Michael Scheuer, ex-CIA bin Laden Unit
Chief, Explains Why Insurgents Are Willing To Die Fighting Us...Maybe
It's Not Our Freedom They Hate...
Iím very much frustrated with the inability of our leaders to make
more than a superficial effort to understand the enemy, not because
we need to sympathize with them or empathize with them, but because
heís so dangerous. We really need to take the measure of the enemy and
why the enemy is fighting us.... Islamic militancy is a complex issue,
but itís not impossible for Americans to understand if theyíre talked
to directly and frankly. So far, weíve gone through 12 or 15 years with
not a single frank discussion with the American people.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Known as "Anonymous" when his book, Imperial Hubris, came out
in 2004, Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for 22 years and as chief of
the bin Laden unit of the Director of Central Intelligence Counterterrorist
Center from 1996-1999. Since publication of Imperial Hubris: Why the
West Is Losing the War on Terror, and his subsequent resignation
from the CIA in November, 2004, Scheuer has offered informed, passionate,
and controversial commentary on U.S. policy in the Middle East. Frustrated
with the Bush Administration's simplistic portrayal of terrorists as "freedom
haters," he talked with BuzzFlash about the anti-American insurgency and
the American foreign policy choices that he believes fuel it. An advocate
of frank discussion of the Muslim perspective, he both urges us, and helps
us, to understand this war, and why it won't be easy to end. He also characterizes
our recent U.S. presidential campaign as "completely barren on both sides
of any discussion of the foreign policy issues that are at play in this
war..." We don't agree with everything Scheuer has to say (we think,
for instance, there is a distinction to be made between the Sharon Likud
government and Israel, just as there is a distinction to be made between
the Bush government and America), but he knows terrorism about as well
as anybody and needs to be heard.
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BuzzFlash: You argue in your book, Imperial Hubris,
that the United States cannot fight an effective war on terror because
the Bush administration doesnít even understand or is unwilling to comprehend
how our U.S. foreign policy impacts the Islamic world. You argue that
the U.S. government doesnít comprehend that we have a perception problem,
and that the invasion of Iraq, as well as our policies towards Israel
and Palestine, fuel this perception problem which drives anti-American
sentiment, which therefore breeds terrorism.
Explain, if you could, what Americans should know about our recent history
and our foreign policy in the Middle East, and how the Islamic world perceives
Michael Scheuer: I think the most basic thing for Americans
to realize is that this war has nothing to do with who we are or what
we believe, and everything to do with what we do in the Islamic world.
Mr. Bush, Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush before Mr. Clinton -- they all identified
Islamic militancy as being based on the hatred of Western democracy and
freedom, and thatís clearly not the case. They surely donít like our way
of life, but very few people are willing to die to keep us from having
primary elections or because we have freedom of the press.
Universally in the Muslim world, at least according to the most recent
polling data, American foreign policy in several specific areas is hated
by Muslims. Majorities of 85-90 percent are registered as hating or resenting
American policies, towards our support for Israel, our ability to keep
oil prices low, or low enough to satisfy Western consumers, our support
for Arab tyrannies from Morocco to the Indian Ocean, our support for Putin
BuzzFlash: Another major thesis of yours is that the
West falsely believes that it is, in fact, fighting the global terror
network. But, as you argue, in reality it really is more of an anti-American
insurgency in the Middle East in an attempt to get the United States out
of dominating and essentially corrupting that region.
Michael Scheuer: Or at least protecting the governments
that are corrupt. Yes, certainly what the United States is facing is not
terrorism. The groups that America has traditionally identified as terrorists
would have been destroyed by now if they had suffered the amount of damage
that America has inflicted on them. Al Qaeda and its allies are much more
insurgent organizations, such as those that grew up during the war against
the Soviets in Afghanistan. And so our kind of law enforcement mentality
of catching them one at a time, as the President says, is surely never
going to suffice to protect America or to defeat the enemy.
BuzzFlash: The Bush administration has deceived
the American people about linking the campaign to defeat Al Qaeda with
the war in Iraq, which we believe to be completely wrong. What are your
thoughts on the spiraling violence in Iraq? How could someone explain
to the American people that leveling Fallujah or fighting insurgents on
the streets in Iraq has anything to do with protecting Americans against
terrorism or defeating Al Qaeda?
Michael Scheuer: Whatever the threat was from Saddam
Hussein or weapons of mass destruction, the invasion of Iraq was a countervailing
issue that should have been discussed very fully in terms of the war against
Islamic militancy. By invading and occupying Iraq, America, or its allies,
now occupy the three holiest places in Islam -- Saudi Arabia, first; second,
Iraq; and the Israeli control of Jerusalem, the third. Of course, the
Israelis are viewed simply as an extension of the United States, so, in
essence, in the Muslim mind, all three of their sanctities are occupied
by the United States and its allies -- something that was bound to offend
1.3 billion Muslims, whether or not they supported Osama bin Laden.
The real question I think for Americans is, was the President briefed
on that? Did Mr. Tenet, when he was the Director of Central Intelligence,
inform the President of this countervailing problem? Further than that,
the ongoing insurgency in Iraq will grow over time. Itís not, as so many
of our generals say, primarily the people who used to support Saddam.
In fact, I would venture that a percentage of the insurgent force made
up of Iraqis is probably growing smaller over time. But Iraq is now what
Afghanistan was in the late 1970s and throughout the 80s into the 90s,
and thatís an insurgent magnet, if you will, a Mujahideen magnet, only
much, much worse. This is because Iraq is in the middle of the Middle
East and the middle of the Arab world, the second holiest place of Islam.
The fighters are coming there from all over the Islamic world, from Uzbekistan,
from Afghanistan, from Saudi Arabia, from Jordan and Algeria, and itís
going to continue that way, I think, for the foreseeable future.
BuzzFlash: One of the biggest problems is that the Bush
Administration believes the answer to defeating terrorism is with overwhelming
military power to intimidate and dominate the enemy. We believe this strategy
has been a colossal failure. It seems that the battle against Al Qaeda
should really be fought with diplomatic, humanitarian, intelligence and
law enforcement means. Of course, weíre not even discussing even some
of the other, maybe perhaps more important, systemic problems such as
poverty, that help fuel terrorism and violence. Would you agree with that?
Michael Scheuer: I donít agree with it in its entirety.
Al Qaeda -- just to take your last point first -- and many of its allies
are basically middle class and upper-middle-class individuals. These people
who came from good families had a fairly good education -- sometimes a
scientific or engineering education -- and were people who had a future.
These are not desperate people who had nothing to live for. These are
people who have just decided to give up what they could have gained in
order to protect what they see as a threat against their religion.
I also disagree with the idea that intelligence activities and military
force arenít necessary. Indeed, at this point, weíve got ourselves into
such a box that the only thing we have left is the military and the intelligence
services, and neither of them has been applied with particular vigorousness.
Weíve not intimidated anyone, weíve not scared anyone, and thatís a problem
in the Middle East where force and intimidation is generally a kind of
a lingua franca.
Al Qaeda and the Taliban survived the war in Afghanistan, and they must
figure, gee, we rode this one out. Theyíre not that strong. The same thing
happened in Iraq. We used our military power with a little too much daintiness.
The real problem for Americans is that the intelligence services and the
military canít hold the ring forever. America really has a choice between
war and endless war, not between war and peace. And what we have to do
is to find a way to slow the growth in the Muslim world of support for
Osama bin Laden. And that comes down to understanding that the motivation
for the people fighting us has to do with our policies.
Until America reviews those policies in an open and democratic way to
decide whether they still serve the interests of the United States, weíre
really just buying time a little bit at a time, in the sense that, again,
the military canít possibly win this war over the long term.
BuzzFlash: When you look at suicide bombers -- whether theyíre
in Palestine or in Afghanistan or in Iraq -- you donít believe that perhaps
part of the mechanism that fuels young men and women to die in this war
is poverty? You donít believe that thereís an underlying problem that
helps the insurgency and the anti-American sentiment to fester?
Michael Scheuer: I think there clearly are problems with
poverty, illiteracy and health across the Muslim world. But the evidence
available to date does not indicate that terrorism is at all powered by
desperateness or a sense of hopelessness. Indeed, the most powerful bases
of strength for the fundamentalists -- at least for the militant movement
in the Islamic world -- is in the educated classes, in the doctors, in
the physicians, in the engineering guilds in Egypt, for example. Bin Laden
himself came from a family of billionaires. Many of his associates are
engineers or former professional military officers. The problem we have
is people donít commit terrorism because theyíre poor. We have great numbers
of people in the United States who are poor and illiterate and we donít
have terrorism based on that here. Itís a sense that the Islamic religion
and the Muslim people are under attack by policies followed by the United
States and its allies in the West.
I really think thereís only a limited amount that could be done with economic
policy. The 9/11 Commission suggested that we have to do a lot more to
train and educate Muslim youth, as if some sort of a New Deal was the
answer for the Islamic world, and I donít think thereís any evidence to
support that. I also think the idea that public diplomacy, which the 9/11
Commission Report recommends as way out of this box, is also mistaken
because weíre not going to talk these people out of what theyíre up to.
I think itís a mistake to think the Muslims donít understand our policy.
Whether they understand it correctly or not is another question, but itís
certainly viewed as predatory policies in terms of the exploitation of
natural resources in the Islamic world, in terms of supporting police
states across the Islamic world, whether in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or
in support for Israel against virtually everyone else on any Islamic world.
So no, Iím afraid Iím not one that thinks that curing poverty or humanitarian
aid is going to make much of a difference in this war.
BuzzFlash: Itís difficult now to differentiate between
perhaps a young man in Fallujah who has taken up arms vs. a member of
Al Qaeda. So perhaps we may be talking about two separate things and weíre
not even sure how to separate the two now.
Michael Scheuer: Or are they separable?
BuzzFlash: Correct. Well, let me ask you that -- are
Michael Scheuer: No. I think whatís happened is that
the American educational system over the last 30 years has bred into Americans
the idea that somehow wars can be conducted without casualties. Clearly
during the Clinton years at least, we were very eager to conduct military
activities as long as we didnít suffer casualties. We had a chance to
capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998, and the government decided
not to do it because we might risk the lives of several of our intelligence
officers. And at the same time, they were bombing the daylights out of
the Serbs who posed no threat to the United States at all. So I really
believe that much of the problem lies in the way we understand or misunderstand
War hasnít changed since Hannibal. And the truth of the matter is weíre
facing an enemy that is indistinguishable from the civilian population,
and they donít wear uniforms. And because weíve whittled our own choice
down to military or intelligence actions, the reality is that many innocents
or civilians are going to be killed if we are to defend America properly.
BuzzFlash: Now that weíre bogged down in Iraq, what do
we do? It seems the situation is un-winnable, but, as you indicate in
your book, the Bush Administration is concerned about being labeled weak,
so withdrawing probably wonít be an option, despite the horrific losses
to American soldiers and civilians. What do you think should be done?
Michael Scheuer: You know, people have a hard time admitting
mistakes, and certainly nation-states have a harder time than people.
I donít know what the answer is going to be in the long term to whatís
going on in Iraq. Clearly weíre not winning. Clearly no one wants to hear
the reality of whatís going on. I noticed in the New York Times today
that people are attacking again the CIA for writing the truth about whatís
happening on the ground in Iraq.
To me, the main problem with neo-conservatives is that they live in a
fact-free environment: the world is as they want it, not as it is. Iraq
is a beautiful example of that because of just the way the insurgency
is rising there. Itís not an accident that so many Saudis and Kuwaitis
and Jordanians are being killed in the fighting in Iraq. People are coming
from all over the Muslim world to fight there. Do we withdraw? I donít
know. As I said, thatís a very hard decision for a great power. Certainly
weíre not going to win there in the near term with 150,000 troops. It
looks to me like, until we accept the reality of the world, the way the
world is, weíre going to continue to send troops in there, and weíre going
to continue to bleed but not win.
BuzzFlash: What should the United States do, in your
opinion, with respect to our policies towards Israel and the creation
of the Palestinian state? Would a fundamental change help curb anti-American
sentiment in the Middle East?
Michael Scheuer: Well, I think that the Israel-Palestinian issue
certainly has become a gut issue for the whole Muslim world. Fifteen years
ago, it was kind of a hot-house issue. There were sets of diplomats who
spoke the jargon and played the game, but everybody was pretty much happy
if they kept talking to each other and there was no conventional war.
Since the birth of Arabic satellite television and CNN and the BBC television
around the world, Palestine now is a much greater issue for Muslims. Itís
a gut issue. And yes, I think it would make a difference if there was
some kind of change in our policy toward Israel.
Of course, when you raise that, people label you an anti-Semite as if
youíre saying abandon them to the wolves, and really what weíre talking
about is to look at our alliance with the Israelis and see if it isnít
time that the American dog leads the Israeli tail, instead of the other
way around. The perception of our relationship with the Israelis right
now is getting Americans killed. Thereís no doubt about that, and that
needs to be at least discussed. I think thatís where we are.
You can ask me, as you did, what should we do. My answer to that is, first
of all, we need a shot of democracy inside the United States. The just-completed
Presidential campaign was completely barren on both sides of any discussion
of the foreign policy issues that are at play in this war against Islamic
militancy. The American people, I think, deserve to at least have a voice
in policies that have basically been on auto-pilot for 25 years, whether
toward Israel, energy policy, support for the Saudis and the Egyptians
-- all of that -- I think it deserves a debate.
If, at the end of the debate, in our democratic process, the decision
is to keep those policies kind of as they are -- well, I think that might
be a mistake. But, at the same time, if that's what the country would
want, then at least the country would be going into the war against Islamic
militancy with its eyes open, knowing that those policies, more than anything
else, motivate our enemy.
We would go into it with our eyes open. Weíd be expecting a very long
war, and a very bloody and costly war. And so I really believe, before
you can actually say what the policy should be, you need to examine those
policies to see if they are still in Americaís interest.
BuzzFlash: Why do you believe that there has not been another
major terrorist attack on U.S. soil since September 11?
Michael Scheuer: I think the world has been going in
the direction of Osama bin Laden since 9/11. The U.S. military was completely
unprepared to respond to the attack. It took them nearly 30 days to attack
Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. And when they did, Al Qaeda and
the Taliban had basically dispersed. Then we fought for awhile in Afghanistan,
and we won the cities, which was the winning of a battle, but we mistook
that for winning the war. Now we have a rising insurgency there, so itís
going to become increasingly bloody for the United States.
The second reason is, I wrote in my book that if Osama was a Christian,
the invasion of Iraq would have been the Christmas present he long desired
but never thought his parents would give him. It is an activity which
has kind of broken the back of U.S. counterterrorism policy and undone
much of the good weíve accomplished in the last decade for the reasons
we talked about earlier. It is now a contemporary Afghanistan which will
motivate fighters for the foreseeable future.
Iíd also say that one of the problems besetting the American intelligence
community on the issue of terrorism is to assume if someone doesnít attack
us when we expect them to attack us, that he canít, and that he is defeated.
And bin Laden is a man who we have never been able to either push into
action or away from action. Heís somebody who kind of works at his own
schedule and is not influenced to any great extent when it comes to attack
by external forces.
The final thing I would say to you is Americans tend to be a little bit
short-sighted on Iraq and Afghanistan. Thatís all we see. If you step
back and look over the last 18 months, for example, you would see a rise
of Islamic militancy in the world that is, in some ways, quite startling
-- the current unrest and violence in southern Thailand, for example;
a great deal of Muslim-Christian violence in northern Nigeria; the growth
of Islamic militancy at a rapid rate in a place like Bangladesh; the great
increase in Pakistan in sectarian violence inside the country.
Maybe most startling is the ongoing violence in Saudi Arabia. Five or
six years ago, Saudi Arabia was one of the safest places on earth in terms
of violent crime. And now, you know, as recently as yesterday [December
6], we had an American consulate in Jeddah attacked. So for all those
reasons and others, I think bin Laden figures the world is going in his
BuzzFlash: Do you believe the United States, the homeland,
is safer from threats of terrorism since 9/11?
Michael Scheuer: Well, I hope it is. My own experience in government
over pretty close to a quarter century is that bigger bureaucracy is seldom
the answer for a dysfunctional bureaucracy. And the Department of Homeland
Security and now a new national counterterrorism center, and a new chief
for the intelligence community, seems to me that although we may be bigger,
I donít know if weíre any better. Certainly the failure after 9/11 to
find out who was in our country legally and who was here illegally was
botched. We didnít take advantage of it. We still donít have a firm idea
of whoís in this country. And now they want to legalize nine million immigrants.
Thereís arguments on both sides of that issue. But from strictly the national
security aspect, if there are only three Al Qaeda in every million, you
would have close to 30 Al Qaeda people able to travel freely across the
United States without any real means of checking on them.
So of all the people who are defending America, I tend to think that the
immigration people, the FBI, the local police forces, the local Department
of Homeland Security people -- they have a desperately difficult job.
And Iím not sure at all that the federal government, at least, has addressed
that issue satisfactorily.
BuzzFlash: As a side note, sometimes I get the sense from you,
perhaps from your years of working in government, that your job is to
solve the problem, and that you struggle or are frustrated with sensitive
issues of perception and politics.
Michael Scheuer: Iím very much frustrated, certainly
so, with the inability of our leaders to make more than a superficial
effort to understand the enemy, not because we need to sympathize with
them or empathize with them, but because heís so dangerous -- we really
need to take the measure of the enemy and why the enemy is fighting us.
Thereís just such a reluctance to get into the whole discussion of religious
motivation or the chance that our policies and Americans are hated for
I guess fortunately, and unfortunately, at the same time, I was educated
by Jesuits. They always said itís sometimes necessary to manipulate others,
but never fool yourself. Thatís kind of where I am on this. At a very
selfish level, I have four kids and three grandchildren. And theyíre not
being adequately protected. Islamic militancy is a complex issue, but
itís not impossible for Americans to understand if theyíre talked to directly
and frankly. So far, weíve gone through 12 or 15 years with not a single
frank discussion with the American people.
BuzzFlash: What do you believe is the greatest security
threat facing the United States?
Michael Scheuer: Our failure to understand what weíre
facing. The President, the Vice President, Mr. Clinton, Mr. Kerry -- most
of our political leaders continue to identify bin Laden as a thug and
a gangster and a deviant personality, and nothing could be further from
the truth. He is, in every sense, a great man, without a connotation of
positive or negative, but in the sense of a man who has changed the course
of history. Already, since 2001, if you just try to take your childrenís
grammar school class to visit something in Washington, whether itís the
White House or the Congress, and you see the security guards first passing
these fourth graders through electronic detection, and then running the
wand over them and making them empty their pockets. Try to get on an airplane.
Look at the concentric rings of defense around the White House. Itís like
itís under siege.
The American way of life has changed, and bin Ladenís activities and our
fear of him is directly responsible for that. Look at the spiral in the
budget deficit. All of that is attributable either to Osama bin Laden
or the gift we gave him by invading Iraq. To me, the most dangerous thing
is that Americans think weíre on the verge of winning this war when indeed
we have barely started to fight it.
BuzzFlash: Having read other interviews with you and
parts of your book, I want you to clarify something. On one hand, it seems
that you indicate that weíve been, in some respects, too sensitive in
not using enough military force. You indicated our hesitancy to strike
at bin Laden or retaliating against Al Qaeda terrorist attacks in the
90s. At the same time, it seems that the very civilian casualties in Afghanistan,
as well as attacks in Iraq, are fueling the insurgency and the anti-American
extremists through propaganda and through perception. It seems a vicious
Michael Scheuer: Yes, in many ways it is a vicious cycle.
I donít think itís necessarily contradictory. What I did argue in the
book was that because we have left these policies unchanged -- and indeed,
someone said the other day that most of them are immutable so they canít
be changed -- weíve left ourselves only the military and the intelligence
services to defend America.
Now if we believe America is worth defending, we have to use the tools
that are available, and we have to use them aggressively until we come
up with another tool to complement those tools. I tend to believe that
whatever increased anger we cause in the Muslim world is going to be on
the margins. I donít think that our leaders have really quite taken the
measure of the hatred across the Islamic world. We have polling information
for the first time in the last five or six years thatís been taken by
major Western companies -- the Pew Trust and Gallup and the BBC -- that
show, in many Muslim countries, Islamic countries, majorities in the range
of 85, 90, 95 percent hating the same U.S. policies that bin Laden has
At the same time, those polls show majorities -- sometimes large ones
-- who admire our society for its basic striving toward equity, for the
ability of parents to educate their children and provide health care,
and find employment. And so the idea that they hate us for what we are
needs to be taken off the map. They wouldnít run their lives as we run
ours, surely. But they wouldnít be dying in increasing numbers because
they oppose our elections, for example.
We need to approach this problem for what it is. Itís a war. No war can
be won solely by military and intelligence work. But until we do something
about the perception, at least, of our policies in the Islamic world,
public diplomacy, economic activities, humanitarian aid, are of very marginal
use to us. And so weíre stuck. And thereís no one more than I who wants
to be able to complement military and intelligence activities with a group
of policies that will assist in winning this war and protecting America,
but right now, we donít have the option.
Several people have said itís a schizophrenic book. I probably should
have written more clearly. But I really think that the hatred for U.S.
policy is so deep across the Muslim world that whatever we do to defend
ourselves can only increase hatred for us at the margin.
BuzzFlash: Thank you for your time.
Michael Scheuer: Itís nice to talk to you. Thank you
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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