Richard A. Clarke, the former head of counterterrorism in the White House under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said yesterday that there were twice as many attacks outside Iraq in the three years after the 2001 attacks as in the three preceding years.
Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda group "are no longer the traditional leaders as they were in the 1990s," Clarke said, adding that the terrorist leader had been building ideological groups from Afghanistan before Sept. 11, 2001, and that they had grown in the past few years into 14 to 16 separate networks.
Clarke said that bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, exercise "symbolic control and provide broad-brush themes" and that most of the networks operate independently, but "there are some signs of cooperation among some."
Clarke, now a corporate security and counterterrorism consultant, delivered his assessment of al Qaeda and the jihadist threat at a news conference at the New America Foundation designed to focus attention on a bipartisan, two-day policy forum set for next week in Washington, titled "Terrorism, Security and America's Purpose."
Clarke left the Bush administration in 2003 and has since alleged the Bush White House reacted slowly to warnings of terrorist attacks in early 2001.
Yesterday, Clarke said that Iraq is drawing a relatively small number of foreign fighters who train there and return home, but "it is unclear to what extent they are drawn by the U.S. presence or how much the U.S. is a magnet." Overall, he said that "there are more people participating [in jihadist networks] outside Iraq because of the U.S. presence" in that country.
"Al Qaeda has morphed from a hierarchical structure to a [worldwide] movement," he said. The goal of some is to create regional theocracies, he said, while others just want to overthrow their own governments. "They share the view that the U.S. is the great Satan and propping up governments that suppress Muslims," he said.
Asked why he believes there has not been an attack inside the United States since those on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Clarke cited first the increased vigilance by the FBI and federal immigration authorities. "That conveyed a message that this was an unwelcoming climate," he said but quickly added, "It's not clear it won't happen here" again.
Another factor that so far may have prevented an al Qaeda attack here, Clarke said, is that bin Laden's group has traditionally relied on support from the indigenous population -- and, unlike Europe, the United States "has no internal, large, alienated Arab population."
Clarke took sharp issue with President Bush's repeated statements that by fighting terrorists abroad, the administration is preventing attacks in this country. "That is illogical on its face," Clarke said. Citing bombings in Madrid and London, Clarke said that "absolutely nothing prevents them from coming here."
Clarke criticized the Bush administration for what he characterized as a lack of specific goals and objectives for homeland security.
"There have been lots of starts," Clarke said, citing establishment of the Department of Homeland Security for one, but he said the government should do a better job of determining where money needs to be spent.
"We are probably safer when it comes to passenger aircraft," he said but added that not enough has been done to make ground transportation safe and that chemical plants represent particularly dangerous targets for terrorists.