An interview with the Honorable R. James Woolsey, former Director of Central Intelligence, Chairman of the Board of Freedom House and Jamestown Foundation Board Member, conducted by Terrorism Monitor (TM) on December 6, 2003.
TM: Could you please give your assessment of the U.S.-led war on terrorism so far?
Woolsey: The base for al Qaeda’s operations was destroyed in Afghanistan, and I think it’s clear that the Baathist regime in Baghdad was involved in terrorism in various ways, even if not in September 11 directly. A 2002 report to Congress points this out clearly. So the success of overthrowing the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq is a definite plus. Also, the arrest of al Qaeda senior operatives like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others are more signs of success. Also, I strongly believe that both the Iranian and Syrian governments are supporting terrorism. The fighting in Iraq has been bolstered by support coming from Iran and Syria. I also don’t trust Qaddafi any further than I can throw him. Support the Saudis offer throughout the Muslim world for hatred remains, so we still have this substantial underlying problem.
TM: What more do you believe should be done?
Woolsey: The most important thing to do is to produce reasonable regimes that are headed toward democracy and the rule of law. There is already substantial improvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we need to establish security in both countries. We also need to reduce the vulnerability in our infrastructure, the equivalent of fixing the flimsy cockpit doors on airplanes. The electrical grid, for example, needs to be improved, not because that will keep terrorist acts from occurring, but to keep attacks from becoming catastrophic. The work of the intelligence agencies and law enforcement of course also needs to continue in going after al Qaeda here at home and overseas. Another part of what we should do would be encouraging regime change in Iran and Syria, where they are helping various terrorist organizations.
TM: Some critics of the Bush Administration charge that the Iraq effort has detracted from the counterterrorism campaign. Could you comment on this?
Woolsey: I think that’s nonsense. I think that it has meant we are fighting the terrorists in the Sunni triangle instead of in New York and Washington. Intelligence and law enforcement efforts haven’t been hurt by efforts in Iraq. The Baathist regime’s cooperation with terror groups has been damaged. The judgment of people who make that charge assumes that if we sat still, we’d be better off. But we were sitting still on September 11. It’s a nutty recommendation and is the way to lose.
TM: What is your opinion regarding the Saudi role in sponsoring terrorism, and do you distinguish between official and unofficial support from that country?
Woolsey: I don’t particularly distinguish between official and unofficial support, because in its own medieval way, it’s a totalitarian system. Whether it’s support for charities or madrassahs in Pakistan, all of this is sanctioned by various ministries. The Wahhabi ideology has important influence all over the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia is only fighting the terrorists who are attacking them. For years it has channeled hatred toward us. It is the historical equivalent to Torquemada and the Dominicans around him during the Inquisition. This ideological base is a very big part of the problem.
TM: Do you believe Saudi Arabia has changed in light of the recent attacks there?
Woolsey: Only insofar as their public relations are getting a lot smoother and they are paying more attention to terrorists who attack them. But as far as terrorists who attack us, they are being something between unhelpful and very unhelpful.
TM: What should the U.S. do regarding Saudi Arabia?
Woolsey: We should measurably reduce our reliance on oil. And not just our imports since we don’t do anything positive if we buy from Mexico and Venezuela without increasing our fuel efficiency. This is a subject I wrote about in an article in Commentary in September 2002. It’s something we’re not really doing at all.
TM: Where do you think Osama bin Ladin is? Do you think Saudis are still helping him?
Woolsey: There are three possibilities. One is that he is on the Afghan-Pakistan border. The second is that he is somewhere in Iran. There have been recent reports to that effect. Those who say that he is a Sunni extremist and therefore would not cooperate with the Shia don’t know what they’re talking about. In that part of the world it’s the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Bin Ladin and the Iranians would be perfectly capable of working together against the West. The third possibility is that he is near the border of Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the area where his father’s family is from.
Certainly, in a sense, Saudis continue to help him because his wealth comes from there; his family and friends are there. But now with the attacks on the royal family, they have clamped down on this support as much as they are able.
TM: What is your assessment of the strength of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia? And worldwide?
Woolsey: For Saudi Arabia, it’s weaker than it was. They are just finally cracking down. But government policies have left many unemployed Saudi men for a pool of recruits. They want to move the country back to the seventh century. The superstructure has been destroyed, but there are more recruits coming in than we’d like to see. Worldwide, it’s similar–the superstructure has been destroyed, but as Secretary Rumsfeld has said, there are still many new recruits.
TM: As a member of the board of the Jamestown Foundation, an organization that has played a major role in helping former Soviet defectors over the years, do you envision a time when there might be members of al Qaeda who would defect to the United States and possibly play a useful role in the war on terror, just as Soviet defectors helped the U.S. during the Cold War? Or does the terrorists’ ideology prevent them from ever switching sides to help the West?
Woolsey: I think it’s less likely to see al Qaeda or Hezbollah members defect. It would be more likely to see people from secular regimes like Syria or Libya do so. These people would be more likely to see things in a financial way or to have a change of heart because they see their countries headed in the wrong direction. I think the chance of terrorists undergoing a mental shift like happened with educated people in the communist world is pretty small.