Thursday, January 14, 2010

Brilliant Defender or Light-Weight? Some problems in the thinking of Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center

By Barry Rubin

Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, gave a very interesting interview to the alumni magazine of his old college, Columbia University. I analyze some of the points made not to criticize Leiter but to point out some basic ideas held by the people responsible for protecting America and Americans from terrorist attacks.

We might as well begin by the statement I found most disturbing:

“I’m often asked if it’s a coincidence that we haven’t been attacked since 9/11, and the answer is flatly no.”

Not attacked? True, there has been no large-scale September 11 type operation but the number of small attacks or incidents that might represent terrorist attacks has risen very sharply. Like a police department that claims success in fighting crime by reinterpreting the statistics, U.S. officials have systematically classified Islamist terrorist events as something else.

Of course, Leiter’s statement sounds ironic in light of the Detroit underpants’ bombing but how about the Fort Dix plan, Fort Hood, the apparent preparations to attack Fort Bragg, and the assassination of an army recruiter in Arkansas (there does seem to be a pattern here, doesn’t there?), the shooting at the El Al counter in Los Angeles, the murder at the Jewish community center in Spokane (another pattern), and so on?

Perhaps Leiter meant to say there haven’t been successful attacks in most cases but that is also not quite true, though it is legitimate for officials like him to claim they have achieved a number of successes.

If the threat is being underrated, however, and terrorist attacks attributed to, say, mental instability, and attacks by individuals are being downplayed, this means the danger to the public is higher.

Leiter attributed the successes to three things; the first two are somewhat ironic after the Detroit operation:

“First, the U.S. government is much better prepared and organized; we share information today in ways that we never thought possible on September 10, 2001. Today, the information that flows through this building is from the CIA, the FBI, the military, DHS, all of them coming together to make sure that we don’t have gaps. Second, we’ve elevated our defenses in ways that simply make it a lot harder for al-Qaida or its sympathizers to get into or operate in the United States. Some of that obviously has negative repercussions — the way in which we screen travelers, and visas and the like.”

All of these factors failed in the Detroit case.

The third factor is, “The U.S. government’s offensive actions in Afghanistan and in that region have disrupted attacks and al-Qaida’s ability to recruit, train, and send people overseas.”

This is true but perhaps misunderstands the nature of terrorism. If you are under pressure in Afghanistan, you simply move operations elsewhere, to Yemen for example. Leiter acknowledges this by defining the three areas of greatest concern as the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, Yemen, and Somalia. The last place he adds could see an al-Qaida takeover of the government. That’s all reasonable though it is strange he doesn’t mention Iraq, perhaps because the administration’s line is that this problem has been solved?

What I also find disturbing is his conception of the broader threat:

“More than 50 percent of terrorism victims in 2008 were Muslim, which is a very powerful reminder that this is not about the West being at war with Islam. This is Al-Qaida completely perverting a wonderful, peaceful religion, leading to death and suffering for Muslims in many parts of the world.”

He is right about the West not being at war with Islam—I think the first person to say that after September 11 was President George W. Bush. Yet this statement is misleading, too. While more than 50 percent of terrorism victims are Muslims many of these casualties were inflicted by groups that aren’t part of al-Qaida.

Of course, it is the government line that the United States is only at war with al-Qaida, and indeed al-Qaida is the main group whose principal priority is attacking the United States. But if the West isn’t at war with Islam, isn’t it at war with revolutionary Islamist groups that attack U.S. allies, try to destroy American interests, and sometimes also target Americans?

A second problem is that al-Qaida remains very popular among Muslims, especially when it kills infidels. Consider Leiter’s main example to prove that followers of a wonderful, peaceful religion cheer on al-Qaida and similar groups:

“In places like Jordan that have experienced horrendous suicide attacks, like the bombing of the wedding in Amman in 2005, we have seen that al-Qaida’s message has not resonated, in large part because people understand that al-Qaida does not have a positive message.”

But all this says, in effect, is that if al-Qaida kills Muslims that makes it unpopular among Muslims while if it kills non-Muslims it—and other Islamist terrorist groups—becomes more popular.

This isn’t an argument that al-Qaida is unpopular, only that it should—like Hamas, Hizballah, and some other groups—focus more on killing non-Muslims. Many Muslim clerics are praised in the West for “opposing” terrorism and saying it is against Islam when they are really only opposing and rejecting terrorism targeted at Muslims.

It reminds me of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying:

“We’ve admired the way Pakistan has pulled together to go after those elements of the Taliban that are directly threatening them. And I think that the people of Pakistan are so unified now in support of this military action” Consider this bizarrely self-subverting first sentence. Isn’t it great, she says, that Pakistan is fighting those Taliban types who are trying to take over the country and kill them. Well, of course they are! Is it hard to understand that they don't want to be murdered and overthrown?

But the problem, of course, is that Pakistan isn’t going after those elements of the Taliban that are not "directly threatening" them. In fact, as most recently attested by a freed New York Times reporter who the Taliban had been holding hostage, Pakistani intelligence is helping the Taliban and other terrorists who want to kill Americans or Indians!

He is correct in saying that “al-Qaida’s ultimate goal is to establish a caliphate across the Middle East, into North Africa, and into parts of Asia, and expel the United States and Westerners and Israel from that caliphate.” Yet isn’t that a view shared by Iran and many other groups. They might just be going about it in a more clever manner, trying to seize control of their own countries (Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Palestinians) rather than targeting America first, even at times using peaceful means like elections.

Perhaps this isn’t Leiter’s job to identify since he is running the defense of America against terrorist attack rather than the State or Defense department. How does he define the terrorists’motives?

“I wouldn’t try to attribute one set of reasons to everyone who identifies with this vision. They have a variety of reasons. American and Western policies have certainly had an influence, as has corruption in their own countries, a lack of what they believe is a true political voice, and a lack of economic opportunity. There are a wide variety of drivers behind why a 19-year-old in Yemen or Somalia or Islamabad or Morocco would identify with al-Qaida.”

But what about ideology, an ideology which is underpinned by an interpretation of Islam which doesn’t seem so far-fetched given the contents of that religion’s texts? And again, al-Qaida is a small group, far exceeded by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizballah, certain groups in Turkey, or the regimes in Iran and (non-Islamist but pretending to be a paragon of Islamism) Syria.

Leiter hopes that in five years the threat will be diminished because al-Qaida has been weakened, hasn’t appealed to more people, while the “U.S. government is simply better at defending itself…and we can do it in a more targeted way that people feel more comfortable with. There are fewer questions about our improperly infringing on people’s civil liberties.”

I would suspect that the fewer questions might have more to do with the change in the White House rather than any alteration in security measures. As for his point that “al-Qaida’s message simply isn’t resonating with the world,” I think that’s misleading. The historic role of al-Qaida was not to lead the movement but to inspire other groups with more flexible strategies to become powerful.

“The U.S. is not at war with Islam,” he says, “al-Qaida is at war with Islam.” But is that what most Muslims think? He continues:

“The U.S. and Muslim-majority countries throughout the world are actually a partnership, and that partnership involves combating al-Qaida, but also building hope inside those countries. It’s about messaging through both words and action; it’s providing the aid that can build the schools that can teach the children and create economic opportunity, and showing that our power will be used to help these nations and these people advance in a way that al-Qaida doesn’t even pretend to offer.”

Yes, the United States and the governments of Muslim-majority countries threatened by al-Qaida—notably Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia but not Iran or Syria or Pakistan—are on the same side. Of course, he still has to explain why Jordan and Saudi Arabia give money and let their citizens go to Iraq to join al-Qaida and kill Americans. Maybe it isn’t so simple.

But he is over the edge in talking about how these “partners” are working with the United States to build hope or create better economic conditions. They aren’t changing and won’t unless Islamists take over and change the regimes which would make things worse. Leiter’s descent into fantasy is a bit disturbing. This isn’t his jurisdiction but he’s reflecting the administration line.

“Build the schools that can teach the children?” But teach them what? There are a lot of schools in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, for example, that teach them basic ideas which prepares the groundwork for Islamists teaching them that what’s needed is a revolution and the killing of infidels. That’s the kind of simple-minded American development and higher living standards as a solution to everything that renders people like Leiter incapable of understanding the world.

Still, he might be doing a good job at defeating threats within the United States. Let’s hope so.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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