Daniel Benjamin Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

National Security in an Age of Sacred Terror: Conversation with Daniel Benjamin, Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., February 6, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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The Nature of "Sacred Terror"

Your first book with Steven Simon, which came out after 9/11, is called The Age of Sacred Terror, and I'm going to show it to the audience. book coverThere are several themes that emerge in this book but one in particular I want to focus on right now, which follows from we were just talking about, and that was the emergence within the Clinton White House, over time, of a sense that something was happening with regard to terrorism that made it qualitatively different. Were there any particular events, or was it a series of events, that led to this new awakening that we have a problem here?

It's important to remember that in the first month that Bill Clinton was in office, terror struck repeatedly. There was the shooting at the CIA where a Pakistani, Mir Aimal Kansi, went up and down the line of cars that were waiting for entrance and shot CIA employees. And then there was the attack on the World Trade Center by Ramzi Yousef.

This would be the first [attack]?

The very first attack -- right -- in 1993. So, the administration was tossed into the deep end pretty quickly. But having said that, terrorism was still considered really a third-level security issue. It was a problem and it had to be dealt with, but it wasn't viewed as a first-tier strategic threat. But that began to change in 1995-96 with two important events. One was the Aum Shinrikyo attack in the Tokyo subway in which the chemical weapon sarin was released -- the first major attack involving a weapon of mass destruction. The other was the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, which was at that point far and away the largest terrorist attack on American soil. In this period, three-digit casualties were really unusual pretty much anywhere, and to have it right there in the heartland was a huge shock. Putting all those things together, there was a sense of a watershed.

Now you point out in this book that in many ways the government apparatus was really not prepared to confront this challenge. I want to talk a little about that, and in addition, the importance of somebody like Richard Clarke, who you identify in the book as a real national asset and who could work the system to move the government toward the beginning of a response.

As I was saying, terrorism was not viewed as a major threat, and if you'd asked a roomful of national security professionals, they would've given you some variant of the famous remark that terrorism is about a few people dead and a lot of people watching. That, historically, had been the case, that terrorists had sought to leverage a small amount of violence into a lot of attention. This had worked for some terrorist groups such as the IRA and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. As a result, the general feeling was yes, we need to have better screening of passengers for airlines, make sure they don't bring guns on board, but beyond that, there's not all that much you have to worry about.

There was a feeling in the administration that the order of the Cold War was giving way to the anarchy of the post- Cold War, and in fact, Tony Lake was fond of speaking of something he called the nexus, which was the cooperative work of terrorists, organized crime, and rogue states. In fact, Tony was extraordinarily prescient and he would tell us to put this in speeches, and I said one day, "Tony, I know it's a serious problem but can you point to an example?" He said, "It hasn't happened yet but it's coming." And he was absolutely right.

White Houses interestingly are sometimes ahead of the curve, because the president's role as "where the buck passes no further," the person who's ultimately responsible, makes people think harder about how new developments can bite you and how they can hurt you, both in a real sense but also in a political sense, because a president's supposed to be thinking ahead. In this case, the White House was doing that, and some of the people who have written about this, such as Steve Coll in his book, Ghost Wars, [have noted that] we really were trying to look at little bit over the horizon. But absent a manifest threat, until you've had something big blown up, it's very hard to move the interagency, move all those different departments to deal with it.

Before Clarke came along, the coordination between the agencies was very minimal. It just wasn't seen as a big enough threat. There was a counterterrorism center at CIA, there was a Secretary's Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department, and so on and so forth, and they worked pretty well together. But in the big scheme of things they didn't have the kind of bureaucratic heft that the Europe bureau at the State Department would, for example.

What was it about Clarke's characteristics that made him such a leader on this particular issue, and really on other issues, too?

Dick was someone who just wasn't prepared to ever take no for an answer. He drove his bureaucratic equals and opponents completely crazy because he would never drop things. The notion of having a sort of gentlemanly agreement to watch and wait was simply not his way. He was a bulldog in interagency deliberations. His former boss, the distinguished American diplomat Morton Abramowitz, said something to the effect that he's a "pile driver." He was unique, and in that regard sometimes his tactics backfired, but for the most part he achieved as much as anyone could have.

You suggested he was a person who could see ahead of the times. He could see where the problems were coming down the road.

One of his real gifts was the ability to see developments unfolding before other people did, and the proof is with catastrophic terrorism, because he was worried about scenarios at the '96 Olympics in Atlanta that no one was thinking about -- for example, planes crashing into event sites. This has also been recounted in the 9/11 report and elsewhere: he was having trains rerouted that had toxic materials aboard them so that they weren't going underneath downtown Atlanta as the games were under way.

In your first book, you and your co-author (and the book, again, is called The Age of Sacred Terror) focus on the important dimension that religion, extreme fundamentalist forms of religion, bring to the terrorism equation. You say, "The fundamental problem is the catalytic reaction of religion and politics." In 2000, even before the book, you and your colleague wrote that there was a "new religiously motivated terrorism that was not constrained by limits on its violence, and the changes in motivation, tools, and weaponry could elevate terrorism from the level of tactical nuisance to strategic threat." What is the dynamic that you were trying to get at there?

We were looking at what had happened in the last decade and we saw that terrorists -- a number of terrorists, at least -- were no longer interested in calibrated violence. They were interested in causing really enormous impact. It was not in the first instance about the drama of the attack, it was about the impact of the attack. We looked at a number of different instances of this. In Oklahoma City we had a young man who had some very, very muddled, but nonetheless very religious ideas about creating a spectacle that would cause a kind of divine intervention in human history, and he needed to kill as many people as possible to make that statement as dramatic as possible. In Japan, with the Aum Shinrikyo case, we had a cult doing what had never been done before, which is trying to kill a significant number of people with a weapon of mass destruction.

Historically, terrorist groups have shunned weapons of mass destruction because it would make them pariahs, it would make it inconceivable that anyone would negotiate with them, and here you had a group that was going full speed ahead in the face of that conventional wisdom, and it was clear that they were about something else. Whether they thought they were going to initiate Armageddon or at least advertise that their vision of world history was correct, they definitely had a religious idea behind their violence. In Israel we had seen the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Now this, of course, is a more familiar kind of story but it was nonetheless interesting: it was [committed] by a religious student who felt that he was carrying out a religious edict in some way, that there was a death sentence on Rabin for proposing to return territory from the land of Israel.

Capping it all off, we had seen the rise of radical Islamist violence, and it was clear from the bombings in east Africa that we were dealing with a new kind of threat. This was an enemy who wanted to show us how much damage he could cause and how global his power was. So, it triggered in us the belief that there were consequences to the global rise of fundamentalism and that this was a tide that was lifting all different religious ships, if you will.

This is an important point that you just made here at the end, which has to be emphasized. You almost have to be a student of comparative religion to see that this phenomenon is happening around the world and in different religions, because sometimes we let our biases get hold of us, and we don't even want to see this problem in our enemies [let alone] people who may also be our allies.

That's absolutely true. I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking that the violent fringes in the other traditions really compare right now to radical Islam. There's no question what the number one threat is for the United States in terms of terrorism. But it is nonetheless true that the last few decades of religious revival in all of these faiths have made a real difference, and with the exception of Western Europe, there is no place on earth where fundamentalism is not on the rise.

In your inventory of the characteristics of these extremists in various religions, let me just do a check-off list here of some of the things that you and your co-author mention. Religious violence is unique, but acts are sacred and they cannot be compromised, no bargaining; the notion of a never-ending war, defeat and destruction of Satan as involved in the war; and there is a thinking of the importance of the end of time and the coming of a Messiah and the Kingdom of God.

When you believe that one of the key audiences for your violence is not on earth, there's an entirely different structure to behavior and to the violence. For us, the bottom line is, if it's divinely ordained, well, the more, the better. That is what makes religiously motivated terror so challenging.

Some people would object that there is a problem in discerning the political from the religious, but I think that it's precisely this focus on the otherworldly that is so important and that makes this kind of violence so worrisome.

Next page: The Evolution of Terrorism

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