Outlook: Today's Terrorists and How to Fight Them

Richard A. Clarke
Outlook Contributor and Former White House Counterterrorism Coordinator
Monday, December 8, 2008; 11:30 AM

"Ten young men land a small boat at a quay in a city of 18 million people. Within minutes of setting ashore, they are throwing grenades and raking crowds with automatic weapons fire. Days later, almost 200 people are dead, more are wounded, the financial capital of a nation of a billion people has ground to a halt, and the world is riveted.

"To most of the world, the Mumbai massacre seems inexplicable and random, like the periodic devastation caused by typhoons or tornadoes, or simply pointless, just killing for killing's sake. But the attack was neither random nor pointless. The carnage in Mumbai was goal-oriented, an attempt to advance an overall strategy that is being ruthlessly pursued by the Islamist radical network."

Terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke was online Monday, December 8 to discuss his Outlook article on what the Mumbai attacks teach us about the latest strategies of terrorist groups and what can be done to combat them.

Clarke served as White House counterterrorism coordinator under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. His most recent book is "Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters."

A transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


Richard A. Clarke: Good morning. I hope that this morning I can hear your thoughts on the current situation in South Asia and in the struggle against al Qaeda. I will be glad to try to answer some of your questions to the extent that I am able.


Washington, D.C.: I am struck by the coincidence that Al Qaeda-type coordinated terrorism happens at the same time in India as such acts in the US. Examples: 1993 coordinated bombings in Mumbai, bombs in World Trade Center; 2001, coordinated attack on Indian Parliament, 9/11; and now this -- almost like the terrorists are practicing.

Richard A. Clarke: I think sometimes coincidences do happen. I don't think what happens in India is practice for elsewhere.


Austin, Tex.: What advice do you have for [Obama's national security advisor] Jim Jones?

Richard A. Clarke: Well, General Jones has not been in the Principals Committee or Deputies Committee before. They are the two groups that meet almost daily to run the NSC interagency system. I think that while he worries about substance, he also needs to focus on making that system work well. Institution building is vitally important if the Administration is going to be able to handle the multiple issues that it faces simultaneously.


Munich, Germany: I found your hypothetical meeting between leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in a safe house provided by a sympathetic retired Pakistani leader of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate to be interesting but provocative.

Wouldn't the retired ISI leader be betraying his own interests by directly supporting groups who want to overthrow the government that he worked years for? What is known of the ISI's current support for the Taliban?

Richard A. Clarke: Pakistan's ISI is part of the military, but it has been helping the Taliban and other groups for years, right from their inception.

Many former ISI personnel are very active in supporting fundamentalist groups... because they agree with their ideology.


Potomac, Maryland: I am proud to be an American. I am a Muslim. It makes me ill, to see and hear about one or another Muslim group going out for Non-Muslims. It also makes me ill to see people claiming how great a Muslim they are if they kill. One has many person one can name, however, I am sure you know what I mean. Bin Laden and such should be caught, tried and then given justice, something he and his group fail to provide when they have killed thousands upon thousands in the name of Islam.

Islam, I think, is the most loving Religion in the world. It teaches understanding and most of all it says love everyone. However, that is not what some would lead you to believe.

I would like to see all who have done evil killed. However, my religion and my duty as a human being does not allow me to think like that.

I would like to know what you would think the nations of the World could do to end this useless killing in the name of Religions? Please tell me what I as one human being could do to help in ending this uncalled human killing?

Thank you

Richard A. Clarke: Muslims and people of all religions should find ways to unite and state loudly that religions have often been captured and distorted, resulting in violence. We need to find a way to say that those who use violence in the name of religion are actually not part of the religion, are apostate.


Albany, New York: One of the major themes of your work -- and just about everybody else's as well -- is the almost total inability of our intelligence agencies to work and play well together. Have the various changes to intelligence organization since 9/11 done much to, say, increase the likelihood that the CIA would tell the FBI that there were known Al-Qaeda operatives in the country?

Richard A. Clarke: I think the FBI and CIA have generally shared information before and after 9-11. There are a few instances where they did not, unfortunately one of those was when, prior to 9-11, the CIA knew that the al Qaeda hijackers were in the country and failed to tell anyone.

There has never been a satisfactory answer as to why 60 CIA personnel knew about the hijackers being here and did nothing.


Arlington, Virginia, USA: The Government in recent years seems to always look to very sophisticated means, especially IT related to respond to terror threats. As a former first responder I see that the way that most issues are really solved is in quick effective response to emergencies. As you know, in Arlington our Local Emergency Planning Committee worked hard starting in 1993 to establish a disaster response capability that proved itself very well on 911. I believe that quick response of a very well trained and equipped SWAT team to the Mumbai attacks could have resolved them in a few hours rather than days. Outside of New York City, do you see areas in the US -- especially the suburbs of Washington DC -- that could respond significantly better than India did to a similar attack?

Richard A. Clarke: Most places in the US would respond better than Mumbai if only because our police are armed and have radios.


Arlington, Va.: Is Islam as close to establishing a Caliphate as your article implies? If so, if all factions would listen to a single source, would it simplify negotiations or further increase the spread of Islam and/or terrorism?

Richard A. Clarke: Islam is as diverse as Christianity and will never speak with one voice.

Nonetheless, it would be helpful if the various leaders of Islam would be more vocal and more critical of violence in the name of their religion.


Endgame: It seems to me Pakistan is reaching or has reaced a point of no return on voluntarily backing away from the jihadist culture. Has the US Intelligence/National Security Apparatus planned an endgame for Pakistan depending on whether it fully cooperates or not? What are your thoughts? (And by Pakistan I mean the ISI/Military/Civilian players)

Richard A. Clarke: I don't think it is an end game yet in Pakistan, but it is very difficult to find a Center with which to work.

I suspect that the US Government has not really contemplated in any detail what various scenarios for Pakistan's immediate future would look like. But that is a very good idea.


Ottawa, Ontario: Interesting analysis, Mr. Clarke. How would you propose the incoming Obama administration actually do what the defence, state and intelligence officials in your White House meeting propose. It appears to me that there isn't a shortage of good ideas and sound approaches to winning the hearts of majorities in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. The problem has been lack of political vision and will to take those ideas and approaches and put them to work. So the question again is how do you propose Obama could do better when it comes to actions, not just words? Failing the right kind of action, I totally agree with you that things will get rougher and uglier going forward. Thanks for taking my question.

Richard A. Clarke: Obama has to make things work in Afghanistan: a multi-faceted approach that creates security, strengthens local forces and governance, improves the economy and education, etc. It can not just be a military solution.

That means the US ambassador must have real authority and money. It means that Washington must be flexible and fast in supporting operations in Afghanistan.

And we have to have patience.


Arlington, VA: Hello Mr. Clarke -

Would you provide a few of your thoughts on the current cyber-terrorism threats and challenges to combat the threats?

Richard A. Clarke: The current cyber challenge is from governments, notably China and Russia, who are stealing US corporate and government data in unimaginable amounts.

CSIS just released a study, with which I agree, on the steps needed to create cyber security. Check it out. The main thing is to have a powerful figure in the White House running the interagency program and working with the private sector.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Clarke, I follow your writings and speeches very closely and tremendously admire your outstanding service.

What is the major security threat to the Afghan government and what is the role of the United States in providing security? For example, how best should the United States decrease the safe-haven in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas or enhance the quality and effectiveness of the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army?

Thank you so much for your time.

Richard A. Clarke: We can and we are helping to create Afghan police and Army units. That takes time. We can not, however, act alone in the Pakistani FATA area. Pakistan must find a way to secure those regions and to persuade the locals there to give up on support for al Qaeda and the Taliban. That requires an effective Pakistani government and military, neither of which exist.


Richmond, VA: I am concerned about reports of young Somalis raised in this country being recruited here and traveling overseas to train as terrorists. Why did our law enforcement communities not catch this earlier?

Richard A. Clarke: It's difficult for law enforcement to know when a Somali living in the US chooses to go back to Somalia... and then joins up with terrorists there.

The people who know are other Somalis living in the US and they are often reluctant to talk to police or FBI about it, for understandable reasons.

The Somali community here should understand that if Somalis are linked to a terrorist attack in the US, the entire Somali community in America could suffer a backlash. Thus, they should take steps to inform the FBI so as to prevent such an attack.


Baltimore Maryland: You say members of the ISI support the Taliban because they agree with their ideology. Does the majority of the Pakistani population also support the Taliban? and Al-Qaeda? If so, how do we maintain a positive relationship with the Pakistani government?

Richard A. Clarke: No, most of Pakistan is moderate, many are middle class and non-sectarian. But they have been unable to translate their numbers into an effective government that can get the security services to do what must be done.


Anonymous: The Bush administration claims the entire world and Dem. members of Congress agreed with their pre-war intel that led to invading Iraq, therefore justifying their actions. Can you tear this excuse apart?

Richard A. Clarke: The Bush Administration wanted to go to war in Iraq from the beginning for a variety of ideological reasons.

Wolfowitz even admitted that WMD was the one justification around which everyone in the Administration could unite and then sell the war... it wasn't the reason they went to war.

Bush and Rice in recent days have both said they might have gone to war even if there were no WMD.

The only WMD we thought was there were old chemical weapons.


Pomfret, Md.: Thank you for an interesting thought provoking article. I read everything you write.

Do you feel that the U.S. and some of the Mideast nations are competing with expensive funds and then counterfunding to win the hearts and minds of the Muslims? Why don't we as a country call out the Mideast nations who fund the hateful ideology?

Richard A. Clarke: We have gotten Saudi Arabia to back away from funding groups that take radical positions. Most of the money that flows to such groups now is from individuals, not governments. And it is very hard to find and stop because much of it does not flow thru the banking system.


Great Falls, Va.: Why isn't there any pressure on Pakistan (if not from American policymakers, then from the many talking heads outside the US Executive branch) to renounce sovereignty over the Pakistani "tribal areas"? If the Pakistanis claim sovereignty over these areas, they should be held responsible for what happens there. If they aren't willing to be held accountable for what happens in the tribal areas, shouldn't they renounce sovereignty and stop pretending to object when coalition forces and "planes without pilots" go over there?

Richard A. Clarke: The Paks know they can't really run the FATA, no one ever has been able to. Yet, they also do not want us to invade the area because it would produce a massive and negative reaction inside Pakistan.

For now, they look the other way when we do Predator attacks and they try to rein in some of the radical groups, for instance around Peshawar. But the Pak Mil is in no shape to effectively operate a counter-insurgency in the FATA.


Princeton, NJ: Since OBL received his training in Afghanistan and saw how a small group of religious fanatics defeated a world power and, indeed, played a role in the fall of that power and he has suckered us into two such wars, isn't it likely he thinks he is winning? Also he got us to achieve his two main goals -- US troops out of Saudi Arabia and overthrow of the most secular Arab ruler.

Richard A. Clarke: Absolutely right. After feeling on the ropes in 2002-3, I suspect the al Qaeda leaders now think they are right on schedule and things are moving their way.


Bowen Island, BC, Canada: Is it at all realistic to think that, even if the US does pulls its troops out of Iraq, it can win the war in Afghanistan? It seems to me that if ever there was a case where the war is primarily one for hearts and minds, then Afghanistan is such a case. Has the US ever shown itself capable of producing such an outcome?

Richard A. Clarke: Define "win."

We do not have to achieve a secure, modern unitary state in Afghanistan.

What we need is a sufficiently strong central government so that it can act against regional powers inside Afghanistan that permit the establishment and operation of terrorist sanctuaries.

We need to be realistic about our goals and what can be done.


Washington, DC: Can the NSC effectively oversee the counterterrorism bureaucracy? As it now stands, they just hand off most things to NCTC, which has grown way beyond its writ. Meanwhile, the State Department languishes in this area, without someone at an appropriate level to lead inside the Department and too few resources.

Second, why in your view don't we have a senior "Terrorism Czar" (and I don't mean for Iraq/Afghanistan) to oversee the interagency on this issue?

Thanks, A Lowly Bureaucrat

Richard A. Clarke: You are so right. There is no one in charge of the enormous counter-terrorism bureaucracy that has grown up after 9-11.

The White House has to reassert control and scale back some of the waste.

Let's see if Obama creates a real Czar. As you may know, I believe in a strong central coordinator, who is held responsible for delivering.


Detroit, Mich.: So when is the war on terror over? Officially over?

Richard A. Clarke: I hope on January 20th.

What I mean is that I hope Obama stops the government from using the phrase "global war on terror," which is a confusing misnomer.

We will always have some terrorism. The goal is to make the level of terrorism so low that it is not a threat to the stability of any nation, or to international activity.


Anonymous: Can these terrorist attacks be defined in some way as class warfare? Wouldn't a fair wealth distribution and a hope for a future greatly diminish recruitment to these radical groups?

Richard A. Clarke: No, many of the terrorists are from upper middle class families. Many, particularly the leaders and funders, are ideologically driven.


Richmond, VA: Have members of the incoming administration been in touch with you in connection with the Mumbai attacks and, if offered, would you accept a position in the new administration?

Richard A. Clarke: I have been advising Sen. Obama on terrorism and other national security issues for 18 months. He has the benefit of advice from many experts in the field.

I spent 30 years in government and am not interested in returning.

There is a lot one can do, however, without being a federal bureaucrat.


Santa Monica, Calif.: Why hasn't Pakistan been officially declared a state sponsor of terrorism?

Richard A. Clarke: We looked at that option a few times.

The question is what good would it do.

If you call it a State Sponsor, under US law you have to cut off aid and take other steps that would be counter-productive.


Parker, Colo.: What are your recommendations on how we wage the ideological aspect of the battle with Islamic terrorists?

Richard A. Clarke: The most important thing we could do we have actually done: elect Barack Obama.

Then we need to make clear that we will no longer engage in torture and other such practices. We must make clear we are not at war with Islam, but respect it. We must act to solve problems such as the Israel-Palestinian dispute.

Then we can work with moderate governments and leading spokesmen in the Islamic world to denounce violent Islamist groups.


Atlanta, Georgia: Mr. Clarke -- thank you for your service and your willingness to speak out. Can you tell me more about the origins of the neoconservatives' interest in invading Iraq -- I'm speaking of pre-2000 -- before Bush became President?

Richard A. Clarke: The Neocons thought that after the end of the Cold War, America had a window in which it could do anything it wanted... and that we ended to take the opportunity to change the face of the Middle East... so that we could get secure access to oil, end the cycle of wars there, and secure Israel.

They wrote this in 1998 and they pushed it on candidate Bush.

They saw 9-11 as a way of justifying US actions that they wanted to do all along but could not sell to the public.


Los Angeles: I've read that there haven't been any attacks since 9-11 in part because Al-Qaeda feels the need to outdo its former "success." Do you think that's true? What would be the next kind of attack in the U.S. look like?

Richard A. Clarke: It may be that al Qaeda is reluctant to have another attack in the US unless it is on the same scale as 9-11... otherwise it could look weaker than it was.

The major reason they have not acted here, however, is that they have been able to kill Americans far more easily in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also think that it has been very difficult to operate in the US after 9-11. There are signs that they are now looking for ways to avoid US security forces by using terrorists that do not draw attention, do not look Arab, etc.


Re: Waging an ideological battle with extremists: Referencing the previous poster's question: Is this something the US needs to do, or take a stronger role in giving our partners and allies the tools to do?

I suppose both, but wanted your view on the extent to which we can do this, vs. our friends around the world.

thanks, A Lowly Bureaucrat

Richard A. Clarke: We can do a better job of helping moderate governments with the police and intelligence tools, the media and development programs that have worked n some countries,

We could do a better job of finding out and propagating "What Works."

Replacing repressive policing with community policing is an example.


Ronkonkoma, N.Y.: How important is Iran's cooperation with us on Afganistan/Pakistan, being that both countries share Iran's borders, and is Iran concerned that renewed ties between the U.S. and Iran might spill militarism over the border?

Richard A. Clarke: Iran was cooperating with us on Afghanistan after 9-11, but got little for its efforts but negative US rhetoric and threats.

Now Iran is cooperating with anti-American elements in Afghanistan.

If the Obama Administration can get a dialogue going with Tehran, it may be that Afghanistan is one area where we could begin cooperating with each other again.


New York, N.Y.: What do you think our relations with Iran should be like going forward? Although I have never been there, over the last few years, numerous mainstream journalists have convinced me that the country and its population are more of a natural ally than an enemy, as crazy as some of its leaders' rhetoric may be. Am I naive?

Richard A. Clarke: No, you are right. Iran is not monolithic, it's diverse. Many Iranians want better relations with the US.

The problem is that the government is run by a radical element, ideologues. And they have all of the means of coercion, all of the guns, all of the security forces.


DC: What exactly is the ideology that drives the terrorists in charge of making plans? Do they hate the US or is the US just an example of what it is that they are against? Aside from blowing the US off the map, what would make them "happy"? The what's get thrown around, but the why's seem lacking.

Richard A. Clarke: They have a goal and they see the US as standing in their way.

Their goal is really the creation of caliphates, religious governments which would enforce an extreme, Wahabi version of Islam.


What we need is a sufficiently strong central government : Has the region we call Afghanistan ever had a stable effective government? Haven't all attempts to impose such a government met with disaster?

Richard A. Clarke: Historically there are few period when Afghanistan had an effective central government.

That's why I said "sufficiently strong," not a powerful Kabul government that runs everything in the country. Just strong enough to prevent terrorist sanctuaries from developing. We can and should accept regional leaders will run Afghanistan, as they have always done.


Frederick, Md.: I find it hard to believe that BinLaden who is reportably undergoing kidney dialysis is able to live in the mountain caves of Pakistan. I think he is in a more comfortable place, while we are attacking mountain caves. Probably we are barking at the wrong tree. Maybe we should look for him in Pakistani hospitals at least some of the time.

Richard A. Clarke: When you can't find your car keys anywhere in the house... don't you usually conclude that they are not in the house? Maybe they are in the car or somewhere where you have not been looking.

In my op-ed, I pictured bin Ladin in Pakistan for ease of story telling.

Actually, I doubt he is there.


Richard A. Clarke: Thank you all very much for joining me this morning.

Have a good day.


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