Holy Trinity Armenian Church Hosts CNN’s Peter Bergen

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CAMBRIDGE — As part of its Dr. Michael and Joyce Kolligian Distinguished Speaker Series, Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Greater Boston hosted a May 7 lecture by CNN national security analyst and journalist, Peter Bergen, who shared his first-hand experience of meeting al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden.

Bergen, best-selling author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Osama Bin Laden — From 9/11 to Abbottabad, gave a talk titled “The Awakening: The Remaking of the Middle East” to an audience of more than 120 people in the church’s Charles and Nevart Talanian Cultural Hall.

Bergen’s previous books include, Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden (2001), The Osama bin Laden I Know (2006) and The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda (2011).

Fr. Vasken A. Kouzouian, pastor, provided opening remarks and thanked Bergen for his presence. “Through his work he [Bergen] brings about truth and awareness from places far removed from our everyday life.” Kouzouian then welcomed the daughter of Dr. Michael and Joyce Kolligian, Valerie Kolligian Thayer, to the podium to welcome Bergen. Thayer noted the unexpectedly timely nature of Bergen’s visit to Cambridge, given the recent Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent police chase and manhunt in Cambridge and Watertown. She then introduced Bergen as “one of the few westerners to ever interview Osama Bin Laden.”

Bergen began by recounting his 1997 meeting with Bin Laden in Afghanistan after a long process of negotiations, during which he described Bin Laden as “intelligent” and revered as a cleric by those around him.

Bergen then discussed the inherent weaknesses of al-Qaeda groups, stating that, “Coded in their DNA are the seeds of their own destruction.” These inherent flaws include their willingness to kill Muslim civilians during their terrorist attacks, a tendency to make enemies over allies, a desire to restore a Taliban empire severely restrictive on individual liberties and their unwillingness to engage in politics or elections. Bergen cautioned that although these flaws should reassure the public to a degree, he believed the real legacy of Bin Laden is one of ideas — ideas that occasionally inspire others.

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Specifically referencing the recent Boston Marathon bombings, Bergen said, “His [Bin Laden’s ] ideas can live on. His ideas can be very deadly […] Bin Laden’s most toxic legacy is that he supplied an ideology.” Bergen said Bin Laden’s fundamental philosophy was, “Islam is under attack by the West, an attack led by the US.” By this logic, Bergen said, Bin Laden could argue that all wars were “wars against Islam.” Bergen also stated that according to the media, one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, said that one of his principal motivations for the attacks was “the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan.” He further noted that many of the violent ideologies found in these regions were “created in authoritarian prison systems in the Middle East.”

Given the magnitude of the 9/11 attacks, Bergen argued that the Boston Bombings should be contextualized and that US citizens should be encouraged by the decrease in frequency and magnitude of terrorist attacks on its people. He also called the “absence of Bin Laden’s ideology” from most of the Arab Spring “good news.”

Bergen explained the decrease in attacks as partially a result of several factors, including the US’s highly-integrated and educated Muslim population, the effectiveness of US Task Forces, the increase since 9/11 in CIA/FBI collaboration and information-sharing, other precautions such as the 20,000 names on the “no-fly list” at US airports and finally, improvements in public understanding and awareness which have prevented several attacks on US soil.

As for ongoing military actions in Afghanistan, Bergen said, “I am optimistic about the future of Afghanistan.”

The discussion was followed by a brief question-and-answer period. During the questions, there were a few observable moments of tension in the audience, particularly when Bergen was asked about possible ties between Ruslan Tsarni, the uncle of the Boston Marathon Bombing suspects, and former top CIA official and acquaintance of Bergen, Graham Fuller, whose daughter was previously married to Tsarni. Bergen quickly dismissed the question, saying he did not understand the reason for the question, which sparked a verbal outcry of disapproval by an audience member.

Bergen also fielded questions on subjects such as Sunni-Shiite relations, inaction by the US in Syria, the 2012 Benghazi attack and the effectiveness of modern media journalists as “watchdogs” of the world.

The discussion concluded with closing remarks by Kouzouian during which he once again thanked Bergen and the Kolligian family for making the event possible. Copies of Bergen’s book were available for purchase and signing, and refreshments were served to those who attended the event.

This was the fourth lecture in the Dr. Michael and Joyce Kolligian Distinguished Speaker Series, which was established in 2000 by Joyce Kolligian and her family in memory of her husband, Dr. Michael Kolligian, with the purpose of “providing high-quality, educational and cultural programs to enhance knowledge and provide enjoyment to the members of Holy Trinity Armenian Church, as well as the community at large.” Previous speakers have included Dr. Bob Arnot in 2004; Immaculée Ilibagiza, survivor and author of Left to Tell, Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, in 2007; and Mia Farrow speaking on the Darfur

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