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Al Qaeda Strikes Back [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Author: Bruce O. Riedel, Senior Fellow at the Saban Center For Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution
Moderator: Gideon Rose, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs
April 26, 2007
Council on Foreign Relations

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GIDEON ROSE:  Hi.  This is Gideon Rose.  Welcome everybody to this conference call with Bruce Riedel.

At Foreign Affairs, one of the challenges we face is that we're going to be covering topics that people have read a lot about previously in newspapers, other magazines with quicker turnarounds and so forth.  There's always this question of, well, why should people read our pieces?  And I like to think that the answer is that we have authors who know what they're talking about and so our pieces are the ones you have to read, not just the ones you might want to read the first time around and so forth.

And I think this article by Bruce Riedel is a perfect example of it -- the lead article in our new issued called "Al Qaeda Strikes Back."  We've all read a lot about what's been going on with al Qaeda, and the jihadist movement more generally, but we actually have the opportunity in FA to bring people who really know what they're talking about to a larger public audience.  And so with that, we have this conference call today with Bruce Riedel.

For those of you inside the system, Bruce has been a major figure over the years, but those of you outside may not know him.  And I can just sum it up by saying in the old days, Bruce was the kind of person who, when you asked him what was going on, he would say, "I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you."  And now that he's out, we get to have him speak to a larger audience.

But Bruce, why don't you start, very quickly first, just by saying a little bit about why -- how you know all this stuff and why people should take what you say a little more seriously than what they take everybody else's opinions on the same subject.

BRUCE RIEDEL:  Sure.  I've been working on the counterterrorism beat for 30 years.  I joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1977.  My first assignment was in our counterterrorism office working against Abu Nidal.  And since then I've followed terrorism issues in one place or another.

In the '90s I was the -- started as the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, then moved to the Pentagon to be deputy assistant secretary of Defense for the Near East and South Asia, and then came to the White House to be special assistant to the president for the region and spent the second Clinton administration in that job and the first 12 months of the Bush administration working on it.  So I think I have a long experience in dealing with terrorism issues, and particularly with al Qaeda.

ROSE:  Now, can one say that, basically, you have access -- or at least did in your previous lives -- to the kind of information that the rest of us don't necessarily have access to?  And that at least some of the conclusions you are drawing are based on things that you're not allowed to talk about?

RIEDEL:  Well, I want to be careful here.  I'm certainly not in the position of revealing any classified information.  But yes, I've been following this story of al Qaeda from the inside ever since al Qaeda came on the screens of American intelligence and American policymakers in the mid-1990s.  So I think it is safe to say I'm drawing on a long period of experience reading everything that we have and talking to people who are true hands-on operational experts in dealing with it.

ROSE:  Okay.  Well, with that intro, let's get right to the chase.

You start out by saying that al Qaeda is a more dangerous enemy today than it has ever been before.  Why don't you explain what you mean by that and why you think that's the case.

RIEDEL:  Well, I think if you look at the last five years since the invasion of Afghanistan after September 11th, what you have to be struck by is the breadth and audacity of al Qaeda and al Qaeda-related operations.  Al Qaeda and its sympathizers have in the last five years struck from Algiers, Casablanca, Madrid, London in the West to as far as Bali in the East.  They've struck repeatedly at targets in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt, in Turkey -- not to mention the civil wars that they have helped to promote in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Simply cataloging all of the attacks that we can link one way or another to al Qaeda in the last five years shows you an extraordinary breadth of activity and an audacity in the kinds of targets they've gone after.  Most of all, though, I think what you look at is that we've seen al Qaeda and Taliban allies rebuild their base of operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- what I call the Pakistani badlands.  These operations were disrupted by the invasion of Afghanistan, but instead of finishing the job, we turned our attention away from it to Iraq and they have successfully recovered.

And now in Iraq -- a place where al Qaeda really was non-existent six years ago -- we have the most successful al Qaeda franchise that we've ever seen before -- the al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which has now proclaimed the Islamic State of Iraq.

ROSE:  Okay.  Now, that's the threat.  Presumably, though, we are more aware of this threat and able to counter it than we were several years ago.  I mean, before 9/11 there were people inside the system screaming about this, people running around the country with their hair on fire -- as George Tenet famously said -- but the general public didn't know, didn't care.  There wasn't real attention to homeland security.

So is it fair to say that even though they're more of a threat we're now more prepared or are dealing with responding to this more effectively, or should we really be more worried about another 9/11 imminently?

RIEDEL:  I think that there is no question that we have devoted more resources in the intelligence field and in the homeland security field.  Our defenses in that sense are unquestionably different than what they were on September 10th, 2001.  But the threat is very, very diffuse and comes at you in a lot of different ways.  And what we know about this enemy is that they are extremely innovative and creative.

Right now the focus of al Qaeda's strategy is the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Osama bin Laden has said on many occasions that his objective on September 11th was to draw the United States to intervene in the Muslim world and then bog it down in quagmires.  His analogy has always been to what the Mujahideen did to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.  And he sees where we are now in Iraq and Afghanistan as precisely where he wants the American enemy to be:  A place where he can gradually bleed us and wear down our resolve.

ROSE:  So his goal is to go after the near enemy and we are playing into his hands.  He attacked us as the far enemy in order to help achieve his goals with other people, not necessarily with us per se.

RIEDEL:  Yes.  I mean, in the ultimate world of al Qaeda, they envision freeing the Muslim world of Western influence and forcing Western powers out.  And by that they also mean Israel, which they see as the ultimate example of Western intrusion into the Muslim world.

They don't have any serious plans of converting us to Islam.  That's not on the horizon for them.  What they want to do is free the Muslim world or the ummah, as they refer to it, from any kind of outside Western imperialist or Zionist activity.

ROSE:  So what we really should be concerned about and worried about with al Qaeda is not so much more planes coming and blowing up more of our own skyscrapers or our own targets here, but rather a world environment -- particularly in the Middle East and its -- (inaudible) -- that is going to be dramatically hostile to American interests.

RIEDEL:  I don't think it can be seen entirely as an either/or.  Certainly their immediate focus now is to develop these quagmires and to -- as you put it quite rightly -- create a hostile Middle East which is an environment in which the West finds it increasingly difficult to operate, in which business, tourism, military activities -- all of them -- are very hard to operate.

They have not abandoned by any means, though, the goal of what they call raids against the far enemy.  And I think we saw last August in the plot that the British were able to foil, a pretty advanced effort at another such raid.

ROSE:  Okay.  People have talked about the question about whether something like 9/11 was a black swan -- a sort of unpredictable, very low-probability event.  And it's always inherently difficult to try to sort of figure out the probability and prepare for these things.  There have -- you're saying al Qaeda is more dangerous than ever.  It's been five years since -- more than five years -- since the attacks and we haven't seen any more at home.  Why should people be scared if nothing bad has actually managed to happen?

RIEDEL:  Well, a lot of bad things have happened.  They haven't happened on American soil.  They've happened in London.  They've happened in Madrid.  They've happened in Istanbul.  They've happened throughout the Muslim world.  So I think if you look at the breadth and depth of al Qaeda attacks in the last five years it's really quite stunning. 

Now, you're right.  They haven't successfully conducted an operation against the United States -- although last August they came very close.  And I think if you look at what intelligence chiefs in the United States and in Europe have been saying in the last several months, they've been trying to alert the general public to this threat, very much as I am trying to do.

For example, just yesterday the head of Scotland Yard said that from their perspective, they continue to come across numerous attempts by al Qaeda to carry out operations in London.  Let me read to you what he said.  He said, "In case after case, the hand of core al Qaeda can be clearly seen."  No, I think that the risk is still very much there.  I think one of the things we learned in September 2001 is that underestimating al Qaeda is a very serious mistake.

ROSE:  So what have we been doing all these years that has screwed up and what can we do better in the years ahead?

RIEDEL:  Well, the number one mistake we made was taking our eye off the ball.  In 2002 we had al Qaeda on the ropes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  We should have relentlessly gone after the al Qaeda leadership.  We should have put unremitting pressure on the Pakistanis to do everything they could, and we should have sourced, funded and manned the effort in Afghanistan to finish the job.  Instead we made a mistake -- a decision to go after a war in Iraq that we didn't need to fight, which diverted resources and then created a cause celebe that al Qaeda has exploited quite effectively.  Al Qaeda, much quicker than anyone else, saw that Iraq was a potential trap for the United States.  If you read what Osama bin Laden said before the invasion, he already saw that this was a placed where America could be bogged down and fought into a hopeless civil war.  And unfortunately his predictions about what could be done have turned out to be very accurate. 

I think what we need to do now is to develop a grand strategy that seeks to attack al Qaeda in many different ways.  First and foremost, we need to decapitate the leadership.  We need to go after Osama bin laden, Ayman Zawahiri and their lieutenants in the badlands of Pakistan.  And to do that, we need to increase significantly our presence in Afghanistan and we need to put pressure on the Pakistanis.  Secondly, we need to do more in the battle of ideas.  Al Qaeda has been able to exploit the American/British invasion of Iraq as a recipe of Western colonialism again.  We need a much better narrative.  We've spoiled our narrative with things like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and until we're able to show that we've really learned from those lessons, I think the war of ideas is going to continue to be one in which we're coming up short. 

ROSE:  But if we're -- if being in Iraq and losing is a boon to them, wouldn't out being out of Iraq and turning it over to local chaos in which they could thrive and develop bases -- wouldn't that also be a boon to them?

RIEDEL:  They certainly are going to claim credit, and they in fact already are for any American defeat in Iraq.  But I think it's time that we recognized that Iraq is more of a trap than an opportunity.  I need we need now to come up with a mechanism for a phased, orderly withdrawal from Iraq.  The secret there is to do that in a way in which we enhance the legitimacy of the Iraqi government that we're going to leave behind.  We need to work this out with the Iraqis in such a way as the beneficiary of American withdrawal is more the Iraqi government we leave behind than anyone else. 

ROSE:  It sounds like even if we do all of that, this is indeed going to be a long war, whether or not you use a term like that and that the next generation or two of national security decision-makers are going to be grappling with the question of how to confront the jihadis as the previous one has.  Is that also true or is there some silver bullet here that we've been missing? 

RIEDEL:  I don't think there's a silver bullet, but there is the development of a grand strategy which incorporates all the different kinds of approaches that I've been talking about and then goes relentlessly after the enemy, and focuses on the al Qaeda core in particular as the number one threat to our country and to our interests.  I don't think it has to be a long war, but I think we will be facing a jihadist movement for some time to come and that will be at the top of our national security priorities.

ROSE:  Okay.

Let me just -- before I turn you over to the audience for Q&A -- you talk about going after the leadership and developing a grand strategy in taking it to the enemy.  But as you've just said, they're all sitting away in the badlands of Pakistan where even the Pakistani government doesn't have control, we truly don't have control over the Pakistani government.  So how exactly realistic is it to launch a major offensive?  Are you talking about invading -- the -- Balukistan or some place like that?

RIEDEL:  No, I'm not talking about engaging in new military operations outside of the Afghan theater of operations.  Getting Pakistan to cooperate more fully with us is one of the most important and difficult parts of the job.  Pakistan, unfortunately, has developed a jihadist culture over the last quarter-century, in part as an outgrowth of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. 

I think we need a sophisticated approach that encourages the Pakistanis to see that continuing to tolerate any kinds of terrorism is not in their interest.  And one of the keys to that -- probably the most important key to that -- is the Kashmir conflict.  We have a unique moment right now, when we have the best relations we've had in decades with both India and Pakistan and an ongoing India-Pakistan dialogue about Kashmir.  We should be supporting now.  We should encouraging India and Pakistan to work on Kashmir.  We should, as a result of that, find avenues for discussing with the Pakistanis ways of shutting down all the terrorist apparatus in Pakistan that has developed over the last years, including Kashmiri terrorists, including Taliban terrorists and including al Qaeda.

ROSE:  Excellent.

I should mention to our audience in case you didn't know, Bruce actually was involved in helping the Pakistanis and Indians play nicely and walk back from some of their confrontations at the brink.  So that's an area that he has a considerable expertise and passion about.

At this point, let's turn it over to our audience and fire away.  Please announce who you are so he knows where the incoming fire is originating.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

At this time, we will open the floor for questions.  If you'd like to ask a question, please press the star key found by the one key on your touch-tone phone now.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received.  If at any time you'd like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, press star-two. 

Our first question comes from Gary Thomas, with Voice of America.

QUESTIONER:  Good morning, Bruce. 

Two related questions.  First of all, I mean, how monolithic or centralized is al Qaeda, really?  Because it seems to me there are jihadi groups that have like objectives with al Qaeda, but they also have local objectives that may not jive with what al Qaeda wants.  And the second question is, how do your rate the efficacy of the new NCTC in countering the jihadi threat? 

RIEDEL:  Those are both good questions.

Al Qaeda doesn't seek to be the common turned Islamic revolution.  It is quite happy to franchise out and allow local groups a fair degree of independence as long as they adhere to the overall ideology of jihadism and striking both at the far enemy and the near enemy.  And one of the things that I think is most disturbing that we're seeing recently is the increasing proliferation of these franchises.  The most successful, of course, is the one in Iraq, but now we see a new franchise being developed in North Africa which just carried out very significant operations in Algiers.  That franchise is particularly worrisome because it opens the door to using the Magrebi diaspora in Western Europe as a new avenue of approach for attacking both the United States and Europe, much as the Pakistani diaspora in the United Kingdom has been used in the past by al Qaeda, most notably on the 7th of July 2005.

The National Counterterrorism Center -- I know the people who work there, I know its leadership, Admiral Scott Redd.  These are extremely dedicated, hardworking employees.  They are trying to bring the resources of the American intelligence community to the challenge and all I can do is wish them the best.  I think that we've got the right people there.  Our problem is not having the foot soldiers in the war on terrorism.  Our problem is that we've had the wrong strategy from the top. 

QUESTIONER:  Thank you, Bruce.

OPERATOR:  Thank you. 

Our next question comes from Jason Noddy (sp) with Metro New York. 

QUESTIONER:  Hello, Bruce.

My question relates to al Qaeda's root -- the root of al Qaeda's funding.  Being that it is a fairly decentralized organization, I'm wondering if you can shed any insight into how exactly it goes about replenishing its funding, funding various cells and et cetera, and how best to approach cutting off that funding as part of a new strategy. 

RIEDEL:  That's a very hard question.  Funding is obviously one of the areas that al Qaeda guards and protects most zealously.  As best outsiders can tell, al Qaeda still acquires a considerable amount of money from private donors in the Arabian Peninsula.  There have been estimates that there's as much as $1 trillion in private hands in the various Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, and some of that money, I think, is still continuing to flow to various jihadist causes.  Not in all cases does the funder know what the end recipient will be.  They're very good at using cutouts along the way and making people think that they may be sending money to humanitarian causes when in fact, some of it's diverted to terrorism.  But I think the bulk of the jihadist fundraising continues to take place in the Arabian Peninsula. 

QUESTIONER:  Thank you very much, Bruce.  

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

Our next question comes from Randy Hall of Cybercast News Service.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, good morning.

I'm curious -- there's one word that I haven't heard yet in all of this discussion that I thought was one of the main contentions of this morning's briefing, which is Iran.  How is al Qaeda trying to lure U.S. into war with Iran, and what should we do about it? 

RIEDEL:  Yes.  I was wondering when someone was going to bring that up as well.  The al Qaeda organization sees Iran as one of its great enemies.  Al Qaeda is a very strict Sunni Islamist organization.  For extreme Sunni Islamists like Osama bin Laden, Iran's Shi'a faith is apostasy.  So they've always had a very negative relationship with Iran.  The al Qaeda franchise in Iraq in particular has an intense anti-Shi'a animus.

Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, whatever we may say of him, was an evil genius in that he understood that the way to create chaos in Iraq was to strike at the fault-line of Iraqi politics -- the Sunni-Shiite divide -- and create a Sunni-Shiite civil war.  He succeeded perhaps even beyond his own imagination. 

 And what Iraq -- what al-Qaeda in Iraq now most fears is not the continuing deployment of American forces -- I think they've come to the conclusion we're going to leave, whether it's in 2008 or 2009 -- but what comes afterwards.  And what they fear comes afterwards is going to be a very Shiite-dominated Iraq -- one that is very closely aligned with the Iranians, what they refer to as the revival of the Safavid Empire, the Persian empire that dominated Iraq in the 15th and 16th centuries.

So they have openly talked about the advisability of getting their two great enemies, the crusaders and the Safavids, to go to war with each other.  Everyone in the Middle East these days is talking about the potential for a war between the United States and Iran.  I think there's a fair amount of talk about that in the United States as well.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq openly welcomes such a war because it sees it as an opportunity for the two of them to -- for two of their biggest enemies to take each other out. 

Now you ask, how could the al-Qaeda mechanism promote such a war?  Well, one option to do so would be to conduct what is called a "false flag" terrorist operation, where you carry out an act of terror and you try to make it look like someone else was responsible.  This has been done before -- and it requires that if there is an act of terrorism, a very, very strong effort to make sure we know exactly who is responsible.

OPERATOR:  Is that all, Mr. Hall?

QUESTIONER:  Yes, what then are our alternatives if they are -- it sounds like you're saying that we should not go after Iran then, even despite the nuclear threat that they pose these days.

RIEDEL:  I think that there are ways to go after the Iranians.  And in this case, I would be one who would say the administration, or at least the State Department -- part of the administration has shown a fair amount of wisdom in how it's done that -- I think that going to the Security Council -- we now have two U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran cease development of its nuclear weapons program -- and starting to apply targeted, specific sanctions.  I think that's exactly the right approach.  It's going to require patience; it's going to require building an international consensus, but I think that's the best way to go.

Engaging in more gun-boat diplomacy with the Iranians, on the other hand, I think is a recipe for falling into an al-Qaeda trap once more.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Patricia Mellow (sp).  Please state your organization.

QUESTIONER:  Hi, it's Estado de Sao Paulo, from Brazil.  My question is, in your opinion, what is the probability of a new al-Qaeda raid in the U.S., considering that the security is much better than it was pre 9/11, and also considering al-Qaeda's current strategy?

RIEDEL:  I think sooner or later we will see another al-Qaeda operation in the United States.  And from what I understand, last summer's operation that was planned in the United Kingdom came perilously close to being successful.  Anyone who's traveled in the last six to eight months has noticed the new restrictions on liquids that you can bring on airplanes into the United States.  That restriction is a dramatic illustration of how close al-Qaeda came just last August to being able to pull off what was truly a spectacular operation as they were planning it.

The intent of their plans last August was to have 20 "martyrs," as they call them -- "suicide bombers" as we would call them -- blow up 10 jumbo jets simultaneously over the North Atlantic.  Let's assume they only had a 50 percent success rate.  Such an operation would have had a staggering impact on the global economy, on global transportation, and I think it would have established pretty clearly just how serious the threat was.

Now in this case, the British were able to successfully thwart the operation before they got on the plan.  But in the counter-terrorism business, as the British will tell you, the counter-terrorists have to be lucky 100 percent of the time -- the terrorists only have to be lucky once.

ROSE:  Bruce, I'm actually interested -- I'm going to take a two-finger here -- this is Gideon.

I'm interested to hear you say that you can read, off the new security procedures, something serious about the threat.  Are you saying that, you know, the grandmothers pulled aside, having their shampoo taken out -- is actually a sign of an efficient and serious bureaucracy?  I always just assumed that it was idiocy and bureaucratic political correctness, but are you saying the new rules actually are a reflection of somebody doing something correctly? 

RIEDEL:  The new rules are a direct result of the plot that was uncovered last summer by the British.  The explosives combination that these folks had come up with would have worked, and therefore we had to invoke new restrictions on what could be brought onboard.  Now once again, this is a, you know, a dramatic illustration, Gideon, of something else -- which is that playing defense, and homeland security, is incredibly expensive and time consuming, and puts a burden on the average citizen.  We have to do it. 

And there's every reason to engage in good defense at home -- as there is, but we also ought to invest in good offense.  The administration often talks about taking the battle to the enemy, but the real enemy is the al-Qaeda core in the Pakistan-Afghanistan badlands, and we, frankly, haven't taken the offense to them in quite some time. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Jim Landers, the Dallas Morning News. 

QUESTIONER:  Hi, I am concerned about the -- how to bring pressure on the Pakistanis.  It seems that the military establishment in Pakistan has been so intermingled with jihadism, and whatnot, over the years, that -- I just have a hard time finding any confidence that, you know, who these people play for.  And a particular concern is what's gone on with Abdul Qadeer Khan, and how we still don't know everything he did.  We still don't have any access to him, and it just seems that, you know, you push one side of the Pakistani military establishment, and somewhere else there's another group that's still out there -- still prepared to do all kinds of things that are extraordinarily dangerous. 

RIEDEL:  Well, you've put your finger on probably the single hardest part of any effective strategy against al-Qaeda, which is how you deal with Pakistan.  And you're absolutely right, Pakistan -- and particularly the Pakistani army, had developed such an intricate network of ties with different terrorist groups, that it's very opaque and very hard to see exactly who's doing what to whom. 

Therefore, I think what you need is a very comprehensive strategy with Pakistan.  We need to push hard for an end to all cooperation with all terrorist organizations -- whether they're Kashmiris, Taliban, or al-Qaeda.  We also need to push hard for a return to democracy in Pakistan.  The army, by definition, is going to have a relationship with these terrorist groups -- putting the Pakistani army back in the barracks, putting the Pakistani intelligence service back in the barracks, is an important part of the process of getting Pakistan out of the terrorism business. 

And finally, as I said earlier, I think you have to find ways to encourage Pakistani cooperation by addressing the itch that has driven Pakistan towards supporting terrorism for the last 20 years -- and that is the unresolved problem of Kashmir.  Kashmir is more ripe for settlement now than it has been at any time in our lifetimes.  And I would urge the administration to seize the opportunity to quietly, but forcefully, push for a resolution there.  It's a complex, sophisticated strategy that we're going to have to pursue towards Pakistan.  Simply praising Musharraf as our buddy in the war is not producing results.

ROSE:  My god, the prospects for putting forward complex, persuasive, nuanced strategies is not exactly high -- for their workings.  So if that's what we have to do, we're in trouble, Bruce. 

I should point out that we will have a major article on U.S. policy towards Pakistan in our next issue, in the July-August issue, so you should all look forward to engaging that one as well. 

Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Diane Hodges (sp).  Please state your organization.

QUESTIONER:  I work for Al-Jazeera, and I'm interested in what you were saying about how the administration needs to craft a new narrative.  How should they go about doing that, and what effect do you think Al-Jazeera news service has in the Middle East?  Is it helping to bring understanding and cooperation or is it creating more dissension?

RIEDEL:  I'm an avid reader of Al-Jazeera.  I look to your web page every day for updates on the news.  I think as a news organization Al-Jazeera has brought a lot to a Middle East which in the past was a pretty desolate place for serious news and news analysis.  You do do provocative things but that in the end is what being in the news business is about. 

Your question on the narrative is absolutely critical.  We've kind of ceded the narrative to al Qaeda in the last five years.  What al Qaeda portrays is an America which is ceaselessly seeking to take over the Middle East to grab its oil resources, and which supports Israel in everything that it does with no attempt to try to promote an Arab/Israeli peace process.  So I think the narrative has to begin by opening a new page, and that page needs to start with, first of all, the clear exposition that the United States has no designs on Muslim countries -- that we have no intention of having permanent military bases in Iraq or Afghanistan. 

I find it remarkable that this administration four years after the invasion of Iraq has never clearly said that it has no plans for permanent military facilities in Iraq.  That's one step.  Second step is to get back to the business of peacemaking.  It was much easier for the United States to advance a narrative that we are friends of the Islamic world when we had American presidents who were actively engaged in trying to find a solution to the core problem of the region -- the Arab/Israeli problem.  President Bush, President Clinton, and their predecessors were all visibly active in trying to bring that about.  And as I mentioned I think we should also be much more active, perhaps in this case quietly and behind the scenes, in trying to promote a settlement of Pakistan.  I think if the United States establishes a narrative in which it is clear it is not trying to rape the Middle East, as al Qaeda likes to portray us, but in fact is a friend of peace and security in the region, then we have a chance of reversing the course.

ROSE:  Again, let me take a two-finger follow-up on this one, Bruce, which is why haven't they adjured the bases -- permanent bases in Iraq?  Is it because they're too clueless to recognize that doing so would be a good propaganda initiative, or is it because they actually might want them?

RIEDEL:  Well, I -- the honest answer to that, Gideon, is I don't know the answer to that.  I tend to assume that at least for some period of Don Rumsfeld's stewardship of the Pentagon, there were plans for permanent military bases.  I understand that his successor, Bob Gates, has been more willing to talk about not having permanent bases but I haven't seen him do it publicly and forcibly in a manner in which the Muslim world would hear what he has to say.  And frankly, at this point, I don't think that the Bush administration has much credibility anywhere in the Muslim world so I don't think that this administration is going to be able to build that new narrative.

QUESTIONER:  Well, now that is an interesting point because, you know, I don't know that anything they could say at this point would really help, would it?

RIEDEL:  Unfortunately, I think that this administration has so squandered American credibility that it would be very, very difficult for it to reestablish it.  I hope that's not the case but I'm not optimistic.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

OPERATOR:  Thank you. Our next question comes from Sebastian Rotello with Los Angeles Times in Paris.

QUESTIONER:  Hi, Mr. Riedel.  I was very interested in the false flag operation idea, and I was just curious if you could talk about that a little bit more.  Are you saying that you think it would be most likely that al Qaeda and Iraq would do that?  They're certainly prolific and ferocious but do you think they're sophisticated enough to pull off an attack of the magnitude that could provoke such a war and disguise it as Iran's doing, or do you think that's something that more likely that corps al Qaeda would be involved in or oversee?

RIEDEL:  I think what we've seen from al Qaeda in Iraq is a extraordinarily innovative and creative terrorist organization.  I mentioned Abu Musaab Zarqawi before.  The man's a thug or he was a thug, but he's -- you have to give him credit.  He may have been an evil strategist but he was brilliant in his evil, and I think they're quite capable of such a sophisticated operation.  The al Qaeda core has flirted with ideas of false flag operations in the past.  For example, we know from the testimony of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that was put out a few weeks ago that they looked into the idea of an operation in which planes from the Royal Saudi Air Force would be hijacked and used for an attack on the Israeli coastal city of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba.  Those plans never got off the ground, literally, but clearly part of the thinking in any kind of operation like that was that you were going to precipitate conflicts between Israel and Saudi Arabia.  Now, if they were able to come up with a plan like that, then I think they're quite capable of coming up with other nefarious plots.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Claudia Rizzi with PBS.

QUESTIONER:  Hello -- hi.  I'm just wondering -- given your analysis on the relationship between al Qaeda and Iran and its sort of plan to try to draw the United States in a war against Iran, what do you make of reports that circulated recently about actually al Qaeda having struck some kind of strategic alliance with Iran, maybe for the short term rather than long-term?

RIEDEL:  I'm very dubious of those reports and I haven't seen much that would give them credibility.  It is true that after the war in Afghanistan -- after the Operation Enduring Freedom began that some of the al Qaeda leadership at a secondary level fled not into Pakistan but fled into Iran, and that some of those people remain under detention in Iran.  But I don't see any credible evidence that that apparatus is engaged in operational planning.  I think that those people are actually more hostages held by Iran to try to discourage al Qaeda from operations against Iran.

QUESTIONER:  So you don't give any credibility to reports that actually there is some kind of link through Syria, for example?

RIEDEL:  No, I don't.

QUESTIONER:  Okay.  Thank you.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Catherine Shrider (sp) with Associated Press.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Thank you so much for doing this this morning.  I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about the franchises that al Qaeda may be working with.  What are some of the ones that you see as the most worrisome -- perhaps maybe GFPC or, you know, can you walk us through some of the specifics you're thinking about?  And how sophisticated are these groups?  Are they really mostly focused on kind of the local jihad or do you see any that have broader ambitions more in line with al Qaeda central and may be interested in attacking U.S. interests?

RIEDEL:  Sure.  One of the first franchise operations we saw was in Indonesia with Jemaah Islamiyah, a group that al Qaeda had worked with extensively in the training camps in Afghanistan before September 11th.  They were able to use that organization for a series of spectacular operations in Indonesia back in 2002 -- 2003, most notably the Bali nightclub bombing, which was very much an attack on the far enemy, in this case primarily Australian tourists. 

Another franchise that al Qaeda devoted a lot of effort to was the franchise in Saudi Arabia, which between 2003 and early 2006 was able to promote the longest, most serious sustained political violence in the kingdom since the establishment of the Saudi state at the beginning of the 20th century.  They were able to carry out attacks that came perilously close to doing very serious damage to the Saudi oil network.  The ones that I think are most disturbing to look at right now, first, it's the one in North Africa which I mentioned.  We know that the al Qaeda corps engaged in negotiations with the GSPC for over two years to set up the new alliance -- the merger which it's created -- al Qaeda in the Maghreb.  I think that's particularly worrisome because given the very sizable Maghrebi Diaspora community in western Europe, the risk of new attacks inside of Europe based out of this organization has to be taken quite seriously, and French authorities in the last few days have been talking about that a lot. 

I think another place that one would need to be worried about the creation of a franchise that it hasn't developed yet but it is clearly something that could come on the horizon is in the Lebanon.  Al Qaeda thrives in failing and failed states, and Lebanon right now is on the verge of being a failed state again.  It's got a political deadlock that is creating all the kinds of atmosphere that al Qaeda can work in, and there are -- a long history of Sunni Islamist jihadist groups in Lebanon that al Qaeda might be working with.  Those are some of the places where I think you can look to al Qaeda trying to develop new franchises.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Diane Hodges with Al-Jazeera.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  I was just curious about Saudi Arabia.  You mentioned them a moment ago.  What can they do to try to I guess to counter with the terrorism, and what should we be pressing them to do?

RIEDEL:  Well, if one looks at Saudi -- the Saudi record against al Qaeda in the last few years, after an initial period of denial about the al Qaeda movement, once al Qaeda began operating in the kingdom, the kingdom reacted with a pretty effective counter terrorism strategy.  They've gone after the senior al Qaeda leadership in the kingdom and they've been very successful in getting most of them using very tough, old-fashioned Middle East security mechanisms.  I think the place where we would probably want to press the Saudis to continue to do more is in the area of funding, and that's very, very hard to do but it is probably the one place where Saudi Arabia's contribution would have the biggest long-term impact.

QUESTIONER:  And what should we do, though?

RIEDEL:  Well, I think we have to continue to work very, very closely with the Saudi authorities in giving them leads and tips as to who to go after on the fundraising side, and urging them to make every effort to prevent individuals from providing financial resources to this (sic) jihadist organizations.

ROSE:  Let me ask you a follow-up on that with a two-finger, Bruce -- Gideon again.  If we -- if al Qaeda thrives in weak or failed states and, as you note in the article, some of the failures that they've encountered have been in the Sunni heartland and their attempts to take over these regimes, is part of the answer to dealing with them a restoration of a kind of U.S. alliance with the bad old Sunni authoritarians who can crack down hard at home and take care of their domestic radical opposition?  And if that's the case, how does that change the narrative or deal with the underlying problems that may fuel the radical movements?

RIEDEL:  Well, it's a complex narrative, and you've pointed out that there are going to be idiosyncrasies in this.  I'm not one who believes that the solution to our problem with al Qaeda is bashing our traditional friends in the Arab world.  I think we need their help -- we need their support.  I think more important on the narrative is changing the dynamic of the conversation away from al Qaeda's preferred conversation, which is the United States seeks to impose its will on the Middle East -- it seeks permanent military facilities -- it seeks to plunder countries like Iraq of their wealth, and to get back to the business of peacemaking and being an active participant in trying to resolve the Palestinian issue and in trying to resolve the Israeli/Syrian issue.  The promotion of democracy per se I think is certainly something we also want to do, but we need to do it at a pace which is consistent with fighting the counter terrorism battle, and that's a very difficult area that you have to calibrate and work on every day.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Again, if you have a question please press the star key followed by the 1 key on your touchtone phone now.  Okay.  There are no more questions at this time.

ROSE:  Okay.  Well, we're just about our -- at the end of our time anyway so we're going to wrap these things up.  Thank you, Bruce.  Thank you for all our press participants.  I should point out that Bruce has a regular perch these days at Brookings and at Georgetown, and unlike in the past, he is able and eager to talk to the press.  So if you have questions, not just on al Qaeda but on anything under the sun connected to these very troubled regions, you can always find him there with a good sound bite.  And we look forward to featuring him in the magazine again.  And I wish you all the best until our next conference call.

RIEDEL:  Thanks, Gideon.

OPERATOR:  Thank you, gentlemen.  And this concludes today's conference call.

RIEDEL:  Thank you.

ROSE:  Thank you.

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