Bin Laden's Game
When the latest Osama bin Laden tape aired on al Jazeera last month, Michael Scheuer's phone was one of the first to start ringing off the hook with calls from journalists seeking a quick soundbite for that day's news cycle. Scheuer has credentials on the subject that few can match: By the time September 11 happened, he had been studying and trailing bin Laden for five years, as the creator and chief analyst of the CIA's bin Laden unit. Later on, writing as "Anonymous," Scheuer put out two books about bin Laden and his group, Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam and the Future of America (published in 2002, but largely written in 1999 as an unclassified manual for CIA personnel joining the bin Laden unit) and the bestseller Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror, which appeared in 2004 shortly before Scheuer resigned the CIA to go public about his views.
Appearing on CBS Evening News the day the tape surfaced, January 19, Scheuer told anchor Bob Schieffer that "it would be foolish not to take this very seriously as a threat to the United States." He discussed the Islamic custom of offering one's enemies an out before attacking them, and made reference to bin Laden's long-standing wish to obtain a nuclear weapon, and to the still-unsecured stockpile of nukes in the former Soviet Union. "It sounds pretty scary, what you're saying here," Schieffer offered near the end of the two-minute segment. "This is not a threat that should be defined as criminals, gangsters, and deviants," Scheuer replied. "These are very serious people, they are our deadly enemies, and they are extraordinarily talented. We can worry about Saddam and we can worry about the Iranians," Scheuer answered, "but the only people capable of attacking us inside the United States in the world today is al Qaeda."
Scheuer's sense of alarm was soon forgotten, swallowed up by the official line about the bin Laden tape, which also became the conventional media wisdom: As ex-FBI terrorism hand Christopher Whitcomb put it to a different CBS anchor the next morning, "I don't think there's very much significance in this tape at all. And the reason is, we've seen so many of these in the past four-and-a-half years. Osama bin Laden is trying to show the world he's still relevant. I think he's not still relevant, and I think he is trying just to say, 'I'm out here, look at me.'"
I phoned Scheuer recently to ask him more about his views of the tape and the status of the U.S.'s anti-terror efforts.
City Pages: You've dissented strongly from the Bush administration line that says bin Laden and other Islamic radicals "hate us for our freedoms." What's the real root of their opposition?
Michael Scheuer: The real root of their opposition is what we do in the Islamic world. If they were hating us because we had elections, or gender equality, or liberty, they would be a lethal nuisance,
but they wouldn't be a threat to our security. If you remember, the Ayatollah tried waging a jihad against Americans because we were degenerate—we had X-rated movies, we drank liquor, women were in workplaces. Very, very few people were willing to die for that kind of thing. Bin Laden, I think, took a lesson from that and instead focused on the impact of our policies in the Islamic world—our support for the Arab tyrannies in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, our presence in the holy lands on the Arabian Peninsula, our invasion of Iraq, our support for countries like Russia that are deemed to repress Islamic people. He's focused on things that are visible to the Islamic world every day, and quite frankly there's a direct correlation between what he says and what all the Western polling firms are finding, that there is a huge majority in Islamic countries that hate our foreign policy. And yet generally, every one of the same countries has a majority, sometimes a large one, that admires the way Americans live, the basic equity of our society.
We should be so lucky as to have him hate us only for our freedoms. He's never even discussed that kind of thing.
CP:After the latest bin Laden tape aired, the official spin was to call it a political bluff, or even a call for truce out of weakness on his part. But you've written and spoken about seeing a different aim behind these bin Laden warnings, one that has more to do with meeting the expectations of a Muslim audience than a Western one.
Scheuer: I think that's very much the case. He's very conscious of the tradition from which he comes and how that history works. It's the tradition of the prophet that you warn your enemy and you offer a truce before the fighting starts. Saladin followed the same tradition against the Crusaders in medieval times, and bin Laden has been very careful to follow that in his time. He's offered us warnings numerous times, but this is the first time he's offered a truce in addition. In the early summer of 2004, he offered the Europeans an almost identical truce or cease-fire. They refused him much like we did, and he attacked them in July of '05 in London.
CP:Getting back to what you said a moment ago about the importance to bin Laden of offering the U.S. a warning, didn't he in fact get in trouble in a lot of Islamic circles after 9/11 for failing to provide a warning?
Scheuer: Yes—that is, for failing to provide enough of a warning. The prophet's guidance is that you go the extra mile to warn your enemy. Bin Laden was called on the carpet by his peers in the Islamic militant movement for three things. One was that he didn't give us enough warning. He's now addressed the American people on five separate occasions since 2002. So he's taken care of that one. He was also called on the carpet for not offering us a chance to convert to Islam. He's now done that three separate times, and Zawahiri has done it once. So they've covered that angle. The other thing they were taken to task for was that they didn't have the religious authority to kill as many Americans as they did. In the summer of 2003, he got a religious judgment from a very reputable Saudi cleric that he could use weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear weapons, to kill up to 10 million Americans.
After 9/11, he had several very important loose ends to tie up, in religious terms, before he could attack us again. He's done all of those things. It's interesting, because he spoke on the eve of our presidential election, and he said, This is the last time I'm going to warn you. In his speech last week, he said, I was not going to talk to you again, but your president is lying to you. I wanted to give you one more opportunity to hear the truth. He again warned us about the impact of our policies, and then offered us the truce. But you were right at the beginning. He's very much speaking to an Islamic audience as much as to an American [one].
CP:How do you read the offer of truce, that being the unique element in this communiqué?
Scheuer: I think he's very serious about it. I don't think for a second he believes we'll take him up on it. But he's kind of done as much as he can do to make sure there's no further bloodshed between us and the forces he represents. It was very common, you know, in the era of the prophet—truces came about fairly regularly. There were truces between Saladin and Richard the Lionhearted in the Third Crusade. One of them was as specific as three years and some odd months before the fighting was to resume. From his culture, from his history, this is a very serious offer. I think he expected the kind of curt response he got from Scott McClellan and then from the president and vice president.
This is a very difficult problem for a world that's run on the basis of nation-states. How do you respond to something like this?
CP:The competing popular images of bin Laden in the U.S. seem to run to opposite extremes—he's either the supreme commander of anti-U.S. forces or an isolated, mostly ceremonial figure. Can you describe his place in the firmament of radical Muslim forces aligning against the U.S.?
Scheuer: I think he is the hero and the leader in the Islamic world. But that's not to say that he controls very much beyond his own group. The two things I would point out are that, one, for a man of his stature in the world, he probably has as little ego as I've ever seen in a leader. He's a man who clearly wants to control his own organization, but outside of that he's never really shown much interest in controlling other groups.
The other thing people tend to forget, or to lose in the rhetoric, is that when he outlined his aims in 1996, the first one—and it still is the first one—was to incite jihad around the world. He regarded al Qaeda and his role not as an instrument of American defeat, but as an instrument that would incite the jihad that would spur America's defeat. He saw his job as encouraging other groups to join in. Picking a number is kind of a mug's game, but now we have 40 or 50 groups around the world that fight, sometimes locally, but also have an intention of attacking the United States. So in his main goal, of incitement, he's been singularly successful.
CP:Can you talk about the role that the Iraq war has played in his recruiting successes?
Scheuer: I have to tell you, Sir, I'm not an expert on Iraq. I don't know what the threat was from Saddam. My own judgment is, as a nation-state [Saddam's Iraq] was probably containable. But our invasion of Iraq broke the back of our counter-terrorism policy, because it validated in the Islamic mind so much of what bin Laden had said through the past decade. He said, Americans will do anything to defeat a strong Muslim government. We took Saddam out. He said we would take on and defeat any Muslim state that threatened Israel. I think Iraq is an indication of that being true, from their perspective. He said we would occupy their sanctities and try to destroy their religion. From the Islamist's perspective, we occupy all three of their sanctities now—the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and Jerusalem. The Israelis hold Jerusalem, but increasingly in the Islamic world, Americans and Israelis are viewed interchangeably. He said we were going to try to take all the oil from the Muslim world. And certainly the view predominates that one of the reasons we went to Iraq was oil.
And so, in terms of perception, the Iraq war was a validation of what bin Laden had said. In addition, bin Laden and Zawahiri are not trained Islamic clerics or jurists. The argument was always made that they had no authority, therefore, to declare a jihad. Well, when we invaded Iraq, it was kind of a textbook example of an event that necessitates jihad in the Islamic world. Now, any number of well-credentialed clerics and jurists and scholars have authorized jihad against the United States around the world, because we invaded a Muslim land. In my view, the invasion of Iraq accelerated the transformation of al Qaeda from a man and an organization into a philosophy and a movement.
We're at the point where it's still very important to kill—preferably to kill, or else to capture—Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri. But because of Iraq, our problem is far from over if that happens.
CP:From the standpoint of practical politics, do you think bin Laden and his associates feel obliged to make the next attack on U.S. soil more spectacular than the last?
Scheuer: That's certainly what they have promised. And one of the things I've tried to point out when I've been interviewed is that, objectively, if you examine bin Laden's rhetoric, the correlation between words and deeds is pretty much—close to perfect. One of the things he always stressed from the very first days of al Qaeda was, I intend to incrementally ratchet up the severity of the pain I cause Americans until they begin to listen and change their policies. So my answer would be yes. To keep true to his world, which seems to be a major concern for him, the next attack on America will have to be more damaging than 9/11.
CP:You spoke on 60 Minutes over a year ago about bin Laden's seeking and obtaining the fatwa to use nuclear weapons against the U.S. Do you think it's his wish to use nuclear weapons in his next attack?
Scheuer: Sure. If he has them, he'll use them. It's not like he's looking for a deterrent. In old Cold War terms, he's looking for a first-strike weapon. One of the problems we have in the West, and particularly in America, is we view him as kind of a person who wouldn't have anything else to do if he wasn't killing and fighting. Clearly he would. America is not their first target. Their first targets are the Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, that are tyrannies, and Israel. We're being attacked because bin Laden has argued that the other targets, the more important targets, are easy pickings if they can drive us out of the Middle East. One of the ways they look to do that is to create a situation in the United States that is so destructive, in terms of the economic impact and casualties, that it would take the U.S. military to administer the after-effects of the attack. Clearly their preference is for a nuclear-type weapon.
CP:How feasible do you think it is for an organization of their profile and resources to obtain a nuclear weapon?
Scheuer: Well, you know, money is never a problem. We make a lot of noise about taking their money, but we've taken very little of their money. To put it bluntly, they're not stupid enough to use the Western economic system. So that's one thing we shouldn't bank on. In 1996, we acquired the information that since 1992 they'd been trying to get one of these weapons, and have developed a unit that features technicians and engineers and hard scientists, to prevent themselves from being scammed.
We know—well, I didn't know it until the election campaign, when Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry were arguing about whether the Soviet nuclear arsenal should be under control by 2007 or 2010, but the Soviet nuclear arsenal is not all accounted for. When you add all these things up—the availability, the expertise available to them, and the virtually unlimited amounts of money they can bring to bear—I think we would be foolish not to think that they could do it.
There's a book called Nuclear Terrorism by a man named Graham Allison from Harvard, who is kind of the premier expert on the possibility of nuclear terrorism in the Western world. In that book, he points out that the only really difficult part about constructing a nuclear weapon is acquiring the fissile material, the highly enriched uranium or the plutonium. After that, the machining of the trigger and the containers and all the rest is not very hard at all. It's college-level physics. Certainly that kind of expertise is available to Osama bin Laden. I sat in on an unclassified briefing from a couple of our national laboratories, Sandia and Los Alamos, and they basically mirrored what Graham Allison had said. That basically, if you can acquire the fissile materials, you've done the hardest part of the job. I think we would be silly to assume they can't do it. Which is one reason I've been so outspoken about trying to control our borders.
CP:Could you comment briefly on the command-and-control structure of al Qaeda? I think most Americans have the notion of a paramilitary group with clear lines of top-down control. Is that correct, or is it more akin to a consortium of venture capitalists pursuing different objectives in different locales?
Scheuer: I think it's both. Bin Laden has always been someone who welcomed ideas, which, if he liked them, he would help to fund or train for. But in terms of attacks inside the United States, that is one part of his organization that he has always maintained personal command and control over. We argue quite frequently that he can't communicate, and that he's isolated. The one thing I hope we learn from last week's statement is that that argument may not be correct. He dominated the international media for three days at a time of his choosing.
If you can expose your telecommunication system to a satellite, you can communicate from anywhere in the world. He has all the money he needs. It's a very dangerous thing to assume he can't communicate.
CP:Any additional thoughts regarding the latest communiqué?
Scheuer: The only thing I've tried to say to people is that this is a very serious man, and a very talented one. He's a very terse man in many ways. He doesn't say things just for the sake of saying them. He is a man well acquainted with the power of silence, I think. When he says something, given the correlation between what he's said and what he's done in the past, I think he deserves a lot of respect and—I don't want to say fear, but respect as an enemy is something that we don't give him. My own inclination is to say that the decks are pretty much cleared now. He would not have said what he said if he wasn't prepared to attack us.
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