Interview with Jason Burke, January 19, 2004
Jason Burke is the author of Al Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror. He is also the chief reporter of The Observer, London.
TM: You have described al Qaeda as a group with several elements: The hard core, an allied network, and an unaffiliated mass of supporters. Given this, do you think current efforts on the part of the U.S. and others to combat al Qaeda are succeeding and will be effective over the long term?
Burke: At the moment, I’m looking at some news from Pakistan about the capture of a half dozen senior al Qaeda people picked up in Karachi, people who anybody aiming to counter the militant threat would want to see taken out. There’s no question that eliminating committed militants like these is a good thing and that the U.S. effort has rightly sought to pick up a significant number of these hard core operators. Such individuals are a necessary part of the network in building ties and recruitment and developing logistics, especially a financial network. Removing them is definitely important.
But what it won’t do is end the threat because the threat is very diffuse. What Osama bin Laden and others were able to do in Afghanistan was draw together strands of militancy that were greater than the sum of their parts. However, to imagine that eliminating a small number of key operatives is the way to win the war on terror is misguided. The threat is not al Qaeda; it is a contemporary strand of Islamic militancy composed of a wide range of local groups with local agendas and different sets of leadership. Capturing a few individuals won’t end terrorism. To believe that is simplistic in the extreme.
The tri-partite analysis of a hard core, a network of networks and an ideology holds well for al Qaeda for the period between 1996 and 2001. Because of the Afghan infrastructure, the hard core were able to make themselves the most high profile militant group at the time. They were able to co-opt groups which were extant long before al Qaeda became active in the 1990s. Now, post-2001, that view needs to be modified because al Qaeda’s hard core has been dispersed and has lost its focus on Afghanistan. The situation is more anarchic now. In some ways it resembles the period between 1991 and 1996, although with two crucial differences. One is that there are far greater efforts to counter Islamic militancy, and the second is that the Islamic world more generally is far more radicalized now than it was in the early nineties.
TM: What more could be done to wage this fight successfully in your view?
Burke: Well, I wouldn’t have gone into Iraq, for a start. The war in Afghanistan was a necessary war, and one useful byproduct of this war was that Afghanistan has been given the best chance at stability that it has had in thirty years. My concern is that the focus of the war on terrorism has been on hard components only. We have seen standard military means employed, very nearly to the exclusion of softer components–winning hearts and minds. That is not a sensible approach. To de-link Islamic militancy from other factors–societal, historical–will mean that we cannot fight it effectively. The military component is legitimate to a degree, but terrorists operate within an ideological and political space which must also be closed down.
Perceptions of America and the West–however wrong–legitimate and facilitate terrorist actions. There is a profound sense of injustice and humiliation in the Islamic world. Injustice has a particular religious significance in Islam, and that’s an absolutely huge part of the militants’ appeal. How you go about countering this is a very difficult question that must be addressed. It has been recognized to an extent, for example, in the leaked Defense Department memo by Donald Rumsfeld where he asked whether the militants were being destroyed faster than they were being created. I’d like to see as much of a commitment of resources to the battle against misperceptions as to the military aspect.
TM: If the U.S. did succeed in apprehending bin Laden, what would be the effect on the worldwide terrorist network? Would it make a difference whether he were killed versus captured alive?
Burke: His ideology would be undermined if he gave himself up without a fight because of his rhetoric of martyrdom and jihad. The worst case would be if he were to go down fighting and took many others with him–either U.S. soldiers or other civilians. In a sense, though, it doesn’t make much difference. In Europe we’ve seen Abu Musa al Zarqawi being more operationally effective than anything connected with bin Laden. Bin Laden is peripheral to the on-going campaign of jihad groups from Indonesia to Morocco. Historically, his personal involvement has been exaggerated. His role was tangential in many cases where it is often cited, like the 1993 World Trade Center attack, Mogadishu, Khobar. His current importance is also being exaggerated. Excepting the 1998 U.S. embassy attacks and September 11, you can see that very often it was other groups who sought him out for resources with their own ideas for an attack. The removal of bin Laden in no way removes their original impulse. He is only one possible source of funding and logistical expertise. We must be careful not to overpersonalize the threat.
TM: Do you believe the 9/11 attacks could have been averted if the U.S. had succeeded in toppling the Taliban before that date?
Burke: Yes. The 9/11 attacks are very interesting from an operational point of view. There were three main components in terms of the hijack teams. Al-Midhar and Al-Haznawi represented the “al Qaeda hard core.” Then there was the Hamburg cell, an autonomous group of people, possibly recruited by a local man, with their own ambitions for personal jihad, who go to Afghanistan to seek out resources and are co-opted by al Qaeda. Finally you have the predominantly Saudi group of men plucked out of camps around Kandahar, who were given a task different from that they were seeking when they left Saudi Arabia–they had wanted to go to Chechnya. These correspond to the three elements of al Qaeda we discussed earlier: The hard core, the network of networks and the ideology. Clearly, if the Taliban had been overthrown and al Qaeda kicked out of Afghanistan, the coming together of these elements could not have taken place. So at a minimum, it would have made it immeasurably harder–if not impossible–to carry out the 9/11 attacks, and if they had occurred, it is likely they would have been much less deadly.
TM: What do you believe has been the effect of the U.S. entry into Iraq in terms of the war on terror?
Burke: First, I do not think that there was any substantive link between Osama bin Laden’s network and Saddam Hussein’s regime. Second, as I have said, the war on terror is in many ways a battle of misperceptions. What makes the ground so fertile in the Middle East is that the U.S. is seen as humiliating the Islamic world. Iraq confirms that perception in the minds of many people, making the broader war on terrorism far harder. Though I think there were strong humanitarian reasons for deposing Saddam Hussein, I don’t think the payoff in increased security of removing him from the scene goes any way toward offsetting the damage done to the image of the West and the consequent radicalization of many.
A new theater of jihad has been created. So far, it’s still difficult to tell how many foreign jihadis are going to Iraq. There seem to be about several hundred, which you could view as the glass being half full or half empty. Given there are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, these several hundred do no represent a large proportion. Then again, it took six years for a far larger portion of extremists to establish an effective pipeline during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. But it is unlikely we will see a conflagration in Iraq on the scale promised by bin Laden over the next months or years. But this is a propaganda war. It will be won or lost on propaganda, not guns and bullets.
TM: What role–if any–do you believe Islam plays in terrorism by Muslim extremists?
Burke: As with all religions, there are resources within Islam that can be employed by extremists. What Islam has that sets it apart is a very strong political element, explicitly so. The Prophet Mohammed had a clear vision of creating a perfect, socially just society. He did that in a pro-active way, and his example has inspired others. Islam has always had political resources with a strong appeal. It is very effective at motivating political discourse, not necessarily with violence, though it allows that force may be necessary at some stages. This gives Islam a particular resonance when articulated in an environment where people see injustice and oppression. Also, Muslims believe that the Quran is the word of God as translated through the Prophet, and any contemporary society will compare poorly with the example set by the Quran.
TM: In my own interviews with al Qaeda-related extremists, I was often struck by their ignorance of what the Quran really contains–for instance, they would insist that men who trim their beards were infidels who should be killed. What role do you see for education in combating such extremism?
Burke: Al Qaeda and associated groups are at the fringe of the Islamic world. They have a hard time coming to terms with why the West is doing better militarily, politically, and even culturally. “Globalization” in Arabic has more of the idea of “neo-imperialism” than the way we in the West understand the term. Al Qaeda’s answer to this problem is just one of many. But this problem is really one that is within the world of Islam, and it is one that is not for us to solve. Not only can we not solve the fundamental issues, our intervention [in attempting to do so] could make things considerably worse. Where we could contribute is in a place like Pakistan, where the madrassahs provide the only education for tens of millions. While not all the madrassahs turn out jihadis, we should help Pakistan develop a proper education system. Also, most in the West are unaware of the damage done to moderate strands in Islam by the export of Wahhabism, which can be reversed. There are other voices within Islam, more moderate voices, and we need to work to strengthen those. We must assist in the development of authentic solutions which have legitimacy locally, not merely seek to impose our own ideas of how things should be run.
TM: Where do you see the problem of Islamic extremism headed?
Burke: The optimistic view is that of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, 99 percent want to go home at the end of a hard day’s work where they’ve earned a decent wage, have dinner with their family, and go to bed in security and health. Those broad values, which we share, too, represent the biggest bulwark against extremism. But the militants also have a sufficient number of members to become a genuine strand in Islam as well. Bin Laden’s aim is to attract as many people as possible to his strand, and now the Islamic world is a far more radicalized, ideological place with far more people listening to radical ideologues and believing that their message makes sense. In that sense, bin Laden has met with some significant degree of success.