Canada: The Cell Next Door

INTERVIEW With Michael Scheuer

Michael Scheuer

Michael Scheuer

“He [bin Laden] is clearly an odd combination of a 12th-century theologian and a 21st-century CEO. He runs an absolutely unique organization in the Islamic world. It's multiethnic, multilinguistic, multinational. ”

As a senior intelligence analyst in 1996, Scheuer was in charge of a special CIA unit created to capture and kill Osama bin Laden. Since leaving the CIA in 2004, Sheuer has become a fierce critic of the White House and its handling of the Iraq war and the fight against global terrorism. In this wide-ranging interview with FRONTLINE/World reporter Linden MacIntyre, Scheuer discusses the state of domestic security, what he calls "the spectacular hypocrisy" of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the complex role of allies such as Pakistan in the global jihad. Scheuer also discusses the significance of bin Laden today, more than five years after the 9/11 attacks, and the likelihood of more and larger-scale attacks on U.S. soil. This is an edited transcript of an interview that took place in September 2006.

Q: How would you describe the current security situation in the United States?

A: I think it's probably more hopeful than it was on 9/11. But certainly we can't claim we're well protected.

Q: What makes it more hopeful?

A: Well, there are certain pockets of improvement. The one that I think is most important is that state and local law enforcement levels have started to do a lot more educative efforts within their organizations to understand the kind of threat we're facing. They've given up on the federal level. The FBI continues to be a broken, anachronistic organization, but state and local law enforcement officials are much more attuned to the kind of threat we're facing. I think that's very hopeful, but it's a long-term process.

Q: And yet the world seems more perilous?

A: I think the world is more perilous and America is basically undefended. For me the two touchstones after 9/11 for domestic security were our borders. Not for discriminatory reasons or to stop immigration, but simply to allow law enforcement to find out who is in our country without facing an undocumented pool of aliens that increases by the hour. We haven't done anything. That has devolved into a partisan bickering of the kind that says Nero was fiddling while Rome burned.

The second touchstone for America I think unquestionably was pushing to conclusion the program we had with the Russians to control the Soviet nuclear arsenal. I tend to think that more than anything else, that will come back to haunt us. I heard Senator Luger earlier in the summer [the father of the program to control the arsenal of the former Soviet Union] say that 15years after the fall of the Wall we had only 35 or 36percent of that program completed. And we know that bin Laden has been actively trying to buy weapons since 1992. So when our politicians in both parties say America is safer than it was on 9/11, they're basically whistling past the graveyard.

Q: One of the reasons that politicians proclaim a certain level of safety is that there hasn't been anything happening in five years on this continent.

A: To me that's just a slick cynical politician's trick. They have defined the war simply in terms of the detonation of explosives. When you look at the broader picture, America is mired in two wars that we're losing at the moment. We have a political environment that is as poisonous as anything I've seen, at least since the end of Vietnam. And generally speaking, we just had a poll out this week that showed more than half of Americans believe we're going to be attacked worse than 9/11 in the foreseeable future.

Q: Where does the major danger lie now?

A: For America? That we could very well be defeated oversees and at home. And the source of it is clearly that we have yet to find a politician in either partywho's willing to tell the American people the truth. We continue to be harangued by President Bush and Senator Clinton and former President Clinton and Senator McCain about how Americans must fight this war because we're being attacked because we have freedoms and liberties and women in the workplace and a whole list of ephemera that have nothing to do with this war at all.

We're being attacked, Britain is being attacked, our allies are being attacked because we've installed and backed and implemented a set of policies in the Middle East for the last 30 years or more. And we're being attacked because of what we do, not because of who we are. And by refusing to talk about that, I'm afraid the American people, at least, don't have a good idea of just how dangerous the threat is that we face.

Q: Some people would suggest that to talk about what we're doing wrong when we're under serious attack is to undermine the war effort.

A: Well, I would say that the greatest appeasers, the greatest enemies of America at the moment are the politicians who lead us in both parties because they have not framed the war truthfully. One would think that to undermine failed policies should be applauded rather than criticized. And when you say the policies are what caused this war-- American policies-- that's not to say that they're wrong. It's not to say that the policies were made by madmen or evil people. It's simply to say that you better understand the motivation of your enemy if you're going to defeat him. And the man who is motivated by a belief that his religion is being attacked by a superpower is much more dangerous than a man who's mad at you because you have women in the workplace.

Q: After 9/11 there seemed to be a global consensus that America was the good guy, something bad had happened, and we had better start thinking and talking. How big a setback has Iraq been?

A: Iraq broke our back in terms of counterterrorism. There's no doubt about it. The first thing, though, that hurt us was the fact that the U.S. military was absolutely unprepared to do anything on 9/11-- or 9/12 or 9/13. And by the time we actually attacked Afghanistan, al Qaeda and the Taliban had dispersed. I've said before: If Osama bin Laden was a Christian, Iraq was the Christmas present he always wanted but never expected his parents to give. It validated for the Muslim world virtually all of bin Laden's rhetoric. He had always said the Americans will destroy any strong Muslim regime, and we did. Any strong Muslim regime that threatens Israel, and we did. He said the Americans only want oil, and, of course, Iraq has the second-largest reserves. And he said that we will always replace God's law with manmade law. And finally that we intended to occupy and destroy Islamic sanctities. And I suspect that in our government, very few people knew that Iraq was the second-holiest place in Islam, after the Arabian Peninsula.

Q: What is the risk of this mutating into a conflagration that becomes even larger in that region?

A: What is the risk of this mutating into a conflagration that becomes even larger in that region? think we watch it mutating every day. The whole importance of Iraq is that we have now created two things. One, Iraq is in the Arab heartland in terms of an attraction for people who want to fight the Americans and their allies. It's far greater than anything Afghanistan was aftertheSoviets invaded. It's easy to get to, there's no trouble with languages. Every mujahadeen who comes in from outside the country finds an environment where Arabic is spoken. So in that sense, it's a tremendous come-on for the young in Islam. But I think much more important is, it just validates so much of what the Muslim world is predisposed to believe.

Q: Which is what?

A: We now have 15 years of very reliable polling by Western firms in the Islamic world, in multiple Islamic countries. And invariably, the question that asks, "Do you view U.S. foreign policy as an attack on Islam and Muslims?" is maxed out. Whether it's Jordan or Indonesia or Egypt, you get 80,85 percent of people saying "Yes."

And at the same time, in the same countries, when they ask the question, "Do you hate America because they're Americans in the way they live?" majorities-- and sometimes large majorities-- say, "No." The Americans are basically equitable. They can feed their children. They can educate their children. And so what we've done is play to the wrong side of the polling chart, if you will.

Q: Whether we like the kind of governments they have in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is one issue. But to what extent are we destabilizing those societies and feeding into the agenda of an Osama bin Laden?

A: I think you can take the recent war in Lebanon as a very good example of how this plays. The Americans and their allies clearly stood back-- clearly in the eyes of Muslims-- and basically said to the Israelis, "Do what you need to do, and we'll hold the ring for you and not call a cease-fire." That perception in the Muslim world very much played to the anti-American sentiment. But more important, I think, is the criticism bin Laden has made publicly over the past 10 years that Muslim governments cannot even protect their own people. And more than that, they'll often collude with the infidels. And if you recall, the initial reaction of the Arab league was to criticize Hezbollah and damn Hezbollah for the war. And they eventually had to turn 180degrees and support Hezbollah.

So in a sense, that little war in the Levant had a horrendous effect in terms of the stability of countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, over the long term. Because once again, it proved to Muslims that their governments couldn't protect them and would side with the enemy.

Q: We hear hawks in this country saying the hammer is cocked, ready to move on Iran, ready to move on Pakistan if things don't work out the right way. How realistic is that?

A: I'm not in the government any more. I don't know what our capabilities are. If I were there, I think it would be nutty to do that. The only country on Earth more containable than Iran is Iraq. And we've certainly made a mistake there. We could have continued Saddam. But the Iranians are surrounded by a sea of Sunnis who hate them. And if you look on the map, you can see that they're also surrounded by a bunch of American bases that certainly could hit them at any moment. The idea that the Iranians are a threat to the United States is absurd really. How are they going to hurt the United States of America? Unless we attack them first and then they use terrorism inside America. But otherwise, they're ultimately a containable country, led by a man who certainly knows how to make Western politicians jump when he says something. If the Americans attack Iran for the first time in 1,400 years, we may unite Sunnis and Shias against us. So I guess there is room for accomplishment everywhere.

Q: Assuming it isn't over yet and it isn't going to be over for a while, to use the cancer analogy, where will the thing pop up next in the metastasizing process?

A:Well, I think clearly Europe has a lot to worry about. When I was working at the CIA-- and I always worked with a lot of European services-- they always were very condescending toward the United States, saying that we are so racist vis-à-vis blacks and other people. And walking around European cities over the course of 20 years, it was clear to me that the racism was on the other foot, that really, society in Europe was much more racist-- vis-à-vis Arabs at least and black Africans-- than American society.

So I think they have a problem. Although my own view is that bin Laden does not want to stage an attack that looks like 9/11 in Europe simply because he does not want to be the agent of Trans-Atlantic reconciliation. I think they will continue to do attacks like Madrid, the British attack, the subway systems, because those attacks have proven that the European response so far has been to blame the domestic government, not to side with the Americans. I think we'll see it mostly in the United States. We're getting to the point where al Qaeda is ready to again attack us inside America. I think we're basically defenseless.

Q: Nobody knows where or when or what, but what can you tell us about the nature of this threat?

A: Well, the next attack in the United States will be larger than 9/11. And there's no doubt that if they have a weapon of mass destruction, they'll use it.

Q: Why are you so certain that it will be larger than 9/11?

A: There is a direct correlation between what al Qaeda says and what it does. And the one thing that has been the gold standard of correlation has been bin Laden's 1995-- or was it 1996?-- pledge that every attack is going to be more powerful than the last. If you go back to the first attack in Yemen in 1992 and chart it out, every attack has been more powerful, more destructive than the last one.

Q: How big a mistake has it been, first, to screen out the messages of Osama bin Laden and second, to characterize him as a maniac, which he clearly isn't?

A: One of the problems of not allowing the American people to read what bin Laden has said is that in October 2001 just after the war began in Afghanistan, he gave a speech that had two parts to it. The first part was basically, "We're engaged, we al Qaeda are engaged in a war now. I'm not going to be able to speak as often as I did before, but don't worry, I'll be OK." The second part was, "Don't worry if you don't see more attacks immediately on America because we don't have to terrorize them any more. Their government and their media will so terrorize the Americans that they'll begin to constrict their civil liberties themselves." And I think we've seen that. I think one of the most destructive things in terms of American security has been for all of our leaders, without exception in both parties, to identify Osama bin Laden as a gangster or as a madman, as an apocalyptic character who's out to destroy our civilization.

It's very clear from what he said, what his lieutenants have said, that America is not even their main enemy. We're simply in the way of what they want to do in their own world, which is to destroy police states and Israel. By telling the Americans that this guy is just a nut cake and that he represents the lunatic fringe of the Muslim world and we're going to arrest these people one at a time and bring them to justice, we have deliberately, I think, underinformed the American people about the breadth of the threat and the danger of the threat.

Q: You've described bin Laden in the same terms that are usually reserved for America's most revered patriots. Explain to me how you get away with it.

A: Well, I don't think I try to get away with anything. What I tried to do is to present the evidence that's available and that no one has been able to refute. Not even the Arab governments who own their media have been able to denigrate bin Laden as a man. He is clearly an odd combination of a 12th-century theologian and a 21st-century CEO. He runs an absolutely unique organization in the Islamic world. It's multiethnic, multilinguistic, multinational. He is a combat veteran, three times wounded. He has a huge reputation in the Islamic world for generosity and leadership. He's a man who speaks eloquent, almost poetic Arabic, according to Bernard Lewis. And in a culture that values oral communication above all other kinds, that's a tremendous advantage. And he's obviously a very devout, some would say vigorous, fanatic Muslim believer. All of those things create a personality that is not abnormal in psychological terms. He's just a good man in his culture waging war against us.

Q: What's your prognosis of the next five years?

A: Right now the major problem for America is we're losing two wars. We're losing in Afghanistan, we're losing in Iraq. And there seems very little likelihood that we're going to increase the number of troops we have in either place to the point that we can prevail. So I think over the next five years we'll probably be gone from both places. And Afghanistan would be less of a problem if we managed to kill bin Laden and Zwahiri before we leave. Iraq, on the other hand, is a place where if we leave, we really sign the death warrant for Jordan, probably for Syria. In an odd way, we have really destroyed two of our strongest allies against the Islamists. Saddam Hussein, and we've probably fatally undermined Bashir al Assad in Syria.

Whatever you think of those governments, as governments they were death on wheels when it came to the Islamists. And now they're both gone. So what we've managed to do in the global sense is move the center of the jihad a thousand kilometers west toward the main part of the Middle East, by putting it in Iraq. And really, if it wasn't so tragic, it would be amusing. Sharon, the Likudites and the Neoconservatives in America have made Israeli security more tenuous than it's been since the founding of Israel.

Q: Pick up on the point you were making about the tragic irony of these efforts by Sharon, Likud and their conservative and neoconservative supporters here.

A: I think what history will show is that one of the most tragic results of the war in Iraq will be that although Sharon, the Likudites, the Neoconservatives in our country, President Bush and the Democratic party thought the war in Iraq and destroying Saddam would benefit Israeli security, we're seeing absolutely that the war in Iraq has probably put Israeli security in a more tenuous condition than it's been in since the founding of the Israeli state.

In terms of Iraq, al Qaeda valued Iraq because we destroyed a government it wanted destroyed and because we put soldiers on the ground and forces that they could attack. Al Qaeda is basically an insurgent organization that was formed on the model of the Afghan groups. And being bred in that war, they value a contiguous safe haven as much as anything else.

One of the reasons they didn't go to Bosnia, bin Laden has explained extensively, was because they couldn't establish a base anywhere. Not in Catholic Croatia. Not in Orthodox Serbia. So they sent some trainers and a lot of money.

They've always felt the same way about Israel. They can't get close enough to grab it, so they attack it in Nairobi or in Istanbul or in Tunisia. But they haven't been able to get at Israel.

Iraq now, for the first time, gives al Qaeda and its allies contiguous safe-haven territory to train and launch attacks into the Levant. First into Jordan and Syria, and then into Lebanon, and virtually and ultimately into Israel and probably Egypt too. It also gives them haven to eventually work their way toward Turkey and into the Arabian Peninsula.

Q: I wonder if it has not given fairly specific nourishment to the development of potentially dangerous cell groups in places like the United States and Canada and Britain.

A: When you cut down to the micro-level in the West, I think we have a great deal to be worried about. And it's odd because the American leadership, again in both parties, tends to take comfort in the idea that bin Laden is just an inspirational symbol now. But since November 2005, we've had two cells in Australia-- in Melbourne and in Sydney-- we've had one in Toronto, we've had two in London, one in Miami. We've had a cell that was outside the United States but focused on attacks on New York City. And most recently, we've had a couple of people who were planning to bomb trains in Germany.

The common denominator of all these groups is that they were responding to some impact of Western foreign policy, usually Iraq. The other common denominator is they had no direct connection back to al Qaeda in terms of funding or commanding control. These were not operatives of Osama bin Laden.

And yet when we arrested them, the men who were arrested either through their words or through the documents we captured when we arrested them, very clearly were inspired to do what they were doing by bin Laden's rhetoric or by the deeds of al Qaeda. And to me that's a very, very dangerous situation because we have added a third level of threat to the threat we face.

We have not destroyed al Qaeda, so we still have that to worry about. We have its traditional allies, the Kashmiri groups, the groups that are operating now in Iraq, and now we have a third tier of threat amongst the Muslims that live in the West and who are inspired to do something against the West by the example of the other two tiers.

Q: We tend to look on the homegrown jihadis as teenagers, crazy …

A: Initial incompetence is not a reason to be dismissive of capabilities. Al Qaeda itself was incompetent when it started as a terrorist organization. And clearly it's gone from blowing themselves up to knocking down the World Trade Center.

If you look at groups in the Palestine region, Hamas and the Palestine Islamic jihad, more often than not in their first operations they would accidentally blow themselves up on the way to the target or the bomb wouldn't go off.

I think it's very instructive to look at a man like Ramsey Ahmad Yousef, who almost brought down the World Trade Center in 1993. He's short some fingers, his body is scarred, he's missing an eye-- because he was practicing and not getting it right. But eventually they get it right.

And so to dismiss these homegrown terrorists as boobs, which is one of the terms that was used in one of the New York newspapers after the Miami raid, is true now, but to bet on that is I think a sure way to lose your bank account.

Q: How concerned should we be by the frequency with which these things connect back? I mean these little cells-- in Australia, Canada, the United States, various places-- link back to Pakistan.

A: The Western world doesn't really give enough credit to the importance in history of the Soviet invasion and the subsequent war in Afghanistan. For us it was a sideshow of the Cold War. For the Islamic world it was an unprovoked infidel invasion of a Muslim country not unlike Iraq. And the fact that the Muslim world, over the course of a decade, rallied and defeated a superpower is an extraordinary symbol in the Islamic world today. You have to remember they were soundly thrashed over the last century by the West, and in the last 50years, three times by the Indians, three times by the Israelis. And so a victory against the Soviets is huge.

The second part of that war was that Muslims came from all over the country to Pakistan, and they met each other. For the first time those men had an awareness of the Islamic world as a whole, not of just Egypt or Algeria or Indonesia, but of what Muslims call the Uma, the Islamic community. And that's an extraordinarily important thing. And that emanated in Pakistan.

Q: You mentioned that we err when we say that the global jihad, driven by the inspiration of al Qaeda, is a matter of social justice issues, that it's not. But in your writings you say that we make a big mistake by undervaluing the role of foreign policy. Can you explain that for me?

A: Islam is a civilization that is fractured linguistically, ethnically, sectarian-wise, as ours is. What bin Laden has done, though, is to identify a number of issues that are tangible and visceral for Muslims. His indictment list of Western support for Arab tyranny, our ability to keep oil prices too low-- at least until recently-- our occupation of the Arabian Peninsula. This list of things is clear. It's validated by Arabic satellite television. But more important than that, it gives, for example, a Chechen Muslim and a Muslim in Mindanao-- who have virtually no commonalities in culture, language, climate, employment, anything-- something they can both agree on.

Q: That appeals to the intellect of a grownup. What is the basis for his appeal to teenagers and young adults?

A: Religion. Just as some of the most ardent political ideologues in the West are young people, revolutionaries, the '60s generation,-- in Islam some of the most religious people are the youngsters. But more important than that, the prophet-- in his writings, in his traditions-- and the Koran itself say that the Muslim youth are the ones whom the future depends on and that it's up to them to do the fighting.

Q: Presenting the option of democracy to this part of the world, the Middle East: Why does that not work?

A: First of all, there's no separation of church and state in the Islamic world. They're one and the same. And so when President Bush or Senator Kerry or Prime Minister Blair says, "Look, adopt our secular democracy, look at how good we've done. We have a wonderful level of standard of living for our people," what many Muslims hear is, "Turn your back on God and follow what men say." And so there's another disconnect. But I also think that there is a huge failure in the American education system to educate Americans about where we, our system, our government, came from. And to some extent this failure is shared in places like Britain and Canada and Australia.

You can forgive your leaders for not knowing the intricacies of Islamic history. You cannot forgive them for not knowing their own. And when you look at American democracy, where did it start? It started, if you need to pick a point, at Runnymede in 1215. We have now been at this process, we and our English-speaking allies, for 800 years. We've gone thorough religious wars and civil wars. America has gone through slavery, we've all gone through two world wars, segregation. Ultimately it's been a bloody, trying, wasteful, but eventually positive struggle.

To believe as apparently Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush believe, that you could put that 800years of history on a CD ROM and give it to Chalabi in Iraq or Karzai in Afghanistan and say you have six months or a year to get this up and running, to me that's not Chalabi's fault if it fails, or Karzai's fault if it fails. It's the fault of Americans who are ignorant of how long and how hard it was to get from 1215 to 2006.

Q: How big a problem is it that when you are preaching democracy for the Middle East, you are counting among your closest friends the Saudi Arabians, the Egyptians and the Jordanians, who are terrified of the word.

A: There is no way to avoid the reality that the American government in the past 20years has been the most spectacularly hypocrisy-driven government in the world. We rival the Soviet Union in some stages, in some ways, in hypocrisy. You cannot possibly expect even the most illiterate person on Earth to believe that you really want a democracy in Iraq while you are paying Mubarak $3 billion a year to pretend he doesn't hate Israel. And you're providing the military and diplomatic umbrella that protects the fascist government, if you will, of the al Sauds.

Q: You were in the Clinton administration. You were the guy whose job it was to chase bin Laden, before chasing bin Laden became cool. How close did you come to catching him?

A: I think it's important for everyone to know that we had 10 opportunities to capture or kill Osama bin Laden between May of 1998 and May of 1999.

Q: Ten? In one calendar year?

A: Ten in one calendar year. We could have tried twice using CIA assets to capture him. And eight times we provided the Clinton administration and the Department of Defense, the military, with precise targeting information of where he was. And I'm not talking about the general neighborhood. For example, in the middle of May 1999, we knew in which building and in which room in the building bin Laden was sleeping for five consecutive nights in Kandahar City.

It's always amazing to me. You know, President Bush, I think, deserves a lot of criticism for a lot of things that he's done. But until 9/11, when he was president, he never had a chance to capture or kill Osama bin Laden because we couldn't find him. It was the Clinton administration that really could have ended the bin Laden part of this threat.

Q: An obvious question: Why didn't you?

A: I know these days it sounds a little odd, but American governments are very fearful of European reaction. They were afraid we would be considered gunslingers. On one occasion, they didn't shoot because they were afraid the shrapnel from the missile that would have killed bin Laden would have hit a nearby mosque and offended Muslim opinion.

Of course, the question immediately comes up, how much more could Muslims be offended against the United States? But for what it's worth, that was what happened.

Q: The issue of foreign policy keeps coming up. It is so big and obvious-- what constrains the United States, for example, from addressing just foreign policy issues in dealing with this?

A: Part of it is inertia. Part of it is simply that these policies were established during the Cold War, and it's always easier to keep something than to change it.

These are foreign policies that are tied to the very heart of domestic politics in the United States. Why do we support police states on the Arabian Peninsula? Because we and our allies are dependent on Persian Gulf oil. And until we free ourselves of that dependency, we are going to be tied to Islamo-fascist governments in the Middle East.

And, frankly, for 35 years we have failed in the United States-- the Congress and the Executive branch-- to take the lesson from the 1973 oil embargo and begin to wean ourselves away.

Our relationship with Israel is another reason we're being attacked. But an American politician-- whether Muslim or not-- who criticizes Israel as a martyrdom operation in American politics cannot survive as an official or as a politician.

You become an anti-Semite. And as powerful as the Israeli lobby is, the Saudi lobby is just as powerful. In fact, the Saudis probably have more money to throw around, and they suborn former U.S. intelligence officials, former ambassadors, former generals to support them from within by lobbying the Congress and other American institutions.

So what we have is an American foreign policy that is inextricably linked to domestic matters. It is very dangerous for a politician who desires nothing more than to stay in office to address the mindset that any change in policy is appeasement. And Americans will accept that for a certain amount of time.

Q: But the other side of the equation is that the United States keeps tinkering with domestic policy that impinges on the fundamental rights of Americans.

A: What we face is a scared populace, and because it's scared, it's willing to put up with what I think are inevitably more moves toward the constriction of civil liberties, mobility within the country, the ability to travel overseas, all of those things we have long taken for granted.

The key to the situation is, unfortunately, Osama bin Laden. When he attacks us again in the United States and we have many times more casualties than we had in 9/11, the American people are going to see that everything we've done to protect ourselves has basically been a waste of money and that the idea that we're safer than we were at 9/11 is wrong.

It's going to become clear that the impact of our policies rather than our way of life is what's attracting animosity and warfare on us. And I think there is going to be a surge from the bottom up that will begin to straighten things out. Because Americans, in the long run, are not going to want their daughters and their sons to die overseas so the al Saud family can continue raping Saudi Arabia's revenue.

I also think the Israelis are wrong in not looking for a change in the relationship with the United States that would put it more in perspective-- that we are the great power, they are the minor power. I don't think there are a great many American parents who will want to sacrifice their soldiers and children so Israel can maintain the West Bank.

When that becomes clear, I think Israel's days are numbered as an ally that is never questioned or criticized.



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