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War on Terror

September 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Speaking before the army’s 3rd infantry division in Fort Stewart, Georgia, the president repeated his assertion that the U.S. Is “rolling back the terrorist threat.”

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We are hunting the al-Qaida terrorists wherever they still hide, from Pakistan to the Philippines to the Horn of Africa, and we’re making good progress. Nearly two-thirds of al-Qaida’s known leaders have been captured or killed. The rest of them are dangerous, but the rest of them can be certain we’re on their trail. The terrorists have a strategic goal: They want America to leave Iraq before our work is done. You see, they believe their attacks on our people and on innocent people will shake the will of the United States and the civilized world. They believe America will run from a challenge. They don’t know us very well. (Cheers and applause) They’re mistaken. Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror. All who serve understand what this fight is about. Our military is confronting terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other places, so that our people will not have to confront terrorist violence in our own cities.

RAY SUAREZ: But more violence is promised in a new audiotape that the CIA says probably contains the voices of Osama bin Laden and Deputy Ayman Zawahari. The audiotape accompanied this videotape. Satellite Channel al Jazeera, which released it, said the video was probably made this spring at an undetermined mountain area. Bin Laden referred to the 9/11 hijackers.

OSAM BIN LADEN (Translated): Those young men, they caused great damage to the enemy. And they disrupted their plans of aggression. I had the honor of meeting those men and it was a great honor because God honored them with the task of defending Islam. I see them as a seed that will flourish in the aid of Islam, God bless them.

RAY SUAREZ: Zawahari cited the Iraq occupation.

AYMAN ZAWARI ( Translated ): We salute the Mujahadin brothers in Iraq and press on their hands and ask Allah to bless their sacrifices and valor in fighting the crusaders. Devour the Americans just like the lions devour their prey. Bury them in the Iraqi graveyard.

RAY SUAREZ: Today al Jazeera released another videotape, showing a man claiming to be one of the 9/11 hijackers reading his will. The man identifies himself as Saeed Alghamdi, who was on the jetliner that crashed in Pennsylvania.

Since the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden’s al-Qaida has claimed responsibility for, or been linked to, a host of international strikes. They’ve occurred in places like Bali and Jakarta in Indonesia, Morocco, Kenya, and Tunisia in Africa, and Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the Mideast. In all, terrorist experts have linked al-Qaida to more than a dozen attacks around the world in the last two years, attacks that killed at least 480 people.

Meanwhile, a new report from the British parliament suggests the worldwide terror threat may be higher because of the Iraq invasion. The report says intelligence experts warned Prime Minister Tony Blair in February that deposing Saddam Hussein would increase the risk that Iraqi weapons would end up in the hands of terrorists.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the status of the war on terrorism and where Iraq fits into it, we get two perspectives: Richard Clarke was national coordinator for security and counter-terrorism on the National Security Council in the Bush administration on September 11– he held the same job during the Clinton administration; and Harvey Sicherman served in various State Department posts in the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

Richard Clarke, we heard the president this morning give a fairly upbeat assessment of how the war on terrorism is going and his speech to troops. Do you share his view?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, I think he glosses over some significant things. Foremost, that the war in Iraq has made it easier for al-Qaida in several ways. It’s drawn our resources out of Afghanistan, number one. Number two, it serves as a great recruitment device for al-Qaida when they’re trying to get more people to join, the fact that the United States is occupying Iraq serves as a great incentive. And thirdly, we have now deployed 130,000 Americans in a place where it’s much easier for al-Qaida to attack them. So for all of those reasons, I understand why the president wouldn’t want to talk about that side. His job is to improve morale, the troops and to give a rosy scenario. But because we are in Iraq things are better for al-Qaida and worse for us in the war on terrorism.

RAY SUAREZ: Harvey Sicherman, is your view closer to Mr. Clarke’s or President Bush’s?

HARVEY SICHERMAN: No, I would say I’m closer to the president. First, I don’t think that rosy scenario is in the picture anymore. Last Sunday the president more or less informed the American people and the Congress of the United States in particular that this was going to be a lengthy war, and it would require a lot more resources than perhaps he anticipated, or that anybody anticipated, although I think deep down no one expected this thing to go very easily.

But that having been said, I’d like to take particular issue with the idea that we’ve made things easier for al-Qaida, particularly in Afghanistan. What we’re beginning to learn in Iraq and what we should have learned in Afghanistan is that you simply have to apply more resources altogether. I think the resources are there. Part of the president’s request has to do with Afghanistan. And as far as inviting al-Qaida to attack our troops, much as I don’t like to make things more difficult for our wonderful soldiers in Iraq, if there has to be a drag-out battle with al-Qaida, I’d really rather it occur between our troops and al-Qaida than between our al-Qaida and our civilians.

RICHARD CLARKE: Ray, the president says this too: That he’d rather have us fight al-Qaida in Iraq than in the streets of the United States. Well, of course we’d all rather have that, but we don’t have any control over that. The president implies that by putting U.S. troops in Iraq, we have decided– the United States has decided– where the battle will take place, and that it will not take place in the United States. That’s fallacious. There’s nothing stopping al-Qaida terrorists from coming to the United States. They choose where they’re going to fight us. And they can choose to fight us both in Iraq and in the United States. And in fact, they are.

RAY SUAREZ: And Harvey Sicherman, still in Afghanistan there are reports coming out now that Taliban is regrouping, its ranks topped up with new Pakistani volunteers. Does that create the conditions certainly in the border regions where al-Qaida can gain a foothold once again?

HARVEY SICHERMAN: Well, border regions are problematic both because of the terrain and the history of the political relationship between the Pakistani government and the British imperial, and the tribes in those areas. But we simply did not spend enough or do enough to extend control in Afghanistan to prevent this sort of thing from happening. And as far as the al-Qaida choosing to attack us in one place or another, these are small groups. If we’re going after them and we’re pursuing them all over the place, they have to devote a certain amount of time, energy, resources in hiding and defending themselves. And that in turn simply has got to reduce their operational capability to attack us in various places. So once you take the fight to them, you do begin to narrow down their choices.

RAY SUAREZ: Though the attacks have continued, is it possible for us to know how much… is it possible for the United States to know how much it has injured al-Qaida’s operational capability?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, we know what damage we’ve done. We don’t know how well al-Qaida is, so we can know what we’ve done. And as the president says, we’ve eliminated two-thirds of the known managers of al-Qaida. But presumably they’ve been replaced. Al-Qaida is not a small organization. The CIA estimates of the number of people who were trained in the camps in Afghanistan range between 20,000 and 80,000. And the United States and its allies have only caught 3,000 of them. And there have been new people joining al-Qaida since we invaded Iraq, so it’s a big organization that can fight us in a number of places, and it can replace leaders who we arrest, but we have degraded the organization by getting many of the managers. We have degraded the organization by getting at their communications network and their finance network. They can still communicate and they can still get money, but it’s slower than it was before.

RAY SUAREZ: Harvey Sicherman, along with degrading their capabilities, has the United States brought enough of the world community onboard in this fight so that we can be sure that countries that have al-Qaida cells on their territory are looking for them and trying to figure out where they are?

HARVEY SICHERMAN: That’s been slow and erratic. The coalition building is a bit of a crapshoot particularly when you get beyond the known allies. And here I would say that the diplomatic arguments that have occurred over the coalition to fight terror with respect to Iraq, there may be on one level very poor relationships but on the level of intelligence sharing and indeed for that matter when we went to war in Iraq, the use of French air space or use of the German roads, the movement of our troops we still continue to get a lot of cooperation there. Where it becomes problematical is where you have governments that think that these groups don’t make a threat to them. Indonesia has learned a little differently and since last may I think in Saudi Arabia they’ve figured out too that these groups are a great danger to them. So I would say that while we’re not likely to get a lot of public support over the operation in Iraq, at the operational level, we’re getting a lot.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Sicherman, earlier today when the president spoke to the troops, he first covered al-Qaida and the Afghan front and then moved on to Iraq, and he called it the central front in the war on terror. Is it? And how did it get that way?

HARVEY SICHERMAN: Well, it’s a central front in part because we made it so. We said that Iraq was a particular combination of a terrorist state with an active development of weapons of mass destruction, and therefore we had to prevent it from getting those weapons of mass destruction and put it out of the terrorism business. Now there is an idea going around that if you can somehow bleed the Americans, they will run away. We showed in Afghanistan and in the immediate war in Iraq that they couldn’t bleed us very well. Now they’re trying to put that to a test. If they succeed and we are unable to make a goal of that in Iraq, well then we will have suffered a single defeat because they will then be able to say we know now how to wrestle the superpower to its knees.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Clarke, the central front in the war on terror?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well we did make it the central front. The Iraqi government was not engaged in terrorism directed at the United States. The last time it had done that was 1993, so we had gone nine years without any Iraqi- sponsored terrorism directed against the United States. Now that we’re there occupying the country, the two groups are engaged in terrorism against us: The former regime and al-Qaida. And there’s a third group waiting in the wings and that is Iran and Hezbollah. So, yes, it’s the central front on terrorism, but only because we’ve made it so. It was not a terrorism problem for the United States prior to our invasion.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, made it so in what sense, in the sense that we decided that that’s where the battle would be or in the sense that by destabilizing the government of Saddam Hussein it became that front?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, by virtue of occupying the country we caused a small element, a residual Saddam element to become terrorists and attack our troops. And we also moved 130,000 U.S. troops a lot closer to al-Qaida in a place where it’s more easy for them to attack us.

So the only reason it’s the central front is because we’re there. Prior to our invading, Iraq did not pose a terrorist threat to the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Harvey Sicherman, do you agree?

HARVEY SICHERMAN: Well, it did pose a potential terrorist threat and Saddam was doing quite a lot of damage through his payments to suicide bombers against the Israelis. And there was always the question as to what extent he was involved with other groups perhaps at some distance that were trying to get at us. And so Iraq was a case again of the potential for what he might do with weapons of mass destruction but in the hands of a regime that had some very good record… a very good qualifications to be on the terrorist list.

RAY SUAREZ: If this is a war against terrorism, how do we know when it’s over?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, you don’t ever know when it’s over, because there are periods when terrorist groups recede because they’ve been attacked badly. And then they regroup. This is the history of so many terrorist groups. And it’s probably going to be the history of al-Qaida. Those known managers that the president talks about, they’ll be replaced. There will be a retrenchment. There will be a resurgence and bin Laden will be their hero for generations. You know, we do have the support of the governments throughout that region in the Middle East, but we don’t have the support of the people. We don’t have the support of the people in Pakistan, we don’t have the support of the people in Saudi Arabia, and we can’t just deal with terrorism as a law enforcement and intelligence matter. We also have to deal with it at that time diplomatic and ideological level, and we’re not doing a very good job of that.

RAY SUAREZ: Harvey Sicherman, is this by definition a war without end?

HARVEY SICHERMAN: Well, let me frame it this way: I think what’s at stake here is an international order where the targeting of civilians doesn’t get you ahead. What the terrorists are trying to show is that they can get ahead in international relations through this method of targeting the civilians in order to achieve their end. I think it’s in the interest of everybody who wants a peaceful and a secure and, for that matter, even a prosperous international system that we put this off-bounds, that we say to people, as I think the president and all those engaged in this war are trying to say, that if you target civilians, if this is your method of trying to get ahead, number one, you won’t get ahead, because we won’t change our policy; and number two, we’ll kill you.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you both.

RICHARD CLARKE: Thank you.

HARVEY SICHERMAN: Thank you.