October 9, 2003
Jason Burke, Author of "Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror"
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Where Bush and the Neo-cons see a childish sort of black and white, good and bad battle against "evil," British journalist Jason Burke sees a thousand shades of gray. If you read through Burke's thoroughly researched "Al Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terrorism," you come away thinking that we have simpletons in the White House directing a unilateral blunderbuss at a problem that requires nuance, vision and collaboration.
But most importantly, you learn from Burke's exploration of Islamic terrorism that the Bush Cartel and its Neo-con strategists don't understand the complexity of the problem. As a result, we are less secure as a nation because the White House doesn't really have a clue what is motivating the terrorism committed against the United States.
We were pleased to interview Jason Burke over the phone from his office at the London-based "Observer."
BuzzFlash is offering "Al Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terrorism" as a premium. [LINK]
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BUZZFLASH: In the United States, al-Qaeda has been portrayed as intertwined irretrievably with bin Laden. Your book, Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, documents why itís a much more complicated than that simple outlook.
JASON BURKE: I think the term al-Qaeda, particularly now, is of dubious use when trying to describe the phenomenon of contemporary Islami Suni Muslim militancy. Al-Qaeda is commonly perceived to be a tight-knight terrorist organization led by bin Laden. Something that comes close to that description existed in Afghanistan between around 1997 and 2001. That entity no longer exists. What we have now is something far more diverse -- a whole series of groups, cells, and even individuals who are dissimilar in many ways, but are united by certain fundamental ideological ideas, and a particular way of viewing the world. Broadly, if you want or if you need an al-Qaeda as a label, then I think it should be applied to that broad movement, rather than one specific group. I think if you continue to conceive of the threat from militant Islam as coming from one specific group, then attempts to end that threat are likely to be misjudged as a result. And tactics based on this assumption could -- at the very best -- prolong the war against terror or a victorious war against terror, and at the worst could be counter-productive.
BUZZFLASH: One would assume then, based on what youíve just said and the contents of your book, that you donít necessarily believe that the Bush administrationís attack into Iraq did much in terms of the war on terrorism.
BURKE: I think it did a lot -- just most of it was negative. Let me start by saying I backed the war in Iraq, with some very serious reservations. I backed the war in Iraq on humanitarian grounds. I was involved with the Kurdish resistance movements back in 1991. I was actually in the country. I was a student, and was sufficiently excited by their struggle and by the prospect of a degree of adventure, that I went to northern Iraq in the summer of 1991, and joined the Kurdish Democratic partisans.
I was trained by them and given an AK, which I hasten to add I didnít use, thankfully. So I remained -- I hope -- I like to think, a friend of the Kurds for over a decade. And I know that all my Kurdish acquaintances -- former comrades -- were very keen to see Saddam Hussein ousted. And frankly, that was enough for me.
However, in terms of the war on terror, I would say that the war against Saddam was an unwelcome diversion that has had strongly negative results overall. I base that on the fact that there is absolutely no evidence of Baghdadís involvement with September 11th. Nor is there any evidence of any kind of alliance between bin Laden and his close aides, and the Saddam Hussein regime in the years before September the 11th.
The problem with the war in Iraq is that it provides very welcome material for those who argue that America and her allies are fundamentally opposed to any kind of unity and prosperity in the Islamic world. The Islamic militants see their struggle as a defensive one. They believe that they are resisting a tradition of belligerence and aggression by the West that goes back to the Crusades. Unfortunately, attacking -- however justifiably or not -- two Islamic nations in the space of two years, one of which is the cultural heart of many Islamic or many Muslimsí and Arabsí cultural identity, that clearly is going to provide evidence for those who believe in that world view.
The point here is that if you accept that bin Laden and his close aides are not solely responsible for global terrorism, and that far more profound and widespread factors are at work, involving ideology, world views, a way of seeing international relations, relations between the West and Islam, and so forth, then though you may have halted a potential threat, youíve created something thatís far more dangerous by doing so.
BUZZFLASH: Would there be a serious threat from Islamic fundamentalists against the West -- those fundamentalists who believe in jihad -- without bin Laden? In short, to what extent has he become a bogeyman for the Bush administration?
BURKE: Islamic militancy has roots that go back to the mid-19th century, possibly the 13th century, possibly the 7th century. It has roots in socioeconomic, cultural, political, theological factors in the Islamic world. This is a historical phenomenon. Itís not been created by one man and one organization.
Even in the short term, Islamic militancy existed in the early í90s in a very virulent way. We had attacks in America on the World Trade Center. There were attacks in Paris. There were attacks in Pakistan. There were attacks in Saudi Arabia, in the Yemen. There was a huge insurgency in Egypt. There was a brutal and violent civil war in Algeria, which occurred after an Islamic group -- a political group -- was effectively banned from taking power. None of these things, none of these attacks, were the work of bin Laden. Even the 1993 attack by Ramzi Yusef on the World Trade Center, which is often linked to bin Laden, was the work of other militants, in my view. I looked at this in some depth when I was living and working in Pakistan. Bin Ladenís involvement in Islamic militancy at the time was tangential. What he did between í97 and 2000 was to provide a focus for many of the trends within Islamic militancy. Now that his effective capability is heavily diminished, those trends in militancy still exist and are prospering in the new, radicalized, post-2001 world.
BUZZFLASH: Why is that? Why do you refer to it as newly radicalized?
BURKE: I donít think anyone whoís spent any time in the Islamic world, in Karachi, in Casablanca, in Jakarta, and other hot spots in the last two years, would doubt that Muslims generally are more politically conscious, more aware of radical ideas, more attracted by radical ideas, than they have been for a very, very long time. And that is a major victory for the militants.
BUZZFLASH: And is that because they were inspired by September 11th? Or what is the cause of that renewed hostility?
BURKE: Well, let me say one thing. Go back to before September 11th, when you were asking about whether bin Laden was behind modern Islamic militancy. Two points: The first is that many, many thousands of young men made their way to the camps that he had managed to appropriate in Afghanistan. Itís important to remember that those camps have existed for 10 years, largely without any support from him. They were supported by a whole variety of independent Islamic groups. Those young men predominantly who were making their way to those camps did so for reasons that were very deeply felt. They may have been wrong. They may have been perverted. They may have been evil. But those reasons were profoundly felt. They were not going to Afghanistan to seek out bin Laden. They were going to Afghanistan to get training for jihad -- something that they felt they wanted to become involved in at a very profound level.
The second point is that bin Ladenís primary role in Afghanistan, certainly by 2000 and 2001, was to offer facilities to those among the many, many militant groups who were approaching him for ideas for bomb attacks and other atrocities, who he felt had the best chance of succeeding. So itís not that he spent all his time commissioning and executing attacks. Some attacks were certainly directly commissioned and practically executed by bin Laden and those around him, such as the 1998 east African bombings and largely 9/11 itself. But many, many other attacks during that period were conceived of by local groups -- independent groups who went to bin Laden looking for facilities. Now for both those groups -- and there are a number of examples I can give you of this: Singaporean groups, Kurdish groups, Algerian groups, or groups of Algerians, actually, to be more technically correct -- all made their way to bin Laden to ask for facilities and for help.
It was done to the extent that when a Saudi called Altubaiti made his way to Afghanistan in 2000 and asked for a jihad job -- a martyrdom job -- he was asked what his plan was, or his idea or scheme. When he said he didnít have one, he was told to go away and come back when he had formulated a scheme like everybody else. He subsequently came back with a scheme and was given some money. So thatís how it was working. Bin Laden was acting as a clearinghouse, rather like a venture capitalist. People came to him with projects. If he felt they were worthwhile, he would invest in them. Some projects he originated himself.
My argument is this: Given that both the volunteers looking for jihad training and those looking for help with specific attacks were making their way to Afghanistan for profoundly felt motivations, the fact that those facilities have now disappeared does not mean that the motivations have also disappeared.
BUZZFLASH: The Bush administration has adopted what appears to be primarily a military approach, with some other intelligence activity and counter-terrorism activity going on in a less visible manner. Is there any other way to deal with with terrorism?
BURKE: Thereís a clear need for a military counter-terrorist component in the war on terror. Someone like bin Laden cannot be rehabilitated. He cannot be argued around. He has to be forced to stop his activities, either by being killed, judicially or otherwise, or being imprisoned. That is an absolute necessity. And by and large, the counter-terrorist efforts and military efforts the American administration and some allies have made have been successful in achieving fairly limited objectives. A very high proportion of those who had gathered around bin Laden between 1996 and 2001 are now either dead or in prison. Bin Laden himself has had his ability to commission -- to instigate terror attacks -- severely curtailed. Increased cooperation between security authorities around the world and increased budgets in many states have made it much harder for funds to be moved for terrorists who operate, for militants to conceive of and successfully execute attacks. And that is all very important.
The problem is that hard component, if you like, is not being married to a soft component, as far as I can see. Or if it has, then that soft element is not being successful. And by a soft element, I mean the hearts and minds campaign. And just to quote you something from Time, I think, this week -- I canít find it immediately. Itís a quote from a senior American soldier in Iraq who has on his wall of his office a big sign saying, "We are in a race to win hearts and minds. What has your element done to win that race today?" Now itís very heartening that the American military in Iraq recognized that. There are good soldiers. They have some excellent strategic thinkers who understand that in fighting an asymmetric war -- in fighting irregulars -- hearts and minds are critical to victory.
Unfortunately, though, while the hard military component -- killing and capturing people -- is going relatively well, the other elements of a successful strategy against terrorism are not. The Muslim world is an angry, anti-American place for the moment. That may not be a direct result of events in the last two years, but certainly the tone of the Bush presidency, the invasions of Afghanistan and particularly Iraq, have contributed very much to it. Without significant progress in that area, I fear that the threat of terrorism, specifically militant terrorism, will continue through a foreseeable future, and may well worsen.
BUZZFLASH: Well, Israel has certainly been unable to deal with the conundrum, and President Bush seems to be a bit at a loss to understand that people who are willing to die for a cause and commit suicide are much harder to threaten. You donít have any leverage on them. In fact, Bush has said on a number of occasions he would stop at nothing to seek revenge on those who are responsible for these attacks. Well, theyíve blown themselves up. I mean, the hijackers killed themselves. Now, someone planned it, but the reality is you canít threaten the people who are responsible and say that theyíll lose their lives. Theyíve done that.
BURKE: Yes, exactly. And it just goes back to the point that the process into militancy is not a straightforward one, and weíre still struggling to understand what turns a 19-year-old Saudi or a 25-year-old Pakistani, or however-old Egyptian, into a suicide bomber. But fundamentally, itís a question of how somebody explains things that are wrong in his world. And an easy answer and an attractive answer for many in the Islamic world who are angry at a lack of social opportunity, a lack of professional opportunity, a lack of health care, or, very significantly, the huge disparity between the West and the Islamic world in socioeconomic terms, is to blame it on the Americans and the Israelis.
Now once youíve got to that stage, and you believe that most of your problems and those of your family and those of your society stem from aggressive policies of others -- namely the West and their proxies -- anything involves aggressive action against you is merely going to confirm you in that view. So what Iím saying is that though military action is often necessary -- itís often the only thing to do -- it shouldnít be the default option that is immediately deployed. And if it is deployed, it has to be deployed with a whole battery of other measures that attempt to countermand the negative impact of that military action. And I donít see that happening.
BUZZFLASH: We interviewed an author of a book on Karl Rove, the senior advisor to Bush. When the Iraq war was being planned at the White House, Rove apparently played a key role in advising that the spin demonize Saddam as the cause of all problems, just as Osama bin Laden was demonized as the cause of all problems, and to play it as an attack on "evil individuals." And if you just cut off the head, the terrorism will stop. Whether or not Osama is alive, and whether or not Saddam is alive, is obviously the subject of a lot of conjecture, but theyíve certainly been pretty much immobilized. And yet, as youíve pointed out, the activity continues.
BURKE: Well, I get a sense in America that two years down the line people are thinking: Hold on, maybe this isnít quite as straightforward as we thought.
We have undeniably done well at picking off the individuals -- the list that George Bush famously put in his top drawer in his desk in the Oval Office, with a whole series of names on it, is now covered in red and black ink. Theyíve got most of the "bad guys." Yet does anybody feel safer? I donít think they do, which I think has provoked a very healthy questioning of where weíre going, and what tactics weíre using. And the fundamental problem is you can decapitate a small, tightly organized, coherent, terrorist organization, and it will cause it serious problems. But you cannot decapitate a broad movement that stretches across a huge span of the globe and involves tens of millions of people.
You can decapitate a small terrorist movement or organization -- you know, the Red Brigade or something, even the IRA -- and it will have a significant impact. When youíre talking about something that is a historical phenomena, that has roots that are decades old at the very least, that is based in profound cultural, social and economic factors in the Islamic world, then removing one individual or even several hundred individuals is simply not going to solve the problem.
BUZZFLASH: Military conflict, in some ways, temporarily resolves problems. But it also creates, as you indicated, more converts to the cause. So we go into Iraq, which, because it was run by a "ruthless dictator," really didnít have much internal terrorism, other than the brutality of the regime. But not Islamic terrorism. It was sort of a secular, political terrorism. And now Iraqís become a haven for terrorists. And in Israel, where thereís attacks and counter-attacks, but there never seems to be a shortage of suicide bombers, because each counter-attack by Israel inspires more suicide bombers. There seems to be a vicious cycle in terms of creating more militancy as you succeed militarily.
BURKE: Yes, but what Iím saying is that while thatís certainly the case, what you havenít seen in Israel, and you are not seeing in the war on terror at the moment, is, to use the Pentagonís phrase, full-spectrum dominance. You can dominate technologically, militarily. But the crucial thing is to win the hearts and minds. As long as America is perceived as an aggressor, there will be those who, particularly because of certain resources within Islam as a religion, and because of certain cultural and political factors in the Middle East, want to fight that, and fight that in a particularly nasty way.
So you can just go on killing the terrorists as they come up and create more. And the problem will not go away. You may just about, with massive expenditure of effort, keep a lid on it, losing people and spending a lot of money, and causing a lot of continuing damage to interests of everybody globally. But the actual problem will not be solved. So what Iím saying is yes, we need a military component, clearly. But alongside that military component, there has to be a recognition that evil though it may be, this is not blind fanaticism. Itís fanaticism thatís rooted in a whole series of factors. And if it is rooted in those factors, letís look at those factors and letís work toward eliminating them.
Then, if you have a complimentary approach with the military -- which undeniably the Americans are very, very good at -- and a whole range of other policies designed to suck the support from the terrorists, we will win. And thatís because 99 percent of Muslims in the world and in the Middle East are decent, kind people with whom we have an awful lot in common. Theyíre not the "other." Theyíre not mad, bearded, violent lunatics. Theyíre people who should be our allies. And that is the greatest strength and the greatest weapon we have in the war on terrorism. And itís one that is not only not being exploited -- itís one thatís being almost deliberately thrown away.
BUZZFLASH: Let me ask you one more question about the Saudi factor here. Recently there was a story in the United States that your colleague at the Observer, Greg Palast, had exposed shortly after 9/11 -- that Saudis, including members of the bin Laden family, probably in excess of a hundred -- were allowed to leave the United States unquestioned on Saudi government jets shortly after 9/11. And thereís been a lot of questioning as to why the Bush administration kept the 27 or 28 pages from the public that, by most accounts, detailed contributions from the Saudi royal family or wealthy Saudis to terrorists. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. Whatís your quick take on the Saudi factor here?
BURKE: Important though it is, we should not focus too much on the details of Saudi or individual Saudisí connections to particular terrorist groups or cells or operations. The most threatening developing to come out of Saudi Arabia since its creation has been the industrial export of Wahhabi conservative Islam throughout the Islamic world and beyond. Itís very easy for us to ignore because the details of Islamic observance often escape us. But purely because of the funding provided by the Saudi government and quasi-governmental organizations and individuals, a virulently anti-Western, anti-Semitic, intolerant version of Islam has been spread to tens of millions of people who otherwise would not have been exposed to it. And though a direct link to terrorism is necessarily difficult to establish, there is no doubt in my mind that Wahhabist thought and culture is one that creates a very fertile ground for radical Islamic violence, in ways where radical Islamic violence can thrive.
BUZZFLASH: Given that, letís look at this one situation: The Wahhabi sect of Islam in Saudi Arabia, which is, in Western terms, extremist. And itís the birthplace of a lot of bin Ladenís Saudi followers. How does one change that? Thatís an indigenous religion to Saudi Arabia.
BURKE: Yeah, but itís not an indigenous religion to half the places to which itís been exported in the last two decades. And there has been a missionary effort bankrolled by Saudi establishment for foreign and domestic policy reasons, the likes of which the world has not seen for many centuries.
Where thereís previously a moderate, tolerant, open, pluralistic Islam practiced, which is absolutely no threat to the West whatsoever, you are now finding something that is the opposite of all those things. It is extreme. It is ideological. It is viciously intolerant. And it is spreading. And from it stems much of the militant ideology.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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