Terrorism & Homeland Security
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2003; 3 p.m. ET
On Friday, the Bush administration elevated the nationwide terrorist threat index for the second time since the system was put into effect last March, warning that recent intelligence suggests a "high risk" of attacks by the al Qaeda terrorist network against U.S. targets at home and abroad.
Daniel Benjamin, senior fellow in the CSIS International Security Program, was online Tuesday, Feb. 11 at 3 p.m. ET, to discuss international terrorism threats and counterterrorism.
Together with Steven Simon of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Benjamin wrote "The Age of Sacred Terror" (Random House, 2002), which documents the rise of al Qaeda and religiously motivated terrorism, as well as America's efforts to combat that threat.
The transcript follows.
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Chicago, Ill.: I just recently saw the story Frontline did about John O'Neill, The Man Who Knew" (it's available online at their Web site). (Companion Live Online discussion.)
Do you think that anything has changed in the culture of the FBI and other federal agencies since Sept. 11? If John O'Neill was alive today, would they listen? Or is there another John O'Neill out there somewhere in an FBI counter-terrorism unit who is being marginalized and punished for thinking outside the box?
Daniel Benjamin: There certainly have been changes, but it's unfortunately too early to say whether they have been sufficient. The kind of cultural overhaul that was necessary at the Bureau will likely take years. I'm no longer in the government, so I can't say if there is another O'Neill out there. Most people who worked with him think he was one of a kind.
washingtonpost.com: Thank you for joining us today. Al Jazeera is reportedly releasing a new audio taped message form Osama bin Laden calling for Muslim solidarity in regards to any Iraqi conflict. Could this be seen as a call to action?
Daniel Benjamin: It is certainly a signal that al-Qaeda remains active and is using the confrontation with Iraq to promote its message that it is the legitimate leader of Muslims everywhere and to drive home the point that the U.S. and its allies are waging a war against Islam. Is it a signal to carry out a particular plot? Hard to say. If history is any indication, I would say it's unlikely but not impossible.
New York, N.Y.: Do you view a war in Iraq as lessening or increasing the danger of terror in the U.S. or against U.S. targets abroad?
Daniel Benjamin: Good question. In the near term, the tension with Iraq will raise the incentive for al-Qaeda to attack. The possibility of Saddam and al-Qaeda cooperating will also go up the closer he gets to recognizing that his time is up. Once the U.S. occupies Iraq, our forces could well become a target for jihadist violence. Al-Qaeda would continue to try to carry out attacks against the U.S. anyway, but the confrontation with Iraq raises the premium on acting for them. Removing Saddam from power will end the possibility that a dangerous despot would cooperate and give al-Qaeda weapons of mass destruction, but over the long term, the radical Islamists will still be there, still ready to attack us.
Virginia: To me it seems like the only thing that would bring Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda together would be the United States armed forces attacking Iraq. Otherwise it would be like signing a death warrant for Saddam Hussein, and he knows it.
Daniel Benjamin: To a large extent, I agree. Saddam has had long-term relationships with terrorists, but not, so far as we know, with anyone who wanted to carry out catastrophic attacks. In the past, he has been very wary of religious fundamentalists who might turn their weapons on him, and he has recognized that terror attacks get traced back to their sponsors. Again, once he sees that his time is up, all those prudential considerations probably go out the window.
Oakland, Calif.: Isn't it true that Saudi Arabia is the biggest sponsor of international terrorism? Why do we consider them to be an "ally?"
Daniel Benjamin: Not exactly. Saudi Arabia is the source of a great deal of the funding for al-Qaeda and other Islamist terror groups. But most of that money comes from individual donors or charities -- some of them government-sponsored -- from which money is diverted to the radicals. Most of Saudi Arabia's leaders know that bin Laden loathes them and would be happy to topple them. The state, however, is dedicated to the promulgation of Wahhabi Islam, and it is hard to stop funneling money to the charities that carry out the educational and charitable activities associated with that. There is a contradiction at the heart of the Saudi state that needs to be worked out, but that is not the same as saying the state is an enemy of ours.
Washington, D.C.: It seems the government was faced with a tough situation: Don't give any warnings and, post-attack, they will get blamed. Give warnings and they are blamed for scaring the citizens. Given this situation, it seems the government made the wrong decision by implementing this CYA system. Don't you think that less damage is done and we are made safer if the government only tells us if they have confirmed that a specific target is going to be attacked on a specific time?
Daniel Benjamin: You've pointed out a real paradox that is difficult to overcome. While there may be some value to public warnings, the most important thing is for law enforcement agencies to get the alerts. With 17,000 or so of them out there, it's impossible to notify quietly -- it will inevitably get out. So the government now makes it public. And, to be honest, a scenario in which Washington had information and didn't notify the public would be so disastrous for government credibility after an attack that no one wants to run that risk.
Washington, D.C.: It appears that our foremost goal in the "War On Terror" is confronting states which harbor terror. Once Iraq is off the table, which countries should come into focus?
Daniel Benjamin: This is a difficult one because I don't think the war on terror is, first and foremost, about states. It is about "non-state actors," groups such as al-Qaeda that are likely to carry out far more devastating attacks than most state-sponsors of terror have ever contemplated. We need to continue going after state sponsors, but not necessarily militarily. Anyway, my vote is for putting more pressure on Syria to stop supporting Hezbollah, though I'm not suggesting a military confrontation.
Washington, D.C.: Are you concerned that our alert system tips off terrorist networks as to which communications we can intercept?
Daniel Benjamin: No. Officials are usually pretty good at cloaking the 'sources and methods,' and if it disrupts a plot, so much the better.
Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: Do you think it's possible that, now that American citizens have an inkling of what it's like to feel vulnerable to militant, ideologically-motivated political violence, that there may be more soul-searching about America's foreign policy history?
I'm thinking of two cases in particular -- Nicaragua, where the U.S. sponsored a terrorist organization, the "Contras," and El Salvador, where the U.S. helped train militants to terrorize citizens trying to organize a better situation for themselves.
Thanks for the chat!
Daniel Benjamin: Alas, soul-searching isn't something I predict a lot -- it's hard to figure out what exactly is conducive for that. But I do think that it will be harder to support 'freedom fighters' in the future as all uses of violence against governments (outside of war) becomes harder to justify.
Baltimore, Md.: I find the recent warnings and alerts quite terrifying. My husband, who is from India, says Americans need to learn to live in this environment, as Europeans, Middle Easterners and Asians have been doing for years now. Do you see the current situation as being temporary? I certainly feel that the government has led us to believe that once we have ousted Saddam and killed Osama, we'll go back to life as it was pre-9/11. Is this realistic?
Daniel Benjamin: The disappearance of Saddam and bin Laden will only be a beginning. I fear we have to get used to living knowing that terror is a possibility. Iraq may be pacified, but radical Islam will be with us for many years to come.
Phoenix, Ariz.: If NBC weapons are used against U.S. troops in Iraq, how will the U.S. respond?
Daniel Benjamin: It depends what happens and what our options are. If the Iraqis have withdrawn into the cities, it will be difficult to retaliate with the kind of overwhelming firepower that America has threatened in the past. There is a good possibility that such weapons will be used, and we don't, of course, have chem or bio weapons in our arsenal. I think it is unlikely that we would use even tactical nuclear weapons. But, insofar as it is possible, Saddam will pay a dear price for using these weapons.
Washington, D.C.: You mentioned Hizbollah as a U.S. priority after Al Qaeda. What evidence is there that they consider the U.S. a target?
Daniel Benjamin: Since the 1980s, Hezbollah hasn't targeted the U.S. But there are rumors that may change, especially in the event of war. Even if it hasn't targeted Americans, it is a very capable terrorist force that has made peace in the Middle East exceedingly difficult to achieve -- though of course it is not the major factor there -- and it has a global reach, witness the attacks against Israeli targets in Argentina.
Washington, D.C.: Is it true that even if a terrorist organization was able to secure biological and/or chemical weapons they would still have great difficulty dispersing these agents thereby resulting in minimal casualties. If so, shouldn't our government be doing more to reduce the sense of panic which seems to be prevalent these days. The same for radiological weapons. I work two blocks from the White House. If a radiological bomb goes off within 100 yards of my office, am I at immediate risk?
Daniel Benjamin: Carrying out 'successful' attacks with chemical or biological weapons is not easy. Dissemination is difficult and weather conditions play an important role. But just the fact of one could cause widespread panic -- just remember the anthrax attacks, which were quite limited and still were pretty scary.
I'm not an expert on the 'dirty bomb,' but my understanding is that there is a conventional blast -- dangerous enough --and then the radioactive material is widely spread. What that does is a) contaminate sizable areas and b) raise the odds that someone affected with contract a cancer or other disease, though it could be many, many years down the line. So it's not a nuclear weapon, but it's dangerous all the same.
Germantown, Md.: If Syria is a supporter of international terrorist groups, why are they on the UN security council? Isn't that like hiring the fox to watch the hen house?
Daniel Benjamin: Well, it's a little less absurd than allowing Iraq to become chairman of the UN sponsored Conference on Disarmament. (Or perhaps allowing the Libyans to chair a human rights council.) The UN operates on a rotation system. This, alas, is one of the absurdities of the system.
Washington, D.C.: How do you feel the Bush administration has been doing in the war against terrorism? My sense is that they did a good job prosecuting the war against the Taliban, but since then have done very little effectively. It seems to me that they have done way too little to secure Afghanistan, have frittered away crucial international cooperation and good will, have obsessively, irrationally focused on Iraq to the detriment of the fight against al Qaeda, have underfunded Homeland Security, have neglected efforts to shore up weapons in the former Soviet Union, etc. Yet Bush is still popular, so maybe I'm missing something. What are your thoughts?
Daniel Benjamin: Big question. I agree with much of your critique, and I don't share the administration's priorities. Al-Qaeda remains a bigger threat than Iraq -- at least for the near term. We can't defeat terror alone, and we are alienating plenty of allies, though some, like the French, aren't helping matters. And we're spending money on weapons that I don't think will help us with counter-terrorism. But this is a war in the dark, and it is difficult to argue about where the dangers are greatest.
Virginia: How can you fight terrorism without being discriminatory?
Daniel Benjamin: If you mean by discriminate profiling, well, some profiling is hard to avoid when most terrorists come from a particular region. Over the long term, though, profiling is of limited use since there is recruitment of terrorists going on in the U.S. and in Europe and Asia -- so ethnicity will not be such a key indicator.
More broadly, we need to avoid discrimination to preserve the democratic legitimacy of counterterror efforts and our values. Not much sense in losing what we stand for in the fight against terror.
Washington, D.C.: What do you see as our long term options/goals in the war against terror -- how do we quell this hatred of America in the eyes of the terrorist? Is this even a possibility?
It just seems that our past actions have led to the birth of the extremist factions and while we can try to hunt them down and prevent attacks, these are short term measures and don't change the long term ideological differences. And I just wondering if there was anything that we could do to "right the wrongs" in their minds?
Daniel Benjamin: We're not going to win over the terrorists, but it is essential that we do better with those who are susceptible to their arguments that the U.S. is at war with Islam. It will be tough -- because there is so much hatred out there -- and it will take a long time. It will involve supporting in a measured way the push for democracy in the region (measured because we don't want the truly bad outcome of a jihadist government coming to power) and to do what we can to support educational reform, economic liberalization and the end to anti-American and anti-semitic incitement in the media, which are used to deflect criticism away from authoritarian governments. This is a tall order.
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