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World: Former CIA Analyst Says West Misunderstands Al-Qaeda

Michael Sheuer (Courtesy Photo) WASHINGTON, January 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Michael Scheuer is a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where for six years he was in charge of the search for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. While in the CIA, Scheuer anonymously authored two books critical of how Western governments were waging the "war on terror." He resigned in 2004 and is now a terrorism analyst for CBS News. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked him to assess the fight against Al-Qaeda.

RFE/RL: For several years you were the head of the CIA unit charged with capturing Osama bin Laden. How do you judge current efforts to find him?

Michael Scheuer: I think the current efforts to capture Osama bin Laden are probably the best we can make -- but in a situation where it's almost impossible to expect success. Bin Laden lives in an area that has the most difficult topography on earth. He lives among a population that is very loyal to him, as a hero in the Islamic world.

But I think most importantly, American forces there and NATO forces are more engaged on a day-to-day basis trying to make sure [that Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai's government survives than they are in chasing Osama bin Laden. The tide has really turned against us in Afghanistan, and it seems to me very unreasonable to expect to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in the foreseeable future.

I resigned because I thought the 9/11 commission had thoroughly failed America by not finding anyone responsible for anything before 9/11. The amount of individual negligence and culpability at the highest levels of the American government was completely whitewashed by the 9/11 commission.

RFE/RL: Yet for years, U.S. President George W. Bush has characterized bin Laden's capture as an important victory in the war on terror.

Scheuer: Well, he is certainly the symbol of a war, a war that really had very little to do with terrorism. American political leaders on both sides of the aisle have really not come to grips yet, five years later, with what this war is about. They continue to say that bin Laden and Al-Qaeda and its allies are focused on destroying America and its democracy, its freedom, [its] gender equality. And really this war has very, very little to do with any of that. It has to do with what the West and the United States do in the Islamic world.

And so because of our misunderstanding of the enemy's motivation and his intent, we have greatly underestimated the difficulty of attacking him and destroying him before we get attacked again.

RFE/RL: It sounds like you think the Bush administration is making some serious mistakes in how they are waging the war on terror and the hunt for Al-Qaeda figures like bin Laden.

Scheuer: Well, I think the whole war effort so far has been a mistake, in the sense that we're slowly becoming [like] Israel, in that the only options we have open to ourselves are military and intelligence operations.

Bin Laden has never been focused at all on Western civilization, as such. His ability to rally Muslims to his side is dependent almost solely on the perception in the Islamic world that Western foreign policy is an attack on Islam and the followers of Islam.

RFE/RL: Has the United States created more of a target with its invasion of Iraq?

Scheuer: Certainly we have, and not intentionally. I'm not one that thinks that we have leaders who are eager for this war.

But we just don't have leaders with the courage to stand up and understand that it's our presence more than anything else in the Islamic world that motivates the enemy, and Iraq was really a turning point in the war on Al-Qaeda and its allies.

A boy in Pakistan shows a mobile phone with an image of Osama bin Laden (epa file photo)

I'm not at all an expert on Iraq or whatever threat was posed by [former Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein. But the sad reality of it is that the invasion of Iraq turned Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden from a man and an organization into a philosophy and a movement. And now we're faced with an Islamic militancy around the world that is far greater than it was on [September 11, 2001,] and almost certainly durable enough to sustain an eventual loss of Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri.

RFE/RL: Do you foresee more attacks on the United States or in the West on the scale of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington?

Scheuer: Oh, I think greater than 9/11. I don't think it will happen in Europe, but I do think it will happen in the United States. Bin Laden has been very clear that each of Al-Qaeda's attacks on America will be greater than the last, and I think the only reason we haven't seen an attack so far is that he doesn't have that attack prepared. But when he does, he will use it. And try to get us out of the way, which of course is his main goal.

America is not his main enemy. His main enemies are the Al-Saud family in Saudi Arabia, the Mubarak regime in Egypt, and Israel.

RFE/RL: Explain a bit about what you mean by that.

Scheuer: The primary goal of Al-Qaeda and the movement it has tried to inspire around the world has been to create Islamic governments in the Islamic world that govern according to their religion. And bin Laden's view on this is that those governments -- the government of Egypt, the government of Saudi Arabia, the government of Jordan, Algeria, right down the line -- only survive because the United States protects them, and Europe protects them. Either with money, diplomatic and political support, or military protection.

And bin Laden's goal has been to simply hurt the United States enough to force us to look at home, to take care of things here, and thereby prevent us from supporting those governments, which he -- and I think the vast majority of Muslims -- regard as oppressive police states.

Once America is removed from that sort of support, Al-Qaeda intends to focus on removing those governments, eliminating Israel, and the third step, further down the road: settling scores with what the Sunni world regards as heretics in the Shi'ite part of the Islamic world. So his vision for the world, and the vision they're pursuing, is a very clear and orderly one, at least from their perspective.

RFE/RL: Tell me about the book you're working on, it's called "From Pandora's Box: America And Militant Islam After Iraq." What does that title mean?

Scheuer: Well, the Bush administration, the media, [and] the Democrats have talked a lot about the unintended consequences of invading Iraq. And the book is basically an effort to say: yes, there have been unintended consequences -- but they weren't unpredictable consequences.

What I'm trying to describe in the book is that we just have a simple failure here to understand our enemy and the world we deal with.

RFE/RL: And the use of the phrase "after Iraq" refers to a time when the United States is no longer in that country?

Scheuer: The book is written because I think we're defeated in Iraq. I think we're simply looking for a way to be graceful about the exit, but it's going to be very clear to our opponents in the Islamic world that they've defeated the second superpower.

They defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; they've defeated us in Iraq; and it looks very likely that they'll defeat us in Afghanistan. And so Iraq, for all intents and purposes, as far as our enemies are concerned, is over.

RFE/RL: What do you see as Pakistan's role? Obviously President Pervez Musharraf is seen as an ally of the West and someone whom Bush keeps very close, but a lot of observers say there are many things going on in Pakistan that Musharraf turns a blind eye to.

Scheuer: One of the great misunderstandings in the United States -- and in Western European governments, and European governments generally, I suppose -- is to believe that every country's national interests are identical with ours. Certainly that's a malady in Washington.

U.S. President George W. Bush (left) in Islamabad with Pakistan Presdeint Musharraf in March 2006 (epa)

The truth, I think, is America has probably never had a better ally than President Musharraf. What he's done to date in terms of allowing us to expand our presence in Pakistan; permission for overflights of aircraft; his assistance to the CIA, especially, in capturing senior Al-Qaeda members in Pakistani cities; and, for the first time in Pakistan's history, sending the conventional armed forces into the border areas to try to capture some of the Al-Qaeda fighters -- which brought Pakistan to the brink of civil war -- is an astounding record of support for America.

Basically what Musharraf has done -- nothing has been in the interest of Pakistan. And I think he's just simply to the point -- and I think from his perspective, correctly so -- that we've stayed too long in Afghanistan, we haven't accomplished our goal. And he has to begin to look out more for Pakistan's national interests and its survival as a stable political entity.

RFE/RL: I'd like to switch to a different topic in the war on terror. You agree with the practice of rendition, is that right?

Scheuer: Yes. Well, in a sense, I was the, or one of the authors of the practice, and I think it's been, at least for the United States, the single most productive and positive counterterrorism operation that we have waged, at least in the last 30 years.

RFE/RL: Do you say that because of the quality of information the United States has gotten from people it has taken to third countries for interrogation?

Scheuer: No. You know that's one of the major misunderstandings of the media. I have been totally ineffective in trying to explain how the program was set up.

The program was set up initially to make sure that we removed people who were a threat to the United States or our allies from the street and had them incarcerated. The second goal was to seize from them at the moment of their arrest whatever paper documents or electronic documents that they had with them, or in their apartment, or in their vehicle, at the time. Those were the two goals. Interrogation was never really an important goal. Primarily because we know that Al-Qaeda's fighters are trained to fabricate information, or to give us a lot of accurate information that turns out to be dated and therefore not useful after it's been investigated.

The reason people were taken elsewhere than the United States was not for interrogation, but because President [Bill] Clinton at the time, along with his national security [aides], Richard Clarke and Sandy Berger, did not want to bring those people to the United States, and directed us -- the CIA -- to take them where they were wanted for illegal action, which turned out to be in Egypt or another Arab country. But the agency itself always preferred to take people into U.S. custody for reasons that were basically institutional protection.

We knew at the end of the day that this would become a very unpopular program because of where these people were taken.

RFE/RL: So the U.S. decision to open secret overseas facilities and keep people for indefinite periods of time -- that was something that developed after you put together the initial rendition program?

Scheuer: It was. Whatever was involved in those prisons -- that was a Bush administration decision to not put these people into the regular U.S. judicial system.

And the truth of the matter is that for both the Clinton administration and the Bush administration, American law makes it very difficult to put these people into our judicial system because most of the time, they're arrested by foreign governments, and we cannot vouch whether they were roughed up by those foreign governments, whether their documents were tampered with, whether their hard drives or floppy disks were tampered with.

And so what I think we're really seeing here is a lack of willpower on the part of American politicians to find a way to accommodate this process to the American judicial system.

RFE/RL: You decided to end your career at the CIA earlier than you originally planned to. Was it difficult to resign?

Scheuer: I resigned from the agency with much regret. I had intended to work there for 30 years and then retire, or longer if I could. And I had nothing to complain about regarding the agency. Indeed the agency asked me to stay when I decided to resign.

The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001 (epa)

I resigned because I thought the 9/11 commission had thoroughly failed America by not finding anyone responsible for anything before 9/11. The amount of individual negligence and culpability at the highest levels of the American government was completely whitewashed by the 9/11 commission. And I resigned because I wanted to speak out on those issues.

My feeling since I have left has been that I have not had any influence at all on that particular debate. I think I've had a bit of influence through my books and writings on trying to convince people that the war we're fighting against Al-Qaedaism is a more serious problem than we have imagined to date. And that it has much more to do with religion than anyone in power is willing to talk about. I seem to have an equal number of detractors on the right and on the left, and perhaps that is suggests that I have at least said something that's getting some attention.

RFE/RL: Can I ask what your political affiliation is?

Scheuer: I've been a Republican all my life. I've never voted for a Democrat. I think my father would reach out from the grave if I did and throttle me. But that doesn't have anything to do with American security. I don't think the Bush administration has had a more pointed or eager critic than myself.

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