Riedel: Understanding al-Qaida is the key to its defeat


Bruce Riedel lectures on the past and future of al-Qaida in the Amphitheater Tuesday morning. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

Bruce Riedel, former CIA analyst, presented a dilemma to the audience during his 10:45 a.m. lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater.

He asked the crowd to imagine being given pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. However, it can’t be certain whether the tasked puzzle has 500 pieces or 1,000 pieces. Either way, there are only 100 pieces at the moment. What’s worse: Not all of those pieces belong to that particular jigsaw puzzle, but it’s unknown which ones don’t belong.

Every morning, collectors bring in more pieces — sometimes 10 or five, sometimes only one. But even those pieces might not belong to that puzzle. At the end of each day, the boss asks about the progress. What’s been found out?

“It’s hard, tedious work,” Riedel said, “but that’s what led to the events of May 1, 2011.”

For 10 years, before the death of Osama bin Laden that day, analysts performed activities much like the above situation. All of that work paid off, Riedel said, when bin Laden was finally killed.

Riedel was the second speaker in Week Three’s topic on “American Intelligence: Technology, Espionage and Alliances.” He is currently a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution.

His speech, “The Intelligence War with al-Qaida,” focused on both intelligence failures and successes in the war against the global terrorist network.

War against al-Qaida

Though Riedel said the 9/11 attacks were one of the worst intelligence failures in U.S. history, he also said the death of bin Laden was one of the greatest intelligence successes.

He said that with the death of bin Laden, the organization is facing its very first leadership transition. As a result, it’s also suffering from vulnerability. Thus, Riedel said, al-Qaida is under an attack like it has never seen.

Riedel said drones are a force al-Qaida has had trouble combating. These unmanned aircrafts are considered “covert actions,” but he said they are perhaps the “least covert covert action … in history.”

Nonetheless, he said that these drones are “terrorizing the terrorists” because President Barack Obama has greatly increased the use of drones in warfare.

Al-Qaida was formed between 1988 and 1989, led by Osama bin Laden and a few others. The organization calls for global jihad, which in part means declaring war on the U.S.

“We don’t get declared war on every day,” Riedel said. “Even by nutcases, it doesn’t happen every day. And we’ve learned since then that these may have been nutcases, but they’re deadly serious.”

A war with al-Qaida isn’t a war with a country, Riedel said. Since al-Qaida has “franchises” in many countries, this war is unlike any other. The 9/11 attacks cost al-Qaida $500,000, but the damages totaled more than $2 trillion to the U.S., Riedel said.

Aside from those attacks, al-Qaida has been the force behind various defectors, suicide bombers and attempted car and subway bombings all over the world. Because of intelligence provided on these attacks, Riedel said, many high-profile attacks have been deflected.

Pakistan’s involvement

Bin Laden was hiding in a private residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, when he was killed on May 1, 2011. Bin Laden had been staying there for at least the past five years. The structure was less than a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy, which Riedel said is Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point.

“It is strange credibility for anyone who has studied Pakistan,” Riedel said of this proximity, “to believe that no one in the Pakistani army knew Osama bin Laden was in that building.”

The CIA said the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, one of Pakistan’s three intelligence services, is one of America’s best partners against al-Qaida, but it is also the most difficult, Riedel said.

After bin Laden’s death, relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have been strained, he said. Part of that issue is America’s questioning of Pakistan’s involvement with bin Laden.

“(The army was) either clueless or complacent,” Riedel said. “If they were clueless, it raises disturbing questions about security in the most dangerous country in the world. And if they were complacent, it raises very fundamental questions about the nature of the Pakistani Army and the ISI.”

Solving the problem

Riedel said he hopes Americans understand that very few Muslims worldwide follow the ideologies of al-Qaida. Even those Americans who defected to al-Qaida make up a very small minority of American Muslims.

“One of our challenges in dealing with this is not to tar an entire sector of America — Muslim Americans — for the mistakes of a tiny few,” he said. “We cannot turn America into a police state.”

Despite the fact that most Muslims view al-Qaida’s ideology as a “criminal attempt to justify mass murder in the name of religion,” Riedel said, al-Qaida only needed 19 people to enact the 9/11 attacks. Terrorism, he said, requires very little money and men.

In order to preempt the actions of al-Qaida, he said the U.S. needs to be able to understand the organization. That way, the U.S. can know exactly what needs to be done to combat al-Qaida ideology.

On June 4, 2009, Obama presented a speech in Cairo, Egypt. Riedel said that speech is an absolute attack on that ideology. That speech was an attempt to sway the populations overseas away from al-Qaida influence.

“During World War II, we spent a great deal of time studying Nazi ideology, because we wanted to understand what made the Wehrmacht tick,” Riedel said. “During the Cold War, we studied Communism and created institutes across America to Russian studies and Communist studies. We haven’t done enough to understand al-Qaida, but we’re getting there now.”

Q: You talked about how it took only 19 people for September 11. What percentage of the scope of the network was that back then? I mean, how many followers did Osama bin Laden truly have back then? Were these the 19? Were there 100? Was it 1,000? Is it possible to try to categorize that or quantify it?

A: It’s a very good question. It’s clearly an obvious question. It’s also a difficult question. Counting the enemy is one of Intelligence & Analysis’ most difficult jobs. It’s relatively easy to count the enemy when they’re organized in an army. We had a pretty good idea how many Germans were going to be on Omaha Beach, or at least, we should have in 1944. It’s a lot harder when they’re not an army. Al-Qaida doesn’t have a health insurance system. It doesn’t have a secret handshake. It’s hard to know who’s in and who’s out. With all those caveats, in the late 1990s, al-Qaida trained tens of thousands in its camps in Afghanistan. Now, not all of them were trained to be global terrorists; most of them were trained to fight in Afghanistan. But thousands, literally, were trained in the arts of terrorism, and it continues to train people since then. It’s a lot harder when you can’t operate in Afghanistan the way they did before, and it’s a lot harder when you can’t operate in northwest Pakistan because of the drones.

Q: Are there significant areas of cooperation between the United States and Indian anti-terrorist efforts? And how effective are they at upgrading India’s rather poor efforts in this area?

A: The answer is, we do a lot. We’ve done more. Leon Panetta, in his first foreign trip as director of central intelligence, went to India before he went to Pakistan. He did that on purpose. It was a signal both to India and Pakistan of a new era. India still has a serious terrorism challenge. There are several what-ifs about the future of the War on Terror, which I didn’t have time to mention, but one of them, of course, is what if there’s another attack, like the attack on Mumbai — 26/11, as it’s called in India. Will India simply restrain from acting again? Or would another attack precipitate an India-Pakistan war? Was that the real intent of the attack of Lashkar-e-Taiba and al-Qaida in 2008? Do they want war between India and Pakistan? Would war between India and Pakistan become a nuclear war? These are very real scenarios that the intelligence community and the policy community need to focus on and think about and plan for now, not the day that they happen.

Q: You referred to September 11 as an intelligence failure. Wasn’t it rather the failure to act on intelligence that had been supplied?

A: It’s clearly a question from a friend of the intelligence community. And I thank you, whoever you are. Listen, there’s a lot of blame for what happened on September 11. Plenty of blame to go all around — signals missed in the White House; a failure to understand, despite briefings from senior officials from the previous administration that al-Qaida was a mortal threat; failure in the intelligence community to connect the dots, to put the puzzle together; failure to alert U.S. domestic law enforcement, the FBI, to the presence of two al-Qaida operatives in this country for months and months. But the biggest failure, I have always felt, was a failure of imagination. I can tell you, I was in the White House in September of 2001. I was in it through the entire summer of 2001. On the day of the attack, I was sitting next to Dr. Condoleezza Rice in the White House Situation Room when the door opened and an aide came in and said, “A second airliner has attacked the World Trade Center.” And in an instant, we knew the world had changed. The biggest failure was a failure of imagination. We knew al-Qaida was planning an attack on America or American interests, and we assumed it would be something like previous attacks: embassies, maybe an American naval ship — maybe a bomb on a metro somewhere in the United States. The idea that four airliners would be hijacked simultaneously and then used as missiles to bring down buildings required a leap of imagination. In retrospect, it’s easy to see it; 20/20 is always easy in hindsight. In fact, you can find a precedent. In 1994, an Algerian Islamist organization hijacked a plane in Algiers and flew it to Southern France, where French commandos stormed the plane. They knew that the plot was to smash that airliner into the Eiffel Tower. Christmas 1994 may have been 9/11, only in Paris. But too few people paid attention to that plot. Too few people thought in terms of the United States. Too few people had the imagination to see just how big a plot could be. And I’m not being critical of the Bush administration, or Dr. Rice, or the CIA, or anyone. As I said, there’s plenty of blame to go around, and wallowing in blame does us no good. What? In my judgment, it was an intelligence and a policy failure.

Q: How do intelligence analysts express their assessments of the likelihood of events? Do they use like “somewhat likely,” or probabilities, or ranges of probabilities, or odds?

A: In the wake of another debacle in the American intelligence community — weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — the U.S. intelligence community, for its National Intelligence Estimates, has come up with a glossary — or a thesaurus, if you like — of terms. So at the back of every National Intelligence Estimate, it says, “If we say it’s probable, it means it is more likely than not. If we say it is possible, it means we don’t know how likely it is, but it is possible.” And I’m giving you two extremes. But they lay all of that out. You know, the English language is subject to interpretation, but they’ve tried to lay out a glossary so that when you read a National Intelligence Estimate, as best as possible within the limits of the English language, you have a pretty good idea of what the analysts mean by what they say.

Q: What is Iran’s relationship to Pakistan? Is it supplying weapons?

A: Iran is a seriously dangerous country with its own nuclear weapons program with a history of supporting international terrorism. It is not a friend of Pakistan. It is not an enemy. They have a very neutral relationship with each other. Iran has a very complex relationship with al-Qaida. Al-Qaida is a Sunni-Muslim fanatic movement. It hates Shias, and Iranians are Shias. Shias hate fanatic Sunnis. But sometimes, the enemy of my enemy may not necessarily be my friend, but I might let him slip through my airport or travel through my country without stamping his passport. And Iran has a history of very puzzling relations with different elements of al-Qaida. Up until last year, several very senior al-Qaida officials, who had fled Afghanistan in 2001, lived in Iran under some kind of detention. They weren’t imprisoned. It wasn’t exactly house detention. We don’t know exactly what it was. Late last year, they were all sent back to Pakistan. Again, we don’t know why. We’re still trying to figure that out. This very complex relationship is an area, frankly, where more intelligence, collection and analysis need to be done. Iran is a puzzle in all of this.

Q: How important are the education of women and girls, and the role of women in Pakistani society, to defeating al-Qaida and terrorism?

A: Absolutely critical. Pakistan, I’ve already described to you as a very important and very complicated country. It’s filled with contradictions. It’s an artificial country. It was created in 1947 out of British India to be the other place — the place for Muslims, not India. Its identity has always been in question. And today, there is a war underway inside Pakistan over the future of the country. On the one hand are those who believe in the vision of Pakistan that its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had, which was a modern, tolerant, open country where anyone could pray any way they wanted to. He envisioned Pakistan to be England on the Indus River. That vision is under attack by jihadists — and it has been under attack almost since the day Pakistan was created — who want an Islamic extremist state. And women play a critical part in this. Some of the strongest opponents of the dark forces in Pakistan have been women like Benazir Bhutto. They are still there, fighting it. The head of Pakistan’s premier think tank, called the Jinnah Institute, Dr. Sherry Rehman, is a brave woman who was on the hit list of al-Qaida, and yet every day, she speaks out against the (Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence’s) double game. She speaks out against the Army’s role in government. And she calls for more resources devoted to the education of women. I’m going to piggyback on this question, if you don’t mind, and go to the next level. What can we do, as Americans, to help those people in Pakistan? Well, we’ve tried economic assistance. It was a good idea. But frankly, we’re broke. We don’t have $1.5 billion to give Pakistan this year. And even if we did, this Congress is not likely to give it to them. And foreign assistance always is an effort that creates a lot of resentment and friction in the country where foreign assistance works. It has a large American tail. A lot of corporations in Arlington, Va., get more money than Pakistanis on the ground. A better approach would be to change tariff rates for Pakistan. Pakistan’s textile products, their main export, are tariffed at three times the level of China, India or Bangladesh, because there is no lobby in the United States lobbying for Pakistani textiles to come into this country. Establish an equal playing field. Pakistani textiles will come into this country. Since most are made by Pakistani women, they’ll get jobs; they’ll have opportunities; they’ll get education for their daughters. Pakistani entrepreneurship will have a chance to rise. It won’t immediately turn the situation around, obviously…

Q: Could you speak to attempts for dealing with future terrorists, seeking to address points of contention that might diffuse their anger?

A: This is an important point. The narrative I talked about is built on real issues. Al-Qaida did not attack us 10 years ago because of our so-called values. They don’t care whether you vote. Frankly, they don’t care what you wear to the beach. They don’t care what you drink. Osama bin Laden said it very well: “If the issue was your values, we would have attacked Sweden, not America.” It’s policies. It’s what our government has done over many years, and what it’s not done. We need to address those policies — not because we seek to appease al-Qaida. We seek to destroy al-Qaida. But part of the process of destroying al-Qaida is to undermine their narrative and to demonstrate to Muslims that we are not a Zionist crusader alliance with an atavistic desire to steal their resources. That means addressing the very real issues that have divided the Islamic world and America for 50 years, including Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. That doesn’t mean giving up Israel. That means a just, fair and lasting peace so that Israelis and Palestinians can live in their common homeland in two sates.

Q: Here’s a question about drones: It says, a good number of other nations are equipped with them — can they be controlled, and can they be used against us?

A: Of course. The drones are an amazing platform — extraordinary. A pilot in Las Vegas, Nev., flies them, goes home for dinner with his kids. A CIA officer in McLean, Va., watches the monitor all day and says, “We got him.” Calls the director, and, “We got him.” But they’re just a platform. They’re not a strategy. Other people will build this platform, too, and other people will use this platform. I am an enthusiastic supporter of the drone operations. I recommended to the president, ”Slam your foot to the pedal. Use them. But don’t become addicted to them. Don’t think they’re the answer. They’re a tactic, not a strategy. They have downsides — very serious downsides. Use them, but bear in mind that every day, there’s a price, and that balance between utility and price has to be reassessed all the time.”

Q: What would the state of terrorism be if al-Qaida disappeared?

A: I’m afraid it won’t be over. The reason I spent so much time on Phase II, the syndicate of terrorism, is that’s what I’m really worried about. I think al-Qaida core is in its terminal stage. I don’t know when we’ll find Ayman al-Zawahiri — I hope sooner rather than later. I don’t know whether they have a bench that can replace him. I hope not. I’m not writing their obituary yet. I think we’ve written al-Qaida’s obituary far too many times in the past. I wish Secretary Panetta would be a little more guarded in his predictions these days. But even if we do succeed in defeating and destroying al-Qaida, there will be other parts of the global jihad, mostly in Pakistan but also in Yemen. And they will be a difficult problem for us to deal with for years and years to come.