Council on Foreign Relations
New York, NY
(Note: This event was fed in progress.)
STEPHEN FLYNN: (In progress) — this issue. Always something. Those of us who are in the business of worrying about things that most Americans prefer not to worry, whenever you can gather together a reasonable crowd like this who wants to engage in intelligent conversation about very real sets of problems, it’s just good to have you.
Let me say I’m honored here to be on the stage today with Dan Benjamin and Steve Simon, who’ve done so much good work on these issues for the country when nobody cared — pre-9/11. And on the National Security Council staff, where I spent a much shorter time than both of these gentlemen, who’ve spent many years. We all worked for the same guy named Richard Clark, so you’re not exactly getting perhaps the most global view on some of these problems here, with the three of us assembled here on the stage.
But still, my job here today is to play the job of moderator. We’ve got standard rules. In this case, we’re actually on the record. Everyone of us is outside of government now, so we don’t really care whether or not you quote us. Actually, we’d like that to happen more often. I don’t get Court Marshalled anymore because I’m no longer in the Coast Guard. So I’m happy to have that happen.
My rules of engagement, of course, for all of you is to look for those cell phones and make sure they’re turned off — and blackberries — so they don’t embarrass you and the rest of us by having those irritating noises go off. We also are on the record today, as I said, and so that’s not a problem in terms of quoting that which we say in the course of the evening. And what are my last things to point out? I think that’s all my rules. I’ve done my job on that side of things.
A brief word of introduction about our two distinguished speakers. We’ve got very short bios, in this case, for illustrious careers. Dan Benjamin, today, is a senior fellow at CSIS down in Washington. And he served from ‘94 to ‘99 on the National Security Council staff as director for counter terrorism and prior to that was a special assistant and foreign policy speech writer for President Clinton. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford. He’s been a foreign correspondent for “Time” and wrote this imminently readable book. I recommend all of you buy it. That’s why it’s back there at the bargain price of $28.00. So before you go, I’m sure from the stimulating conversation, if you haven’t bought one already, you’ll want to pick one up.
Steve Simon was in the more directly professorial world — Georgetown University. He also served on the NSC staff for five years. He served — had a career in the State Department of State in Middle Eastern Security Affairs. He served as assistant director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He holds degrees from Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and all those other kind of low-end universities — and including a dabble at Oxford as an international affairs fellow.
Imminently qualified to write this book and carry out the conversation that we’re going to have here this evening. It really — as I ploughed through this over the last week, I think this is the single best book out there and probably will be for quite some time, about what al Qaeda has become — what the terrorist has become since 9/11. And it makes for a chilling read. And what I will begin with, in fact, to ask them to do is, it’s a great first line at the beginning of the prologue, that, certainly, I’m sure has helped them get some attention, because the very first three words are, we are losing.
And what I want to ask both Steve and Dan first is, what do you mean by that?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, we were taking our cue form Churchill in his remarks about short words and old lungs and short sentences. And we thought that we’d leave out the caveats and get right to the heart of the matter.
We are losing was the determination we made when we decided to look beyond the body count of terrorists captured and killed by the United States and its partners around the world. And it was an effort to look at the phenomenon of the global jihad in a strategic way, and not merely in the tactical way that has characterized counter terrorism for so many years.
And if you’re going to look at it in a strategic way, you have to ask yourself, well, what is the — what is the disposition of the population is at risk for buying the ideology of the terrorists, for supporting them, for funding them? And for opposing, in many ways, our actions? And we came to the conclusion that it was a very large population and that segments of it were increasingly inclined to see the world in ways that Osama bin Laden does. And that their inclination to do so had been heightened tremendously by the fact that we invaded Iraq, which in many ways, confirmed the jihadist argument about the United States as seeking to occupy Muslim countries, destroy Islam and steal the wealth of those countries.
We found, you know, more evidence of this thesis than we could shake the proverbial stick at. We saw a new breed of self-starter terrorists who are not connected to the organization. And in some cases — and particularly the Madrid bombing — we could find really no connection — no recent connection, anyway, between those bombers and the historic al Qaeda. And we see similar situations with the London bombers, perhaps with some of the ones who’ve been operating in Sinai and in a number of other places.
And it suggested to us that the ideology had made such advances that people were spontaneously enlisting in the global jihad without recruitment. And in addition to that, we tried to take stock of what has happened specifically in Iraq and how that has, I think in our phrase, turbo charged the jihad — in terms of creating new cadres of fighters, giving them enormous new skills in a laboratory that is far more useful to them than Afghanistan ever was. And it’s also become the heroic epic that many disaffected Muslims around the world are watching quite closely.
These are just a few of things that we looked at, but gives you some idea of how we sort of added up the different bits and pieces and came to the conclusion that, this is the first sentence of the book.
FLYNN: I mean, generally, we’ve danced around this issue of whether or not the war in Iraq was really directly associated with the 9/11 attack. Of course, that’s got some clarity now. But the sense that it’s actually increased the terrorist threat, you’re stating quite starkly here in the book. And I wonder if you can defend a little more forcefully. Maybe with Steve here.
I mean, how do you make the case that the actual occupation of Iraq is encouraging and furthering the terrorist threat today vis-a-vis where it was on 9/11?
STEVEN SIMON: Well, we argue that it’s worsening the threat in a number of ways. And at a basic skill level, it’s supplying a new generation of terrorists with the essential techniques of urban warfare. And if you take — as we do — as axiomatic that the battlefield in the next phase of the jihad will be the cities — the cities of Europe, the cities of Southeast Asia, the cities of the Middle East, perhaps the cities of the United States. Then the skills of urban combat that these jihadists are acquiring in Iraq is just fundamentally threatening.
That’s the one thing. And we can talk in more detail about that, if you like, as to the specific skills they’re acquiring and the phenomenal rate at which they’re acquiring them. The other thing is that — as Dan was alluding to a minute ago — we are confirming bin Laden’s narrative. We’re confirming his story down to the last detail. That is to say, every claim that bin Laden made prior to 9/11 even — and certainly prior to the intervention in Iraq — claims about American intentions, claims about American values, claims about America’s contempt for Islam and Muslims have been born out.
Now this of course is irrespective of our own motivations in going into Iraq, whatever they may have been, it was not really for these purposes. Nevertheless, the narrative is easily confirmable for those who are watching this from another perspective. And events at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Guantanamo, torture in Interior Ministry basements and so forth. All these things tend to confirm bin Laden’s narrative. And this translates into new recruits.
The third thing is that the intervention in Iraq has, in our view, set back prospects for democratization in the Middle East. And to the extent — the limited extend, but important extent to which democratization is key to de-fanging the Jihad, to draining some of the venom it, then our intervention in Iraq has hurt us very badly indeed.
BENJAMIN: Can I just add one thing? Because you asked a very sensible question of, you know, what’s the evidence for this? And actually think that we got an enormous datum in just the last few days. Because one of the points we make in the book is that — one of the key stories of Iraq is not the attraction of foreign Jihadists, important those that is, but the emergence of an Iraqi jihadist movement.
And it’s very hard to analyze because we don’t have very good interviews from people who are members of this movement. But the fact that it was Iraqis who carried out the attack in Jordan is, to me, highly significant. And my own feeling is that Iraq will remain — particularly Western Iraq — will remain a profoundly destabilizing force in the region and that terrorists will be using this area to conduct operations both inside and outside Iraq for a long time to come.
FLYNN: Very good. In this case, in Jordan, of course, they’re going after hotels. Steve, you made the case of urban warfare. I’d like to drill down with an issue. It’s a case that I’ve been making that critical infrastructures are making increasingly attractive targets for terrorists to go after. Things that we’re paying very little attention to here in the United States and making more resilient by redundancy and having defective plans.
You have here in your description, of basically, under your chapter, “From New York to Baghdad,” a talking about how you indicate it — the picture — beginning in June 2003, insurgents in Iraq began targeting the country’s oil and gas pipelines as a part of their effort to undermine the reconstruction effort. The attacks — 250 recorded attacks up though July 2005. Plus this $2 billion investment in Iraq’s oil production. We’re around $2 billion less than we were — or we’re 2 million barrels a day — half a million less than we were pre-war levels. Also going after the electric grid. The U.S. has spent $1.2 billion on electric production — electrical production — and the insurgency has basically made it such that we’re operating on 5 to 10 percent less megawattage per day in Baghdad.
This notion of that — was both the Iraqi insurgents, but also the foreign insurgents are learning the skill set at pretty high end sabotage. Obviously, you couldn’t do this in Afghanistan. It was a pre-modern society. But in this place, what happens when these guys go home?
SIMON: They’re going to wreak havoc if they can. And you know, as one intelligence officer remarked, if we don’t know who these people are in Iraq, how the hell, he said, are we going to know who they are when they’re back in the cities of the Middle East and Europe?
They are and will be what the European law enforcement calls clean skins. They’re just people with no footprint, no criminal record, no obvious way to track or monitor. So if they decide to go after infrastructure targets, as you’re indicating, or simply to kill as many people as they can, we’re — they have an edge.
FLYNN: I want to — you mentioned earlier, Dan, about when said in your outset, why we’re losing, you talked about the Madrid. You have a nice chapter sort of really drilling down on that. I could tell a bit of the race was, as you got into the thing, was, will you stop the manuscript, because these acts kept happening. Of course in the summer, it was 7/07 in London, pretty much, about the time you were trying to put the manuscript in wraps. I could see that reared it’s head. And so you had to make a few mentions of that. And of course, we had Egypt and we had Bali and so it keeps going. So you reached a point obviously, you closed the book.
But what is it about —
BENJAMIN: Actually, our editor, Paul — (inaudible) — did. He closed the book. We would have kept writing.
FLYNN: Yeah, I’m sure. What is it about — that we should take away from the 3/11 attacks on the Madrid? And the 7/07 attacks on London, in particular, that should worry us — particularly here in the West — about the nature of what al Qaeda is becoming?
BENJAMIN: Well, in some ways it’s a mistake to even call it al Qaeda, because the only continuity there is ideological. We are seeing, as I mentioned before, the self-starting groups. They maybe self starting, self constituting. They can — the amazing thing about Madrid is not only did they create themselves almost de novo, but they carried out a major terrorist attack within six months.
Now in the real world, intelligence and law enforcement can’t track and pickup those signs of that kind of build quickly enough. It’s true — I mean, this is just an aside — every country makes its own mistakes when they first are confronted with terror. We know about ours. The Spaniards had — first of all, they did have some intelligence on this, but it was intelligence that the counter drug forces got, so they didn’t really think it made any — that it was very important that these guys were gathering dynamite.
And the other thing was that the people who were watching them were then taken off-duty to work at the royal wedding. But even so, the basic point here is that these groups are coming out of the woodwork. And they can put themselves together very quickly and carry out devastating attacks. And we have not yet found the evidence that they did their targeting or got any information over the Internet. But the next group or the one after that, we will find that they had targeting guidance and directions on how to carry these things out from very talented people working at a great distance.
FLYNN: I mean, it’s extraordinary — I thought it rather extraordinary after the 7/07 attacks, the president came home — of course was in the U.K. at the time at the G8 meeting — came home and on Monday morning — of course, the attacks happened on a Tuesday — went down to the FBI Academy and gave a speech saying, this is why we’re in Iraq.
And you know, these were second generation Europeans who carried out the attack on 7/07, so as elusive as it was to find a connection between Saddam and al Qaeda, it would seem to be even more difficult to find it in the 7/07 case. To what extent is this European emulate — imitators — I mean, is this a growing phenomenon? Because I guess what worries me in particular, is the kind of skills that they have — it’s not like memorizing the Koran in midrashes, which is probably people who are not going to be the most sophisticated actors at carrying out highly — but these folks have chemical engineering backgrounds or computer science backgrounds or other kinds of capabilities.
Is this European — well, we started in Madrid — London style. Is this really something that the Europeans don’t have a good control on? We’ll see more of as we look out? What’s you sense of the trend here, Steve?
SIMON: Well, this is something that’s going to be very difficult for the Europeans to get their arms around, for a number of reasons, not least of which there is a burgeoning Muslim population in Europe. A significant segment of which is very unhappy with their position in European society. They haven’t been well integrated, but at the same time, they’re deracinated. I mean, they don’t have much of a connection to the old land — to the countries that their parents and grandparents came from.
And they’re in search of an identity and radical Islam provides an identity ready to hand that’s fully baked and that is available, as Dan was indicating, on the Internet for consumption. So the pool of recruits is potentially enormous. That’s just one factor. The other thing is that as Steve was saying, these are largely well educated people. Certainly compared to their grandparents and parents. And they’re on par with the majority population in the countries that they live in.
They’ve gone to French public schools and Danish public schools, and Dutch public schools, Spanish public schools and so forth. And the coda to this is that we know that the terrorists are seeking to recruit just such people. The British released documents — I guess they were really leaked rather than released — concerning — this was just very recently — concerning something that they call Operation Contest, which is a large scale multi-agency effort to get a hold of a problem as it’s evolving in Britain and as we saw in the London Tube and bus attacks.
In this report, they estimated that there were 10,000 al Qaeda supporters in Britain. In the discussion of recruitment, they noted that al Qaeda — you know, let’s just use that as a term of convenience — was going after students in chemical and electrical engineering at British universities. They have a very selective recruitment program. And it’s designed to bring into the fold people with the specific skills needed to carry out high impact attacks against infrastructure, against human beings.
So you know, how the Europeans get their arms around this is very difficult to envisage, especially since the root causes of it are the failed social policies of 50 years of post war European history. You know, a couple of years ago Dan and I did a piece for Time magazine because we saw this problem evolving. And we looked at the 9/11 attack as having used Europe as a springboard. And what we proposed in this — I was looking at London at the time, actually. And what we proposed in the “Time Magazine” article, was essentially that Europe began as soon as possible — as a matter of urgency — to adopt large scale affirmative action programs for Muslims in their midst.
And you know, we acknowledged that affirmative action hadn’t worked altogether brilliantly in American society, but we were pointing out what we thought was an urgent need. And the urgent requirement to reshape social policies to sort of nip this problem in the bud. Now, in Britain I was mocked for having written this because everyone knew that the only oppressed people on the face of the globe were African Americans in the United States and everything was fine in Britain. Of course, they think a little bit differently now.
But the fact that the Muslim insurgency in Europe derives and fueled by so many years of discrimination is going to make it very difficult to reverse.
FLYNN: One of the — the European situation is certainly troubling. Again, your opening argument is, we are losing. One of the things that actually, the administration has probably shown an extraordinary degree of discipline has resisted this, but there’s growing pressure as the Iraq thing is becoming more of a problem, to say, we know we’re losing. We’ve not had an attack on the United States soil and now four years since 9/11. Surely the reason why there’s not been another attack is because what we have been doing has been deterring such an attack.
So why is it that we haven’t had another attack since 9/11?
BENJAMIN: A number of reasons. To be fair, the core al Qaeda, which was the repository of the most skilled operators has been degraded. It isn’t out of business, but it isn’t what it used to be. That won’t last forever. Number two, the terrorists are getting what they need in Iraq. The global jihad is about killing Americans. We brought the targets to the killers and they’re, you know, making good business out of it.
For their purposes of appealing to their audience and gaining recruits this was enormously helpful to them. Number three, we are — it is a harder country to get into now. That is true. We’re paying a price for that as well in terms of the people we can and can’t get into American universities and industries, but that’s a separate issue. But it is harder to get in.
That will be of value for a limited period of time for a number of reasons. One is that there are an awful lot of very dangerous people who are coming of age within our security perimeter in Europe where they won’t need visas. And finally, the last thing — the last of the main reasons I would cite is these terrorists are perfection freaks. And they plan for a long time and they want to make very sure that what they are going to do is going to work. And they also, in think about America, want to make sure that what they do will surpass what they did last time.
This is something you often hear from people in the intelligence community who are quite convinced that this is an integral part of the ideology. And so, yeah, it’s great we haven’t been hit since 9/11. And it would be a complete foolishness to in anyway rest on those laurels.
FLYNN: I see you were thinking about a successful strategy for coping with this, since the one right now has made things worse. So what are the ingredients of making this very sobering threat analysis you have provide here, how do we reign it in? I know you’ve got out here a foreign and domestic component to this. But where do we go, Steve?
SIMON: Well, it’s simple — (laughter). Well, you know, we had put this in this part of the subject matter into the book proposal. And after the Holt and Times Books agreed to publish it. We were hoping, actually, we wouldn’t be held to that — (laughter) — that somehow they’d forget.
But so we did the needful and we tried to think of some steps that the United States could take realistically in some pragmatic way that would forestall the worst and perhaps repair some of the damage of U.S. policies in the four or five years. And we explored two domains. One was the foreign policy domain, as Steve said, and there we had three recommendations — broadly speaking.
The first was that the United States working with allies should do as much as possible to help resolve local conflicts around the world that were feeding the Jihad. Because one of the characteristics of the jihad now is that bin Laden’s global agenda is being displaced onto local conflicts involving Muslims that don’t, at root, have anything to do with the United States or some kind of global clash between Islam and the West. They’re more about secular issues of politics, economics, distribution of social goods and so forth.
But the Muslims who are involved in those local conflicts are now more prone, because of the way in which bin Laden has — as Dan said — turbo charged the jihad through the Internet and so forth — they’re more prone to see their local problems as manifestations of a much larger clash of civilizations, if I can put it that way. So we say, it’s very important right at the outset for the United States to work a lot harder to resolve — to help resolve some of those local conflicts so that they don’t provide the recruits for the Jihad.
And you know, in connection with this, we interviewed on senior intelligence official who had a very striking phrase. He said, you know, when we get whacked — that is to say, when we are attacked here back in the United States — the attacker is going to have an Asian face. Now he wasn’t predicting an attack and he wasn’t predicting either that the attacker would actually come from Asia, but the point he was making was, that he attacker was likely to be someone who got radicalized at some local conflict that originally had nothing to do with us, but who had come to see the far enemy — the United States — as being responsible for all these problems.
So we needed to work harder to deal with those problems in Cockney, in Kashmir, the Philippines, Indonesia, Southern Thailand, Palestine — big, very big. So that was the one recommendation. Another one was, to the extent that democratization is important, we had to take some dramatic steps to move that process along if we could. Now in Iraq we’ve tried one way. We proposed a different kind of shock and awe. One where the U.S. and allies — we couldn’t actually put our face forward on this, because we’re too toxic now — would go to countries that are badly in need of democratization — like Egypt, for example, which as those of you who have been reading the papers for the past few days know, ruined the chances for a reform effort that Condi Rice was trying to get going out in that region.
Go to such countries as Egypt and say, well, look, if you take certain steps — if you, the regime, take certain steps to open up political space to alternative parties, you give people more scope for political participation, then we will provide packages of trade and aid that will shock and awe, that will blowup anything you have seen. And in the process, restructure incentives in those countries, because once that’s out on the table, regimes are going to be hard pressed to explain why they turned that down.
So this is a bold idea and it’s highly problematic, but we flesh it out in the book as best we can. Finally, we say in the foreign policy realm, we need to watch what we say because our language is turning a lot of people against us. And to the extent that it’s important to put a wedge between those who’ve already turned to violence and those who support those who have turned to violence and think about it themselves, we need to watch our language, because it’s very, very toxic.
In the homeland security domain, basically, we say what many people know — our premise is what many people are aware of — that 95 percent of the critical infrastructure in the United States is owned by the private sector. And it’s been an appalling error that the private sector has not effectively been involved in the process of infrastructure protection by the federal government. Those efforts that have been made have been unsuccessful. And unless the private sector is involved from the ground up, an effective defense will be impossible.
Secondly, we note that the FBI is still not doing its job. And unless we know what’s going on in our own country, we can’t adequately defend ourselves. And we document in the book the FBI’s failure four years after 9/11 to acquire the domestic intelligence capabilities for us to know what’s going on in our own cities, in our own backyards.
FLYNN: Okay, now there’s plenty there, I’m sure, to stimulate conversation. And in the process of doing so, we have microphones to give you and we need your name and affiliation. I’m going to start there way in the back. Okay, this gentleman right here.
QUESTIONER: My name is Maurice Tempelsman, and let me apologize to our two speakers for starting with the statement, but I can’t get to my question without doing that. One of the boards I’ve been serving on since its inception is the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs since its inception under President Reagan. And one of the parts of the world where we’ve had great difficulty in getting traction in the work that these institutes do is the Islamic world. But in the last two years, we’re beginning to make some dents.
We’ve been working Iraq for two years. Grassroots. We’ve had people deployed there. After very active and heated debate on the board, which happens to be chaired by Madeleine Albright, but we came down on the side of doing the work. There were two requirements that I had before I went along. One was, of course, the security and safety of our people. And secondly, are we doing any good. Remember, we’ve been there for two years.
Fortunately, our people have managed to move around all over Iraq — a lot easier in 14 provinces than in the four that have problems, but they move in the four. But the thing that has astonished me is that I’ve asked for reports twice a month because the second question really was, are we doing any good? What astonishes me is the response on the part of the Iraqis — Shi’a, Kurd, Sunnis even — even if they vote against it — in willing to start working on what it takes to build democracy with very substantial participation of Iraqis women.
Now that’s a fact. It’s been going on for two years. How do you reconcile that with everything that you’ve just finished saying?
SIMON: I don’t have a problem recognizing that. I mean, we know this also just from journalistic accounts. I’m a regular reader of the wires that come out of the IWPR, which I can’t remember what that stands for, but it’s the Iraqi journalists collective that is doing terrific work. Sure, there are good things going on. But at the same time, basic security is not assured for most — much of not most of Iraq. And you know, I think that — I’ve actually talked to representatives of a number of different intelligence services quite recently about this. And they still say, there is a chance — a small chance that it will work out in the end.
But the fact is, that Anbar province and the Sunni community are deeply, deeply unsettled, disappointed and there is a process of radicalization underway. You know, it doesn’t take all that many insurgents to make a country a very unpleasant place to live. And the total number of insurgents, as we know from reporting for several years now, is not all that large. And it just, you know, given the fact that there were 900,000 tons, I believe — 100 million — some unspeakable amount of armaments in Saddam’s Iraq to be harvested when we came in and the security evaporated at those sites, there’s going to be violence there for a long time. It’s very hard for me to imagine how you uproot the terrorists infrastructure when the terrorists leave every time the troops come into town.
Obviously, I think what NDI is great work and there are a lot of other groups doing that too, but in terms of Iraq is an exception in the Arab world right in that it has in many ways more hope for building a democracy than any other country. But as a force within the region and for its own future I’m not very optimistic.
BENJAMIN: I would just add one thing, that I agree with my esteemed co-author — (laughter) — about everything, but particularly this. But I would add that it’s easy to find many people in Iraq — moderates who are looking to establish real intercommunal unity and make a moderate, progressive Iraq.
But the thing is that the leaderships are not connected to society. The leaderships were imposed from the outside. They’ve got their own game plan.
And I recently — I talked to one of the great experts on Iraq the other day about this question because, you know, I was eager to reconcile the polling data, which fairly consistently shows that, you know, many Iraqis want to have a strong central government and a unitary Iraq, and they want to have a democracy. And yet the way politics is playing out, especially in the constitution formation process, none of that’s visible.
So how is that possible? And the answer is the leaderships imposed from the outside don’t give a darn what the rank and file want. They’ve got their own game. And you know, to some extent we have ourselves to blame for that.
FLYNN: Midway down here, right here. We’ve got a microphone coming to you..
QUESTIONER: Bettye Musham.
I just read last week a new book that’s just been issued called “Messages from Osama bin Laden,” translated from the original Arabic, everything that he spoke, everything that he wrote. And the message seems to be that Osama bin Laden is able to recruit people because his message is that America and its allies are killing our civilian population. So if someone from Duke who is a divinity professor who speaks all these languages understands that, how do we have a policy in Washington that is so different? McCain wants to send in more troops; other people want to withdraw. I mean, what is the basis, really, for him being able to recruit and keep people as insurgents to fight this war if it really is because we’re killing their civilians?
FLYNN: That one had you written all over it. (Laughter.)
BENJAMIN: Well, in Iraq we do kill a lot of civilians, and that’s —
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
BENJAMIN: Well, you know, the record, real or constructed, real or imagined, of the U.S. and its allies killing Muslim civilians goes back a long way. And if your worldview doesn’t allow for a differentiation between Israel and the United States, then, you know, the imagined problem — partly real — you know, gets really big.
Now in Iraq, way we fight war it entails a lot of civilian casualties. And if you read any of the campaign histories that have been written both, you know, by the services and by embedded reporters since the war, you know, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that many civilians were killed. And the fact is, all this is televised. It’s all televised and it’s all projected in extremely powerful imagery.
Okay, who hasn’t seen the image from the Palestinian context of Mohammed Aldura, the young kid in his father’s arms in Netzarim Junction in Gaza, right, in time phased — he’s in his father’s arms, he’s crying, he’s very scared, and then he’s shot to death.
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
BENJAMIN: But you see, it’s undifferentiated in the mind of our adversary. But, well, perhaps we’ll agree to disagree on this. But when bin Laden writes in his epistles, in his subsequent, you know, interviews, and the al Qaeda spokesmen, too, that al Qaeda has a right, indeed an obligation, to kill millions of Americans in retaliation, in reciprocal mode, for the killing of that same number of Muslims, and particularly Arabs, by the United States, he’s not just thinking about Iraq.
First of all, he said this, you know, much of this before we ever went into Iraq. Although Iraqi sanctions play a part, you know, in his rhetoric, but he looks at the long record of colonial occupation from his point of view of the Middle East, and he says, we’ve been killing Muslims for a really long time, and the Muslims now have some catching up to do. And as he said, it is time for America to drink from the bitter cup from which Muslims have drunk.
FLYNN: Way there in back.
QUESTIONER: Hi. I’m a little confused about this conversation, and I’ll tell you why.
FLYNN: Mr. Gross?
QUESTIONER: Oh, I’m sorry. Marty Gross from Sandalwood.
I’m a little confused about this conversation for the following reason. If we’re talking about a conventional war, we have pretty obvious criteria of how one measures winning and losing. This isn’t a conventional war; this is a war of ideas that obviously has violence going along with it. So I’d like to hear how one would develop a criteria to determine how we’d even answer the question of whether we’re winning or losing because if we don’t develop that, the conversation makes no point, okay?
And just to respond in this vein to your proposals as to how to — what would the right strategy be — to solve local conflicts, so we should go to France and help that Muslim population integrate? So we should tone down our language and not call Russia, you know, the “evil empire,” but yet we have the testimony of Sharansky, who said that that type of language energized the entire human rights movement.
So maybe you could at least respond to how we decide whether we’re winning or losing, as opposed to just throwing a bunch of facts around without a model to put them into.
FLYNN: Is there a matrix that we can point to?
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
BENJAMIN: Well, first of all, I began by giving you a whole set of discrete facts that we believe indicate that we are losing, and that the ideology is spreading, and that the population of people prepared to carried out — prepared to carry out violence is growing. I would argue that everyone would be — everyone would be hard pressed to find any better metrics. And unfortunately, we’re, you know, not in the realm of bomb damage assessments and things like that here. This is, you know, new territory. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is, obviously, we’re not going into the French suburbs, the Parisian suburbs, although it would be nice if we had a better relationship with our allies to be able to say something to them about the needs for integration and what they might learn from the United States.
The issue of dealing with, for example, Russia is a very interesting and a very problematic one because, you know, Putin says, you have terrorists, we have terrorists. We know from terrorists. You know, look at the North Caucasus. And the fact is, most of the time we’ve just given him a pass when the Soviet army — I mean, I’m sorry, the Russian army — has carried out atrocity after atrocity and made things a lot worse, and taken what was an ethnic conflict that was on the verge of solution in the mid-’90s and turned it into a religious conflict that seems at the moment insoluble.
Now the Russians weren’t alone in screwing things up; the fact is, outside jihadists helped a lot in starting the second Chechen war. But you know, someone has to tell the Russians that this is not the way things are going to end nicely. And similarly, you know, we need to use more leverage on the Pakistanis so that there are fewer cross-border incursions and there are no more attacks in New Delhi.
That’s what we mean. We’re not sending troops anywhere, but we have — our diplomatic muscles have atrophied so much in this regard that it’s time to do something. We’re at the point where the things that happen in Kashmir actually can affect our national security.
FLYNN: Right here.
QUESTIONER: I’m Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer.
You’ve made some very good points, but you should respond by saying, with regard to things that are not so good about the fact that we’re in Iraq, weighing it against what would have happened if we had not gone into Iraq. And I’m sure you have, and I’d like to hear what you think because I would assume one thing for sure is that — if I may put it, that son of a bitch surely would have gotten weapons of mass destruction and — sooner or later — and, accordingly to Rumsfeld in this room on the record and David Kay before the Senator Foreign Relations Committee, there was a high risk he would give them to terrorists, or either he or in Kay’s words, his corrupt scientists, if you’re familiar with that testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
And in ending, I would think surely, no matter what you say, the worst thing we could do is get out of Iraq too soon and admit defeat.
FLYNN: Okay, so the issue of what things would have been like differently with regard to the threat if we weren’t in Iraq is certainly worth trying to make a case on that, and what do we do now?
BENJAMIN: Well, just very briefly, we know that the Saddam regime was very far from having any unconventional weapons capability.
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
BENJAMIN: I don’t know. I go by the Duelfer report, and there wasn’t much there. And if he had, you know, some chlorine, it’s hard to see how he could have used that to devastating effect against the United States.
But you know, this may be a point about which we will agree to disagree. But his capabilities were very limited, and as far as his nuclear capabilities, they were completely nonexistent. There were corrupt scientists, but the scientists’ corruption lay in their manipulation of Saddam — extracting resources from him and producing nothing, because they couldn’t produce anything.
Now on the other question, I think you’re absolutely right. It would be terrible to withdraw too soon. We have to thread a needle, and it’s going to be very difficult for us to do because if we leave too soon, we validate one key dimension of bin Laden’s narrative, which is that we’re a paper tiger. You draw American blood, they run, and that will invite further attacks. On the other hand, the longer we stay, the more recruits we create for the jihad and the more skills we impart to jihadists. So threading this needle is going to be very difficult for this administration.
SIMON: Absolutely. I’d like to jump in and add something here. Secretary Rumsfeld could not have been more wrong in his assertion that Saddam was going to give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. In 1990, Secretary of State James Baker said to Saddam, if you use a weapon of mass destruction, we will obliterate you. The American people will want revenge, and we will carry it out. Saddam took that threat very seriously. In 1993, when he tried to carry out a completely ham-handed assassination of former President Bush, we detected it, we carried out a retaliation; some people may have regarded it as a pinprick. He got the message. He never carried out, never even tried, another terrorist attack against the United States of America.
Saddam’s support for terrorism consisted almost entirely — in fact, other than harboring, you know, Abu Nidal — of trying to knock off Iraqi dissidents. He was completely deterred, and he was far too canny to take a chance on a terrorist group he couldn’t control. And I consider this to have been one of the astounding canards of the Iraq war.
FLYNN: Okay, here in front.
QUESTIONER: Lucy Komisar, I’m a journalist.
I’d like to ask you about the movement of terrorist money, because we know that the al Qaeda money was in the Al Taqua correspondent accounts in the Banca del Gottardo in Switzerland, in Nassau, and al Taqua also had a shell company in Liechtenstein. And it appears that also Saddam used shell companies and bank accounts in Switzerland and Nassau and Liechtenstein. And in fact they both, al Qaeda and Saddam, the one place where they actually did operate not really together, but they had the same money launderer. They used a man named Schreiber in Liechtenstein, who managed the money in the secret bank accounts for both of them.
The question is, this whole secret banking operation is part of the Western financial system. It exists only because the West allows it to exist. To what extent do you think is this a key linchpin of the terrorist operation? And do you think if the West really is serious about doing something about terrorism? Should it dismantle this bank and shell company — this secret system, this offshore secret system?
FLYNN: Well said. (Laughter.)
BENJAMIN: But I would add to that, yes, it’s important to go at the — to follow the money. It’s very important, both as a matter of practical efforts to constrain the abilities of terrorists to carry out their attacks, and also it’s a matter of maintaining our own seriousness. But I don’t think anybody should be deluded into thinking that we can ever eliminate or even seriously constrain — seriously reduce the level of terror through financial means. There are just too many ways of finding money, and terrorism is too cheap.
SIMON: Danny, I’m struck, you have on page 13 the March 11th operation, that the total analysis is that the operation cost around $50,000.
BENJAMIN: It was a small hash deal.
SIMON: I remember in the 1990s, when we were trying to put the Ochoa brothers out of business, doing multibillion dollar transactions basically and frequent runs in and out of here, we had a heck of a time turning down those networks. I think the fact that we’re dealing with small numbers makes — there may be other reasons, and there are other reasons, to address this problem. But I think as a counterterrorism tool, going after the money is going to be a pretty difficult thing in giving the challenge — the needle is in the haystack. I mean —
BENJAMIN: Sure. I mean, large numbers were essential before 9/11 because bin Laden was paying rent on countries. He rented out Sudan and then he rented out Afghanistan, even though they were a low rent district — (laughter) — you know, get the square footage.
FLYNN: All right, we have time for one more here in the back, and then I’ll ask our two distinguished authors here to make some concluding comments.
QUESTIONER: Eric Goldstein.
To the extent that terrorism in the Middle East seems to be metastasizing, as evidenced in Jordan, to what extent is Syrian security or stability of importance to us in trying to contain, at least, that threat?
SIMON (?): Well, you know, the Syria story is kind of an interesting one, in part because it reminds me of the Iran story, and I’ll tell you why.
We intervened in Iraq, a very audacious thing to do. I mean, we had intervened in Haiti and some other places, but you know, this was a different part of the world, big country, very problematic. And how it turns out it’s hugely important for America’s strategic interests, hugely important, because our credibility is at stake in a really big way, not to mention many lives.
So one would think that with this awesome task ahead of us and the priority of it that we would subordinate other lesser objectives to this greater goal. And here’s where I’m reminded of Syria and Iran. In this connection you would think that we would be working hard to make things with Syria work to get them out of the business of allowing people to cross their borders. Now we have other bones to pick with Syria. All I’m saying is that given the stakes in Iraq, we might have been expected to subordinate those other concerns to this greater concern. Likewise with Iran on some of the issues we face there.
So the fact that we’re trying to pursue all these separate objectives as though they were equal when we know they’re not is deeply problematic, and Syria is an excellent example of this incoherence.
BENJAMIN (?): I would just add to that the paradox that Syria Islamists have been emboldened by what is going on next door in Iraq in a very big way, and also by the sense that the current regime is not nearly as fearsome as Bashar’s father’s was. And the curious thing is that we’re pushing very hard on the Syrians, and making, you know, appropriately a big deal about the Hariri assassination. The Islamists are pushing on the other side. You know, we could wind up in a be-careful-what-you-wish-for situation. The durability of Syrian Islamism is quite remarkable.
Now the chances are, if the Assad regime falls, the next one will look a lot similar. But — and that is, you know, it’ll be some sort of military dictatorship and so on and so forth. But it seems to me sometimes that we just don’t give enough thought to what kinds of evil humors and spirits are underneath the lid when we are about to lift it up. I mean, you can’t — again, if Iraq is relevant — scholars knew that there was — Islamization going on in Iraq. Why no one in the Pentagon ever thought that they might have a jihadist problem after knocking off the regime is completely beyond me.
FLYNN: Let me finish maybe where we started, with your book: “We are losing.” You’re out there now talking the book up in the usual circuit. What kind of response, one, are you getting so far to that message? And where do you think that leaves us with the coming conversation about where we go with the war in Iraq?
MR. : Oh, gee. The response has been very receptive. And it’s been receptive not just because the book is such a masterpiece — (laughter) — although that undoubtedly contributes to the response. But it comes at a time when many of the threads in the fabric of American politics are beginning to fray quite seriously. And the thesis of the book, the argument of the book, has some explanatory power. It ties events that are beginning to coalesce quite rapidly now into some narrative that I think people can understand, and it sort of explains what’s been going on.
And as far as the way ahead, I guess I really — you had a great analogy here; it gives my question a little more focus — is the fabric going to unravel? Or is it the result of the clarity of what you think you’re presenting here going to create an alternative vision?
MR. : Well, you know, I don’t know what the administration is going to do. They have a very serious problem on their hands. It looks as though there will be some drawdown of U.S. forces in ‘06, and there are a number of factors driving that. There are political factors, but then there are military factors as well.
The kind of presence we have in Iraq is difficult to sustain. And if the British draw down — they are the linchpin of the coalition presence in southern Iraq — as the British have now said that they are probably going to do, we’ll be in a tough position because our forces will be even further stretched.
So I imagine that the U.S. will press ahead with Iraqization. It is not going very well, but at some point we will have to declare it as having gone well. (Laughter.)
FLYNN: Final word here?
MR. : Well, two thoughts. I mean one response I got was from Bill O’Reilly, who said, oh, it’s all stupid. We gave them elections, but they don’t appreciate it, then the hell with it. (Laughter.) It left me kind of speechless.
FLYNN: He has that capacity.
MR. : Yes, he does. (Laughter.) Luckily the hits are never more than three minutes.
But I think that actually the administration is in a very difficult position vis-a-vis the larger terrorism problem because it has — it carried out a set of policies that really did not acknowledge that we were in an ideological struggle, and that this was about hearts and minds. And as a result, it has — and I think that invading a country, you know, has that impact — and as a result it has been incapable — it is in a corner, and it’s incapable of admitting the phenomenon of radicalization.
And there are a lot of wheels turning in the government now. You may have heard that there is a new national security directive that’s been in the works for awhile. We saw a blip of this during the summer, when there was that momentary flap — was it a global struggle against violent extremism or was it a global war on terror? And the president said, it’s a war.
And they are having a hard time squaring that circle, and dealing with the phenomenon of radicalization and crafting policies that recognize that, you know, 1.2 billion — among 1.2 billion people are an awful lot who look at us very skeptically, and some of them may be inclined to become violent.
And as long as we are in Iraq, I just don’t think that that can get better. I think that getting out of Iraq is the starting point of serious strategic counterterrorism.
FLYNN: Okay, with that, you just got a teaser. (Applause.)
The rest’s in that book right back there. So if you haven’t had enough, purchase a copy before you go out the door. Thank you all so very much.
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