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Gideon Rose: Why Did September 11 Happen?

Interviewee: Gideon Rose, Editor, Foreign Affairs, and Peter G. Peterson Chair, Foreign Affairs
November 26, 2001

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Gideon Rose is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. His recently-released book, How Did This Happen: Terrorism and the New War is a collection of essays from experts in the areas of international issues, terrorism, military strategy and security, including former Clinton National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Wesley Clark. He joined the CNN.com chat room from New York.

CNN: Your book brings together 24 of the world’s foremost authorities on the Mideast, terrorism and diplomacy. Were these experts able to define in simple terms what is behind the anti-American sentiment that led to the attacks on September 11?

ROSE: The best piece in the book on that particular subject is a chapter by a scholar at Princeton, named Michael Doran, that describes the attack as somebody else’s civil war. He argues that Osama bin Laden and his network of terrorists are best understood as the extremists within the extremist camp of radical Islam, and that their chief goal is to promote a pure, universal Islamic community. Their chief enemy, [it is argued,] is the Arab Muslim leadership that they consider corrupt and repressive, and no longer following the true faith.

The argument he makes is that the United States essentially has been brought into this conflict because it is seen as the chief backer of these Arab regimes, and because in the last several years, the radical Islamists have been stymied in their attempts to topple the Arab regimes, such as those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, directly. So now, in a sense, the targeting of the United States is a measure of desperation, and an attempt to direct change within the Arab-Muslim world itself.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What part, if any, did the Middle East conflict play in the growth of terrorism?

ROSE: A number of authors in the book touch on this, and essentially agree that the Arab-Israeli conflict plays a role in generating dissatisfaction within the Arab and Muslim worlds, but did not cause the attacks in the first place. Basically, these attacks were planned long before the peace process foundered, and the people behind the attacks have no desire for a secure, stable peace settlement. They would like to see the elimination of Israel entirely, so in some sense, a move toward a settlement in the way that most understand that would not be a good outcome for the Islamist radicals.

So, the failure of the peace process, and the increasing violence between Arabs and Israelis did not cause the attacks, but does contribute to dissatisfaction and anger within the Arab and Muslim world more generally, that provides a climate in which extremism and anti-Americanism can find some support. So, working hard to get the Arab-Israeli conflict under control, the authors agree, can and should be part of the overall response to the attacks.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Would this not have happened because of the hatred toward the United States even if peace had developed between Israel and Palestine?

ROSE: Absolutely. These attacks were set in motion long before, when the peace process was going well, not badly. There’s no reason to believe that they would have not occurred had the peace process worked out.

CNN: How could the attacks have been avoided, according to these experts?

ROSE: The people in the book essentially focus on three separate topics. The first concerns the motivations of the people who carried out the attacks, and the context in which they operate. The second broad subject relates to American vulnerabilities. The third broad subject relates to the overarching historical significance of the attacks, and the new world we are in.

With regard to American vulnerability, several of the authors point out that the problem lies in an American economy and society that put a premium on openness and the free flow of goods and people, and that this created a situation in which security and homeland defense were low priorities. A number of the essays suggest ways in which the flows of goods and people, whether through the economy or through the air traffic control system or through the borders, can be better policed and regulated, so as to reduce the vulnerabilities. They all stress, however, that there’s no way to guarantee that future attackers can never succeed.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think that the influx of non-American people into this country contributed to September 11

ROSE: It’s not so much the influx of non-Americans as the failure to track and protect ourselves from those with hostile intent. So, pure immigration reform probably isn’t the answer, but better tracking and managing of information about who is coming in and where they are and what they’re doing might well be in order.

CNN: From a terrorism perspective, are all the acts of aviation terrorism believed to be linked?

ROSE: The authors argue that the September 11 attacks were carried out by the same organization or network that carried out the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, the bombing of the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia, and other radical Islamist terrorist attacks. But they are not directly linked to previous airline hijackings, let’s say before the early 1990’s. In fact, one of the most dangerous and scary features of what happened on September 11 was the change in tactics that the terrorists used. Previously, almost nobody had thought of turning a plane into a guided missile, and so the authors in the book generally agree that these recent attacks mark a new and dangerous stage in terrorism more generally. No longer are terrorists merely interested, as we used to think, in “having lots of people watching, not lots of people dead.”

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Some critics want to blame September 11 on the Clinton administration for not seeking out al Qaeda and getting bin Laden. What is the authors perspective on this?

ROSE: The authors note in the book many attempts made to thwart previous terrorism, and to crack down on Osama bin Laden and his network, for example, by tracking and blocking his financial resources. Nevertheless, it’s clear that not enough was done, but as the chapter on intelligence reform suggests, establishing benchmarks for what performance by government agencies involved in counter-terrorism should be, is very, very difficult. In baseball, we know that a batter who gets one hit in three times at bat is excellent, and one who gets one in four times at bat is okay, and one who gets one hit in five times at bat is lousy. But we only know that because we have a vast track record of human experience in baseball to judge each new case against. In counter-terrorism, it’s very hard to say just what a good job is, even though we’d all like it to be 100% success.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why aren’t the other Muslim countries more outspoken on the terrorist problems?

ROSE: That’s a good question. The authors in the book argue that the attacks and the climate in which the attackers could thrive are part of a larger trend in the Arab-Muslim world that consists of an inability to thrive in the modern world, and the dissatisfaction and frustration felt by many ordinary Arabs and Muslims around the world at the relative failure of their country’s political and economic performance in recent decades, has created a large pool of resentment that sometimes can find itself directed against the United States as the chief backer of the current system. Many Arab and Muslim governments, the authors argue, are failing their own peoples, and are reluctant to challenge them or upset them further by confronting openly their false views on, for example, the pernicious role of the United States and Israel in causing the failure of Arab and Muslim fortunes. Silence is sometimes the more cautious course for these regimes.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Rose, were there signs of the attack that U.S. intelligence agencies missed?

ROSE: There were indications, not only that the attackers were prepared to come at the United States, but also that they were prepared to use planes as weapons. A terrorist was caught on his way to an attack at the Los Angeles international airport just before the millennium celebrations, and the man behind the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, Ramzi Yousef, had planned to blow up several planes in the Pacific a couple of years later. Moreover, the United States had picked up reason to believe that Osama bin Laden and his network felt themselves to be in a life or death struggle against the United States. All this made U.S. intelligence nervous, and made them concentrate on trying to stop bin Laden and his agents, but unfortunately, there were no specific details about the attack available beforehand that were caught in time to prevent it.

CNN: From an intelligence perspective, can the CIA ever rehabilitate itself in order to prevent such attacks again?

ROSE: One of the best chapters in the book is on precisely this subject. It’s also one of the most depressing. Because it argues that intelligence reform is unlikely to achieve much in the short or even medium term. In the long term, the author notes, a revitalization of human intelligence could bear fruit, but the real problem lies not just in the CIA but in the society at large, which has paid far too little attention to the outside world and the serious study of it in recent decades.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why didn’t the U.S. government listen to Oliver North when he told the Senate who Osama bin Laden was and what he was capable of?

ROSE: It’s an urban legend that Oliver North noted Osama bin Laden by name in his Iran-Contra testimony. So, there was nothing to listen to. In general, we knew that terrorism was a problem, but almost nobody thought it would be this great a problem.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?

ROSE: One of the things that’s most interesting about the book is that it presents the current crisis from several different angles, such as the diplomatic context, the historical context, the ideological context, and the social context. At the end of the day, however, what one comes away with is, I think, just how difficult it is to prepare for and manage high-consequence, low-probability events, such as we’ve just witnessed. We need to be prepared without losing our heads, and that’s going to be a very difficult thing to manage.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

ROSE: So long, and we welcome your comments at the magazine.

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