An Ex-CIA Analyst on the Fight Against Al Qaeda

Bruce Riedel was in the White House Situation Room on 9/11. For 30 years he was one of the CIA's senior analysts of the Middle East, rising to be a special assistant to the President on the National Security Council staff. Now he has written an analysis of Al Qaeda—and a critique of America's strategy in combating it. He outlined his concerns to NEWSWEEK's John Barry. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why this book now?
Bruce Riedel: I starting writing this book two years when I retired from CIA, because I think Al Qaeda is still the No. 1 threat to America; but there is still much that is misunderstood or not understood about the nature of that threat.

After seven years?
The Bush administration deliberately conflated the Al Qaeda threat with the problem posed by Saddam's Iraq. Then [they] deepened the confusion with the claim that Al Qaeda hated the United States because of our freedoms and our way of life. As [Osama] bin Ladin has said, if that were the case, Al Qaeda would have attacked Sweden. So what is it that motivates AQ and the terrorists that belong to it? A sense that the Islamic world has been under systematic attack by the West for the last century, and that in order to defend itself from Western attack, the Islamic world has to take thewar to the United States and its allies in order to drag them into quagmires that will bleed them until they finally admit defeat and leave Islamic world.

By that analysis, Iraq and now Afghanistan suggest Al Qaeda isn ' t doing badly.
Oh, from their standpoint they think they are doing quite well. The world economic financial crisis we are going through now is exactly what Osama bin Ladin predicted would happen when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.

Yes, he warned that the "bleeding wars"—as Al Qaeda refers to them—were going to produce economic chaos in the West. And he pointed specifically to the home-mortgage bubble in the United States. For this he was parodied by many here at the time.

So we ' ve underestimated bin Ladin?
Osama bin Ladin is very bright, however retrograde his analysis. I think it's an evil genius: clever and extraordinarily ruthless, willing to kill thousands to achieve his objective. There is no doubt in my mind that if Al Qaeda could get a nuclear weapon or some other weapon of mass destruction, it would use it. For them, an end has long justified the means.

OK, after seven years of the global war on terror, how stands Al Qaeda now?
Al Qaeda remains the world's first truly global terrorist organization. Think of it as a multinational corporation. It has a CEO and deputy CEO and a propaganda apparatus all headquartered in Pakistan, with franchise operations in Saudi Arabia, in Iraq, another in Yemen, another in North Africa—then with cells throughout the Muslim diaspora in Western Europe, particularly in the U.K. And its tradecraft—its way of doing business, if you like—is very sophisticated. It's a relatively small organization—thousands but not tens of thousands—but one which has been able in the seven years since 2001 to attack literally across the globe, from one end of the Islamic world to another, with "raids," as they call them, into Western Europe. They call 9/11 "the Manhattan Raid." And we know that in August 2006 they came perilously close to another attack in North America, with the attempt to simultaneously blow up 10 jumbo jets en route to North American cities out of Heathrow. That came far nearer to success that most people recognize ... International air travel would have collapsed.

What are Al Qaeda ' s weaknesses?
Its vulnerabilities are significant. First, its nihilistic resort to violence alienates most Muslims who do not see this as true to Islam. So you begin to see a backlash, with Islamic voices now speaking up. Second, Al Qaeda doesn't have a program. It wants a return to the Caliphate [the Ottoman rule over the Arab world from Constantinople, now Istanbul]. But what would that mean in practice? Al Qaeda points to the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. But by any metric, that was a disaster. And the idea that a complex and sophisticated society like, say, Egypt, could be run like that is nonsense. And everyone knows it.

Some see Al Qaeda ' s failure to mobilize mass support in the Muslim, and especially Arab, world as a symptom of decline.
That's another misunderstanding. Mobilization of the masses is not the objective. Al Qaeda sees itself as a vanguard organization. Its leaders call themselves "The Knights."

So what should we do? Brits like Stella Rimington, the former head of their Security Service, have criticized the U.S. response as overly military.
I think in many respects she is right. We have pursued Al Qaeda by military means—with considerable success. But our war of choice in Iraq has mobilized, I suspect, the next two generations of recruits to Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, we haven't tackled the fundamental challenge, which I call attacking Al Qaeda's narrative—its reading of history. Al Qaeda's anti-Western message gains traction from the belief, widespread among Muslims, that the U.S. doesn't respect the Muslim world. So, of course we must pursue Al Qaeda's leadership and its propaganda apparatus; we must go after the franchises. But we need at the same time to use our diplomatic strength far more effectively and consistently than we have, to settle those issues of importance to Muslims. Top of the list are the Israel-Palestinian dispute and Kashmir. On Palestine, we must enter vigorously into final negotiations for a settlement based on the two-state solution. And I think Kashmir is resolvable: India's reopening of a trade route through Kashmir—after 60 years—is a hopeful sign. I think India shares all our worries about Pakistan.

Pakistan looms as the next big crisis, doesn ' t it?
Pakistan is crucial. It was a base for Al Qaeda or its adherents even before 9/11. Now Pakistan itself is under attack. It finds itself both patron and victim. But there is hope. Pakistan now has a democratically elected civilian government. The new government is on a learning curve. But its leaders clearly recognize the dimensions of the problem they face. We have to work with them, and give them all the help we can. That will need very sophisticated handling. Personally, I'd like to see us mount a Marshall Plan for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Not just economic support, but a real effort to bring education and the other basics of a modern society that they desperately need.