Council on Foreign Relations
LISA SHIELDS: Hi. Good morning. Welcome. Thank you all for coming. This is one of a series of press briefings that we like to do in the communications office to expose our scholars to reporters, but also just have a free flow of conversation about some of the critical issues of this day, in this case it's the State Department's release of the 2005 Country Reports on Terrorism. I wanted to just very briefly introduce just the panel, and then let them each speak for five, ten minutes, as long as they'd like for introductory remarks and we'll just open it up. I encourage this to be as much a conversation as anything else, so if you have thoughts about thing you're working on, please feel free to share them with us.
First I'll just briefly introduce Steve Simon. We're delighted to have him join the Council on Foreign Relations. Prior to that, he comes from Rand . He's perhaps best known for his long 15-year career at the State Department and five years at the White House. Steve's book, The Age of Sacred Terror, won our very own Arthur Ross Book Award. He's well known for his expertise on terror, counterterrorism policy and operations, as well as security policy in the near East and South Asia .
Vali Nasr, also delighted to welcome you to the Council on Foreign Relations. He's adjunct senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies and he's also a professor of Middle East and South Asia politics and associate chair of research in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School . All your titles are really a mouthful, you guys. (Laughter.) He's a specialist on political Islam and has worked extensively on political and social developments in the Muslim world with a focus on the relation of religion to politics, violence, and democratization. He's an author of a number of books. Those bios are all in your press kits, by the way.
Steve Flynn has been with us for—how long have you been with us?
FLYNN: Too long. No. Seven years.
SHIELDS: Seven years, during which he's authored a number of really good publications. The first I believe that we worked on with you, Steve, was the Task Force Report that Steve directed with Warren Rudman and Gary Hart, "America: Still Unprepared, Still in Danger." I can't remember if it was Gary or Warren who called you the Paul Revere of homeland security, but that is certainly what his expertise has been. He's a former Coast Guard commander. He's—
FLYNN: I never liked that because the British came. (Laughter.)
SHIELDS: True. He's got a book coming up, The Edge of Disaster: Catastrophic Storms, Terror, and American Recklessness. Steve will scare you if nothing else. The other thing that we've just released recently that's coming out this week in fact is "Neglected Defense," Steve's Council Special Report on the relationship between private and public—what the private sector can do in terms of helping with homeland security issues.
So with that, I'll just open with Steve Simon who I think is going to give us an overview, and then we'll—(inaudible).
STEVEN SIMON: Okay. Just a few observations. First, it's really tempting to talk about this report for what it's not rather than what it is, and that would be wrong, so we shouldn't do that. It's not really a strategic document. It doesn't look into the future. It doesn't, and can't under the circumstances, of course, speak frankly about the state of counterterrorism cooperation with other countries. And it can't delve into the bigger policy issues that surround, envelop the war on terrorism, in particular foreign policy issues, but also, as Steve Flynn will discuss, homeland security issues because there's a defensive side to this problem that a State Department document obviously would not be concerned to address. So I guess the upshot is we're not dealing with a really interesting document. (Laughter.) But by definition, construction and so forth. That's the first observation.
The second is that in terms of its broader observations or conclusions about the war on terrorism, one has to say that they get it pretty well, I think. The evolution of micro-actors, what we've called self-starters, is a key development against the background of the erosion, at least to some extent, of al Qaeda classic, or whatever you want to call your father's al Qaeda—the one that carried out 9/11.
The role of the Internet, which it highlights, is also apropos. I think that's a key observation. And it interacts with the third thing that they talked about, namely crime, which I'll explain what I mean by that in just a moment. But the role of the Internet is indeed substantial because it indoctrinates, it recruits, and it provides tactical guidance, so it's quite a supple instrument and in many ways it can be said to have hot-wired the jihad and made it really possible. In fact, it made possible this sort of leaderless resistance that of course American Protestant militants have dreamt about for years, but it's really a dream that has come true for Muslim jihadists.
Their focus on crime, on the interaction between terrorism and crime, is I think a really apt, valid observation. It's true not just as a surface phenomenon, but as a deeper, structural kind of phenomenon in that the Middle East and South Asia whence came this phenomenon of the jihadist terror are characterized by clandestine social structures and social networks because this is how ordinary people in the cities in those regions get things done. The government does not get it done. So networks are developed to get licenses, to get kids into school, to get loans, and so forth. And all of this happens not within the purview of the state, so there are these ready-made structures available for terrorists who can piggyback on these networks. And although the report doesn't go into detail about this phenomenon or frame it in quite this way, the fact is that the emphasis on crime and criminal and smuggling networks is a window into that deeper phenomenon.
I thought the report was also interesting in that it was very frank about what some people call the bleed-out problem: that you have terrorists and terrorism that are emerging from Iraq to pose threats to surrounding countries, and indeed even some very faraway places. And I thought this was commendably honest of the report to acknowledge. The report also acknowledges the ideological component of this jihadist phenomenon, something the president perhaps alone in the administration has begun to acknowledge in speeches during the previous year. So this, too, was kind of an interesting development in the framework of this rather dry report.
In programmatic terms, there are some things that are inexplicable, so—and I'll just give one example that came to mind as I was reading this. The report talks about the antiterrorism assistance program that's administered by the State Department, the ATA program, and I think correctly states that this is a very, very important initiative that's actually been in the works for a while, but it's one in which the United States helps other countries develop their own antiterrorism and counterterrorism capabilities. It's very, very important for extending our defensive perimeter, if I can put it that way. And yet if you look at the budget numbers for this program, in real terms they're being cut. This to me is just one of the eccentricities of a broader policy which seems informed now by a pretty good, solid understanding of the phenomenon we're dealing with and yet there is there is this lag where in programmatic terms we don't really follow through on this sound understanding.
Lastly, what I was most struck by in the report is the prominence of Europe , and the size of the terrorist networks and infrastructural formations that have been broken up. Now, the numbers at the end of the report, you will have noted, in sort of the gloss provided by the National Counterterrorism Center , which compiled the numbers, does not cover thwarted attacks or conspiracies that were broken up. It only covers actual attacks. And I suspect that the level of overall activity, the kind of penumbra of activity that surrounds that core of—the very substantial core of attacks actually carried out is quite large, and seems to me is quite large in Europe. And this is one of the longer-term issues that the report doesn't get into. And there were events in the past year that suggest more problems are on the way in the European context which will have security implications for the United States; particularly the riots in France, which I concede were not organized by bin Laden by any means, and the Danish cartoon episode as well. But the prominence of Europe to me was the striking thing in this otherwise rather dry document.
VALI NASR: Good morning. I'll focus on the rather copious report, but only on the areas I am interested in, in the Middle East and South Asia .
I thought probably the most clear message of the report was that al Qaeda is still out there. It's still a force to be dealt with, but it is changing, evolving. It's transforming in different ways. I thought that the report in an interesting way is very country-focused; in other words, the lesson on the war on terror that emerges here is one case at a time based on the policies of different countries and the manner in which they have dealt with this. In other words, it's sort of a conglomeration of many different wars on terror that emerges here rather than a grand strategy for a U.S. global war on terror that presents itself. And it's largely the snapshot of what happened last year essentially, which to me raises a number of issues looking forward beyond this particular report.
One is that I thought that it is very silent on the public diplomacy side, and particularly the importance and relevance of growing anti-Americanism to all of this discussion, given that the State Department itself has made a very big push in the second term with public diplomacy with the specific aim of having an impact on the growing war on terror. But there is no real report as to whether or not here has been any headway or any lessons learned in that regard.
Secondly, I think the report does not address the fact that there are changes in context that have been happening that will impact the capacity of not only the United States, but those countries that are mentioned in all these pages in order to be able to deal with the challenge that they are facing. And I think that's really the big issues out there that everybody is confronting and which the report is fairly silent.
And I would mention at least four areas that are important, and the first one is Iraq . I agree with Steve that the report is very honest about the bleed-out about Iraq ; that Iraq has become a safe haven for terrorism. But I think there are other dimensions it doesn't discuss which are important, is that it's just not a bleed-out, it's much more bigger than that. It's the issue of blow-back. In other words, that particularly in countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the potential is actually for terrorism to sort of spread out of Iraq not just in terms of individual isolated terrorists going back, but really that the whole problem can (metastasize into a ?) much broader regional problem beyond single countries.
And secondly is the issue of a potential civil war. In other words, if Iraq was to collapse either into mayhem, or much worse, into an active civil war. It has much broader implications for terrorism in the region than the ones that the report is willing to actually consider.
The second issue is obviously the conflict with Iran , which the report makes a mention of it. This has been ongoing, the role that Iran has had in supporting terrorism. But a much more escalated, even a hot conflict between the United States and Iran can open an entirely new phase—an entirely new front in a global war on terror, which is completely either an add-on or completely separate from the one with al Qaeda that the United States is currently facing. It will involve not only Iraq , Palestine , Lebanon , but also other arenas beyond these areas. And both of these, in other words, both Iran and Iraq have a potential of creating a picture of terrorism that is much more integrated than the one that the report deals with, which is by and large country-specific. There's a Saudi case, there's a Lebanese case, there's a Palestinian case and there are governments in each of these dealing with these, but there's no picture of how these relate to one another.
The third is a bit farther afield, and that's in the Pakistan-Afghan corridor. I thought the report was overtly optimistic and sanguine about what's going on there, not only because of the ways in which Steve mentioned, how crime interacts with terrorism, which is the rising problem of heroin trade and drug lords and their interaction with Taliban and various forces in Afghanistan, but also because the picture in that region is changing also rapidly. The Afghan-Pakistani relations deteriorating very rapidly. It's been a cornerstone of confronting terrorism. There may no longer be—Pakistani-U.S. relations seem to be entering a new much more icy phase since improvement of relations with India . And also, there is a very important election coming up in 2007 in Pakistan which can have an impact. But all said and done, Pakistan and Afghanistan sort of have been a little bit out of sight, out of mind in this discussion, but I think that might change.
And finally, the report probably hints at this, but doesn't stipulate it very clearly but it's something which is important; namely, that if there was the convergence of two or more of these factors at the same time, then the entire context for terrorism and how you fight it and how you confront it, what kind of capability the U.S. might have to deal with both an escalation of terrorism coming out of Pakistan, Iran, or Iraq all at the same time, two of them at the same time, gives a different order of magnitude in terms of what can be done, which the report does not deal with.
I think the report methodically cites all the instances that are going on, but what it doesn't say, that it's been manageable so far because these are sort of instances that are one at a time and they can deal with one at a time, relying on governments who have the capability to do the front work with it. But that, I think, is a fragile picture and I hope that's not the case that it will happen, but that's something also that the report is shy on exploring further.
Why don't I stop here?
FLYNN: Well, I have the—(inaudible)—of sorts here of trying to extract from this what this may all means in terms of the issues of risk here to North America. And as Steve rightfully pointed out, that was not the State Department's charter, so again, one has to draw this out here, but maybe to put this in a broader context.
I want to say at the outset here that I agree with sort of the general assessment here that the tone of the report in terms of the fact that it's a fairly sober appraisal of developments that are politically uncomfortable is, I think, a positive development in its own right, given that we at a position where we wanted to not provide numbers and do a whole bunch of other things before. As somebody who has spent years looking at the annual required State Department Counter-Narcotics, there was never any such incentive it seemed to actually be honest in those documents, so victory was always just around the corner and we're about 25 years into that drug war. But this is I think pointing to some new trends that are certainly quite disturbing, and there's a real acknowledgment of them. Even within the constraints of what you could do bureaucratically, they seem to push the envelopes in a constructive way overall in favor of honesty versus dishonesty, and that's no small thing, I guess, given what we've been going through here in recent years.
In terms of pulling away, I think some of the things that worried me—and I describe myself essentially when it comes to the counterterrorism issue as a catcher's mitt guy versus a pitch guy; that is, I look at what would be hit, why they would be hit, and what are some of the things you can deal with it, versus have real expertise like here around the table as to who these folks and what they're up to. So as I draw from this I see a couple of things that certainly worries me that I've been tracking here for a while.
To some extent, and this is—I think that the report sort of struggles a little bit with this notion of that, okay, we're now dealing with smaller sort of self-starters, as Steve's term, spin-off groups; al Qaeda sort of devolving more from an organization with a hierarchical structure into imitator groups, and that's gathering more steam, particularly the European dimension that's rising. But there's sort of a good news side of this they're saying, which is, well, these smaller groups are less able to have the kind of real catastrophic terror—put together the kind of real catastrophic attacks of a 9/11, and we're therefore going to see smaller attacks, probably more in Europe than here, but basically there is success here because we're tearing down the al Qaeda infrastructure that existed before 9/11.
I'm not as sanguine that that in fact this is all that positive. To some extent, I think we need to look at this phenomenon a bit like, drawing from the drug world, between the hierarchical organizations the Columbian cartels posed and the risk they provided vis-a-vis the heroin trade, which has always been managed for quite some time in the last couple of decades by Asian organized crime, which is always very decentralized and very relationship-based. (Unintelligible)—phenomena of the global heroin trade is as prevalent, if not more so, than even the cocaine trade is right now, in part because it works better in a globalized system than the top-down, hierarchical, very anal-retentive role that the Columbian cartels often play. They often made easier targets for decapitation and so forth.
So we have to think about this, the broader phenomena of essentially small groups having access to highly-destructive means targeting advanced society, but that capability is not necessarily a—(inaudible)—because the groups are getting smaller. To some extent, that may provide enhanced capability. It may be true that it's not able to put together, again, seismic events, but the summation of these events overall could be quite problematic.
I worry most about a couple things that are happening as I look at, okay, who are the folks in our own vulnerabilities here in the U.S. One overall is the fact that there's this growing European dimension to this pretty much undercuts a lot of the focus that we have on traditional border work, which is basically driven at visa countries and the whole process we put in place for that. The fact that many of these folks have high technical skills, are reasonably well educated, and lack criminal data, it makes you wonder why would they, if they have those—I mean, why would you go to Mexico and crawl across the desert—the current immigration debate—put your life at risk, when you can simply get on a plane and fly here as a part of a visa-exempt passport. So to the extent that the profile of potential terrorists is changing, clearly the systems we're putting in place for border management in the U.S. are not going to be nimble enough to deal with that that problem, at least as I look out on it here.
Secondly, the kind of skills that these folks are developing, particularly in Iraq —I mean, simply put, the terrorism skills you learn in Afghanistan were essentially how to essentially carry out attacks in a pre-modern society. The kinds of skills that are clearly being developed in the Iraqi context being highlighted here are things like how to do sabotage pretty well. And while we still pay a lot of attention and need to pay attention to the suicide attacks and so forth that continue to bedevil this society, the things that really do hurt are taking down the refineries, taking down the pipelines, taking down the power grid. And sabotage is not a straightforward thing. It's not something that—we look around sometimes in our own society and say, well, geez, they could take this bridge down or we can shut this down. It turns out these systems are often pretty well over-engineered and it's really complicated to take—even complex systems that appear to be vulnerable they're less vulnerable than you think, but once you get into them you can find the core vulnerabilities. And as this skill set gets essentially refined, as it is being refined in Iraq , and then as Steve was highlighting—the phenomenon of the Internet—these skills are rapidly spread. The means for these folks, whether in a European context or in our own context, will look around and go, there's not much here that certainly provides much barrier to carrying out such an attack. The consequences of doing so are really quite dramatic. Maybe I should give this a whirl.
So I think there's—I guess what I see out of this is reinforcing two trends that I had worried about that we haven't a whole lot of data necessarily on, but this provides some reinforcement for, is that the metastasization of al Qaeda and these imitating organizations brings potentially a skill set that is going to be more successful not just in European societies, but here. It's easy to infiltrate and operate here than it is if you worked—memorized the Koran at madrasa. That's kind of a—if you show up in New York, you kind of stick out a little bit vis-a-vis this new sort of cadre of folks who learn—and the skills that they're developing suggest that given that so little has really been done to address the vulnerabilities here at home, that all the eggs remain still in the "take the battle to the enemy," "best defense is a good offense" approach, even if Iraq stabilizes somewhat—something I think few of us here are willing to project—we'd still have folks who have a clearly stated objective to carry on this warfare for quite some time and I think the means will persist. And so I don't look at any of this as good news from the homeland security front. And that in fact, the threat is being held at bay or it's being shrunk down and so forth. I think we're living on borrowed time and we'd better get on with trying to advance some of the defensive measures instead of putting all the eggs in the offense basket.
SHIELDS: Thank you. Questions? Comments?
QUESTIONER: Looking at the preamble to the terrorism report from Ambassador Croton (ph), one of the things that struck me was the things they're claiming as successes and they're talking about denying safe haven in Iraq for the following people, one of the people they mentioned was a Palestinian guy who has been dead for two years, for instance.
The other thing that struck me was their use of the phrase "Saddam Hussein's terrorist regime." My question is really, is that just politicking, do you think? Because if you (had done ?) that, it's kind of pathetic that they are holding these up as their successes. Do they really believe that or is that just—(unintelligible)—spin on it?
SIMON: Well, I'm not a clergyman and they don't confess their beliefs to me, so—nor anything else for that matter. (Laughter.) So I for one can't comment on what they really believe and what they don't. Nevertheless, you know, this is an administration document. It goes to the Hill and it does say some things that I think are probably somewhat politically—(inaudible)—to the White House, but it also has to be embellished with assertions that do support the administration's fundamental claims, particularly regarding war aims. So it was, therefore, essential, I think, to characterize the Saddam regime as a terrorist regime.
Regarding the dead Palestinian—that's something I'll look at with interest, but the way these documents are actually published is that—well, in this case it was quite a different—it was a different process than they normally use. This document is normally produced within the State Department by a particular group of officials within the State Department. They have control over the document. They gather information from others, but they put it together. They include assertions of the kind that they know will be required to—so that the document sails through the White House clearance process. And sort of that's how it normally happens.
The process was disaggregated this year, in part, one suspects, to give the National Counterterrorism Center something to do, and in part because a previous report was so heavily criticized for mistakes. You'll recall there was a serious error in a previous report regarding the number of terrorist attacks that had actually taken place. The number was understated in that report, so responsibility—overall responsibility still lay with Ambassador Crompton (ph), but nevertheless there were a lot of hands involved in this and I expect that the political supervision was much more careful than it has been in recent years.
QUESTIONER: Yeah, you said that we could have a conversation about it rather than just their observations.
QUESTIONER: I want to take up something that Vali Nasr spoke about the public (conversion ?) or—(it's possible ?), but it—it's definitely happening whether it is Iran or—(unintelligible)—Iran, Iraq one way or another. So what do you think? What are you thinking about when you say that this is really a fragile picture? For the region or for American interests? What do you think is the most dangerous potential (conversion ?)? Is it there or are we heading its way? And is there a policy on this anywhere that you know of?
NASR: Well, yes, I do think that—and that's why I say that I think that the report is handicapping two ways. One is it's a snapshot of a picture that already—(unintelligible)—to some extent. Secondly is that it has its own biases because of the way it's constructed. That, you know, it's country-specific. For instance, you know, you can look at Jordan and Saudi Arabia 's piece. It's about what the Saudi's are doing to their own terrorists, but not to the ones who are going to Iraq . Or what the Jordanians are doing to their own terrorists, but not the ones going to Iraq . The fact that—(unintelligible)—can go to Amman and speak to Abdullah Azzam's son, who, you know, claims open responsibility for starting the insurgency in Fallujah, begs the question that the convergence are happening or there are other lines here that the report does not want to explore, and I think it goes to some of the questions that Jane asked.
I do think that there is resistance in asking questions that are embarrassing about allies. Sometimes it's easier to ask those same questions about Iran because then politically it's safe, but I can tell that there is enormous amount of resistance to ask what is the nature of Saudi funding—private, public, whatever it is—say for the insurgency in Iraq. Or who facilitates, for instance, the logistic lines that are going from Jordan to Syria into Iraq ?
And that's why I think that the bleed-out part of the picture about Iraq is only beginning, but it doesn't want to touch the much broader issue that first of all some of the countries that are supposed to be fighting terror may actually be complicit in other arenas. They're good in their own home, but they might be a negative fact somewhere else. I mean, even the Iranians claim to be fighting terrorism in their own country against Kurds and Baluchis and Arabs in Khuzestan, but they have no qualms about supporting it outside, and that goes for others in the region as well.
Secondly, it doesn't talk about the far larger issue of the blow-back, which is more than just fighting a couple of terrorists coming back. I think it goes much more to both Steves were saying about the capabilities that are coming, about the ideology that's coming, but the entire culture—jihadi culture coming out of Iraq along with anti-Americanism being embedded as a formal political behavior.
And I think in all of those four arenas the larger American policy is also going down a path that is likely to escalate the kind of tensions that lead to terrorism or escalate terrorism. I mean, Iraq clearly every day—you know, talked about how it's going to— Iran is a very simple case. In other words, if there is a blowout with Iran , literally the Iranians will begin to promote terrorism. Stephen's written about it also in an op-ed. They have far greater capabilities than al Qaeda has in initiating, if you would, a major terror campaign. And it's not farfetched that these will converge, and if they do and even if they didn't converge—if each one of these things keep progressing, we're going to see a very different picture in terms of the context, scale, type of terrorism that we're going to see than the one that this report sort of presents.
QUESTIONER: As a follow-up then, with Iran in particular—
NASR: Iraq ?
QUESTIONER: Iran . Iran . So then if you leave Iran doing what it's doing, then it's already convergence in use of terrorism—let's say the Hezbollah, if you will, or Hamas, or insurgency in Iraq , right? And then if you don't do—if you do something militarily, then you're saying the danger will be even worse, right? I mean, you're saying damned if you do and damned if you don't. Right?
NASR: No. Well, first of all, the report does point to these things about Iran . I mean, it does see Iran as a traditional sponsor of terror, but we're not seeing a live terror campaign led by Iran in a major sort of response. If there is war, what I'm saying is that the scale and the type of terrorism that you're going to see is nothing like what we are seeing. I mean in the case of Hezbollah, this is sort of a dormant relationship. Hezbollah's not busy kidnapping, attacking in a major way now. And in Iraq , the Iranians are providing, sort of supplying, and aiding and helping the Shi'a militia, but this is still largely in terms of defending the community and taking the insurgents on. It is not directed as a major campaign against the U.S. , and a major concerted campaign which one should take—it may all turn out that Iran is a paper tiger here. I don't want to overstate their capabilities, but if you took it seriously that Iran does have these relations and has invested over a long period of time in sophisticated intelligence and terror networks and the capabilities are currently not in play right now, so they would be in play once the gloves are off—once the Iranians have no incentives to play by the rules (with ?) their attack, then you're having a very different context altogether, and that kind of a war on terror—that kind of a terror is, I believe, not at all dealt with in this report. The level at which it deals with even Iranian support for terrorism is nothing compared to what the Iranians could unleash potentially if there was a conflict.
FLYNN: If I could maybe—it's been off the point, keep pointing—one of the things the report does talk about is the improvised explosive device problem and what is posed to Iraq and our ability to essentially protect our own troops and so forth because these devices are very effective at penetrating very thick steel, and they dance around because obviously the data isn't still there in terms of whether it's direct Iranian government sponsorship for some of the higher end technologies put into these particularly advance IEDs, but the fact is the genie's out of the bottle and this gets into the broader challenge we have of state sponsorship itself. It's certainly helpful and certainly would be far more deleterious if Iran made a concerted campaign out of the current impasse we seem to be at and heading toward.
That would be a real problem qualitatively, but the relationship that led to the development of the IED no longer needs state sponsorship because the technology now is becoming more widely available. How to do it is now essentially available on the net, and the implications are not just taking after personal armored carriers or personal vehicles—armored vehicles. An improvised explosive device used against the side of a liquefied natural gas ship would readily penetrate the double tank and essentially if you had two of them you could basically turn that LNG ship into a one mile circumference fireball.
And so right now the targets have been traditional military insurgents, but as the evolution moves towards economic disruption, as the skill set evolves, as the ideology spreads, the movement out of the battlefield of Iraq, even without, again, state sponsorship, you've got now a much more potent tool than had existed pre-Iraq that could be applied in ways that we really haven't thought much about, but which would fundamentally change the whole way we think about securing a vital sector, about our LNG sector.
NASR: If I may—don't quote me, but—it's not a scientific number, but I've heard at least one estimate by a colleague in the military that given the amount of ordinance that's available in Iraq, at the current rate of intensity of this insurgency, this fight can be carried out for another 300 years, which goes to the amount of also the available material out there, and ultimately the bleed-out of Iraq is not just in terms of personnel, but is also in terms of ordinance and IEDs and—
SHIELDS: Yeah, Mark.
QUESTIONER: Yeah, I haven't read the report, but I was very interested to hear what you're all saying about Europe and sort of the crucible of Europe . I just wondered what you might have to say about the fact that terrorist activities in Europe are not new. I mean, it's not so long ago that there was the Bader-Meinhof Red Brigade, the IRA, and of course Basque separatism. Very different reasons and not necessarily self-starting in the same way that you're discussing, but how much thought—and maybe this is not really what you're trying to address here today, but how much thought is given to the experience of dealing with that problem in the way that the European countries did? How much thought is going into sort of a much more different approach towards what is happening in the Middle East ? Hearts and minds campaigns? A completely different approach, perhaps, to Palestine .
I mean, at the moment we're looking at a Western response which is cutting funding, possibly encouraging more people to be attracted to jihadist groups and all the rest of it. What about nonproliferation right across the Middle Eastern area? I mean, what you're looking at, it seems to me, is all the—everything that it seems we've been doing is almost making the situation worse, and if you look also—and very different times, too, at other insurgencies in Aden and in Palestine , solutions came about, but they were political solutions, not military solutions. And essentially in Palestine and Aden they were essentially about the United Kingdom getting out of those places.
SIMON: Well, just to be fair to the report and its drafters, it wasn't intended to deal with any of these large themes, and to the extent that it hints at them is in its own way quite remarkable. It's worth bearing in mind that the report is in the first instance, as Vali said, a snapshot of a previous year's terrorist incidents.
Now, as to broader policy, the things that the United States has done in reaction to 9/11 have been in most respects plainly counterproductive. I think this is generally recognized, and on the diplomatic front the U.S.—and this goes for Republican and Democratic administrations going back—well, in some respects going back to the Eisenhower administration—dealt diplomatically with the Middle East really rather deftly. Now, of course, mistakes were made, but nevertheless the way in which the United States balanced its interests in Israel and Israeli security and its interests elsewhere in the region, particularly in the Gulf, but even beyond the Gulf, was very adroit. Now, they were helped in this way—(audio break)—the way that Hezbollah and the way they did this in the 1980s and they were the ones who pioneered the phenomenon you were talking about. They would storm in Israeli position, and they'd have as many cameramen as they had riflemen and would all be filmed and then on video and then distributed the next day to enormous effect. And this was pre- (inaudible)—you know, the TV station—(inaudible).
SIMON: I guess a summary point I would make on this from my perspective is not a necessary transformation. You're going to still see old-school stuff because it has value, whether it's going after symbolic things, or sometimes because the groups may be more interested in mass casualty visuals. So we're going to see all of the above. What's clear now though is we're seeing a new threat that's going to be more vexing for us to deal with, with the old tools that we have.
QUESTIONER: I just want to say two things. I had read yesterday for the first time that Zarqawi was on television at the same time as Melikeeb (ph), but it may have been accident with the three, you know, Osama—(laughter)—and we just thought that way because we're watching different televisions than the Iraqis are.
But I wanted to go back to your point about economic targets. It's the one thing they don't film. And you don't see insurgents hanging around pipelines in Iraq , although you're right, it's the biggest amount of damage that they do. But I'm curious if there's an argument in the jihadi community that that's a way to go, because the attack on the Saudi pipeline was really quite something if they had succeeded. And both the Madrid bombing and the London bombing had an economic portion to them. Do you read that? Is that part of the debate that's going on on jihadi websites?
SIMON: (inaudible)—I defer to you a little bit more on whether they're debating it or not.
FLYNN: Well, there is an emphasis on—(inaudible)—and it was rather typically for this kind of discourse, it was spurred by us, because in the wake of 9/11, and American commentators were casting about for some explanation. And the obvious one seemed somehow uncompelling. So American commentators dwelt on the economic impact of the attacks. Strike against the center of the financial system. Break America economically. What a fantastic idea, a new dimension in warfare. Well, in fact it was an attempt to kill 50,000 people. It didn't work—(inaudible)—the parties and personalities that were on that side of the fence while at the same time appearing to be very indiscriminate in its professions and friendship and support for the other side in that conflict.
And then elsewhere in the region on the Arab side of course, the United States invaded Iraq, thereby confirming everything that Osama bin Laden had been saying about the United States, creating problems in consequence for the very Arab governments on which we relied for our security and spurring a more broad and venomous anti-Americanism that's causing a lot of the problems that you spoke of. So the short answer to your question is, well, this administration has departed from previous ways of doing business and it's had rather adverse effects. These effects are going to continue, in part because we're not getting out of Iraq any time soon. We're going to be there. The president has said we're in Iraq for his administration. It will be up to subsequent administrations to withdraw. This is perfectly compatible with historical precedent. If you look at the Soviets or you look at the British, you look at the Americans in other contexts, administrations that undertook military interventions were not the ones to undo them. It just doesn't work like that. So the United States in all these areas that you enumerated will be laboring under the burden—(inaudible)—presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future.
MR. SIMON (?): I can maybe just pull out of the European terrorism experience and maybe what it says of the U.S. approach. I mean one important point, and there's still some I think debate about this, though that's maybe moving more in this direction. Traditional view of terrorism, and this is the way most terrorist organizations which you listed in Europe played itself out, was primarily to engage in spectacular acts of violence, maximizing visibility, maximizing casualties, in order to do one of two things, to draw our attention to a—(inaudible)—in the hopes of aggravating the power to address the (re-grievance ?) directly or indirectly, or to solidify your base, which is kind of how the IRA—didn't expect any change in behavior, but in order to keep the funding going and keep the arms moving and all the rest of it and let them know you're still in the game, you had to carry out periodic attacks. So more visible attacks, even symbolic ones, were more useful than infrastructure kind of related things.
I think there's a metastasization that I draw from particularly the 7/7 attacks that should worry Europeans, because on both the standpoint of mass casualties and visuals it was horrible. Here we've had to take the word of the government almost that there attacks on these underground trains, because blowing up a train in a dark tunnel was not a very good way to get good video. If you wanted—in mass casualties you get 45 people in, with the amount of conventional explosives the best they could have got was two train—(inaudible)—get you up to 145 people and—135 people. You know, cram a few more in, you could get higher. But that's it.
Now, if you think, I have three suicide bombers. I want to do highly visible things and order mass casualties, I would go to Buckingham Palace at the changing of the guard and I would have plenty of cameras, and I'd have a lot of more death and destruction, given I had that capability.
What strikes me as while—(inaudible)—in its carrying out here, what seems clear was the broader goal of simultaneous attacks on multiple trains was to shut down the mass transit system and therefore really choke the life of the city. It failed because it turned out the system was more resilient than the terrorists and the imitator group that came after them two weeks later who tried obviously the same thing. But still, it suggests that terrorism is not necessarily about what we traditionally—the visible, going after, and so forth. That's often the way this is counted. As it moves towards economic disruption, the sort of underbelly by way in which our advanced societies operate, and you start—(inaudible)—public trust—because most of these network, the global networks, the transportation, logistics of finance and information and energy and so forth, are fundamentally trust-based networks. I mean we put some controls but overall they rely on trust. And the extent to which you are able to sustain long-term targeting, even relatively small attacks, to erode that trust, you can have a real dramatic impact, I would argue, on the broader globalization trends that are at work. So as these now are sort of somewhat more of the stated goals, but again it's this capability largely through learned behavior, mainly in Iraq as the main petri dish, but also being spun out in other European settings, I think we have to acknowledge that there's something new going on here, again, whether it's state sponsorship or not, that warrants us to really look at whether the strategies we have in place are going to nip this problem in the bud.
QUESTIONER: You sort of answered this, Steve. I'm interested in some of the terrorist attacks exercise. You talk about sort of the general shift. You mentioned your father. Al Qaeda versus the sort of small and diffuse and self-starting groups. Is there a riff developing in terms of what tactics are accessible? Last weekend we had of course the sort of videos with Zarqawi and then—or Bin Laden followed by Zarqawi, almost like one trying to upstage the other. There was also last year's—after the sort of kidnapings, beheadings, there was a sort of push-back from the sort of Al Qaeda leadership saying that no, this is not—all you're doing is alienating Muslims and this is sort of unacceptable. Is there a sense that tactics are shifting and that there's a generational divide as far as what is acceptable, but also that what is—or, and the other thing I was going to add, was just like maybe instead of maybe trying to get a lot of mass casualties and have the big—because the thing with Iraq I feel like I've seen is that the biggest response came after their symbolic attack against a shrine. So it's something like that. And maybe a shift towards, instead of just attacking number, trying to get mass casualties, trying to get more striking at symbolic targets and that kind of thing.
SIMON: Vali, you should probably take that one.
NASR: About sort of the difference between the attack on the shrine as opposed to mass casualties, it could be read differently also. I mean if the ultimate goal is to force the Shi'ites to come out and fight, attacking people is one way, but also attacking the shrine is actually far more significant because it did bring them out, and ultimately we've ended up now with the Shi'a militia sort of engaging the fight, if you would.
Regarding the sort of generational difference, and Steve also might want to add to this, I think partly it's a matter of communication. I mean, one of the things about Iraq is that they have much sort of direct communications coming from the field, whether it's beheadings, whether it's—it's really field command communication that is coming out, and it's been put to debate, and some tactics work and some don't. And the beheadings sparked a large number of debates, not only within the al Qaeda wing but also more broadly among whether or not this is permissible theologically or not. Whereas with al Qaeda—(inaudible)—we didn't have that, essentially, that kind of an ongoing debate within the community who are very close operationally and then immediately—I mean, in some ways we can think of this is as a Zarqawi news network. ZNN you can call it. (Laughter.)
And in fact, there are some of these that you can see, and this was always a debate, that there would be three cameras on an attack, as well as the attacker himself, and then you would say, well, who's really in charge of the field? If you can have three camera positions placed there and you can have the attacker as well, I mean, this is totally command of the military operation. And this is immediately broadcast on the Internet for varieties of purposes. And also, some of these attacks we have to note the purpose of the attack was not to inflict pain; the purpose of the attack was to film it. In other words, there are multiple sort of uses of this. And that's a level of sophistication that if you want to think in terms of the new al Qaeda versus the old al Qaeda, there is a technological and a public relations shift.
But here is the difference, is I think Iraq is really sort of in some ways ahead of the curve. I mean, you don't—in Europe you had a lot of debates on internet and jihadi sites. It's still about ideological issues and still theoretical, but terrorist networks in Europe don't have the level of sort of public relations sophistication that al Qaeda and Iraq have. And you can think that there are multiple reasons for this. Part of it might have to do with al Qaeda.
Part of it has to do because Zarqawi has to compete with other Iraqi groups, both the justify the presence of fighters in Iraq—and I would think that one can see his last video not just in terms of upstaging Bin Laden and Zawahiri, but it also has come out at a critical time when a new prime minister is in. There's now really a prospect of Sunnis going on. The video really is a beginning of a campaign against the Sunnis who are willing to participate. His appearance is not so much dovetailing Zawari and Bin Laden. You could look at this way, but it's really dovetailing the assassination of a leading Sunni politician because—and therefore he's driven essentially by trying to justify and legitimate his campaign in Iraq to Iraqis on the ground, which counters the U.S. effort to isolate him. It's an effort to continue to keep the—(inaudible). And they always say about guerrilla forces that—there used to be in the '60s the terminology that you need to drain the fish tank. The fishes that survive in the fish tank. And a lot of this effort is essentially to maintain the fish tank. It's not really directed at us. It's not directed at the larger community. It's directed at Iraqis. And I think that the force of competition in Iraq is begetting technological and operational innovation, because it's so intense.
SIMON: It's improving the innovation. The use of the media was fascinating in Algeria and Chechnya before one saw it obviously in Iraq . And they really want to be distributed. I was in Morocco last year, and I was introduced to the friend of a friend. Went over to his house to watch TV, and what we watched was a videotape from Chechnya . Now, what's so interesting in this regard in Iraq is how the reactions to these things are monitored. I mean they employ in effect focus groups.
MR.: Yeah, that's right.
SIMON: Which is why the throat-cutting disappeared from much of the distributed video. Now, on the other point about the way in which there are generational differences and policy differences and so forth, it was really interesting to see this play out in 2003 when the first attacks took place in—2004 was the attack on the (Oasis ?) compound. And in that attack, it was in the early stages of the brief uprising in Saudi Arabia , and the movement was led by at that time Abdul Aziz Al Mukran (ph). And his view was, well, we've got to kill Muslims who are supporting the foreigners. They have to start killing apostates. And his fighters just went into this compound and killed people indiscriminately. And there was a debate—and the debates are played out in journals, on the web, in various places, and they're quite fascinating because they're very systematic debates. And in this debate al-Mukran (ph) was taken to task for this kind of indiscriminate slaughter. And in the next attack on a housing compound the fighters asked the prospective victims whether or not they were Muslims, and they didn't ask what kind of Muslim they were, they just said, are you Muslim? And if the answer was yes the person's life was spared, and if the answer was no the person was killed or wounded.
So these debates do have an effect, and you can see this playing out in Iraq in a way that involves a Zarqawi. As Vali was saying, on the Zarqawi video—I completely agree with your interpretation of it, by the way. I would only add that it's intended to resonate with an audience not only on the ground in Iraq but outside of Iraq . And the whole presentation, the whole performance, if I can use that terminology, was designed to foster an image or a Zarqawi that runs completely counter to the prevailing image of the mad throat-cutter. The guy with the mask and he's in the room and he's got the guy's head and so forth. No, this was the sober field commander. He spoke in a very kind of deliberate, calm way. Now, some of the things he said were extremely inflammatory, particularly regarding Muslims who were siding with the enemy within Iraq is true enough. But the performance was calm, slow, methodical movement, looking at tactical maps, conferring with lieutenants. This was the serious, mature battlefield commander. And this manipulation of the media is just fantastic. And it reminds me of the Hezbollah in the way they did this in the 1980s, and they were the ones who pioneered the phenomenon you were talking about. They would storm in Israeli position, and they'd have as many cameramen as they had riflemen and would all be filmed and then on video and then distributed the next day—(audio break)—how uncompelling.
So American commentators dwelt on the economic impact of the attacks: strike against the center of the financial system. Break America economically. What a fantastic idea. A new dimension in warfare. Well, you know, in fact, it was an attempt to kill, you know, 50,000 people. Didn't work out quite that way, but it was dramatic nevertheless. Well, then you began to see in—in the jihadi debate more talk about economic warfare because there's a positive feedback loop between what we—what we say and what they hear, and what they playback to us. I mean, they're very good at reproducing what they take to be our fears and conferring those fears on us. You saw this with the biological weapons as well. So—I mean, you know, the punch line to that is we have to be careful about what we talk about, but of course, in the United States you—there are no limits to public conversation about these things. And we're listened to—we're listened to quite carefully.
Now, the exceptions to this are in Egypt , there's always a sensitivity to the economic effects of jihadist attacks and in particular this was reflected in the focus on the tourist industry. The idea was you break the Egyptian economy or at least reduce the revenues that, you know, Mubarak can then turn around and use to crush the Intifada there—the jihad, whatever you want to call it. So you know, on the Egyptian side one saw this and, you know, you see it sort of then, you know, al Zawahiri's writings because, you know, he sort of Lenin of the movement and he has think in terms of, you know, these class warfare and sort of economic structural—structural arguments, but I can make this sound more inconclusive, if you like. (Laughter.)
SHIELDS: Not quite right.
FLYNN: From—from the other—my—my perspective on this has been (unintelligible) as well. It sort of has a (unintelligible) warfare. I look at this sort of the overwhelming preponderance of U.S. military power in every conventional realm. It simply cannot be replicated in any way. If you are therefore somebody who's interested in challenging that power, you're going to gravitate to where there is, in fact, a real bang for your buck in terms of potential. And it turns out, we are very reliant—as powerful a society we are—on very brittle systems. And again it required to operate that are global in their scope and inevitably whether it's al Qaeda at the end of the chatroom exercise says, "This is where we going to go or not," as we look to the future, it's just too tempting of a target in the context of being able to harm the society and other advanced societies to not do it. So in that context, you better get on with trying to make them more resilient.
And that—so I'm trying almost to take it out of the specific current mechanizations about al Qaeda. There is enough here again (of validity ?) with the report that while I don't think it's a wholesale portion of the movement in that it will replace old methodologies, (you could ?) say bumping into this is a tactical sort of learning process or maybe reacting to our own rhetoric, but they're getting there because precisely it has value as long as we remain so brittle a society that we overreact whenever somebody hits these systems. So we have no methods or we have very little (protecting ?) to restore public confidence when something goes wrong.
NASR: Let me just add one thing briefly. In Iraq there is also another added twist to this; namely, the sort of infrastructure happens to be in place in the other community—(unintelligible)—and particularly as we're coming to this constitutional negotiations, oil revenue is one of the clauses that is likely to be sort of debated and therefore the attacks on oil pipelines will have sort of a political—be part of that political issue in Iraq.
Secondly, as the Shi'a militias are likely to go, you know, much more directly after the Sunnis and the like, the Shi'a militias are doing in different kind of sabotage of the oil system and that is to draw their own, you know, side pipelines into the main pipeline, take the pipeline—take the oil out and send it through Iran and the Gulf and sell it, which means that they essentially will be financing their campaign against the Sunnis with the very pipelines that the Sunnis would be attacking. So there is—it is much more of a sort of tactical logic to equip to have a tactical logic to it. And even attacking electricity grids and the like, it impacts more the urban areas where, you know, not only the seat of power is, but also where the majority sort of Shi'a population has not—I mean, the impact of the reconstruction of electric grid on Al Anbar has not been as pronounced as in (Babylon ?) and the south.
SHIELDS: One more question—(unintelligible).
QUESTIONER: I have a two parter I'd like to ask Commander Flynn. First of all, sort of an infrastructure—a bureaucratic infrastructure question. At—at 9/11 and surely thereafter we did a huge reorganization of the federal bureaucracy and domestically speaking, I think, if we ask the 200,000 people in the New Orleans diaspora how that bureaucracy, DHS/FEMA worked out? They would have to say, "You all spent too much money on terrorism." However, it seems that we need to rethink the organization in that—in that particular piece of bureaucracy? What do you think?
FLYNN: Yes. (Laughter.) It is not working. It was almost set up to fail, I would argue, by the way it was implemented. You know, unto itself the scale of the reorganization effort encompassed with creating Department of Homeland Security should have been a major plank of any administration—trying to get that right; it was not. And once it was done, basically the White House disengaged and left the process to flounder along and sure enough it's floundered.
I think one of the core issues that jumps out of the Katrina experience as we're writing more about right now, is when you have this sort of myopic focus on terror, you—one of the biggest things you miss is building on essentially what may be even a more real threat that will sustain investment by the public and buy-in by the public, which is to safeguard ourselves against natural disasters, not just man-made. That you get a derivative benefit from being more resilient in the face of hurricanes and earthquakes and so forth, dealing with global pandemics, which are probably more probable in terms of high consequence, that you will be essentially better able to manage the man-made disasters should they appear. But because the administration could only provide federal resources for exclusively natural security reasons now—(unintelligible)—terror, you can only make the case to the Office of Management and Budget for resources that were explicitly terrorist-driven.
And these other—the other activities should devolve to the state, devolve to the local, devolve to the private sector to deal with because the federal government was consumed by the national defense priority of carrying out the war on terror overseas and managing our borders, core federal functions, but all the rest of the stuff inside the U.S. really has very little legitimacy within the current sort of Washington policy. So DHS starts with essentially no political support for its core mission and certainly very little for it to diversify.
Katrina has—has re-challenged that and potentially, we channeled it, it's so badly broken right now and the credibility of the department is so shot that it's difficult to see how it can reconstitute itself. It's kind of like what the president's saying about Iraq . I think I'd like to pass it on to the next administration to (fix it ?). (Laughter.)
SHIELDS: Okay. Thank you. Thank you very much. If there's any of the reporters who didn't have the chance to ask questions want to stick around and ask, please do, but we like to end our meetings on time. Thank you.
FLYNN: Thank you. (Applause.)
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