Robert Siegel: A disquieting answer to the question, Are we winning the war against terrorism? Daniel Benjamin used to work on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration. He and Steven Simon have written their second book about counter-terrorism post-9/11. It's called "The Next Attack" and Daniel Benjamin's answer to the question, Are we winning against the terrorists is an emphatic "no"!
Daniel Benjamin: We know we're not winning the war by looking at a variety of factors that suggest, in fact, that there is a gathering storm out there of jihadist antipathy and, in fact, violence. For example, we see a growing number of groups that have essentially picked up the Al Qaeda ideology without being connected directly, either organizationally or even by communications often with Al Qaeda. We see these in Europe. The Madrid cell is a classic case -- that's the one that blew up the trains in 2004. The London cell which carried out the bombings in the subways. We've seen it even in Pakistan where there is an established jihadist infrastructure. There are other indicators as well. We see that there is a large group of people who are increasingly attracted to the jihadist internet. We also see the spread of Islamist violence in an area where there wasn't much and that is, incidentally, the Middle East! We have seen a jihadist revival in Syria, a country that didn't have it for 20 years or so, didn't have Islamist activity because it had been crushed in the early '80's apparently. We've seen the spread of bomb technology from Iraq to Saudi Arabia. And perhaps most importantly we see a jihad underway in Iraq and the establishment of a jihadist sanctuary in western Iraq.
RS: What you're describing is not merely the growth of the Al Qaeda-directed organization chaired by Osama bin Laden, deputy Ayman al-Zwahiri, you're talking about groups which are simply cropping up without connection.
DB: Yes. They're inspired by the ideas that bin Laden and al-Zwahiri espoused and they view them as being global leaders but they have no direct connection to them. So they're acting on their own. They're acting because now you can self-enlist as a terrorist using all the information available to you over the internet.
RS: But of all the places that you list where you see a jihadist or jihadism on the rise, you didn't mention New York, you didn't mention the Pentagon, or Los Angeles or Chicago. So, in that sense, there hasn't been been a repeat of the sort of attack we witnessed on 9/11.
DB: No. That's definitely a success story. But we shouldn't make the same mistake we made in the late '90's of ignoring what's going on overseas. We have been fortunate not to be hit again. We think there are a number of reasons. One is that we are a more vigilant country because of what happened on 9/11. I think it is also harder to get in here. American Muslims have, to a certain extent, rejected the jihad idea. But it's also true that the global jihad is getting what it needs in Iraq.
RS: As far as you're concerned, you and your co-author, Steven Simon, you believe that the war in Iraq was a distraction in the war against terrorism.
DB: At a minimum it was a distraction! In many ways it was a big step backwards because it gave the jihadists an enormous presence. It confirmed their narrative to much of the Muslim world. That is, bin Laden and his followers say, The US is our eternal enemy that wants to occupy our countries, destroy our faith, and steal our wealth. And because we went into Iraq, we allowed them to point at Iraq and say, You see? We were right! That has made real inroads in the Muslim world.
RS: You write about the enclave in the north of Iraq where, prior to the US invasion, a terrorist group had set up. And the debate went on, what does it do about Anser al-Islam operating from this little nook of what we think of as the Kurdish north of Iraq.
DB: Yes. There was a camp in a place called Kermal and the camp belonged to a Kurdish jihadist group but the person who had affiliated with them was none other than Abu Musab al-Zarkawi who has gone on to be the face of the insurgency in Iraq. We had very good intelligence about what was going on there. We know that they were, for example, making ricin, the biological agent which has been used in a number of conspiracies.
RS: And this was happening on Iraqi soil, but with a big proviso.
DB: Well, it was Iraqi soil in a technical sense, but it was the autonomous Kurdish enclave under our protection from the air. As a result the Pentagon, the uniformed military, was eager to strike at this enclave and thought that was the war on terror was about. And twice the proposal was put forward to strike it, and twice the Administration declined.
RS: When was this happening? What years are we talking about?
DB: Well, it happened I believe in 2002 and again, I believe, in 2003. The first time, 2002, was the critical moment because it hadn't leaked to the press yet that we were watching this. But the curious thing was not that first the Administration declined to take out this camp and second of all that we were just watching Zarkawi completely misunderstanding what he was doing there. It was clear that he was preparing the insurgency but because the Administration was so focused on what it considered the greater threat of Saddam, we just gave them a pass.
RS: A tremendous amount has happened since 9/11. Two foreign wars, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, reorganization of intelligence. Your account of all this is not terribly encouraging about how much less vulnerable we might be after all this has happened. Some glimmer of improvement here? something you can say about something that's been gotten right since 2001?
DB: Well, our biggest advantage is, of course, that we're now a nation aware of the threat. One of the concerns that we voice is that the lights are kind of going out on this. Polling indicates that people are less concerned about terror than before. But there certainly has been institutionalized a big concern. I think we've lost an enormous amount of time organizing and reorganizing ad infinitum and the recent press accounts of the turmoil at the Department of Homeland Security I think are very much to the point. I think that there is at least now the basis for building on that concern and a recognition of the threat. But we are so far down the wrong road in terms of dealing with this threat that it will take some mighty efforts to get ourselves going on the right road.