman said. "To overthrow them or to establish Islamic states."

LIFG outlined its new views in a 417-page book entitled "Corrective Studies." Although the authors condemned the killing of innocent civilians and the use of arms to overthrow ruling regimes, their continued support of what they call "defensive jihad" is far less appealing to Western ears.

"Every single country, Muslim nation, they still have the right to defend themselves against their occupiers," Benotman opined. "And they mentioned Afghanistan and Iraq. They said while there is occupation there, we believe that these people, they have the right to launch their own jihad."

It's all part of the contradiction that is Noman Benotman. He still appears to endorse jihad in certain cases, yet no longer engages in it himself.

He opposes al Qaeda and the killing of innocent civilians, but is proud of his days spent fighting in Afghanistan.

In the very least, Western intelligence agencies are hoping Benotman's change of heart about his old colleagues bin Laden and Zawahiri will be enough to convince others to abandon the al Qaeda cause.

* First aired on March 9, 2010.

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Erick Stakelbeck

Erick Stakelbeck

CBN News Correspondent

Erick Stakelbeck is a sought after authority on terrorism and national security issues with extensive experience in television, radio, and print media. Stakelbeck is a correspondent and terrorism analyst for CBN News.  Follow Erick on Twitter @Staks33.