Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005). Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. He can be reached through his website: www.robertdreyfuss.com.
President George W. Bush, Vice President Cheney and the entire Republican election team are scrambling to make their so-called war on terror the focus of the next seven weeks. As in 2002 and 2004, they’re counting on their ability to scare Americans with the al-Qaida bogeyman. And while the trauma of 9/11 has begun to dissipate and American voters seem less susceptible than ever to the scare tactics used by the White House, for the past five years the Democrats have been singularly unable to develop an effective counter to the Bush administration on terrorism. So, for that reason, here are 10 important facts about terrorism that opponents of President Bush should understand.
Part of what follows is derived from a series of some two dozen interviews I conducted over the summer with leading U.S. counterterrorism officials, many of whom served in top posts during the Bush administration. Not all of them agree with each other, nor with all of my conclusions, which can be found in the Sept. 21 issue of Rolling Stone . But most of them served on the front lines of the so-called "war on terror." If U.S. counterterrorism efforts were run by these officials, instead of Bush and Cheney, those efforts would look radically different than they do today.
I. The threat of terrorism is wildly exaggerated.
A strong and convincing case that the al-Qaida bogeyman is inflated far beyond the real but limited threat that it poses is made in the current issue of Foreign Affairs , in an article by political scientist John Mueller. He and others argue persuasively that the reason the United States has not been attacked since 9/11 is that terrorists are far less powerful than the White House claims. “If al Qaeda operatives are as determined and inventive as assumed, they should be here by now. If they are not yet here, they must not be trying very hard or must be far less dedicated, diabolical, and competent than the common image would suggest,” writes Mueller. Why haven’t the Democrats picked up this argument?
II. Al-Qaida barely exists at all as a threat.
The organization that attacked the United States on 9/11 has been shattered and pushed to the brink of extinction, despite claims to the contrary of the vast anti-terrorism industrial complex and its journalistic heavy-breathers. I interviewed Carl Ford, the former assistant secretary of state for intelligence, who told me:
We’re overstating their capability, because we can’t believe that there isn’t a more nefarious explanation for the fact that we haven’t been attacked. There aren’t a lot of terrorists out there, and they’re not 10-feet tall. … One appealing hypothesis is: they’ve been damaged more than we know.
The Democrats should stop ringing alarm bells about al-Qaida and explain calmly that the terrorist threat, which was small five years ago, has been greatly reduced since 9/11.
III. There is no Terrorist International.
President Bush lumps the remnants of al-Qaida together with states such as Iran and Syria, the resistance movement in Iraq, insurgent political parties such as Hezbollah and Hamas and other assorted entities into one, big “Islamofascist” enemy. Nothing could be more ill-informed or further from the truth. "That's an oversimplification of the task of dealing with the tactic [terrorism] that is used by many different groups, with many different ideologies," Paul R. Pillar, a former top CIA analyst and the author of a respected book on terrorism, told The Washington Post . "It leads to a misunderstanding of the need of what is in fact a different counterterrorist policy for each group and state we are dealing with. . . . Hamas is an entirely different entity than al-Qaeda. . . . Their objectives are very much different." Pillar said much the same thing to me. Bush claims that al-Qaida and its terrorist allies want to create an “empire than spans from Spain to Indonesia.” Not a chance. Larry Wilkerson, the former top aide to Colin Powell, told me: “I don’t think there’s a soul in the administration, except for Vice President Dick Cheney, who believes that crap about Islamofascism.” Why don’t Democrats ridicule this specific sort of fear-mongering?
IV. Iraq will not, and could not, fall to al-Qaida.
The Iraqi resistance is overwhelmingly made up of Sunni, former Baathist, nationalist members of Iraq’s former military and intelligence services, Sunni tribal leaders and just plain old “pissed-off Iraqis.” It is not al-Qaida. When Bush says that by leaving Iraq we would turn Iraq over to the al-Qaida types, he is making the same false argument that he made five years ago. Then, he told us that Saddam Hussein backed Osama bin Laden. Now, he tells us that pro-Saddam Hussein Iraqis back pro-bin Laden al-Qaida types. He lied then and he is lying now.
V. The Taliban is not al-Qaida.
In 2001, the Taliban and al-Qaida may have had a marriage of convenience. But, as in many marriages, it was not a happy one. Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership were suspicious and resentful of al-Qaida, and some Taliban leaders were openly hostile to bin Laden. Today, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan is a sad reminder that Bush bungled Afghanistan, too—but the Taliban fighters are Afghan Islamists, like the mujahideen that the CIA supported in the 1980s. They are not Arabs or foreign fighters, and they are not al-Qaida. If the Taliban pose a threat to U.S. interests, it is not a terrorist one.
VI. Neither Iran nor Syria sponsor anti-U.S. terrorism.
Al-Qaida has zero support in Iran and Syria. The Syrian regime is fiercely hostile to al-Qaida-style fundamentalist Islam. Iran, a Shiite theocracy, is bitterly hostile to Sunni fundamentalism and to al-Qaida. Although both countries tactically support Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel and although Iran routinely assassinates opposition leaders abroad, neither country has attacked the United States in decades. The few al-Qaida leaders—including Osama bin Laden’s son—reported to be in Iran are under house arrest and do not lead operations for the shattered terrorist group. Yet that hasn’t stopped Bush administration officials, such as Nicholas Burns of the State Department, from accusing Iran of “harboring” al-Qaida. Nonsense.
VII. It is not a “war.”
Although the Pentagon has garnered 90 percent of the money for the so-called war on terrorism, and although the Pentagon’s special operations command is supposedly in charge of the “war,” it is not a war. Terrorism cannot be fought with tanks, planes and missiles. The Defense Department cannot invade the London suburbs or mosques in Hamburg or the teeming cities of Pakistan. Cells of angry Muslims will coalesce spontaneously to seek revenge for real or alleged wrongs for decades to come. That is a problem for the CIA, the FBI, and, especially, foreign police and intelligence services, not Donald Rumsfeld’s legions. “I hate the term ‘global war on terrorism,’” John O. Brennan, who headed the National Counterterrorism Center until last year, told me. “The Department of Defense and others insist very strongly on calling it a war, because that allows the Pentagon to prosecute the military dimension of the conflict. It fits their strategy.”
VIII. There were never any al-Qaida sleeper cells in the United States.
In 2002, the Bush administration leaked to the press its assertion that al-Qaida had 5,000 “sleepers” in the United States, dormant agents that could be activated by Osama bin Laden. There were none—at least, not a single one has been found, and no terrorism has occurred in five years. No terrorism at all: In five years, no one in the United States has as much as been punched in the nose by an angry Muslim fundamentalist.
IX. Vulnerabilities are not threats.
The unnecessary, superfluous Department of Homeland Security is tracking countless points of vulnerability. Trains and trucks, buses and subways, chemical plants and factories, airports and ports, skyscrapers and bridges, tunnels and dams—the list of potential targets is endless. But the list of potential terrorists is infinitesimally small. Despite the recently uncovered London plot—details of which have still not been revealed and which is increasingly looking exaggerated—there hasn’t even been a single advanced terrorist plot uncovered in the United States since 9/11. President Bush gamely cites 10 supposed plots stopped by U.S. counterterrorism efforts, but on closer examination all 10 are either bogus or were to take place overseas. According to several top counterterrorism officials, the number of serious terrorist plots against the United States in the past five years is: zero.
X. No one is in charge.
After the creation of the DHS, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Counterterrorism Center, the U.S. Northern Command, the FBI’s new intelligence division and other counterterrorism agencies, no one is in charge. “We have a more confusing organization now,” Pillar told me. “It’s really hard to answer the question ‘Who’s in charge?’” Every agency, from the Pentagon to the lowliest police department, has used the threat of terrorism to win ever-larger appropriations from federal, state and local governments for the ostensible purpose of fighting terrorism. So far, none of them have found any actual terrorists—but the proliferation of competing agencies continues, and they continue to step on each other’s toes.
After 9/11, the Bush administration launched an open-ended war on an ambiguous enemy ("terror") while offering the nation no definition of what victory would look like. Five years later, the nation has spent billions in taxpayer dollars and lost thousands of American lives fighting a threat that should be the province of law enforcement and intelligence services, not the military. And the White House tells us there is no end in sight.
Mr. Bush: Do you still want the November election to be decided on this sorry record?