Are we Winning the War on Terror? An Interview with Michael Scheuer
Publication: Spotlight on Terror Volume: 2 Issue: 13
Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for 22 years before resigning earlier this year. He is the once anonymous author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror and Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America. He served as the Chief of the bin Laden Unit at the Counterterrorist Center from 1996 to 1999. He resigned from the CIA in 2004. This interview was conducted on December 10, 2004 by Terrorism Monitor Editor Mahan Abedin.
Mahan Abedin: You have often said that bin Laden is a worthy enemy, but do you think he has an Achilles heel?
Michael Scheuer: Bin Laden’s Achilles heel is our foreign policy. It is up to us to unsettle the basis of his support in the Islamic world. Moreover, he is being chased by the world’s greatest power and there is always the chance that we might just get lucky. But other than these factors, everything else seems to be going his way.
MA: Where do you think he is sheltering right now?
MS: Along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
MA: You are absolutely sure about that?
MS: As sure as I can be; where else would he go? I can’t imagine a safer place on earth for him than that border area.
MA: How about Pakistani urban centers, like Karachi, Quetta, Islamabad, Lahore…?
MS: There is always that chance, but he is unlikely to be doing that since he does not feel comfortable in cities. Bin Laden has not been a city dweller since he left Saudi Arabia.
MA: How important is bin Laden to al-Qaeda and its offshoots from an operational perspective? More generally how relevant is he to the war on terror?
MS: I think he is central to it. For better or worse there are no real leaders in the Islamic world; certainly there are very few heroes. Very few would qualify Mubarak, King Fahd or King Abdullah as leaders. Bin Laden is a man blessed with talents and charisma and currently his leadership status in the Islamic world is unchallenged. He is clearly very important but he is no longer indispensable. I think we are seeing bin Laden becoming bin Ladenism and this process was accelerated by the invasion of Iraq.
MA: What do you mean by bin Ladenism?
MS: Primarily the ability to focus much of the anger in the Islamic world on the United States in terms of our policies and not in terms of our society and freedoms. This intensive concentration of frustrations and hatred has been so successful that even if bin Laden was killed today, the movement will continue to thrive.
MA: Focusing on the operational mechanisms of al-Qaeda, how central is bin Laden to that whole structure?
MS: In terms of the day-to-day operational aspects of planning attacks on the continental United States, he is absolutely essential. All evidence points to him being almost a micro-manager of all operational matters pertaining to the United States. For instance, regarding the 9/11 attacks, he surrendered control over the precise timing of the attacks to Mohammad Atef, but other than that bin Laden was in complete control.
MA: How about other areas?
MS: I think his main interest is the continental United States. Al-Qaeda’s cells have traditionally operated very autonomously and would usually only become directly subordinate to bin Laden when an operation was planned against the United States. Bin Laden has never aspired to be anything more than the command and control man for al-Qaeda.
MA: Given the limitations of his circumstances right now, do you think he exercises significant influence on operational matters?
MS: I think these “limitations” are largely the product of western imaginations. I mean he is living in a place where the terrain is almost impossible to penetrate and where the populations on both sides of the border are very sympathetic for both cultural and religious reasons. Moreover the U.S. army has been very inactive in Afghanistan.
MA: They have been largely static, right?
MS: Pretty much, yes. For instance in 2004, the offensive activities in Afghanistan have been overwhelmingly undertaken by the Special Forces and the Clandestine Service. The military said they were going to conduct a big spring offensive, but nothing came of that as far as I am aware. In fact, the Pakistani military has been far more active than the U.S. military.
MA: Do you think the Pakistani military are genuinely and seriously engaging al-Qaeda and its sympathizers?
MS: I think Musharraf is walking a fine line between doing nothing and keeping us happy. They genuinely went into the border areas to hunt down al-Qaeda and Taliban elements. Nonetheless, the last thing they want to do is turn Osama bin Laden over to the United States, because that would earn the enmity of much of the Muslim world and would probably cause a lot of disorder inside Pakistan. However, overall I can’t see how anyone can say they are not genuine in their efforts. The Pakistanis have lost over 200 military personnel to this campaign just since August 2004. These casualties far surpass those of the U.S. military over the past 3 years.
MA: Given that bin Laden’s freedom of movement and action is far greater than many in the west realize, how realistic is it to expect his demise in the near future?
MS: I think it is going to be serendipitous. Given all the favorable factors to his advantage, if we do get him, it is basically going to be a case of “when he zigs we zag” and we end up cornering him. But I really don’t think we can count on that.
MA: You are saying that his entrapment depends on the convergence of several serendipitous events, right?
MS: Basically we are going to need some extraordinarily good luck, like somebody coming forward with information, as in the case of Ramzi Yousef. There is always that possibility, but because there is no real pressure on bin Laden right now, he is probably not moving that much. And if he is not moving then his risks are greatly reduced.
MA: I have been told by sources that are politically and ideologically sympathetic to al-Qaeda that Ayman al-Zawahiri has been with bin Laden throughout the past 3 years. Is this correct?
MS: I don’t think we know that one way or another. There was some speculation back in 2002 that he was moving around frequently and had even traveled to Iran. But my understanding of Zawahiri is that he is a sedentary guy. I suspect that Zawahiri and bin Laden are together, but that is merely speculation and I just don’t know.
MA: Does anybody in the U.S. intelligence community know?
MS: Well, I left three weeks ago and up to that point nobody knew.
MA: And nobody has any precise information on bin Laden’s current whereabouts, aside form that general geographic area that you outlined earlier?
MS: We have him trapped in South Asia! (laughs) We are fairly confident of that!
MA: How would you characterize the relationship between bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?
MS: Zarqawi is in some ways like Abu Zubaydah inasmuch as his focus differs slightly from that of al-Qaeda. Abu Zubaydah wanted al-Qaeda to focus on Israel. While Zarqawi agrees with bin Laden’s plans to attack Americans in their homeland, he wants to attend to business in Iraq first. It suits Zarqawi to associate himself to al-Qaeda. My assumption on Zarqawi’s recent pledge of loyalty is that it signifies al-Qaeda’s and bin Laden’s strength. Zarqawi stopped killing Iraqi Shi’as gratuitously after his attack in Karbala. It was only after that cessation that al-Qaeda and Zarqawi joined forces. Bin Laden has long opposed the idea of targeting Shi’as in that manner and believes that America should be defeated before sectarian scores in Islam are settled.
MA: Do you think people in al-Qaeda take Zarqawi seriously?
MS: Yes, and I think the range of resources that are available to al-Qaeda will be made available to Zarqawi in order to enhance his organization’s capabilities in Iraq. Al-Qaeda has a record of providing such assistance; for instance support across a range of operational, ideological and administrative expertise was made available to Sunni Islamist Kurdish groups in Iraq before the war.
MA: Moving on to al-Qaeda generally, how would you describe the nature and capabilities of the organization as we speak?
MS: I think al-Qaeda is probably in good shape. One of the problems facing the U.S. intelligence community is that it continues to regard al-Qaeda as a terrorist group rather than an insurgent organization and we have never really constructed an order of battle for the organization. We only know of the leadership. And when U.S. politicians say that we have destroyed two thirds or three quarters of the leadership, what they are really alluding to is al-Qaeda’s casualties based on the information available in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. There are a lot of people who we just don’t know about and moreover al-Qaeda has demonstrated a remarkable capability to replenish its losses.
MA: What you are describing mirrors the kind of analysis that I have heard from people who are sympathetic to al-Qaeda. For instance, they tell me that the war in Afghanistan was not altogether very important in the wider scheme of events. Basically you agree with them, right?
MS: Yes, absolutely, I think they are right. When they attacked us on 9/11 we probably had 24-48 hours to hit them as hard as possible before they completely dispersed.
MA: But surely the fact that they lost Afghanistan as a safe command and control and training center must have been a very grievous blow.
MS: That is probably an assumption rather than a fact. I don’t think Afghanistan and Pakistan are denied areas to al-Qaeda. There are very few U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the warlords control many of the areas. The tribal areas in Pakistan, save for South Waziristan, are not controlled by the Pakistani government. You can make the assumption that Afghanistan and Pakistan are denied areas but really the only thing you can be sure of is that they are not where U.S. forces or Pakistani forces are. I mean al-Qaeda and the Taliban can operate with relative ease in the tribal areas of both countries. And because a lot of national reconnaissance systems have been focused on Iraq, we don’t have that many resources to track these people from space.
MA: But given the fact that a range of security tools has been intensively and consistently directed at them over the past 3 years, surely their own perceptions of their operational environment has been adversely affected.
MS: Certainly in Pakistani cities and Kabul that is the case. But I don’t think their movements are constrained in the countryside. I had a discussion last weekend with Hamid Mir from Pakistan’s Jang publications; Mir had gone to Afghanistan to cover the recent elections. He told me he traveled through at least 15 districts in southern Kandahar that were openly controlled by the Taliban. I think the reality on the ground in Afghanistan is very different than what we perceive it to be.
MA: That may well be the case but the central question to ask here is whether there is still a symbiotic relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
MS: Sure! We in the West did not take bin Laden’s pledge of allegiance to Mullah Omar very seriously but in actual fact that pledge of loyalty is very important to bin Laden. I think bin Laden intends to restore the dominance of Mullah Omar and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
MA: You really think bin Laden’s pledge of loyalty to Mullah Omar and his gratuitous praises of him in the past had real substance?
MS: I am not an expert on Islamic theology but I talked to some Muslim clerics and scholars and they told us that before the Caliphate can return it needs to establish and consolidate itself in a country under a widely recognized leadership. Therefore Mullah Omar and Afghanistan covered the waterfront for these people. I told them that Mullah Omar is not the most educated man in terms of scholarly achievement, but they said that is not necessarily a decisive factor.
MA: In short, you believe that the relationship that developed between the Taliban and al-Qaeda from 1996 to 2001 still continues and moreover has many of the same distinguishing features, right?
MS: Yes, I think it does and in some ways the fact that they have survived this war against the U.S. has probably brought them closer.
MA: There was some speculation back in 2001 that the Taliban’s support for al-Qaeda was not unanimous and that there were influential elements within the leadership who wanted to sever relations; do those divisive internal dynamics within the Taliban still exist?
MS: As I recall the leadership of the dissenters you allude to was centered on Mullah Rabbani and he is dead and I am not sure there is anyone with the same stature to replace him. In any case, if that internal contradiction within the Taliban still exists it is surely tempered by the presence of the occupiers in their country.
MA: How would you characterize the operational and organizational division of al-Qaeda today? I have been told by an Islamist source that al-Qaeda today is effectively 3 networks, comprising of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world; what do you make of this assessment?
MS: I think it is probably a little too neat and projects more than we actually know. Clearly there is a semi-independent al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Bin Laden still controls the center of al-Qaeda and according to various reports the organization still has a presence in over 60 countries.
MA: Why do you say that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is autonomous?
MS: It appears to be autonomous insofar as it has an autonomous organizational structure, drafts its own operational plans and has a plan for leadership succession. It appears able to survive without any day-to-day contact with the center of al-Qaeda.
MA: How about al-Qaeda in Iraq?
MS: I am not sure how formal their organization is in Iraq. I know they have had a presence in the northern Kurdish areas of Iraq since 1999. But clearly al-Qaeda has sent insurgents/terrorists into Iraq since the invasion and I suspect the autonomous al-Qaeda organization in the Peninsula is largely responsible for that transit. I suspect the transit works in both directions and Iraq being such a large country helps them in that respect. I mean they have probably established training facilities in Iraq and are using them to train members from the Peninsula. The Saudi members might even participate in some fighting in Iraq, then rest a little and finally return back to the Peninsula.
MA: You have vigorously dismissed suggestions of a relationship between al-Qaeda and the former Iraqi regime, but how about a relationship between the organization and Iran? In all your years in the bin Laden unit did you ever come across any reliable information that pointed towards a relationship?
MS: Trying to ascertain whether there are operational links between Iran and al-Qaeda is something we pursued with great vigor since Iran is such an obsession of American policy-makers. What is indisputable is that until last year the Iranians turned a blind eye to al-Qaeda transit. We also know that some Jamaat Islamiyah and Egyptian Islamic Jihad cadres lived in Tehran. There are also some unconfirmed reports that Seif al-Adel and one of bin Laden’s sons are under house arrest in the country. That said we never found any evidence of a formal connection whatsoever. Bin Laden does not have a favorable view of Shi’as and does not really have much use for them. Moreover, bin Laden has been very careful to avoid dependence on any state. But more consequentially, perhaps, the Iranians are not stupid. They know that any connection to al-Qaeda—however limited in scope—could have very adverse consequences. In any case, whatever al-Qaeda does in the Middle East and beyond benefits the Iranians and Hezbollah without them having to do anything.
MA: Why is that?
MS: Because al-Qaeda attacks make it difficult for the U.S. to maintain its presence in that region in the long-term.
MA: People also talk of very profound ideological friction between Iran and al-Qaeda.
MS: Yes, absolutely. And this is going to get worse over time as a civil war begins to take shape in Iraq. But bear in mind that bin Laden has very rarely criticized the Iranians in public over the past decade. His policy is to let sleeping dogs lie; in other words let us eject the U.S. from that region first before we take on the Iranians and the Shi’as.
MA: But what al-Qaeda has done is to shift the focus of attention—insofar as terrorism is concerned—away from Iran and Hezbollah and onto the violent Sunni Islamists. Do you see it that way?
MS: I think in terms of real importance and substance that is the case. But in my experience there are a lot of people who are itching to get at the Iranians. Much of this debate is influenced by the Israelis and hence there is a lot of political motivation to link the Iranians to al-Qaeda.
MA: But looking at these issues from a purely security perspective, I mean in your former career as a senior intelligence officer did you form the impression that the pre-eminent threat now hails exclusively from certain Sunni Islamist quarters?
MS: I think that has always been the case. Hezbollah was never more than anything than a lethal nuisance to the U.S. and even Israel. Israel held onto large chunks of southern Lebanon in order to defeat Hezbollah’s paramilitary forces, not because they faced threats from Hezbollah overseas. I have always been of the opinion that it is both a qualitative and quantitative difference. Hezbollah has never been anything more than a nuisance whereas the Sunni organizations, in particular al-Qaeda, pose a potent national security threat to the United States.
MA: How do you see al-Qaeda’s strategy in relation to the Saudi regime? The general assumption is that they want to topple it but I have spoken to some well-informed Saudis who say that the aim—at least for now—is to merely discredit the regime.
MS: I think al-Qaeda walks a very fine line in the Kingdom. Bin Laden and his lieutenants see that regime as a very fragile entity and they don’t want to push hard enough to effect their fall, because that would force the Americans to occupy the Kingdom. Therefore the attacks are designed to discredit the regime and not to engineer its immediate demise.
MA: Basically you share the view that al-Qaeda does not want to topple the al-Sauds at this time because that would just prompt a U.S. invasion.
MS: I think they believe that should the regime fall before the U.S. is driven out of the region the Americans would move very quickly to occupy the oil fields.
MA: This is exactly what the Saudi oppositionist Dr. Saad al-Faqih says!
MS: Well he is a very smart man and I am glad to be associated with his analysis!
MA: What about al-Qaeda’s strategy in the Peninsula in the long-term?
MS: I think bin Laden has a real problem in containing the motivation, enthusiasm and activities of his followers in the Peninsula. They want to be more active and aggressive than he wants them to be. Therefore he has to strike a balance between keeping them happy and ensuring the regime does not fall.
MA: Do you believe there is support for al-Qaeda within the regime?
MS: I think there is. So many Saudis traveled to Afghanistan and also bear in mind that bin Laden is not an aberrant character in the Peninsula, he is in fact the poster boy of their educational system.
MA: I am talking of support in the highest echelons of the regime.
MS: I doubt that people like Prince Nayef or Prince Sultan are associated with bin Laden. More likely they are anxious to offer financial inducements to al-Qaeda in order to avoid further attacks. But that regime is so large and so rich that it would be naïve to assume that al-Qaeda has not penetrated most of its layers. Moreover aside from the al-Sauds there are the prominent merchant families whose ranks are filled with bin Laden supporters.
MA: How important is Yemen to al-Qaeda?
MS: It is quite important. There was that attack on a senior al-Qaeda member two years ago.
MA: You are referring to the assassination of al-Harithi in November 2002?
MS: Yes, Hairithi and an American citizen that was with him. But other than that there has not been much movement in Yemen. In fact, recently the Salih government has been grappling with a Shi’a rebellion. However, overall I think al-Qaeda is pretty strong in Yemen and bin Laden has a lot of affection for the country.
MA: Based on the intelligence material that you had access to over the years what is the ratio of Saudis to Yemenis in the hard core of al-Qaeda?
MS: There are more Saudis than Yemenis. I would say it is 5:2, but that is a rough estimate.
MA: Based on that rough estimate, the Yemeni constituency in al-Qaeda is clearly very important.
MS: They are important and I think it is instructive that a lot of Saudis and Yemenis have been identified amongst the dead insurgents in Iraq.
MA: If you were to break down al-Qaeda’s human resources according to the nationalities of its hard core, would the pecking order of Saudis, Yemenis, Egyptians and Algerians roughly reflect the reality?
MS: I would say that is correct. But bear in mind that we have not done too many order of battle assessments so I don’t know the exact figures. But as a general impression I would agree with your break down.
MA: Let us discuss wider issues. You have said that a catastrophic attack on the U.S.—most likely involving WMD—is probable. What makes you so sure?
MS: I was not too sure until I heard U.S. politicians during the Presidential campaign discussing whether Soviet era nuclear assets will be under effective control in 2007 or 2010. People in the intelligence community have known since the end of 1996 that bin Laden has a very professional procurement network involving scientists and engineers. They have the money and they have shown the ability to work with unlikely people, like the Mafia. If a weapon is out there they will do their utmost to secure it. Bin Laden is not looking for a deterrent; he is looking for a first strike weapon.
MA: But even states have difficulties accessing the kind of weapons you refer to, let alone insurgent organizations.
MS: I think that is generally right, but from what I have heard you can get almost anything you want from the stockpiles of the former Soviet Union. It is not too difficult to get a weapon, the challenge lies in detonating it.
MA: But people have been making these ominous predictions since the day the Soviet Union unraveled, and none of these predictions have been proven right. Given the experience of the past 13 years, what makes you so sure that it is relatively easy to access weapons from the old stockpiles of the former Soviet Union?
MS: I think it is credible to assume that it is possible to access these weapons as long as they are not fully secured.
MA: Would al-Qaeda use these weapons immediately upon acquiring them?
MS: I think there is no doubt about that. They would prefer to use a nuclear weapon, since chemical and biological weapons would be difficult to control. Moreover using such a weapon enhances their chances of winning this war. People in the West assume that these people are only interested in fighting; they are wrong inasmuch as bin Laden and his people are fighting in order to achieve their geopolitical objectives, which primarily center on the ejection of the U.S. from their region.
MA: But would they not be concerned about the reaction of the U.S. to a nuclear attack?
MS: I don’t think they care about that.
MA: Your analysis is that they are fighting to eject the U.S. from the Middle East. My query is whether a nuclear strike on the U.S. would bring them closer to achieving that goal, given that the U.S. response is likely to be disproportionate.
MS: I don’t know, what do you think? I think al-Qaeda is confident that the U.S. will be unable to find a target that would ensure their demise. And as for launching a nuclear attack on Mecca or some other target, they are still confident that the Americans are not ruthless enough to do something like that.
MA: But there has to be some kind of massive response by the U.S. to such an attack.
MS: There has to be but I was in the government for a long time and I saw how cowardly people can be when it comes to responding.
MA: What should be the response to an attack of that magnitude?
MS: I don’t know.
MA: There are very few targets, aren’t they?
MS: There are very few indeed. The real problem is that by virtue of being the most powerful military in the world, the U.S. has convinced its enemies that its response will always be measured and proportionate. Bin Laden and his people study these things closely and factor them into their planning and decision-making. I think the beginning of the end for American military prestige was when the U.S. refused to destroy the Iraqi intelligence service in its headquarters after they had tried to assassinate George Bush senior in Kuwait in 1993. A lot of people, including Saddam Hussein, drew some important conclusions from that; namely that you can even try to kill a (former) U.S. President and still you will not be punished accordingly.
MA: You really think that event was that significant?
MS: It affected people’s perceptions of our willingness to use our overwhelming power in a very ruthless and bloody way. I think many of our enemies in the Islamic world are impressed by the brutal use of overwhelming power. And to many people in that region the U.S. has not really used its power in a manner that would impress them.
MA: How does this square with your contention that the roots of Islamist terrorism are U.S. policies in the Muslim world?
MS: The policies form the basis upon which the Jihadists recruit and indoctrinate. Bin Laden does not focus on Western society or culture but on our specific policies in that region.
MA: But some of the policies that you have highlighted–in particular U.S. support for Israel and the constant effort to keep oil prices down–constitute the gospel of American foreign policy; surely you don’t envision their modification in the foreseeable future?
MS: You are right, they are immutable. I am not even arguing that they should be changed; all I am arguing is that we should at least talk about them.
MA: But what would that achieve?
MS: I suspect that these policies are in place because the elites don’t want to talk about them. For instance if there was a discussion on our support for Israel, some people would question the one-sidedness of the relationship. They would argue that we should restructure that relationship, without necessarily abandoning the Israelis. But right now the view is that we take orders from the Israelis. I think these issues are critical in the long-term and I just don’t know what else to suggest.
MA: Let us assume that some of the policies you mention were modified tomorrow; do you think that would make the U.S. more popular in that region? And if so would that newly found popularity be really material in the fight against the Jihadists?
MS: This is perhaps my wishful thinking, but I think if we made some tangible changes to our relationship with Israel, started a serious discussion on securing alternative energy resources and refused to gratuitously support Putin’s actions in Chechnya, that would give America an opening. Maybe then people would actually start listening to what we are saying. The problem is we don’t even have an audience in that part of the world right now.
MA: If I understand correctly, you believe that starting a debate over aspects of U.S. foreign policy constitutes the first step in addressing the Islamist threat in the very long term?
MS: I think America needs to figure out what is in its best interests in the very long term.
MA: You have often criticized U.S. policies in Afghanistan, what precisely should have been the U.S. response to 9/11?
MS: I think we should have been more ready and should have had the military resources in place to strike them immediately after they attacked America. We should have really begun bombing 24-48 hours after 9/11. Of course we did not do that and they had more than 3 weeks to disperse their people. Those 3 weeks were of critical importance.
MA: What about your critique of the U.S. led political process in Afghanistan; what would you have done differently?
MS: First and foremost we should not have allowed the Northern Alliance to dominate Karzai’s government.
MA: Do you believe that the current political process in Afghanistan headed by Karzai is going to crumble eventually?
MS: I think yes and I also believe that a civil war will erupt in Afghanistan in due course.
MA: But the evidence on the ground does not support your argument. If you were talking about Iraq you would be on solid ground since by all accounts that country is currently wracked by very serious levels of violence, but in Afghanistan the situation is relatively quiet.
MS: I think the western perception of the situation in Afghanistan does not really reflect the reality on the ground. Karzai’s regime, aside from not having much control beyond Kabul, has a serious legitimacy problem. Moreover, the factors on the ground in Afghanistan have not changed much since 3 years ago. The country is still largely controlled by warlords and Islamic militants. In due course the Karzai regime will crumble.
MA: Do you believe that the U.S. will be defeated in Afghanistan?
MS: The way things are going, I think that is an inevitable prospect.
MA: Going back to the question of policies, do you think waging a much more concerted and enthusiastic ideological/propaganda war against the Jihadists could yield dividends in the long-term? I mean would it not be a good idea to establish much more proactive and forceful relationships with certain institutions and people in the Muslim world in the hope that over a generation this will undermine Islamic radicalism?
MS: I think all these efforts would be meaningless without tangible policy changes by the United States.
MA: Do you think America is at war with Islam?
MS: No, but I think we are at war with a substantial number of Muslims. An increasing number of Muslims seem to hate America. I am not sure whether we can affect this battle by waging an “ideological” war on the Jihadists. I think there are very serious structural problems in the Muslim world that simply have to run their course. I am speaking here as an historian. In order to gain a strategic advantage over the enemy we need to craft policies that are really in the U.S. national interest.
MA: Where do you think we would be in 10-15 years time if the policies you allude to were left unchanged?
MS: I think we can expect greater destabilization in the Muslim world. We can also expect Jihadist activities to accelerate markedly. In fact the war in Iraq has gone a long way in doing exactly that.
MA: You are clearly against the war in Iraq, but don’t you think it has had some benefits, not least because the U.S. has now very forcefully inserted itself physically in the heart of that region and consequently has much greater leverage to control events on the ground?
MS: What leverage? As far as I can see it has only created more targets for the Islamists.
MA: Having read much of your material I note that you often display a very interesting historical perspective on events. Do you think 100 years from now people would look back at events and conclude that bin Laden and the Jihadists caused the irreversible decline of America as the world’s pre-eminent power?
MS: More than that, because I think they have already had a very adverse impact on our way of life. The liberties of Americans have been eroded as a result of all this and the American lifestyle has begun to change for the worse. In the very long term the security costs will become increasingly confining.
MA: That is a very bleak assessment. Does your pessimism derive from the fact that you were dealing with intelligence material concerning these people for so long?
MS: No, it derives from the fact that I am an historian by training.
MA: You have placed yourself in criticism of the content failure between primary resources and the actual product communicated to the policy-makers. Do you have any advice for Jamestown on where we can best serve the goal of informing policy-makers of important data and analysis that is not getting to them through the filtered political process?
MS: I think public foundations and other organizations have a great opportunity to utilize information available in the public square to “de-mystify” terrorism. Unfortunately, the intelligence community and their political masters have a disparaging view of unclassified information and this is really strange since the best way to understand bin Laden is to analyze what he says in public.
MA: What do you think of the material that the Jamestown Foundation and Terrorism Monitor have been providing on terrorism over the past year?
MS: I have not read everything the Jamestown Foundation has published on terrorism during the past year. What I have read struck me as well-written and thoughtful, although generally a shade too optimistic.
MA: Do you think this kind of material makes a real difference to the policy making process?
MS: I believe that we are in a period where the publication of a diversity of views and opinions on Islamist militancy in the media and especially from Think-Tank organizations is very valuable. We appear to be in a temporary phase where the current Administration looks at the world as it wants it to be and not as it is. Likewise, the Administration seems to be making it clear that it is not interested in analysis from its intelligence community if that analysis doesn’t mesh with or support the Administration’s views, policies, and perceptions. As a result, open-source publications have become by default the conveyor to the public of information and analysis on what is really happening in the world. America’s citizens certainly need this information. I also believe that many professional intelligence officers will welcome such publications because they themselves are unable to present the world as it is to senior government officials.