Outlook: On Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda

John Brennan and Paul Pillar
Fmr. Head of National Counterterrorism Center and the Terrorist Threat Integration Center/Fmr. Head of the National Intelligence Council for the Near Middle East and South Asia
Monday, February 27, 2006 11:00 AM

Osama bin Laden 's plan -- to use terrorism to trigger an Islamic reawakening that will challenge Western dominance of world events and assure the ascendancy of Sunni extremists -- is moving forward, at at an alarming rate. Hiding out somewhere on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, bin Laden is surely watching with satisfaction at events unrolling across the world -- from violent protests over published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad to Hamas's rise to political legitimacy in the Palestinian territories. Where is bin Laden and why can't we find him? John Brennan , former head of the National Counterterrorism Center and the Terrorist Threat Integration Center who was with the CIA for 25 years, and Paul Pillar of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, who served with the CIA for 28 years, were online Monday, Feb. 27, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the al Qaeda leader and his impact.

Read their Sunday Outlook articles: We've Lost Sight Of His Vision , ( Post, Feb. 26, 2006 ) and Bin Laden By the Book , ( Post, Feb. 26, 2006 )

The transcript follows.


Fuerth, Germany: I would like to know exactly the role that the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations played in developing, financing and supporting Osama bin Laden in his fight against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. After all, I remember the time when bin Laden was our great "Freedom Fighter" against the oppressive soviet occupation. After all, isn't Osama bin Laden an American creation?

Paul Pillar: One of the myths from the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s is that the United States provided direct support to bin Laden. In fact, the United States worked through the Pakistanis, who in turn channeled the aid through seven party/militias, none of which was an organization of bin Laden. Bin Laden was aiding the same (i.e., anti-Soviet) side, of course, but was mostly bringing his own resources to bear in the conflict. The Afghan war does play a big role in the lore, beliefs, and organizations of today's Islamist terrorists, and bin Laden is the most recognizable part of that. And US aid had a lot to do with the war's outcome. But bin Laden is not an American creation.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Zarqawi's insistence on attacking Shiites, attacking Jordan, and inciting civil war in Iraq have caused al Qaeda to lose support. Would it benefit bin Laden if Zarqawi was killed and replaced by a commander that could remain focused on fighting the Far Enemy--the United States--rather than fellow Muslims?

John Brennan: Unfortunately, Zarqawi's strategy of attacking the Shi'a in Iraq has resonated with a significant number of Sunni extremists who see the Shi'a as the most blatant of apostates. Moreover, the strategy is designed to undermine ongoing attempts to move the Iraqi political process forward and to discredit U.S. policies and objectives. In any event, Zarqawi is a very dangerous individual who poses a serious threat to life and freedom in Iraq.

Paul Pillar: If there weren't a Zarqawi, there would be others pursuing the same strategy, for the reasons John mentions. But Zarqawi's operational skill and the prominence he has achieved mean it would be a significant plus for the good guys if he were taken out of the picture.


Piscataway, N.J.: Has bin Laden lost control of day to day operations as the leader of al Qaeda? How does the U.S. intelligence know this?

John Brennan: Bin Ladin command and control have been significantly degraded as a result of the extensive CT successes that have occurred since 9/11. Unlike in pre 9/11 Afghanistan, Bin Ladin no longer has a secure safehaven from which he can ply his trade. This has been for the good, as the more extended the operational timeline is for al-Qa'ida, the better chance of disruption.

Paul Pillar: U.S. intelligence doesn't necessarily "know" any of that, but it is safe to conclude that for bin Laden, as for any other terrorist, the more time and attention devoted to staying safe and at large, the less time and attention he has to direct operations.


Vienna, Va.: Both of you recently entered the private sector after lengthy careers in government intelligence combating terrorism.

Now that you are on the outside, looking back, are there things you wish you knew before or insights you have now gained with the benefit of being beyond the grasp of the government bureaucracy?

John Brennan: Although I have retired from the government, I am working in support of a variety of important government programs, including in the counterterrorism field. I have been struck by how extensively the U.S. private sector supports the public sector, especially in the area of cutting edge technology. It feels good to be on the "outside" but still supporting very important government initiatives.

Paul Pillar: My short answer to your question is no. Government bureaucracy does indeed have a grasp, but being beyond it is a matter of greater freedom and opportunity for candor rather than greater insight or knowledge.


Miami Beach, Fla.: Dear Mr. Brennan and Mr. Pillar:

I thank you for your help to the American people, not only in fighting Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, but also in understanding them.

Osama bin Laden is now, recently, on record, stating more attacks are coming against the United States.

When do you think these will occur?

John Brennan: Bin Ladin has been promising attacks against the United States for some time. I do not believe such attacks are inevitable, as al-Qa'ida's ability to carry out successful attacks or not is dependent on the organization's operational readiness, the ability of U.S. intelligence and security services to interdict such operations, and eliminating vulnerabilities in the United States. There have been major successes on the intelligence/law enforcement front, and, as a nation, we have done a good--but far from perfect job--of reducing our vulnerabilities.

Paul Pillar: There still is, despite significant improvements to homeland security in recent years, an also significant danger of more terrorist attacks within the United States. They are probably less likely to come from what is left of bin Laden's own organization than from other cells, groups, or individuals within the larger radical Islamist movement. When such attacks come will be more a matter of operational opportunity than anything else.


Great Falls, Va.: John Brennan argues eloquently in Sunday's Outlook section that the U.S. and the West are "missing the growth of the extremist Islamic forest as we flounder among the terrorist trees." He challenges the administration to ensure that Osama bin Laden, his vision, his values, and his followers are "discredited in the Islamic fields," but Brennan fails to offer any clear ideas as to how to construct this much needed strategic plan. I'd like to ask Mr. Brennan to do just that on this program, with the able assistance of Paul Pillar. Thanks in advance.

John Brennan: Well, a strategic plan would need to be comprehensive--i.e. more than a global "war" on terrorism (gwot). I tend not to like the term gwot because it conveys the impression that we are going to deal with the phenomenon of violent Sunni extremism--the most serious terrorist threat today--only from a military perspective. We need to have a global "campaign" against violent extremism and its root causes, which will require nonmilitary initiatives. For example, I believe the United States could do a better job providing aid and assistance to depressed communities abroad--e.g. disaster assistance before disasters occur. We also need to have a much more effective way of correcting the image of the United States abroad, which unfortunately tends to be anchored in our military presence in Iraq. As the world's only "superpower," we also need to avoid giving the impression that we are dictating to others the course of their political futures. We are not, but we need a more effective public relations effort to dispel the notion that we are imperialist in our foreign policy approach.


Bowie, Md.: bin Laden's awareness of current events seems to dispel the belief that he is hiding out in the Afghan border regions. What is the likelihood that he is in Iran, Pakistan, or a family compound in Saudi Arabia or Syria?

John Brennan: With the advances in technology and in mass media, one can stay abreast of world developments from virtually any corner of the world. While the conventional wisdom is that Bin Ladin is in the Afghan/Pak border region, the neighboring borders are porous and he could have slipped into another country. the topography of the region is quite foreboding, which has made the hunt difficult.


Tallahassee, Fla.: Is it more likely that OBL is hiding in a rural area or an urban area? The assumption is that OBL is somewhere in the tribal areas between the Afghanistan and Pakistan border, but couldn't he just as likely be in Karachi or some other major Pakistani city?

John Brennan: Bin Ladin could be anywhere, but my hunch is that he is ensconced in some rural setting. There is too much activity as well as too many eyes and ears in urban settings that could lead to his undoing.


Alexandria, Va.: If at the end of 2008, bin Laden has still not been captured, will that enhance his mythology. He would of outlasted George W. Bush.

John Brennan: Bin Ladin has already acquired a mystique among many of his followers and admirers. While some of that will endure after his demise, I suspect that once it is demonstrated that he is not invincible, his stature will gradually diminish among those who look to him for inspiration. I certainly hope he will be captured before 2008, and there are many hard-working folks--U.S. and foreign--who are trying to make that a reality.


Detroit, Mich.: Bush has stated that we are in a "war" with terrorism. Yet one fact that I never see talked about is that the time from Pearl Harbor to the end of World War II was shorter than the time from September 11 to today. I can't believe that catching bin Laden is a greater challenge than defeating both the Germans and Japanese in World War II.

Paul Pillar: The "war on terrorism" should not be equated with catching bin Laden. Indeed, one of my concerns is that once he is killed or captured, there will be a "war is over" sense among much of the American public that will be misleading and dangerous--dangerous because the terrorist threat will remain. Making substantial progress against even the Islamist brand of terrorism will take much longer than WWII. And that is without even talking about terrorism as a centuries-old tactic that will continue to be used by other extremists with other ideologies.


New York, N.Y.: Are we overemphasizing bin laden at this point in our ct "war" and would we be better to focus on other aspects of the "war"

John Brennan: As I noted in another response, I believe we need to move away from putting our counterterrorism efforts under the rubric of "war." Terrorism is the violent downstream manifestation of phenomena and processes that lead to that downstream event. But there are many factors upstream that enable, abet, and stimulate terrorist attacks. In many ways, terrorism is akin to pollution. While it is important to get rid of the pollutants downstream, as that is where they can injure/kill you, we need to do more upstream. While "war" may be an appropriate term to fight terrorists downstream, other components of national power--diplomacy, finance, education, public relations, social program, etc..--need to be brought to bear.


Bethesda, Md.: It has been widely noted that most of al Qaeda and the Taliban's financial support in that region is ultimately owed to the Afghanistan drug (opium) trade. Given that Islam strictly forbids the use of drugs, how is this apparent inconsistency reconciled by local leaders to their sympathetic population? Does their political credibility rest more on the ability to empower these people materially, with a little hypocrisy easily overlooked? Or is it okay because it is only being sold to the infidels? This has confused me for some time. Thanks.

Paul Pillar: The Taliban, when still in power, used the narcotics issue in a very cynical, manipulative, and successful way. They declared a ban on opium production, the main effects of which were to consolidate the Taliban's control over the remainder of the drug trade and to cause the value of their existing stocks of opium to increase sharply, as well as scoring international propaganda points. Yes, in large part the issue comes down to material considerations for opium growers, for whom this type of crop is simply a lot more profitable than anything else they can grow. And the fact that the vast majority of the heroin made from Afghan opium is consumed elsewhere helps to rationalize it.


Washington, D.C.: Thank you for a most informative piece in yesterday's Washington Post. If a bounty of $52 million is not helping, what other non-monetary incentives do you think would work in the hunt for Bin Laden?

John Brennan: Good question. Money can help, but it's not enough. Most critical is the continued help and assistance of foreign intelligence and security services that have access to areas and individuals that I believe hold the key to ultimate success. Pakistan is a crucial ally, and we need to do everything possible to have all sectors of the Pakistani Government working earnestly in support of the effort to find and capture Bin Ladin.


Anonymous: You describe the topography as foreboding. Isn't it the tribes there that are foreboding? I've read that the Pakistanis can't go there, let alone U.S. forces, without risking death at any given moment, as the ethnic tribes all carry AK-47's, including youngsters.

Paul Pillar: Yes, the fierceness and independence of the locals in that area make difficult and often costly any effort by the central government to exert greater control there. This frontier area of Pakistan is called the "Federally Administered Tribal Areas," which is something of a misnomer, because most of the time the federal government has in effect not administered it.


Stewartstown, Pa.: I often wonder what people in national security agencies are being paid to do. Why is it only now, since 9/11, that the government has (sort of) realized that the U.S. needs people proficient in Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages? It's not enough to say that before, the U.S. was involved with the Cold War. Arabic is--like Mandarin, Spanish, and Hindi--one of the most spoken languages on the planet. Isn't is common sense that a superpower should have, in its foreign policy departments, enough people who understand the world's major languages and cultures?

John Brennan: I certainly agree with your point that it is imperative that the U.S. Government have a ready supply of proficient foreign language speakers. Unfortunately, unlike other parts of the world--where individuals learn many languages at an early age, relatively few Americans pursue languages other than their native tongue. As a government and as a nation, we need to invest more heavily in foreign studies programs for high school and university students. It is not sufficient to only learn a foreign language; one needs to also be steeped in the culture. I was very fortunate to have attended the American University in Cairo during my junior year in college, which stimulated my lifelong interest in the Middle East and Arabic.


Gaithersburg, Md.: What is your assessment of the change in U.S vulnerability (vice the previous P&O ownership) of the Dubai Ports acquisition? Are we more or less exposed (or doesn't it matter)?

Paul Pillar: Stephen Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has studied the issue of port security as much as anyone has, notes that of all the things that affect the security of our ports, who has the management contract at shipping terminals probably is about the least important. In short, it doesn't matter.


McLean, Va.: Mr Brennan, can you expand on your comment in yesterday's Outlook section regarding the "global caliphate" and OBL's or AQ's desire to extend the caliphate worldwide?

John Brennan: During the height of its geographic reach, the Islamic caliphate extended from Morocco in the west to Indonesia in the east. Many Sunni extremists want to reclaim that breadth of control, while others espouse a global caliphate, I believe that Bin Ladin's ultimate goal is the realization of a worldwide caliphate wherein a strictly conservative brand of Islam reigns supreme. I must point out, however, that I am ascribing these goals only to violent Sunni extremists and not to Muslims, be they moderate or conservative. By definition, violent Sunni extremism is rooted in intolerance of others, which is a perversion of true Islamic teachings.


Monroe, Mich.: The U.S. initially discounted bin Laden's role in the Soviet-Afghan war, however, he now appears to be a formidable military strategist. His movement is now global and its ideology is being increasingly accepted throughout the world. His continued survival contributes to his mythical status. How important is it for the U.S. to capture rather than kill him?

Paul Pillar: His mythical status will continue whether he is dead or alive. There are reasonable arguments to be made on both sides as to whether killing or capture would be best from the US point of view. E.g., Peter Bergen argues in his piece in yesterday's Post that treating him like Saddam Hussein (including checking for head lice as one of the first things after he's captured) would help take some of the shine off his image. On the other hand, an extended trial, which bin Laden probably would use more effectively than Saddam as a propaganda platform, would have its disadvantages.


Philadelphia, Pa.: What are your thoughts on the possibilities that Bin Laden at some point was hiding out in Iraq? Is that a possibility, or speculation designed to throw off people?

Paul Pillar: I am aware of nothing credible that would support that hypothesis.


Washington, D.C.: A somewhat varied information on al Qaeda has me confused. If he wants to establish a Sunni dominancy, why does a Shia Iran support him? Why don't we use Iran against him?

John Brennan: I would not say that Iran "supports" Bin Ladin, although there have been instances of "cooperation" in the past. The politics of the region, which are very complicated, make for some strange temporary alliances. As a Shi'a state, however, Iran undoubtedly has the enmity of many members of al-Qa'ida, and vice versa.


Anonymous: Do you think the United States would have been better off had it left Afghanistan alone to its own devices? Or do you think our gumming up the works there with stinger missiles was the final death throe of the USSR?

Paul Pillar: There would have been an Afghan jihad against Soviet occupation no matter what the U.S. had done. With the U.S. help (including the Stingers), the Soviets were defeated more quickly, and this may in fact have hastened the dissolution of the USSR. The main U.S. mistake regarding Afghanistan was not helping the effort against the Soviets but instead mostly washing our hands of the place after the Soviets got out.


Alexandria, Va.: The more information you give us about Al Qaeda, their use of the Internet, Marketing of drug, etc. the more intelligent they appear to be. Aren't many of al Qaeda in fact of the intelligentsia, and have significant educational training?

Paul Pillar: Yes, many of the leadership, especially, are. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy, is a physician. Among the rank and file there is much more diversity of socioeconomic status.


Tampa, Fla.: I have two questions: (1) Do we know more about bin Laden and what he represents than he and his kind know about us? I refer to cultural, political, and economic awareness, and not mere military knowledge. Bin Laden seems to have read us quite well in the past, yet we seem to misread him on many occasions.

(2) Would bin Laden pass up a target in the U.S. promising mass casualties in favor of one promising severe economic dislocation? For example, taking out three or four of our largest gasoline refineries, along with a successful attack on Saudi facilities, could cause gas prices to spike to $4 or $5 per gallon. GM, Ford and Chrysler would go bankrupt, as would their suppliers and dealers. This plus other economic effects would devastate the US economy.

John Brennan: There are a great deal of misunderstandings on both sides. I firmly believe that Bin Ladin and associates have a very distorted view of the United States, which is based on their individual experiences and perspectives. Many Americans, however, also have a very distorted view of Islam and of al-Qa'ida, as well as the very important difference between the two. Some of that misunderstanding, unfortunately, is shared by U.S. officials. As far as Bin Ladin's choice of targets, I believe that al-qa'ida would opt for attacks that have the greatest chance of success, meaning, for them, casualties or serious impact on the U.S. economy or political system. I don't see it as an either or, and I believe al-Qa'ida is exploring different types of options.


Arlington, Va.: Should the public be alarmed that there seems to be a mass exodus of highly experienced people like yourselves from the Intelligence Community?

Paul Pillar: "Alarm" probably is too strong a word. Interest or concern, yes. Retention and morale in the intelligence community are important issues worthy of attention. But I always caution people not to read too much into any one set of departures. Every retirement is different, with a unique set of personal circumstances attached.

John Brennan: I agree with Paul. Retirement and departure decisions are very personal ones. That said, attrition rates are reviewed closely, by individual departments and agencies as well as by the Congress, and any disturbing trends hopefully will be identified and addressed quickly.


Alexandria, Va.: What do you think of George Bush's presence in Pakistan next week? Will that be helpful or damaging to U.S./Pakistani relations in the light of the fact many believe Osama bin Laden may be in Pakistan?

Paul Pillar: There are many very important issues in U.S.-Pakistani relations, bin Laden being one of them. A presidential trip and summit meeting is appropriate. We'll have to read about the meetings, and reactions to them, in the next couple of days to form a judgment about the net effect on the relationship.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Why don't we hear more from the moderate side of Islam? Is there a more vocal expression of the need for moderation and tolerance globally than we hear in the U.S.? Should the USG be asking for more output from the moderate Islamic sources? It seems that the voice of moderation is very weak.

John Brennan: The voices of moderate Islam, by far the overwhelming majority of members of Muslim communities worldwide, need to be heard. Indeed, moderate Islamic scholars, leaders, teachers, and spokespersons have a special obligation to speak out against the egregious acts of barbarism being falsely perpetrated in the name of Islam.


Mitchellville, Md.: How will bin Laden's survival through both Bush administrations affect what is written about both men years from now?

Paul Pillar: I believe historians will go beyond the narrow issue of capture of one man and will focus on the larger issues of what was done, for good or for ill, that affected the larger terrorist threat from radical Islamists.


Bristol, Conn.: I think that the real reason why we can't find bin Laden is because we are not really looking for him. The Bush administration wants to play the terror card to keep us in fear and if bin Laden were caught the Bush administration would not have the terrorism card to pull out of it's sleeve to explain their ineptitude

Paul Pillar: I doubt that very much. It would be a major political plus--among other things--for the administration if bin Laden were captured.


Paul Pillar: Thanks to everyone for your questions--sorry we didn't have time to get to all of them. There are many important issues to raise, and few of them will go away anytime soon.


Atlanta, Ga.: It appears to me that al Qaeda's attempt to achieve real credibility among the majority of Muslims depends upon:

1. the West continuing to exhibit anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias in its political, military and economic activities--e.g., insensitivity to legitimate Palestinian issues, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the invasion of Iraq, the broadcast of Muslim bashing rants by Pat Robertson and others, publication of "blasphemous" cartoons, blocking of U.S. port management by a Dubai company, etc.; and,

2. al Qaeda being seen as the only real force opposing this bias.

My question: If the above is accurate, what specific actions should the government, private groups and ordinary citizens be taking to reverse this bias on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to encourage and reward Muslim attempts at peaceful resolution of perceived injustices (such as the attempt to resolve the Israeli security wall issue through the World Court)?

John Brennan: Great points and questions. For starters, we--as a government and a world community--need to rigorously pursue and prosecute atrocities perpetrated against Muslim communities. For example, events like the tragic genocide against Bosnian Muslims should bring universal condemnation and action against those who committed such heinous acts. We need to pursue our policies irrespective of the religion and ethnicity of those involved. Unfortunately, U.S. policies in the Middle East have not been interpreted as being "fair," and we need to do a better job presenting a fair and unbiased foreign policy.


John Brennan: I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this on-line chat. A dialogue on these important issues is essential as we deal with the formidable challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century.


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