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 Next Attack

In your new book which you've written with Steven Simon, called The Next Attack, and I will show it to our audience, you take up the story after 9/11. You both are very critical of the Bush administration's response. Why did the Bush administration get it wrong, and how did they get it wrong?

We wrote this book, The Next Attack, in large measure because we thought there were two lessons from 9/11 that no one could overlook. book coverOne of them was that, yes, there are non-state actors who are as dangerous as states now, and the other one was that our foremost enemy, the radical Islamist terrorist groups, are a different kind of enemy from anyone that we faced in the past. The danger is that its ideology would spread, if we aren't careful, and that it is more ideologically driven than any foe we've had in the past.

We talk about the Cold War as being an ideological struggle, but in many ways, the ideological part of the struggle was over very early in the United States, because no one believed that Communism could either deliver the goods or provide something that would compensate for the loss of Western-style freedoms. In this case, we were saying we want to understand how the Jihadists' ideology is appropriating key parts of Islam to make its argument and to try to win over converts, and that requires a special kind of strategy. Our feeling is that the Bush administration refused to recognize this, and since the core of the Jihadist argument is that the United States is our metaphysical foe -- it's preordained, and it seeks to occupy Muslim countries, steal Muslim wealth and destroy the faith -- well, then if that is the fundamental argument you have to deal with, then it's not wise to go invade a Muslim country if you don't absolutely have to. We also believe that we did not need to because we knew the intelligence record about al Qaeda and Saddam, and the lack of cooperation there.

So, in a way, the Bush administration was fighting in Iraq the wrong adversary, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and in the process creating a greater problem, namely this new form of non-state terrorism.

That's absolutely true. We inadvertently confirmed the narrative of our opponent, and that's had disastrous effects. The metaphor of stirring up the bees' nest is not a good one because it assumes that all the bees are in the nest. In this case, we stirred up a bees' nest that both brought bees from outside and created some anger in the nest itself. So, we really did exactly the opposite of what would make sense. We know from numerous sources that the Bush administration, or key members of the Bush administration, saw Iraq as being the pivot, the focal point, of all evil in the Middle East and the Muslim world, and could not imagine that Saddam was not tied in with al Qaeda.

Another important point that you're making in the new book is that the nature of the adversary, in addition to having this religious component we've talked about, is evolving over time, and that it is structured, over time, in a way that is not necessarily as we often seem to be perceiving it -- namely hierarchical, with Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri at the head of an organization, and so on. Talk a little about that evolution and how the unintended consequences of our actions in Iraq has fueled that evolution.

Our foe is, first and foremost, a social movement.

In some sense, we were misled by this period of time in which al Qaeda, the organization that carried out 9/11, was acting as a hierarchical, tightly organized group. We came to believe that it was a little army that we had to take down, man by man. As a result, we've put, it seems to me, too much emphasis on the actual body count, on capturing or killing individual terrorists and not enough on undermining the argument, which will prevent others from signing up for the jihad in the way they have.

To answer your question, what we have seen is the rise of a new generation of what we call self-starter terrorists. These are groups that are self-enlisted in the jihad. They're not recruited in mosques, for the most part, or through other channels. They are enamored of bin Laden's ideas, and they are willing to carry out violence on behalf of those ideas without necessarily having any direct contact with the organization itself. This is a very difficult thing for intelligence and law enforcement to cope with.

You use the example of the Madrid bombing as a case where you had self-starters. It's not clear what the connection was with al Qaeda. In addition, an element we haven't yet discussed is these people are very sophisticated at using the Internet to close the process by which they are prepared to engage in a terrorist act, and also as a way to communicate to a broader Muslim audience what their action is and the way it fits into the narrative of our adversary.

Yes, it's absolutely true. We don't know that the Madrid crew had no connections at all to al Qaeda, but we haven't found them, or they haven't been made public yet. This group seems to have constituted itself as a group and trained up and carried out its attack all within six months, and that's just a blink of the eye in terms of terrorism. So, that's a big challenge for the authorities. We don't know yet enough about their use of the Internet, but we do know that others use the Internet extensively.

At the most narrow technical part of the continuum, there's an enormous amount of material on the internet, telling you how to do everything from surveillance, to urban attacks, to any number of different kinds of bombs. You can have someone walk you through bomb making through voiceover internet telephony, you can e-mail someone a little video of how to do the very difficult steps in building a particular bomb. This has allowed the master bomb makers to be far away from the scene of the action, in considerable safety, so they become much harder to take out.

Beyond that, the Internet has had a revolutionary effect on radical Islam, in particular with regard to Iraq, because there is a sort of heroic narrative being broadcast out of Iraq with videos and statements every day, showing how the mujahadeen, the holy warriors, are bloodying the American superpower. For lots of young Muslims, this has become must-see TV, and it has given them a sense of belonging and a sense of being part of an auspicious, heroic development of a kind they've never experienced before.

So that the newest forms of communication become an instrument for furthering the notion of a virtual ummah, an Islamic community, where people can feel a common history, a common identity, and a common sense of victimization, whether there's truth in this or not.

Yes, it's a fascinating development that we see this Internet-propagated sense of community. The interesting thing is that it's a good thing to build community, by and large, but in this case, the community is being built largely, although not exclusively, with solipsist ideology. That means that -- let's say a brand of Islam at the core of which is an idea that you emulate the first generation of the faith, the companions of Mohammed, and with that goes a very Manichean world view and a real sense of isolation, of closure, and of hostility. And so, people are going online learning how to practice their religion and getting with it a whole set of political attitudes that affect their view of the rest of the world, and it is indeed just a dramatic event in history, that now these religious communities, communities of any kind, are being built electronically.

You made the interesting point that there are more potential terrorists coming from places like Europe, where there has been a European-wide failure to integrate Islamic residents of Europe, especially younger people, into European citizenship and employment.

My rule of thumb is that wherever Muslim identity is most challenged, that's where the threat level tends to be highest, and this is certainly true in Europe. First of all, it's a novel historical situation, that you have such a large Muslim diaspora. Muslims, for most of their history, have lived in countries that they ruled and where they were the overwhelming majority. So, there's something novel in all that. In addition, in Europe, the Muslim community came primarily as guest workers who were not expected to stay, and they have stayed, and they do feel aspirations to having the same kind of standard of living, and the same set of benefits, and of national belonging, really, that Frenchmen, Belgians, Germans, and the like all have. But these aspirations have been frustrated, and that's an enormous problem for these communities and a perfect seed-bed for radicalism.

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