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The Osama He Knows

Osama bin Laden no longer dominates the headlines, but that's no reason to think he has diminished in importance, according to one of the few westerners to ever have met him face to face.

Peter Bergen's latest book, "The Osama bin Laden I Know," is a compilation of interviews with family, friends, al Qaeda members and journalists who have come in contact with him. Bergen joined The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith to talk about the book.

Asked if he thinks bin Laden is still alive, Bergen says there is no evidence that he is dead.

"I think if he was dead, the jihadist Web sites would light up with the great news that, finally, bin Laden had been martyred," Bergen says. "So I think we'd know about it. We haven't heard from him for a year. I'm sort off an agnostic about what that means. I think he's biding his time for when he'll come out with a significant statement. Last time we heard from him was just before the presidential election."

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Bergen thinks bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri both pull the strings in al Qaeda.

"They have had a symbiotic relationship for a long time," he says. "Zawahiri is now producing tapes all the time. … He's producing so many tapes that it's not really newsworthy. Obviously if bin Laden came out with a tape, that would be a big deal."

Osama bin Laden grew up in a privileged family in Saudi Arabia and attended the best schools. What does Bergen think was the event that changed bin Laden so dramatically?

"Well, I mean, the thing that he was, as a teenager, he was ultra-religious. Even in Saudi Arabia he stood out as someone fasting twice a week, praying twice a day," Bergen says. "The thing that changed him was going to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets. War changes people. War certainly changed bin Laden."

Bergen says bin Laden is still popular in the Muslim world.

"If you poll his favorability ratings, in places like Pakistan, Jordan and Morocco, they are above 50 percent. So that's a pretty high number," says Bergen. "Hard for Americans to understand that, perhaps. He's regarded as somebody who is a popular person in many parts of the Muslim world."

Bergen says he thinks bin Laden is popular because he "stuck it to the United States States" but he believes most Muslims reject his view of the world.

"They don't want to live in an al Qaeda-style regime," Bergen says. "Taliban, Afghanistan. Is that a regime Muslims want to live under? I don't think so. While Osama is popular because he's got this great back story in Hollywood terms and did fight the Soviets and he stood up to the West, he, I don't think that — I don't think he'll have a hugely significant effect on history."

Bergen says it is "vitally important" for the Americans or coalition forces to capture bin Laden.

"First of all, justice for the victims of 9/11," he says. "Secondly, through videotapes and audiotapes since 9/11, 18 of them, he continues to influence what happens. … Attack members of coalition in Iraq. We saw the attack in Madrid and London. These are results. So capturing him would be a major psychological victory for us in the war on terrorism."

In his book, Bergen also writes that there was no connection between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

"Bin Laden has been a vocal opponent of Saddam before the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. He regards Saddam as a socialist, which in his view is not a good thing," Bergen says.

Bergen says the issue of Palestine is also key to bin Laden.

"Bin Laden himself, certainly his father was involved in renovating the mosque in Jerusalem, and bin Laden has said … the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of his motivations," Bergen says. "In my view, there are certain people — bin Laden would like to destroy Israel. In my view, if the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could move forward that would be quite helpful in the war on terrorism because it would take away one of these swing voter-type issues."

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