An Interview with Daniel Benjamin, currently a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is the co-author, with Steven Simon, of “The Age of Sacred Terror.” Mr. Benjamin served on the National Security Council from 1994-1999. Terrorism Monitor’s Managing Editor Julie Sirrs spoke with Mr. Benjamin on October 7, 2003.
TM: In light of the events of September 11 2001, do you think the Clinton Administration should have pursued a different policy with the Taliban to get that movement to give up Osama bin Ladin?
Benjamin: Well, it’s certainly dangerous to read history backwards, but it now seems clear that the only way to get the Taliban to cough up bin Ladin and the other Arab Afghans would have been military action. Whether this would have taken the form of toppling the regime or just hitting certain targets as a way of sending a powerful message — and the problem there being that it was hard to find targets — is something that could be debated. What is clear is that the noose was tightening on the Taliban at the end of the Clinton Administration; the sanctions were hurting. [Putting pressure on the Taliban] halted with the Bush administration because of the policy review that started after the inauguration. Obviously some military means were needed, aiding the Northern Alliance or conducting sustained air attacks would have been other options. One cautionary note: it’s clear now that Mullah Omar saw himself as the blood brother of bin Ladin, so there were probably no very easy options.
TM: In your recent New York Times op-ed, you state that the Bush administration should focus more on al Qaeda, “the only terrorist group that poses an imminent, undeterrable danger.” Could you elaborate on that?
Benjamin: We’ve had enormous successes in intelligence and law enforcement efforts to capture terrorists, but we are also bedeviled by having the wrong metaphors in mind. We think of the war on terrorism in terms of an army that simply uses unconventional tactics. But that’s a mistake since an army can be rendered ineffective by incremental defeats — the Romans considered an army decimated if it lost ten percent — but with a terrorist group, reducing it by ten percent, or a lot more, may still leave undiscovered cells with the capability of attacking with devastating effect. We may have won a hiatus against another catastrophic attack, but there’s no guarantee another won’t happen in the future. The intelligence community seems to understand that better than the policy makers. We don’t have any long-term strategy for dealing with radical Islam.
TM: Do you believe another attack is imminent?
Benjamin: I think the best assessment for now is that we may have won a pause before the next effort at a catastrophic attack. But this is only a guess. Over the long-term, the chances for another 9/11 are significant.
TM: What would you recommend in terms of a strategy for combating radical Islam?
Benjamin: I think there needs to be an integrated strategy with significant involvement from the State Department as well as intelligence and Defense and a whole range of agencies such as Commerce and Treasury. All of these are already present in our embassies. We need a sustained campaign for delegitimizing radical Islam. This is especially vital given the demographics in the Muslim world — there is an enormous youth bulge in formation, and un- or underemployed young men are the ones who destabilize societies.
TM: What is your opinion about the resurgence of Taliban activity in Afghanistan? What should be done to counter this?
Benjamin: There needs to be a security presence outside of Kabul. ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force] needs to be expanded. Security for ordinary Afghans needs to be improved and training for Afghan forces increased. We’ll also need to make it economically worthwhile for the various constituents to ensure that they are on our side. The US aid package for $1.2 billion is a step in the right direction.
TM: What is your opinion about Pakistan’s role so far in assisting American counterterrorism efforts?
Benjamin: It’s hard to make a judgment on that without being in the government and having access to classified information, but certainly Pakistan has made some dramatic steps since September 11. Yet we’re still a long way from having all the cooperation we want [from the Pakistanis] all the time. In a sense, it’s not in their interest to give us this, since they want to extract more concessions from us first. There is no bigger long term foreign policy challenge right now than Pakistan.
TM: What do you think needs to be done to improve our chances of penetrating al Qaeda?
Benjamin: It’s become a lot harder to do that now since there is no longer a geographic base. Also, al Qaeda has probably increased its security measures. We need to keep trying [to penetrate it], but people need to realize that it will be difficult and involves putting lives at risk. It will also require closer cooperation with liaison services since they have the best chance in terms of culture and language [of penetrating al Qaeda]. We need to have reasonable expectations of our success, which means to keep trying, but to also work harder on alternatives, such as technical collection efforts.
TM: At what point during your time at the NSC did you realize that al Qaeda had the global reach it has achieved?
Benjamin: We realized it was a global problem with the embassy bombings. We interpreted those incidents as a demonstration that al Qaeda could strike anywhere and that it hit those targets to demonstrate its reach, including the potential to strike inside the US. The White House believed there could be a catastrophic attack at home in early 2000. We knew early on of al Qaeda’s geographic spread of its presence.
TM: As you know, the Jamestown Foundation was established in part as a place to help Cold War defectors. What do you think the prospects are for al Qaeda defectors fleeing to the US? How would you rate their potential to provide valuable information, especially in light of the recent DIA report that Iraqi defectors did not provide much useful information prior to the US entry into that conflict?
Benjamin: Our first line of attack should be to concentrate on the reservoir of potential recruits for al Qaeda — those who are at risk, if you will, for radicalization — but we could design a program for potential defectors based on the personal problems which have led past ones to become disillusioned. What we really need to do is to delegitimize the ideology. We need to bring moderate clerics to the forefront to show that radical Islam is a perversion of the religion. As for the usefulness of the information al Qaeda defectors could provide, to compare it with the Iraq situation is really like comparing apples and oranges to a certain extent. While some defectors may not have intelligence that is immediately actionable, their information could well be useful further down the line.