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Al Qaeda Rising? [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speaker: Bruce O. Riedel, Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, The Brookings Institution, Author, "Al-Qaeda Strikes Back," May/June Foreign Affairs
Author: Lawrence Wright, Staff Writer, The New Yorker, Author, "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11"
Presider: Warren Bass, Deputy Editor, Outlook, The Washington Post
June 1, 2007


WARREN BASS: Good afternoon and welcome to today's meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. I have been sternly reminded by the council staff to ask you in menacing tones to please turn off your cell phones and BlackBerrys and other wireless devices or at least put them on stun. (Laughter.) And I'd like to remind the audience that this meeting, unlike most council meetings, is actually on the record.

We have two splendid panelists with us here today, Bruce Riedel, on my right, is currently at the Brookings Institution after having a truly distinguished career in the U.S. government, including a series of jobs for the CIA and an almost unimaginably lengthy stint handling Middle East and South Asia issues at the National Security Council, where he was a senior director, which is not an easy job to do, and he plugged away there for an amazing number of years under both President's Clinton and Bush. He has the fascinating lead piece in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs entitled "Al-Qaeda Strikes Back."

With him is Lawrence Wright, who's a staff writer at The New Yorker. He won the Pulitzer Prize this past year for his absolutely riveting book, "The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11," which is just an astonishingly rich piece of reporting and writing and a landmark in the field.

I'll lead a conversation Bruce and Larry for our first half hour and then turn it over to council members' questions for our last half hour.

Let me start just by sort of questioning the premise of the whole conversation that al Qaeda is somehow -- that we're not the only ones who are doing a surge, that al Qaeda is having a bit of a surge right now as well. This is an organization whose senior leadership is on the run, where some of its most important leaders like Mohamed Atta are dead; others like Khaled Sheikh Mohammed are currently enjoying the hospitality of the CIA. It's lost its haven in Afghanistan, they've lost their sponsors in the Taliban.

Why should we think this organization is actually on the rise rather on the decline?

BRUCE O. RIEDEL: Sure. I think if you look at the breadth of al Qaeda's operations in the last two or three, four years since September 11th, you get the answer. This is an organization which either directly or through its sympathizers and its franchises has carried out attacks in Casablanca, in Algiers, in London, in Madrid, in Taba, in Mombasa, in Mumbai, in Bali, and that's only a few of the places where it's operated. And that doesn't even begin to reckon with the carnage that al Qaeda and its sympathizers have carried out daily now in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda was very much on the ropes four, five years ago at the end of Operation Enduring Freedom. Its leadership, I would say, was on the run then. I don't see it being on the run right now. They put out a video of their message approximately once a week from their secure hideout somewhere in the badlands between Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

You're absolutely right, they've suffered some significant setbacks. Probably the biggest setback they've suffered, aside from losing Afghanistan, was their defeat in Saudi Arabia. But even in the places where they have suffered defeat, they've shown for remarkable resiliency and their ability to bounce back, and that's why I believe al Qaeda today is as dangerous if not more than ever before.

BASS: Larry, do you think al Qaeda is more dangerous now than it was in September 10th, less dangerous? How would you see that?

LAWRENCE G. WRIGHT: It is more widespread, it is more profligate in its, you know, in its membership across the globe. Whether it has the capacity to pull off those kinds of imaginative and devastating attacks right now is unclear.

So in the sense that al Qaeda is bigger, more robust than it was in the past, yes, it's true. And the potential for truly devastating attacks in the future is still a lively possibility. So I'd say that, you know, on the one hand, yes, much bigger than in the past. But is it capable of doing those kind of complex operations such as 9/11? Probably not right now.

That's not to say that it won't change, because it's not homeless anymore. You know, we did eliminate the sanctuary -- briefly, as it turns out -- in Afghanistan, but, you know, it's now deeply rooted in other countries and has training bases in Iraq, in Somalia probably, probably again in Afghanistan, in Mali, with its new addition to Al Qaeda, the al Qaeda in northern Africa. So the element to create the al Qaeda that have that capacity to once again pull off a 9/11, the elements are in place for that to happen in the future.

BASS: What specific elements do they need to do another spectacular?

WRIGHT: Well, they need training bases, they need to be able to network, they need -- they don't need a lot of money, although they're rolling in money now. Compared to the old days, now they're actually a profit-making enterprises in many respects, especially in Iraq.

One of the interesting things that's evolved about al Qaeda is its turn towards criminality. And I think this is one of the reasons, in an odd way, bin Laden is still very relevant, because he still has the moral authority that no one else in that movement has. Without him, I think you'll see al Qaeda begin to devolve more into criminal gangs.

But it needs training bases, and Iraq has turned into a magnificent training base for them. They're working against the most ferocious military machine in the history of mankind, and look what a wonderful job they're doing. Imagine them taking those kinds of skills back into Paris or London or New York. You know, anybody that's been trained in that kind of urban warfare, has the networks, has the skills and the appetite for bloodshed that is so characteristic of al Qaeda could do a great deal of harm.

BASS: Bruce, let me get a sense from you of how the war on terrorism looks like through our enemy's eyes, to steal a phrase from Mike Scheuer. What is your sense of what bin Laden's grand strategy is today? Terrorism is sort of famously a provocation strategy. Has bin Laden provoked from us the type of response that he wanted? How does he think things are going now?

RIEDEL: First of all, I think it's impossible to know exactly what bin Laden expected would happen from September 11th. And I'm a little dubious of what he says after the fact about what would have happened, because that's obviously somewhat self-serving. But if you look at what al Qaeda leaders -- bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri and others -- say, and they say it constantly now, their objective is to drag the United States into what they call bleeding wars, quagmires, in the Middle East, in the Muslim world, and to whittle down our strength and our resolve.

Their role model is the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in which virtually all of this cast of characters had a hand, although they also like to exaggerate how much of a hand they had. But that's their role model.

But that's their role model. They tell their sympathizers that just as no one would have believed in 1979 or 1980 that a ragged band, a mujaheddin, could destroy a Soviet army and bring about the end of the Soviet Union -- what they are doing now in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Somalia is wearing down the other superpower, and that in time, the other superpower will collapse, just like the Soviet Union does.

Now, it's a powerful narrative, because they can prove -- they can point to 1980s Afghanistan and the fall of communism. I don't think it's an accurate narrative, but it's resonating very well with the minority of Muslims -- and we should bear in mind at all times, this is a small minority of Muslims -- who are attracted to this extremist ideology.

If you look at what they're saying today, these people are extreme triumphalists. They believe they're on the verge of victory. They say over and over again that what they have done since September 11th, and most importantly what they're doing in Afghanistan and Iraq today, has reversed the last several centuries of Middle East history in which the West was the dominant power, was applying from their standpoint a repressive rule on the Middle East and the Islamic world, and that that tide has finally changed and is moving in their direction. I don't think that's rhetoric. I think that is how they see it through their eyes.

BASS: Larry, is this a war that bin Laden thinks he's winning right now?

WRIGHT: I think in the long-term sense that he thinks that he's begun to roll back history and that, you know, ironically -- you know, September 11th, 1683, was the date that the king of Poland arrived to repel the Ottoman siege of Vienna, and that's the furthest advance of Muslim armies in Europe. Now, I don't think that resonates with bin Laden because it's a different date on the Islamic calendar, but it is an odd little historical note. And he sees that -- you know, that they have reached bottom and now they're pushing back, and that over time, over centuries, you know, Islam will become the reigning superpower as it's meant to be.

In the short term, he's got a lot of problems. It's a very querulous group, it's hard to hold together, you know, very schismatic and increasingly nihilistic in its goals. There was a Dutch study I found very interesting, comparing the current generation of young jihadists and their goals with their previous generation, and it found -- they're so vague as to be nonsensical. There's nothing they really want that they can get. They just want to create havoc. They're angry, they're striking out, and you can see it in this -- in mainstream al Qaeda. When, you know, bin Laden wanted the U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia in April of 2003, we announced we were withdrawing; in May, they began blowing up the housing compounds in Saudi Arabia. So it was having achieved that victory -- they then announced to the world that wasn't enough, that wasn't even what they were really interested in in the first place. And so I think that's, you know, probably the real problem that al Qaeda has, is it doesn't have achievable goals or a political agenda that anybody can actually fasten on to. It offers nothing -- nothing -- to the people that follow it, except death. And that does have an appeal, but it won't -- that won't last forever.

BASS: Do you think that's right, Bruce? One of the points that you make in your piece is that one of the real strengths that al Qaeda has is this ideology of bin Ladenism that has so much resonance, in the Muslim world in general but particularly in the Sunni Arab core that bin Laden is most interested in. Do you sort of see these new franchises of the global jihadi network as being sort of drifting towards nihilism and criminality? Or do you see them as still fueled by that original, potent Islamist message?

RIEDEL: I think there's a combination here. On the one hand, their message that resonates most strongly is the whole message of their fighting the crusaders and the Zionists who seek to impose their rule on Palestine, on Iraq, on Afghanistan. That message, which is in the end fundamentally very much a nationalist or religious-inspired Islamist message about resistance to someone else, I think, that resonates very strongly with the surprisingly large degree of Muslims who see, in their own eyes, that the Islamic world, the umma, has been colonized by the West, that Muslim land in Palestine has been taken away by the Zionist movement, and that Muslims are dying every day from Western armies fighting in Islamic countries.

So in that sense, I think, they're strongest appeal is a simple resistance to the outsider. I completely agree with Larry that they don't have a plan for what to do the day after. They talk about recreating the caliphate. Well, in practical terms, there never really was a caliphate, except for the first 50 years or so, of Islam that ruled all of it. If what they mean is the caliphate that the Taliban established in Afghanistan, that's a pretty awful version of government that they plan to install. And I think it's a version of government that in the Islamic world holds very little real resonance either.

So I agree. I think their appeal is a negative one. Unfortunately that negative one right now is doing fantastic for them at the recruitment box office.

I am confident that in the long term, and here may be decades not years, they don't have an answer that's going to resonate with Muslims. The vast majority of Muslims in this world are not interested in recreating the Taliban emirate of Afghanistan throughout the Islamic world. But they are quite sympathetic to the notion of resisting Western domination over their homelands.

WRIGHT: I think one of the things, you know, one of the policy mistakes we've made is, the idea of the caliphate is not just something that appeals to bin Laden. There are, you know, a billion Muslims that would love to have the caliphate again. And good luck trying to put Islam back together in any kind of -- it would be like trying to take the Baptists and the Catholics and the Greek Orthodox and put them all back into one church.

But why stand against that? Why have Donald Rumsfeld, you know, for instance, saying, you know, waving the idea of the caliphate as if it's something really evil, when the last caliph was pro-American and actually a moderate force in many respects? It's ridiculous for us to even inveigh against the caliphate. It's not an idea that's achievable in any real sense. But it's a dream that many Muslims have. And when we wave it as an evil objective, the notion that we're waging war on Islam rises in the minds of a lot of Muslims.

BASS: Following up on that, do you have a sense that the U.S. government actually understands what it's dealing with that well?

Bruce, you've spent a tremendous time both producing and consuming intelligence. If you were sort of -- if you're a policymaker trying -- this is a very hard intelligence target, both to collect on and to try to do covert operations against. But if you're trying -- if you're a policymaker trying to get your arms around what is this phenomenon and why is it so tough to beat, are you better off reading the sort of intelligence products that you were getting from the IC when you were in government, or you're better off heading over to Barnes & Noble and picking up "The Looming Tower"? (Soft laughter.) You don't have --

RIEDEL: Boy, I could get in trouble no matter what I say here. (Chuckles.)

BASS: (Chuckles.)

RIEDEL: I'll avoid that specific and go to a more -- broader point. I think this administration has had a very tough time getting its head around this problem. Before September 11th, I don't think that this administration understood the nature of the threat. It was not seized with the sense of immediacy and danger that it should have been. And I don't think that was for lack of warning from the intelligence community or from those parts of the media which were focused on al Qaeda.

I think its decision in 2002 to divert resources from going after the al Qaeda core leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan demonstrated it still didn't get the enormity of the problem. I think that was a strategic mistake which we will pay penalty for, for some time to come.

There's an opportunity cost when you decide that you're going to take your best Special Forces units, your top intelligence operatives and divert it from one objective to another. And we're paying the opportunity cost now of that decision.

I think they've also focused too much on a purely military strategy. Al Qaeda is above all an idea, a movement, a philosophy. Now, it may be a twisted, warped, nihilistic philosophy, and many of its practitioners may be little more than thugs -- in fact, most of its practitioners are little more than thugs -- but in the end, it is the war on ideas and the battle for the heart and soul of the Muslim world that will define who wins in this war and who loses. And I just don't think, despite occasional lip service, this administration has gotten its head wrapped around that issue effectively.

BASS: Larry, Bruce suggested part of the opportunity cost of diverting resources over to a pending invasion of Iraq was that we let al Qaeda up off the map. Do you -- why is it that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in particular are still alive all these years after 9/11? Could we have gotten them? Why haven't we gotten them? And does it matter?

WRIGHT: It does matter. But the answer to your question -- (chuckling) -- is the article that I'm working on now for The New Yorker. I'm trying to find out why we haven't gotten bin Laden. And I've been talking to a lot of people in the intelligence community about that.

RIEDEL: Can you give us a sneak preview?

WRIGHT: Well, I have come to some conclusions, and I differ a little bit with Bruce on -- I don't think it was just a political failure on the part of this administration.

I think, you know, the intelligence community, for one, bears some blame by not having the kind of people that could actually penetrate, disrupt or even understand al Qaeda. I'll pick on the FBI because they are more open about who they hire and so on. But one of the heroes of my book, Ali Safan, was one of eight Arabic-speaking agents on 9/11, and he came closer than anybody to unraveling it because he spoke the language natively, he understood the culture, he could talk to these people directly, and he came very close. One of eight. Now there are six in the FBI who speak native Arabic.

And the FBI says they have 25 Arabic speakers, but I've talked to some of these guys. And I've studied Arabic and it's a hard language. But they went to Middlebury College for nine weeks, and they can order breakfast -- (laughter) -- but they cannot interrogate a suspect. And it's not a joke when the head of counterterrorism at the FBI testifies under oath that he doesn't know the difference between a Sunni and a Shi'ite.

And this is not uncommon all the way through the intelligence community and the political community. If you don't understand the first thing about the enemy you're fighting against, how are you going to connect the dots? Isn't there always going to be a failure of imagination? Because you don't even have the raw material to work with. This is a scandal, in my opinion, that the intelligence community hasn't even begun to address yet.

And so I think that we have, yes, political failures and we have a certain kind of institutional failures that go beyond just reelecting a different Congress or a different president. These kind of failures are going to be with us until we really do address them.

RIEDEL: Can I just underscore one -- actually can I underscore two points. In those five years, the FBI has hired 2,000 new intelligence analysts. I think that was the right thing to do. The FBI needed to establish an intelligence service. But if Larry's numbers are right, we're having a hard time finding the right people. And a large part of that has to do with the whole process of security background searches, which needs to be dramatically streamlined. And we need to start going out looking for an Arabic speaker who we don't have to learn -- don't have to teach Arabic, that can do a lot more than order breakfast.

But the second point I want to make is, does getting Osama bin Laden matter? I think it matters a great deal. I agree he is the charismatic centerpiece of this movement. But more importantly than that, the very fact that he has survived for more than 2,000 days after September 11th creates a mystique, it creates a myth that al Qaeda is an organization which is beyond our ability to get at. And that's a terribly dangerous mystique and mythology to allow to continue to go on day after day.

The problem is now, even if we do get him, he's got 2,000 days, and they'll all say, "Wow, look how long he survived," and Ayman Zawahiri will probably replace him. I don't think it will end the movement, but I think it's terribly important that we get him and we get Ayman Zawahiri in order to prevent that mystique and mythology from continuing to go on.

BASS: If press reports are to be believed, the most likely place where bin Laden and Zawahiri are hiding these days are in these badlands around Waziristan and Northwest Frontier Province in Pakistan. Bruce mentioned in his Foreign Affairs piece that we've given about $10 billion in aid to the government of Pervez Musharraf in the years since 9/11. Have we been getting a lot of bang for that buck? (Laughter.)

WRIGHT: Bangs; you know, a lot of guns go off. I remember when I was in Peshawar, Pakistan, which is where al Qaeda was created in 1988, I was there in 2004, and this is a characteristic springtime event in Pakistan. You know, a lot of gun battles going on in the Northwest Province. In the press report, "Zawahiri's son, Ahmed, is captured," and I thought, wow, that's interesting. He doesn't have a son named Ahmed. (Laughs, laughter.) Well, where's this going? The next day, the headline, "Ahmed is talking." (Laughs, laughter.) Well, I wonder what he's saying. (Laughs.) Then nothing, nothing after that.

And -- but it's -- it's one of those -- you know, a couple of months later they had "Zawahiri's on the run;" you know, was it bin Laden's Suburban that we saw just disappearing into the hillside? It's like changing the windows in the shop; this season we're going to fashion, you know, this.

And what you have to understand about Pakistan -- I'm not claiming to be a Pakistan expert -- but, you know, as Bruce points out in his article, we've given them $10 billion since 9/11. They're in the looking-for-bin-Laden business. If they found him, they'd be out of business. (Laughter.)

BASS: Let me pose, I guess, just one last question to both of you before turning it over to the audience, and this is sort of not the usual thing the journalists get.

But let's say that tomorrow morning somehow you were named national security adviser. What would be the three items that you would be telling the president of the United States he needs to act immediately upon in terms of counterterrorism? And I'll start first with Bruce, since you've worked for the NSC, and work over to Larry next.

RIEDEL: I would send him a copy of William Tecumseh Sherman's statement on, "If asked, I will not serve." (Laughter.) I've been in the National Security Council for eight years; I'm not interested in a return engagement.

But taking your hypothetical question, I think the first thing we have to do is go after the war of ideas. I think that is absolutely the most critical. And by meaning the war of ideas, I don't just mean the public diplomacy. Public diplomacy only works if it's backed up by real diplomacy, and in order for us to back up serious public diplomacy, we have to do things like get back in the business of working on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We should get back in the business of the overall Arab-Israeli conflict. We should get into the business of doing something about Kashmir, which not just this administration but, frankly, every administration since Harry Truman has decided was too hard, and therefore, we're just going to ignore it. We need to send a powerful message by what we do and what we say, that we are not crusaders, we are not interested in pillaging the Muslim world.

Secondly, I would go after Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri in the badlands. I would make that the major focus of my military and intelligence efforts.

BASS: You would do that with U.S. troops?

RIEDEL: With U.S. troops, with U.S. intelligence, with NATO forces in Afghanistan, and with working the problem that you just -- Larry and you just talked about, which is Pakistan, which I think is the hardest part of this whole problem. I've known virtually the, I think, five or six directors of IFF, the Pakistan intelligence service. Looking back on all of my meetings with them, I'm not sure I ever heard the truth once in all of those conversations, and I'm not accusing them of being liars. I'm just saying that I think they have a habit of dissimulating about what it is they're really doing that is extremely deeply immersed in the culture of that organization now.

We need to find ways to help Pakistan stop being a supporter of jihadism. President Musharraf has been the target of al Qaeda assassination attempts, and he has said many of the right things about going after terrorism, but he hasn't really walked the walk.

He has continued to tolerate the Taliban, which ultimately advertises in Quetta and other places in Pakistan, and he has actively supported the Kashmiri jihadists groups. As long as you allow some terrorists to operate, all terrorists will find a way to operate. But we need to find a way to help Pakistan get out of the cycle that they're in.

And lastly, I think we probably should take another look at the institutional arrangements, improving the quality of the intelligence system, homeland security and other things. I think too many of the intelligence reforms that we got in 2004 we got because people wanted to have them before November 2004, and I think we've adopted some things that don't make a whole lot of sense. You know, we ought to go back and take another look at it. I deeply regret that idea. In my 30 years in the intelligence community, we seemed to be reorganized every year, and I certainly would not inflict one more on my former colleagues. But I think that there are some things in the current setup that need to be reformed.

BASS: What would be your three items, National Security Adviser Wright?

WRIGHT: This day will never come, I can tell you this. But if I had my opportunity, first of all, I would say, you know, we've done a terrible job of policing al Qaeda because we don't have the people that are really on the ground. You know, since these intelligence reforms came along, we've added a whole new tier of bureaucracy, a whole new Department of Homeland Security. Have either of these things made us safer? No. Have either of them added to the vital store of intelligence? No. What would do that? Skilled people on the ground, and that's where we failed, and it's so elemental. But who are those people? Well, people that understand those cultures.

And I'm not just talking about intelligence. Take the example of our embassy in Baghdad, a thousand people in that embassy -- six native speakers of Arabic. You wonder how we're going to rebuild a country when you can't read the newspaper. It's just -- you know, those kinds of things are so basic. We need to turn to the people who can best help us understand the cultures that we're struggling to deal with, and that would be in the intelligence community, in the political community, in the diplomatic community, all across the board.

After 9/11, many Arab and Muslim Americans offered their services to American intelligence, and they were spurned. And the Army took many of them and made them interpreters, and they went to Iraq, many of them, under the most dangerous possible assignments. Many of them lost their lives, many lost their limbs. Anyway, I talked to head of the Army Translation Corps, and he said that a lot of these guys come back after serving their country for four years and they can't get a job in American intelligence because they're considered a security risk. What is a security at risk is our security that we're risking by not taking advantage of the people that can best help us.

The second this is, you know, diplomacy, which Bruce mentioned. The truth is no matter what we do in terms of counterterrorism, it's our diplomatic actions in the world, our behavior in the world that's going to affect these things much more greatly than what we do on -- you know, in terms of the CIA and the FBI and the NSA. And if you just take your mind back to September 12, 2001, when the whole world was bending in our direction, and think about how radioactive we are now and how much damage we've done to our reputation -- we've got a long way to go to restore it.

And yet without friends we're not going to be able to get very far. And it's -- certainly one of al Qaeda's goals is to isolate us. And sometimes you read their strategy sessions and it sounds almost like a neocon playbook. You know, it -- they're thinking along the same lines. We have got to restore our reputation in the world and not -- in Europe and certainly a lot of places, there's a lot of anti-Americanism, but I think in the Muslim world it is desperately important that we attract that.

And I have been suggesting, since -- another reason they'll never make an NSC adviser -- I think President Bush should go on Al-Jazeera and talk directly to the Arab people. Imagine if you're an Arab, and the most important political figure in your life really is not your president but George Bush, who has a lot to say about how your culture is affected, and you never hear from him. He never talks to you. I think it would be a good thing for him to lay out in stark terms what he thinks the stakes are and -- you know, because we're really at the edge in that country, in that part of the world right now. And I think it's time for him to engage the Arabs in a conversation.

And the last thing I would suggest -- and this is actually one place where I'm weirdly optimistic -- in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis -- bin Laden never cared that much about Israel. It doesn't mean that much to him. He's never really attacked it, except nominally. But if the Israeli-Palestinian crisis were resolved tomorrow, he'd be heartbroken. It's been a huge source of recruitment for him and an amazing source of inflammation in the Muslim world.

I'm not saying that you can force two people to make peace who historically have been very reluctant to do that. But right now the Arabs are plainly suing for peace. They're asking for a deal. And this is the worst possible time, in many ways, because the leadership of Israel and Palestine are historically at their weakest points. But you can make a statement about where we stand in this that would help us.

I think we -- the place to do that is on the settlements. We should not stand behind those illegal settlements. If we're going to try to create a successful Palestinian state, it has to be coherent. It has to be financially successful. It has to be able to succeed. And if it's driven -- if it's riven into these little Bantustans that it is now, it can't succeed. And if we create failed Palestinian state on Israel's border, what have we done? We've institutionalized this problem for eternity.

So I think, you know, start off by saying the settlers can either go back to Israel, or they can become Palestinian citizens. But the United States doesn't represent their interests.

RIEDEL: Can I -- one small difference --

BASS: Sure.

RIEDEL: I agree with virtually everything Larry said. I believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is actually more important to bin Laden. And I'll plug my forthcoming book, in which I will try to make that point.

But what I really want to underscore is his broader point. They do very much worry about any sign of progress in the Palestinian-Israeli political process. Look at what Zawahiri is saying about Hamas now. He is in mourning that this Sunni Islamist jihadist group that made suicide bombing the weapon of choice appears to be flirting with the idea of joining a national unity government that might indirectly, through the back door, accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements. He rails against that constantly. I think, when you see someone railing against something, it tells you something about what they're worried about.

BASS: Let me invite council members to join in the discussion. There are microphones in the aisles. Please wait for a mike to come to you, and speak directly into it. Please stand and state your name and affiliation. And please keep questions as brief as possible and sermons non-existent, so we can get as many people as possible in.

Front row here.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Arnaud De Borchgrave, CSIS.

You didn't mention one of the most spectacular things that has been achieved -- it seems to me -- by al Qaeda or people who share some of their beliefs. And that is the creation of a virtual caliphate in cyberspace, and about 5,000 or more than 5,000 pro-al Qaeda websites all over the world. Do you discount that or did you deliberately not mention it?

RIEDEL: No, it was completely an oversight. I think I do mention it in the article. You're right. Somewhere around 5,000 allows them to operate with incredible speed and efficiency. You now have al Qaeda attacks in Iraq which are filmed with a little portable handheld camera, then e-mailed to someplace, downloaded and put onto a jihadist's website that the entire world sees, with English translations at the bottom just so that we can understand what's going on as well. That's incredibly powerful use of technology.

BASS: Right at the back.

QUESTIONER: Jon Alterman, also of CSIS.

Twice Bruce Riedel used the word "organization" to describe al Qaeda. to what extent do the guys in the badlands have command and control over what's happening? And at this point, how much does it matter given that the pathogen is out and you have people replicating and creating all over the world?

BASS: Larry, do you want to try that?

WRIGHT: It is -- there still is an organization al Qaeda, the mothership al Qaeda. And it's reduced, but it's still there. And it's still very influential.

For instance, in the trials in the Madrid train bombing that have been going on, you know, it's been disclosed that al Qaeda proper was involved in the targeting and the timing. We suspected the timing. But you know, the targeting, that was very interesting. And they also were involved in the London bombing, so just two examples of how what seem at first to be, you know, sort of fractional groups that aren't really attached really do have more connections than at first seems apparent.

Although at the same time I will say, al Qaeda is multiple organizations. There's, you know, the al Qaeda proper, which is centered mainly in the tribal areas of Pakistan. And then there's al Qaeda in North Africa, the new affiliate, which is very coherent and very active right now, and of course al Qaeda in Iraq, which is probably the centerpiece right now of al Qaeda's actions for a long time.

And then there's a more disparate group in Europe that is loosely connected but still connected. And I think that's where my great concern is in the future, is that these disparate groups in Europe will be receiving jihadis who are returning from Iraq, and they'll hook up with these cells that already exist or create new ones, and they'll have ties to -- you know, that had -- just as they did in Afghanistan. They have a network that will become an international network as soon as they start going home, and they'll be able to spread that kind of training that they received in Iraq.

And then of course you have these nascent groups in Palestine and in Southeast Asia, places like that, that could be become even more coherent entities than they are now.

QUESTIONER: Andrew Pierre, Georgetown University. This question really follows up on what Mr. Wright just said. First of all, I'd be interested in a sort of an intelligence evaluation, Mr. Riedel, if I could put it that way, of al Qaeda in Iraq, whether it being involved in the insurgency or in the civil war. And building up from that, we have been concerned now for several years about people from around the world coming to al Qaeda or joining the insurgency. But as we move, I think, towards a gradual departure from Iraq, to what extent should we be concerned about Iraq remaining as a significant base for international terrorism and a breeding ground, a training ground for that?

RIEDEL: Well, I'll start with the end. It already is a breeding ground, it already is a training center. Yes, it is conceivable it could get even worse, but don't minimize how bad it is. I completely agree with Larry. What we are going to see in Iraq is a whole generation of jihadists who got their campaign ribbon in Anbar province or in the streets of Baghdad and they're going to go home, they're going to be very proud of it, they're going to be the big man on campus, and they're going to indoctrinate another generation of jihadists, just as the Arab Afghans came back from Afghanistan and did it in the early 1990s.

The thing that's most striking to me about al Qaeda in Iraq is a simple one. We have now from many former members of the administration a picture of the plan we had for post-invasion, -occupation Iraq, and the truth is we didn't have a plan. We'd done a lot of planning, but we didn't have a plan on the scene, and we drifted around for the first year, two years. Al Qaeda had a plan. They had a plan from the very beginning. It was ruthless, it was evil, it also turned out to be remarkably effective.

Step one: isolate the Americans in Iraq. Bomb the U.N. out, bomb the Jordanians out, bomb everyone else out.

Step two: go for the faultline of Iraqi politics -- the split between Sunni and Shi'a. Exacerbate sectarian tensions until you create a civil war. From the beginning of August 2003, al Qaeda in Iraq began targeting senior Shi'a leaders -- the Ayatollah Hakim was the first they killed -- and important Shi'a shrines and mosques. They've hammered out over and over again, bomb after bomb, and they got what they wanted -- they created a civil war.

Now, in the long term, I believe that the violence that al Qaeda has brought to Iraq, when we are gone, will prove to be counterproductive for them, because they've made a lot of enemies, a lot of enemies who know how to find them. They don't need a translator. They know where these people are. I think in the long term, al Qaeda in Iraq is going to have a difficult time flourishing when a new Iraqi state emerges and starts using the past, proven tactics of Arab police regimes against terrorist enemies, but that could be some time in the future.

BASS: All right. In the front row here.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Pauline Baker from The Fund for Peace. Osama bin Laden has said on several occasions that he wants to acquire weapons of mass destruction. How serious is this, how much of a priority is it, and what are we doing about it?

WRIGHT: I think it's very serious and, you know, certainly has consequences. I think one of the things that makes it serious -- you know, first of all, it's going to be difficult for them to do, and it's a hard action to pull off -- but it paralyzes the thinking of American policy makers and intelligence people, the consequences of this.

And I've been -- one of the questions I've been asking as I go through my intelligence community interviews is: How do you think this is all going to play out, and, you know, what is your scenario for the end game? And the reason I started this is that one of my sources told me his scenario. I said, you know, "How is this going to work?" And he said, "Well, the -- you know, they'll put a dirty bomb or maybe a real bomb in a Western city, and there'll have to be massive retaliation. We'll have to take out the tribal areas, we'll have to bomb Iran, we'll have to take out the holy cities of Mecca and Medina." "Stop!" (Laughs.) "Wait, is that what you really think? "Yeah." And I've asked some other people, "and you've heard this?" "Oh, yeah, I hear it all the time."

So now if that is the -- if the dirty bomb or the bomb bomb is the thing that haunts the imagination of these people, then look at their behavior, and you see how they are reacting to the thing they're most frightened of.

So there isn't -- I guess what I'm trying to say is that there is a danger that that bomb could happen. But at the same time, the fear engendered in the minds of policy makers by that possibility is also dangerous, and it causes us to perhaps overreact, overreact extremely in ways that really work against our long-term interests.

BASS: Barbara Slavin.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks. Barbara Slavin. Bruce, talk a little bit about Iran's relationship with al Qaeda. The 9/11 commission said there was a kind of opportunistic relationship, but that Iran was not involved in 9/11. How has that evolved, particularly in Iraq? I'm hearing from the administration officials that the Iranians are supplying Sunni extremists as well as Shi'a with bombs and whatnot.


RIEDEL: The Taliban, al Qaeda's host, set the tone for the relationship between the organization and Iraq. It's extreme hatred. This is a Sunni jihadist organization. To them, Shi'as are close to the worst thing in the world. That said, al Qaeda's a very opportunistic organization, and it will take advantage of opportunities that come along.

I think that there probably are instances in which al Qaeda operatives travel through Iran and the Iranians know about it and they don't do anything about it. But I don't see any significant evidence of an organizational link or ties between the Iranian intelligence service and al Qaeda, or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and al Qaeda.

And certainly al Qaeda in Iraq is built around, as I mentioned earlier, the entire message that the Shi'a are apostates, that the Shi'a must be punished. And if you look at their rhetoric, they make very, very little difference between Iraqi Arab Shi'a and Persian Shi'a. Their terminology is that what the Americans have done is recreated the Safavid Empire, which was the last truly strong Persian empire, which dominated Iraq in the 16th and 17th centuries. They say that is going to be the unintended consequence of the war. They don't even proclaim that they expect to recover all of Iraq when this war is over.

So I wouldn't be surprised if here or there there's an occasional contact, and I would certainly not be surprised if the Iranians allow people to transit their territory between Pakistan and Iraq, because the only easy way to do that is to go through Iran. But I don't see -- I've not heard of substantial evidence of anything in terms of direct support or intelligence support to the organization.

BASS: Bruce, can I ask you about that? Because I'm fascinated by Iran's role. And we know that bin Laden's son Saad is a guest of the Iranian state, as is the Iranian -- as is Saif al-Adil, the chief of security for al Qaeda. A Saudi newspaper, when I was there, said that there were as many as 500 al Qaeda members who have taken refuge in Iran.

Going back into the Sudanese years of al Qaeda, '92 to '96, there was a lot of commerce between al Qaeda and Hezbollah. Imad Mughniyah, the head of their military wing, came and helped train al Qaeda troops. Some al Qaeda troops went to southern Lebanon to learn -- all under the auspices of the Iranian government.

So even Zarqawi, the architect of this anti-Shi'a war or campaign of al Qaeda, took refuge in Iran after the -- 9/11.

So it's always been very puzzling to me where Iran stands on this. And when I look at it, I think they must be acting not out of the interest of their religion, you know, because from their point of view, this is their archenemy. You know, these people want to destroy all the Shi'ites. But maybe from their political interests as a country, they have an interest in creating this kind of chaos in the regions around them, and they want to sponsor that, assuming that -- you know, that it's not going to get too dangerous in their endgame.

RIEDEL: Right.

BASS: But I think Iran's behavior in this has been the most puzzling aspect of the whole business. It would seem that we are natural allies with Iran on this particular matter.

RIEDEL: The relationship is extremely murky. And getting hard facts on what bin Laden's son and others who fled there in 2001, 2002 from Afghanistan are up to, I think, bedevils our intelligence community today.

I don't believe, though, that there is solid evidence of support from the Iranian state to al Qaeda to carry out terrorist operations.

I'm a little dubious about the reports of contacts between Hezbollah and al Qaeda in the past. I can't say I don't -- I can't prove they're wrong. I have my doubts about that. Sudan in the early 1990s was indeed a mixing bowl for every radical kook in the world, not just Islamist but a lot of other people, too.

So there may have been contacts, but I don't see evidence of an institutionalized link. One possibility is that the Iranians have given refuge to people like this as a bargaining card with al Qaeda, in effect saying, you mess with us and we know how to deal with your son. That would be a very, very Middle East way of trying to deal with it.

The only -- the last point I would make, and I'm just going to add to the murkiness here. Zarqawi and al Qaeda in Iraq talk about their enemy the Persians all the time. Ayman Zawahiri, who is if nothing vocal on almost every issue that goes on in the world and talks about every Muslim country in the world, never utters the word "Iran." So if you want to add to your murkiness, that's a data point which I can't explain.

BASS: Mr. McLaughlin.

QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)

BASS: There's a microphone right there.

QUESTIONER: John McLaughlin, SAIS, Johns Hopkins.

Let me ask you to put on your National Security Advisor heads again.

WRIGHT: Not again. (Laughs.)

QUESTIONER: Tougher question: A new president has been elected. Three months after he's elected, al Qaeda carries out another attack in the United States. Let's assume it's an anthrax attack. Let's assume 10,000 people die. How do you advise the president to proceed?

WRIGHT: All right, John, you are a difficult guy. (Laughter.)

But I will -- first of all, you know, there would be certain information I'd need to know. Do we know anything about where this came from and so on? But if we know that it's al Qaeda, then my feeling is, you have to go into the tribal areas and eliminate that sanctuary.

Right now it seems to me that the American intelligence community is at an impasse about what to do about al Qaeda in these areas. When you talk to those people in that community, as you know, their greatest fear is destabilizing Musharraf, letting in a radical Islamist government that would have the nuclear bomb and maybe even share it with al Qaeda. This is a fixation for a lot of people.

I don't think that Pakistan is quite as unstable as these people do. I mean, my -- as I said, I'm not an expert on Pakistan. But I did observe, for instance, that in Pakistan the army owns nearly everything of value, you know, the best hotels, the insurance companies, the real estate. It's a very unusual institution. And they have an interest in stability. They have an interest in not letting things go to pieces.

And the other thing -- you know, just to add to that, you can join the army. I mean, it's hard to get into. But once you have a son or a nephew or so on who's in the army, you have an investment -- your family has an investment -- in the -- in that institution, which has this great investment in stability in the country.

So given those factors from my amateur eye, I think, well, they wouldn't want to see their pensions all go to pieces at once by having an Islamist takeover of their country. I don't think that they would let that happen. But I do think that the fear of that happening is exactly what's standing in the way of our resolving the sanctuary problem in the tribal areas.

BASS: Bruce, how would you handle that easy task from John McLaughlin?

RIEDEL: I think if the intelligence pointed to the al Qaeada core, yes, you'd have to substantially and significantly change the relationship with Pakistan. I completely agree with Larry. Musharraf is not immortal. We should not put our entire investment on the future of Pakistan on a military dictator who I suspect is closer to the end of his term now than he is to the beginning. He's in deep political trouble. T

The Pakistani army is not composed, by and large, certainly not the officer corps, of crazed Islamists who want to give weapons to Osama bin Laden. This country has more stability to it than many people think. But every Pakistani leader I've met, and I've met the last three, all say the same thing: "If you don't support me, the next guy's going to have a beard." Well, it ain't happened yet, and I think I'm willing to bet on the fourth one is not going to be Osama bin Laden, Pakistan version.

BASS: We have time for just one more. There's a hand way at the back. The woman with her--yes.

QUESTIONER: Jill Schuker, JAS International. In your book "Looming Tower," you draw a devastating portrait of dysfunction between the CIA and the FBI. And I'm curious, particularly given sort of the rifle shots that have been fired recently with books coming out, et cetera, do you see any change from the portrait that you drew -- and if Bruce would like to comment on this as well -- or is it still as dysfunctional? Meaning the question that was asked earlier, that we might be literally facing another attack without the proper intelligence and sharing of intelligence.

WRIGHT: There have been efforts, and good-hearted efforts, I think, to try to make these different branches of the intelligence community speak to each other. And yet there's a tremendous cultural resistance to sharing that will never go away. It's always going to be true that their missions are to some extent opposed to each other.

You know, the FBI looks backward: What happened? How can we convict this person? You know, or how can we use this intelligence as evidence? And the CIA looks forward: What's going to happen? And, you know, how do we prevent these things from happening if we can't let this intelligence become evidence because it destroys the possibility that we'll find out even more?

So that fundamental conflict will never disappear. But I think there are some innovative grassroots things happening in the intelligence community, like blogs and wikis, that cut across these cultural lines. And to the extent that they're allowed to roam free and actually communicate with each other -- and I'm a great advocate of making the community less vertical and more horizontal, so that people have more responsibility down at the ground and their relationship with their bosses is very intimate, not distant, not in some other town or some other building that you never go into. I think that it has to be much more horizontally organized.

So that's my feeling right now. I'm not really optimistic that this intelligence community can ever willfully talk to each other in a very creative way, but I think they can be forced to.

Unfortunately, I think it's going to take the president actually getting involved and breaking down these barriers that still exist despite all these reforms, and saying that we cannot afford to have this kind of these cultural walls that still exist between these institutions.

BASS: I wish it had been a more cheerful hour, but it's certainly been a very stimulating one. Let me ask you to thank our panelists.








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