Peter Bergen: Why al Qaeda Still Matters
The following are excerpts from a series of interviews with some of the country’s top terrorism experts conducted by Trudy Rubin, the Worldview columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer in conjunction with the July 2008 volume of The Annals on “Terrorism: What the Next President Will Face.” This interview is with Peter Bergen, CNN’s terrorism analyst and one of the only Americans to interview Osama bin Laden in 1997. His most recent book is The Osama bin Laden I know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader.
Trudy Rubin: Peter, some analysts argue that al Qaeda is no longer as important a threat as it once was. There is even a debate in the community of terrorism experts between those who argue that leaderless networks of jihadis are more important than al Qaeda central based on the Pakistan-Afghan border. So, does al Qaeda still matter? Is it just a symbol or is it something much more?
Peter Bergen: I think al Qaeda still matters, basically for three reasons. First of all, Osama bin Laden continues to provide broad strategic guidance to not only al Qaeda the organization, but the whole jihadi movement. Let me give you two or three examples. O
ne, you know bin Laden called for attacks on the Saudi oil industry in 2004. In 2006 we saw the attack on Saudi Arabia’s most important oil facility; lucky it did not work out, but had it that is ten percent of the world’s oil supply offline, the Abqaiq oil facility was targeted. Bin Laden has, in the last several months, and along with al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called for attacks on the Pakistani state. That is one of the reasons I think that we are seeing epidemic of attacks on Pakistani police, government officials, soldiers, and other representatives of the Pakistani state. In fact there have been more suicide attacks in Pakistan in 2007 than in the whole of modern Pakistani history. So, bin Laden continues to provide broad strategic guidance to the network and sometimes he actually says something very specific about the kinds of attacks that should happen. Here is another example. Bin Laden has been going on about this Danish cartoon controversy, the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed; it is not a coincidence in my mind that the Danish Embassy was attacked in Islamabad several months ago, and a number of people were killed. So that is one way in which al Qaeda matters.
The second way in which al Qaeda matters is that the leaderless jihadi guys do not represent a really big deal threat until they actually turn up in the federally administered tribal areas in Pakistan and get training from al Qaeda or one of its affiliates, which turns them from guys with a beef, of which there are millions of people around the world, into effective terrorists. It is one thing to be sitting in your bedroom reading the internet and getting all jazzed up about jihadi videos, but that does not really turn you into an effective terrorist. What turns you into an effective terrorist is either fighting in a war or getting training at a terrorist training camp. Because every time we have seen a big terrorist attack, almost without exception somebody involved, usually one of the ringleaders, has either trained at an al Qaeda training camp or fought in a jihad in which al Qaeda was involved. We do not train the American army on the internet, and it turns out you do not train effective terrorists on the internet. You train them at training camps. So that is how al Qaeda remains important. A concrete example of this is two leaderless jihadi types, Mohammed Siddique Khan and a guy called Tanweer, went from England to Pakistan in the 2004-2005 timeframe, trained with al Qaeda, met with al Qaeda leaders, and then conducted the largest terrorist attack in British history on July 7, 2005. In my view, it is very unlikely that the al Qaeda organization will be able to attack the United States because the American public is more vigilant, the American government has made us safer, the American Muslim community has more or less completely rejected the al Qaeda ideology, and there are no al Qaeda sleeper cells in this country. I cannot prove that as a fact, but we have not seen any evidence of this. So given those four facts it is very hard to launch an operation if you do not have people here and you cannot get people in. However, al Qaeda retains an ability to kill American soldiers in Iraq, in Afghanistan; it retains an ability to kill Americans in mass numbers outside the United States, as it tried to do with the planes plot over the summer of 2006, which was an attempt to bring down seven American-Canadian airliners with liquid explosives.
TR: That were departing from Britain?
PB: They were departing from Heathrow. That trial is ongoing right now. Now senior American and senior British officials have said there was an al Qaeda influence there. That information has not come out of the trial, which I think is partly because the prosecutors do not really need that information to send these guys to prison for the rest of their lives, since they made suicide tapes, they had a bomb factory. But it only seems like an al Qaeda operation, the senior people involved went to Pakistan. They used hydrogen peroxide in their plan, industrial strength, which was the same material that was used in the July 7, 2005, successful terrorist attack in London.
TR: So one presumes they had some training when they went to Pakistan.
TR: By al Qaeda.
PB: They “lost their passports,” which is a kind of typical piece of tradecraft, you do not want anybody to know you have been to Pakistan. They were traveling to Pakistan in the immediate run-up to the plan. They were making phone calls from public pay phones to Pakistan, obviously careful and concerned about possible surveillance of their own domestic phones. So if it walks like a duck and it seems like a duck it might well be a duck, meaning it looks like it is al Qaeda-organized.
TR: Explain a little bit about how al Qaeda central works now. First of all, how did it reconstitute itself where everybody thinks its headquarters is now, somewhere on the Pakistan side of the Pakistan-Afghan border, and how does it function in hiding up there?
PB: The Pakistani government no longer controls a good chunk of the federally administered tribal areas. It is completely being turned over to the militants.
TR: Which is this section of Pakistan that abuts the border?
PB: Yes. So it is seven federally administered tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border. It has never really been controlled by the Pakistani government, but now they have really lost control. And so it is kind of Woodstock for every militant jihadi group that can get there and al Qaeda is one of them. And how did it get there? Al Qaeda just moved across the border. I mean, there’s a very limited American presence in Pakistan for many reasons. It would be politically almost impossible to send in a large number, or even any number, of American soldiers, that would provoke a pretty difficult reaction from the Pakistani public and Pakistani political class. So, yes, al Qaeda does what anybody would do in its position. There is a large American military presence in Afghanistan and a very small one in Pakistan and the Pakistani government does not control its own territory, so it has gone where it can regroup and it has regrouped. It cannot conduct a 9/11 type of attack on the United States but it can clearly do attacks in other countries overseas and it has had big influence, I think, on the Taliban. The Taliban have adopted al Qaeda’s ideology and tactics more or less completely, which is one of the reasons that the situation in Afghanistan is going really pretty poorly.
TR: So, you have a situation where the leadership of al Qaeda is somewhere in this border area. Now, some people have the perception, “Oh, they are in caves, what can they do? They cannot even make cell phone calls.” Explain how they train people; I mean obviously it is not in big camps anymore or our satellites would see them. So how do they do it, the training, and how do they get the messages out?
PB: The messages are by couriers and they are making those messages like we are doing the interview here; it is either an audio recording or it is a video recording and they are sent out. It used to be that they were taken to Al Jazeera, either in Pakistan or elsewhere, and now they are just uploaded directly on the internet, which means that they are much harder to trace back. And it also means that they are unedited, because Al Jazeera of course would edit them. So their ability to get their message out has actually increased because of the penetration of the internet in western Pakistan and also their ability to hide their tracks has increased because they are not sending it to particular locations over a particular television network as they did in the past.
TR: But they have a big filming operation, right?
PB: Yes, they have al Sahab, which means the clouds in Arabic, which produced more than ninety videos and audios last year. Al Sahab has also got analogs and the Taliban one called Ummat Video and now there is something like ten different video operations for all the different militant groups that operate here. So they are all producing DVDs.
TR: And they are operating out of this remote area, but with professional equipment?
PB: Yes, but it does not have to be, they are shooting on stuff you can buy in Dubai and editing on Final Cut Pro–it is basic. They have graphics, they can do subtitles in different languages, they can do some okay editing. But it is not DreamWorks, it is what you can get out there. It is all you need, you really do not need anything more sophisticated. And in terms of the training, it is done in a compound and you have twenty people. The reason I can say this with some confidence is they film their own training, so shooting at targets on a riverbed, it is fifteen guys. It is, as you say, something that is not amenable to overhead imagery from a satellite and so it is much more discreet. But it still exists and obviously it is somewhat effective, because we have seen people go and the numbers seem to be increasing, according to a number of American officials; more foreigners coming in to get this training. I was in Iraq relatively recently and people were saying to me there that the number of foreign fighters coming into Iraq has just dropped precipitously because al Qaeda in Iraq is taking so many hits, and instead people are now going to Afghanistan, where they feel it is more like a good jihad, that they might have a bigger impact.
TR: So you have Arabs going there? Young Arabs? Where else would people be coming from?
PB: We have seen the first very interesting case; in March we saw the first German citizen conducting a suicide attack in Afghanistan, he was a German Turk. That is the first European conducting a suicide attack in Afghanistan that I am aware of. And we are seeing people coming in through Turkey, through Iran, I mean we are not talking about large numbers but they are the kinds of people who would have gone to Iraq and are going to Afghanistan.
TR: And you have some people now who have been trained in Iraq moving on to the border area?
PB: Yes. I can also say with some confidence that that is also true because we have seen people being captured or killed or arrested in Iraq who came from Afghanistan, so we know that the people are getting there. There are a number of examples of people who have been arrested on the way to Iraq from Afghanistan and Pakistan, who have ended up being killed in Iraq coming from Afghanistan, and these are the people we know about, so we can presume that the traffic between these places is larger.
TR: And in terms of the links with the Taliban, how much is al Qaeda responsible for destabilizing the situation in Afghanistan? Are they now involved in planning the operations where Afghan Taliban and so-called Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani militants go across the border to destabilize Afghanistan?
PB: I think they have been very important, ideologically and tactically. Baitullah Mehsud, who runs the Pakistani Taliban, has talked about attacking London and New York, and he sent suicide bombers to Spain in January. Now, the Taliban are a very provincial bunch of people, many of whom have never really left the immediate area where they live, and suddenly they are talking about the global jihad and they are talking about attacking Western targets. And by their own account, they are taking orders from bin Laden; we have had interviews. Mullah Dadullah, who was the leader of the Afghan Taliban in the south before he was killed in 2006, gave two quite interesting interviews to Al Jazeera in which he said, “We are in contact with bin Laden, we have give and take with the mujahedin in Iraq.” And you can tell if you chart the rate of suicide attacks in Afghanistan, they only take off after the success of the Iraqi operation, that al Qaeda’s suicide attacks in Iraq began to have a big effect on the Iraqi conflict. And then the Taliban looked at that and said, either copycatting directly or sending people to Iraq, that “Hey, this is going to work for us because this is a way of really destabilizing the country,” and also it is effective. And it has been effective, unfortunately. So in 2005 there were 27 suicide attacks in Afghanistan and in 2006 there were 139; in the years before there were onesies and twosies, very small numbers. So it only really took off after they saw the success of these tactics in Iraq. Similarly, the IED attacks in Afghanistan have doubled every year in the last three years because these tactics work.
TR: So you have a planning central, a corporate headquarters, along the Afghan-Pakistan border setting strategy, designing tactics, giving information and training on those tactics. How dangerous is this central headquarters to Pakistan itself? Because, after all, one of al Qaeda’s central ideas is that they want a territorial base, isn’t it?
PB: Yes, I think you are right about that. And some people, Olivier Roy, who is a French scholar, has said that they do not want a territorial base, and I think that is nonsense. Ayman al-Zawahiri in his autobiographical book “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner” essentially said, “Look, that is what we want.” They want to be able to impose a Taliban-style regime on an area that they control. Yes, they do want terror and they do want training camps. So on the Afghan-Pakistan border they have something along those lines. Now, of course, in Iraq one of the things that was surprising to me is how much area al Qaeda effectively controlled in Iraq. That was kind of surprising to me. Now that is almost entirely gone. As an insurgent organization that controlled large swaths of territory, not only in Anbar province, which is, after all, thirty percent of the country, but also in places like Diala and the Sunni Triangle of Death that is southwest of Baghdad, and there were a lot of different places that they actually more or less controlled. That is what they want. They do not want to be just an idea. They do want to actually control territory. So in Iraq they have lost that more or less completely except way up north and in isolated pockets, but on the Afghan-Pakistan border they do have this. And of course they are affecting, I think, in Pakistan the situation pretty badly because of their ability to affect the Pakistani Taliban’s ideas and ideology, and basically it is all one harmonic convergence now. The Kashmiri militant groups, at least the ones that are the really militant ones, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda, they have the same ideas, which are al Qaeda ideas. They use the same tactics, which are suicide tactics. There were sixty suicide attacks in Pakistan in 2007 and five in 2006, so this thing is really blowing back very badly on the Pakistanis.
TR: So, you have corporate headquarters here, and they have a wonderful opportunity on this Pakistan-Afghan border because they have all kinds of militants that they can send out as foot soldiers. They have the Pakistanis, who Pakistan trained at one point to fight India in Kashmir, the so-called Kashmiri militants. They have the Taliban, Afghan and Pakistani, they have foreigners coming in. Does anyone have any idea how big the staff of central headquarters is? How many are we talking about in the leadership?
PB: Al Qaeda has always been a very small organization, if you define it as the people who have sworn a religious personal oath of allegiance to bin Laden, and that number was two hundred around the time of 9/11. It may be one hundred to one-hundred fifty now. And then you have got basically Arabs or Chechens or Uzbeks or other foreigners who are there who may not have sworn a personal oath of allegiance, and there are maybe two hundred or three hundred of those. And then around them you have got tens of thousands of members of Pakistani-Kashmiri militant groups, tens of thousands of members of the Pakistani Taliban, tens of thousands of members of the Afghan Taliban of one kind or another. So if you do the total numbers, you are talking about substantial numbers, in the low tens of thousands of militants who are based along this border. How many of them are al Qaeda central? The answer is that is a pretty small number, in the several hundreds.
TR: How important are its two leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri?
PB: I think that they are incredibly important. I subscribe to an old-fashioned view of history that people make a big difference. Why were the French in Moscow in 1812? There is only one explanation, it is Napoleon’s ego. There is a debate about the Holocaust. If you take Hitler out of the equation, it seems to me the Holocaust might not have happened. Similarly with bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al Qaeda is their idea, al Qaeda strategies are their ideas, 9/11 was basically their baby. They continue to influence the wider jihadi movement. And in fact the best, the most reliable guide to what the global jihadi movement will do is what bin Laden says. So if he starts talking about Darfur and saying that Darfur is not a humanitarian Western intervention, that it was actually attempts to take over a Muslim entity, you can guarantee that people, jihadi types, will start showing up in Darfur.
TR: So if one or both of those leaders were taken out, if Osama bin Laden were taken out, what kind of an impact would that have?
PB: Some people say, “Well, of course the jihadi movement would continue without him,” which yes, that is a very obvious point to make. However, that does not preclude the fact that taking him out would be quite important. It would be a major psychological victory for the enemies of al Qaeda and it would be a major non-psychological victory for al Qaeda and its affiliates if he suddenly was captured or killed. Now, taking out Ayman al-Zawahiri I think would be less important. Because bin Laden, there is no contest about who runs al Qaeda, who is the star of the jihadi movement. With Ayman al-Zawahiri, he is not a natural leader.
TR: He is an Egyptian by birth, though.
PB: He is an Egyptian, so there are a lot of people in the Egyptian jihadi movement who do not like him.
TR: Given the threat that al Qaeda central presents to the Pakistani state, it did seem at one point that President Musharraf, when he was far more powerful and was wearing a military uniform, recognized the danger since they had tried to assassinate him, and made some effort, at least when it came to al Qaeda central. But these days, one gets a sense of drift. Why hasn’t more been done by the Pakistanis, especially by the military and Pakistani intelligence, when the threat seems so apparent, at least in the west?
PB: With the Pakistanis there is a lack of willingness, a lack of capability, it is really hard to sort all of this out. But I think the main reason for this is actually geographical. When you look at the period when they were capturing a lot of al Qaeda leaders they were all in Pakistani cities, and they are much easier to find because they were using cell phones, you can triangulate where they are, and you have people who are informants, et cetera. Whereas if you are in the tribal areas, finding people because of cell phones is much harder, and the Pakistani government does not control this area. So I think it is a reflection of their lack of ability to control their own territory.
TR: I want to get back to al Qaeda central in a minute, but something that you wrote fascinated me. You say that, despite the threat we have talked about from al Qaeda central, the greatest Islamist threat today emanates from Europe and not from domestic sleeper cells, either there or inside the United States, or even from graduates of radical Middle Eastern religious schools, or madrasas. Why do you say that? Why is the greatest threat from Europe?
PB: People who graduate from madrasas are functional idiots, generally speaking. They can recite the Koran in a language they do not necessarily understand, which does not get you through customs at JFK or customs at Heathrow. I have looked into the question of how many madrasa graduates have been involved in significant acts of anti-Western terrorism, and the answer is almost zero. The person you have to be concerned about is someone like Omar Sheikh, who kidnapped Danny Pearl. And Omar Sheikh went to the London School of Economics. So the London School of Economics graduates are potentially more worrisome than madrasa graduates.
TR: And the threat from Europe?
PB: 9/11 would not have been possible without the Hamburg cell. The Hamburg cell provided three out of four of the pilots and provided one of the main operational planners, Ramzi bin al Sheeb. So these guys got more radicalized in Germany than they were in their own countries, through a combination of homesickness and European racism and alienation or whatever. If we get attacked again in the United States, which is probably inevitable at some point, it will not be some Pakistani madrasa graduate who can barely speak English. That is not the threat. The threat is a second-generation person who has adopted radical Islam as a form of identity because either they do not feel really British or they do not feel really Pakistani and they see this as a form of identity, and then benefitting from the visa waiver program they can come to the United States. Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, he was a British Muslim. He had a friend who did not go through with the attack who also was planning an attack with a shoe bomb. We have seen British Muslims conduct suicide operations in Tel Aviv in 2003. This planes plot over the summer of 2006 was an attempt to bring down American-Canadian airliners with suicide attacks by British Muslims again. So that seems to be the real source of the threat. It is not al Qaeda sleeper cells in the United States.
TR: And you have written about the particular threat from a small segment of the British Pakistani community. Why is that particularly an issue?
PB: Because 400,000 British citizens go to Pakistan every year; 99.9 percent of them on completely legitimate business or vacations. But some of them go to hook up with Kashmiri militant groups and eventually end up with al Qaeda. So these are the people that conducted the July 7, 2005, attack and there has been a slew of attacks, there were plans, in Britain that have not worked out, thankfully, but their commonality is that the people involved, or at least the leadership, went to Pakistan to get training from al Qaeda or an affiliated group.
TR: So, what you are saying is that poverty is not the key marker for recruitment of jihadis, would-be suicide bombers, it is more likely to be alienation.
PB: When I was just in Afghanistan I interviewed a guy who was a failed suicide attacker in Afghanistan, and he had not even been to a madrasa, he had not been to any form of education. He was a cow herder. Somebody came along and recruited him and he felt that it is very expensive to get married, he was thirty, and that if he “martyred” himself, that then he could get married in Heaven for free with some of the virgins up there, that was his motivation. But that is not untypical for the profile of somebody conducting a suicide operation in Afghanistan for Pakistan. But in general, particularly when these things happen in the west, that sort of person is not going to be successful. There have been overwhelming studies of this, and in case after case the more educated you are the more likely you are to engage in terrorism, and the higher your income, relatively speaking, the more likely you are to get engaged in terrorism. So, social science does not usually have many actual scientific outcomes in the sense that you can actually make one hundred percent predictions, but one thing we can predict is that as people get, on average, more educated and better off, they are more likely to engage in terrorism. That is just something the academic literature really is pretty consistent about.
TR: Given all this, what do you believe are al Qaeda’s key goals in the future? You said that the likelihood of an attack on U.S. soil is small; do you think it is likely to grow? And what do you think are the chances that al Qaeda would really use some kind of nuclear or radioactive weapon, if they could get one? Do you subscribe to the theory that Osama bin Laden, if he would attack in the US, wants a bigger effect than 9/11 and therefore would only do it if it were something more spectacular?
PB: No, I think they would get whatever they could. The law of averages suggests that they will be able to attack the United States at some point in the future. When I say I think they are likely to be small, I think for the next five years I think it is small. But if you extend it out for twenty, thirty years, yes, eventually they will get one through. Or an al Qaeda-inspired cell is also obviously able to carry out attacks in the United States, but those are likely to be small.
TR: But their goals then?
PB: Their g
PB: Yes, radiological weapons are plausible in a European city. I think that is something that we could see in the next five years. These would not be weapons of mass destruction, they would be weapons of mass disruption. They would cause a lot of panic. They would not kill very many people, but they would be seen as sort of a big deal, because most people would not understand that it is not a nuclear weapon. Their ability to acquire nuclear weapons, I think, is close to zero for a very long time. Iran has had a nuclear program for eighteen years now and still does not have nuclear weapons and they have put hundreds of millions of dollars into this effort. This is a really difficult thing to do. Sadaam had unlimited resources and never was able to get nuclear weapons. The United States employed the best and the brightest for its program in the 1940s, and also put unlimited amounts of resources in. So, for a terrorist group to steal, acquire, or buy nuclear weapons is incredibly difficult. Thirty or forty years from now, maybe that is different. But these are not easy things to do, and so, thankfully, I think that is very low.
TR: That is good news, but you have also written that you thought a viable threat, a realistic threat, might be shoulder-fired weapons at airplanes.
PB: I think that is viable. The reason I think it is viable is they have tried before and they almost succeeded. You may remember the Israeli charter jet that was nearly brought down in Mumbasa, Kenya by an al Qaeda cell in 2002. So, it does not have to be an American jet; if you can demonstrate that you can bring down a commercial plane with a surface-to-air missile or perhaps even a rocket-propelled grenade, that would put a nasty crimp in the global aviation and tourism business.
TR: I would say. Now, on looking at the possibility of dealing with al Qaeda, you have written some very interesting things about al Qaeda’s strategic weaknesses. Talk a little bit about what they have been doing wrong or what they might be doing that would undercut either their viability or their appeal in the broader Muslim world.
PB: Al Qaeda in Iraq is a very good microcosm of the wider failures; self-inflicted wounds, their own goals, that come from killing Muslim civilians, untrammeled violence.
TR: In other words, they turned the Iraqi Sunni tribes against them because they were so violent.
PB: Yes. The surge, I think, is one small aspect of a whole series of underlying factors in Iraq which are much more important than the surge. If you did not have the underlying factors the surge would just be more people, boots on the ground. And of course the Anbar awakening, which was the beginning of the Sunni tribe revolt against al Qaeda, began in 2005, which is two years before the surge was even on the drawing board. So killing Muslim civilians and having Taliban-like views and opposing them wherever they go, that turns Muslims off. So that is strategic weakness number one–killing Muslim civilians and behaving in this Taliban-like way. And they also added to their list of enemies. Now in Iraq, and it is true globally, al Qaeda has alienated pretty much everyone. I cannot think of an entity that they have not alienated or said is their enemy. Unless you are a Muslim who exactly shares their worldview, their view is you are an apostate and, therefore, should be killed. So that is 1.3 billion Muslims who they regard as fair game. And then every Western country, Westerners in general, the international media, the UN–the list of enemies that they have cited is very extensive. And also they do not really offer a positive program other than the restoration of the caliphate. There is no al Qaeda minister for economics, they are not really offering any hope.
TR: And there has been some internal dissent, has there not, by leading scholars or clerics or advocates of al Qaeda who have turned against them?
PB: Yes, and I think that is important. It is a war of ideas and if they are starting to lose the ideological war, in the long term that is a big problem for them, partly because of the strategic weaknesses they have. With Muslims around the world, bin Laden’s favorable ratings and al Qaeda’s favorable ratings have been dropping because of this issue of killing Muslim civilians. And then leading clerics and leading former jihadis have also turned against bin Laden, mentioning him by name and not just condemning 9/11 or terrorism. And so in the longer term that is a big problem for them. In the medium term they do, as you have pointed out, have this safe haven on the Afghan-Pakistan border and they have re-surged, and that is going to be a medium-term problem, but the longer-term problem is that they are really losing this ideological war.
TR: Given that, in the shorter term, in the next five years, what should U.S. strategy and tactics be to deal with the threat?
PB: It depends where you are. There is no easy answer because the threat is diffuse and it is in different regions. So al Qaeda in Iraq is largely, as an insurgent organization, dead. As a terrorist organization, it remains around. So in Iraq, whether it is Barack Obama or John McCain, we need to do everything possible to make sure that al Qaeda in Iraq remains only a marginal problem rather than the really large problem that they were two or three years ago. In terms of Afghanistan-Pakistan, that is not an analog to Iraq. You cannot do a Sons of Iraq program in Waziristan, it is a whole different thing.
TR: In other words the Americans cannot sign up members of the Pashtun tribal groups and put them on the payroll because we are not in there?
PB: Yes. You might be able to do it on the Afghan side of the border but, again, it is also still different. Dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan is a very complex problem. Both the candidates have indicated they want to put in more American soldiers in Afghanistan. There is a new Biden-Luger proposal to give $7.5 billion in non-military aid to Pakistan. That is a good idea. But there are a lot of things that need to be done on that front, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Because we are losing, the insurgency is growing pretty rapidly in Afghanistan and just putting more American boots on the ground is not going to do much. We need a complete re-think of our strategy there, in my view. First of all we have an incredibly dumb drug policy there, which is based on eradication. It is a largely agricultural country, one of the poorest countries in the world, and poppies are one way to make money. So an eradication strategy creates more enemies immediately because you are taking away peoples’ livelihoods. And there are many other things that we need to be doing there. But in terms of al Qaeda central, it is a problem because if we want to go after them in the tribal areas, the Pakistanis are very opposed to U.S. military action and we have already seen the results of small-scale U.S. military actions in Pakistan. It produces a lot of push-back from the Pakistani government and the Pakistani population. So how you take them on, whatever you do you do need the Pakistanis on board. They have so far proven not willing or capable to really deal with the problem.
TR: Do you think there is any chance in the tribal areas in Pakistan, the Pashtun tribal areas, tribal leaders will turn against al Qaeda in the way that they did in the tribal areas in Iraq?
PB: I do not think it is exactly analogous, because al Qaeda in Iraq was a foreign-led organization that had recently arrived there with a foreign ideology. Al Qaeda in the tribal areas, yes, they are foreigners but they have been living there for twenty years and they also have intermarried with the locals and they have been pretty careful about not alienating their hosts. They have also been successful in getting the Pakistani Taliban to adopt their worldview. And the Pakistani Taliban is local. I know there has been some discussion in the U.S. military about how we can import the Anbar model into either side of the border, and on the Pakistani border it is a non-starter. On the Afghan side of the border it may have a little bit more promise, but these countries are different.
TR: It sounds rather dismal. It is hard to get at al Qaeda central. Some hope more economic aid and a smarter policy on the Afghan side of the border might help. On the Pakistani side of the border it depends a lot on a weak government and an uncertain military position. In the meantime, are there many things we should be doing to deal with the homeland security threat and the threat from Europe?
PB: I am actually very sanguine about the threat to the United States homeland. We have done a million things, the government has made us safer, Americans are much more vigilant, al Qaeda is still weaker than it was on 9/11. So, the threat to the United States is, I think, very low. In Europe you can have a July 7, 2005, attack somewhere in a major European city every year for the foreseeable future, because certainly in Britain you have substantial numbers of people who have been signed up for this, and also we have seen cases in Spain and Germany and other countries that are all very serious. So in Europe there is more of a problem. And then in terms of the Afghan-Pakistan thing, one thing that would change the equation very quickly is if there was an attack, say, in the United Kingdom traceable back to the western part of Pakistan that killed fifty people. There would be a lot of pressure, I think, from the British government and the British population and also the British would say, “We are sitting there in Afghanistan helping you and we were in Iraq, their American allies, and we want support to go in and basically deal with this problem.” To really deal with it would involve not a major ground invasion of western Pakistan, but it would involve a series of major airstrikes and hellfire missile strikes and also maybe two hundred, three hundred, four hundred U.S. and British Special Forces going in and taking out known training camps. In the next five years that is a plausible scenario. Clearly, the people in Pakistan are very concerned that an American military operation of a very large scale has been planned, because there is movement on the border and there have been a lot of high level visits to Pakistan. And the Bush administration may calculate Iran as a military operation that is basically a non-starter now, but there is this threat that does remain there and maybe this is something that can be handled on their watch.
TR: In listening to you I see al Qaeda central as a threat to the region in which it sits. It is a threat to Afghanistan, it is a threat to Pakistan, it does want to take territory. It is training militants who can go back and try to destabilize countries in the Middle East. It has links to jihadi networks in Europe, to jihadis who would like to do even bigger operations than they are doing. But I am still trying to define what is the magnitude of this threat. You think they probably would not get nukes, they would like to, but the likelihood is small. So is al Qaeda the existential threat of our time? How do you define it? Is it a war that we are fighting? Is it a police matter? What is it?
PB: It is obviously not just a police matter, because killing three thousand people in one morning, trying to decapitate our government by attacking Congress, attacking the Pentagon, these are acts of war, and also they see themselves at war with the United States and that is not going to change. It would be very naïve to say that we are just in a global police action.
TR: As some Europeans try to do.
PB: As some Europeans suggest. When you have that kind of level of attack, this is not the Oklahoma City federal building blowing up and killing 168 people, which was obviously a big deal, but that does not arise to the level of a national security threat. Clearly these guys are a national security threat, the question is what kind? Some have claimed that we are in World War IV; this is completely nonsensical. If we were in World War IV it would be… during World War II we spent forty percent of GDP on defense, we had eighteen million men and women in uniform. We know what an existential threat looks like. If the Cold War had ended with a bang instead of a whimper, we would not be having this conversation because we would all be dead. So that is an existential threat. This is not existential. This is a big deal, it is a national security problem, but I think twenty years, thirty years, forty years we may look back on this and say, “Well, that was a national security problem but the one we have now is much bigger,” with radical vegetarians armed with nuclear weapons or whatever it is, we do not know what it will be. It will certainly be something else. And the one thing al Qaeda demonstrated is a democratization of the ability to do damage to others. What used to be a monopoly of violence by states, al Qaeda has demonstrated that non-state actors can have a significant effect. So their attack on 9/11 was the first time the continental United States had been attacked since the British burned down the White House in 1814. It showed an ability that was pretty unusual. But it does not show an ability to end the American way of life or anything near it.
TR: To sum up, do you think that al Qaeda is a phenomenon of a certain time in history, a certain phase, and that it will pass from the scene in a couple of decades when, as you say, there might be a totally different threat?
PB: It is certainly a phenomenon of history. It is a response to globalization and it also, of course, has used the artifacts of globalization to effect its goals. Will it fade from the scene? Yes, maybe. But I think the more important point is that it has shown that non-state actors can actually attack the world’s most powerful nation. I think it would be unreasonable to presume that there will not be others with agendas that we do not know about, with leaders that we do not know. Al Qaeda was founded twenty years ago, it is coming up for its twentieth anniversary, and it was founded by thirteen people or maybe fourteen people who sat around in Peshawar, Pakistan and said, “We are going to set up this group,” and thirteen years later it inflicted more damage on the United States than the Soviet Union had done during the Cold War. That, I think, is the real lesson of al Qaeda.
TR: That a phenomenon of our times had an ability as a non-state actor to surprise us all?
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.
Press play to hear recording.