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Religion & Terrorism”

Key West, Florida


Bruce Hoffman, Director, RAND Corporation


Jeffrey Goldberg, Staff Writer, The New Yorker

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Bruce Hoffman, director of the Washington office of the RAND Corporation, is one of the world’s most respected analysts of terrorism. He is the author of Inside Terrorism (1999), and he will tell us about the role played by religion in terrorism today.
BRUCE HOFFMAN: It seems to me that since the 1980s, terrorism has changed fundamentally from the post-1968 model, in which terrorism was a secular phenomenon that aims at national-separatist, ethnic, or other ideological goals. That form of terrorism used violence in a relatively targeted way (often attacking specific institutions or individuals, for instance) in service of those secular goals. Now it seems that terrorism, or at least the type that emanates from the Middle East and from South and Southeast Asia, has become less discriminate, more random, and therefore also more lethal.

This shift, moreover, is not confined strictly to terrorism that emanates from the world of Islam. During the 1980s, for example, two separate groups of messianic Jewish terrorists in Israel plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock in order to “cleanse” the Temple Mount of this Muslim shrine and so prepare the way for the rebuilding of the Temple and the coming of the Messiah. Christian white supremacists in the United States planned to poison the water in Chicago and Washington, and they stockpiled cyanide. But generally these religious terrorists at first could not come up with plots that were even quarter-baked. Fortunately, they just didn’t have the competence that Al Qaeda has.

In 1993 came the first World Trade Center bombing and then a plot to bomb tunnels and bridges in New York City. Followers of the blind Muslim sheikh Abdul Rahman were implicated in both. Religion clearly was on the verge of becoming a dominant trend in defining the most worrisome kind of terrorism, meaning the sort that aims mass-casualty attacks directly against the United States.

I define terrorism as “religious” when some liturgy, scripture, or clerical authority is involved in sanctioning the violent act. Now there are all sorts of groups around the world that use force and can be identified using religious terms but are not “religious” in the sense that I am using the term. In Northern Ireland, for instance, Protestants and Catholics fight using terrorist (or as they say locally, “paramilitary”) tactics, but theological justifications play little or no role. But in the Israeli plots or the World Trade Center bombing, religious authority in some form approved the assault, as when Sheikh Rahman blessed the 1993 attempt to blow up the twin towers.

By the mid-nineties, the growing prominence of religion as a factor in terrorism could be traced through a chart that RAND began keeping in 1968. In that year, there were only eleven active and identifiable terrorist groups worldwide, and they were overwhelmingly linked to irredentist or national-separatist causes. None was religious. In 1980, there were sixty-four identifiable terrorist groups active; just two were religious. Both happened to be made up of Shi’ite Muslims, which is not surprising given that the previous year had seen the rise to power of Khomeini in Iran.

By 1992, with the Cold War over, terrorist groups declined in number to forty-eight, of which eleven (or roughly a quarter) were religious according to my definition. And then things began to peak. In 1994, sixteen of forty-nine terrorist groups — about a third, that is — had a salient religious component. By 1995, it was twenty-six out of fifty-six, or almost half. With this surge of religiously motivated groups, terrorism was no longer the preserve of secular ideological leftists, nationalists, and irredentists. And by the mid-nineties we saw more cults, apocalyptic groups that added a different layer in Japan, in various parts of the United States, in Switzerland, and elsewhere.

So is religious terrorism a new phenomenon? No. Like most things involving terrorism, it has long historical antecedents. At least three of the English words that we often use to describe terrorists and what they do are derived from ancient or medieval times. A “zealot,” for instance, was originally a member of a radical Jewish splinter sect that was active in Roman-ruled Palestine between A.D. 66 and 73.
Then there are the famous “Assassins” in what is today Iraq, Syria, and Iran between about 1100 and 1250. These were members of a secret Muslim order that terrorized and murdered Christian Crusaders as well as others, typically in the open and with knives handled by killers who did not expect to get away. With the Assassins we see the dramatic ethos of martyrdom and violent self-sacrifice gaining legendary status in the Islamic community.

From earliest times right up until the nineteenth century rise of nationalism, religion was what motivated terrorism. But as democracy rose and governments moved away from the idea of rule by divine right, terrorism began to change, too, by embracing anarchism, nihilism, or revolutionary politics. Until 1980 — almost the end of the twentieth century — terrorism remained an almost wholly secular enterprise.

Since 1980 we have seen a resurgence of terrorism legitimized by religious authorities and precepts, in part because of Iran but also because of wider and more profound social effects flowing from faith and ideology. As in the case of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, violence becomes something justified by sacred texts. This historical reversion back to religious motives for terrorism is hugely important because, as three decades of research into how and why people become terrorists suggests, secular terrorists become such at the end of a long process that involves a political conversion, intensifying political activity, and gradually increasing radicalization until a dramatic line is crossed and people get killed. Religious terrorism, worrisomely, seems to make active converts more quickly. In the West Bank and Gaza, for example, many of the Hamas or Islamic Jihad bomb-carriers are recruited just weeks or even days before they carry out their suicide attacks.

Their path to violence is much shorter, I think, because religion plays a large part. A secular leader with an audience that may not be sophisticated or even literate has to do a lot of convincing to sell his abstract political ideology about the evils of the government or some rival ethnic group. A leader with a religious title in front of his name, on the other hand, can say that God is commanding the use of force and offering rewards in the next life to those who obey. So you have this charismatic figure who says he speaks for God and who can draw on the pre-existing organizational cohesion of religion, all of which tends to cut the lag time involved in terrorist recruitment.

Religious terrorists generally tend to be deeply alienated people. They see themselves as fighting a total war, on the defensive and with no options. And yet, oddly, they often have very ambitious goals that go far beyond the usual political or ideological agenda. They also tend to dismiss those outside their religion and even their particular sect or offshoot, legitimizing actions against them as necessary in dealing with “infidels,” “mud people,” “dogs,” or “children of Satan.” The literature of religious terrorist movements is rife with such epithets, which dehumanize victims and make it easier to kill them. In some cases, religious terrorists have convinced themselves that they’re doing their victims a favor.

What we see in religious terrorism is the justification of mass, indiscriminate violence at a higher level than we had seen in secular terrorism. A string of incidents in the 1990s underscored this: the Hamas bus bombing campaign in February and March 1996 that killed sixty people; the thirteen almost simultaneously detonated car and truck bombs that Muslim terrorists used to convulse Bombay three days after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; the December 1994 hijacking of an Air France plane in Algiers with the intent of crashing it into the heart of Paris, full of fuel and passengers — an earlier version of 9/11 that was prevented when French commandos successfully stormed the plane on the tarmac in Marseilles.

All this, then, is what I think distinguishes religious terrorism from secular terrorism. While I was working on my book Inside Terrorism, I tended to view religious terrorism as an end in itself. Now I’m not so sure. I still think religious motives for terrorism are important, but I see a profound cynicism in people like Bin Laden and Shoko Asahara, the leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in March 1995, killing twelve people and harming nearly five thousand others. I don’t think that this throws my theory about religious terrorism out the window, but it does remind me that terrorism is idiosyncratic, if only because it has to change in order to retain its effectiveness.
Bin Laden and Asahara use religion as a means to promote internal cohesion and to appeal to wider and more diverse constituencies. They also create personality cults centered on themselves, but that’s not so different from cults in general. For these people, terrorism is about power; as they see it, the only means of achieving power is force. As C. Wright Mills wrote back in 1957, “All politics is a struggle for power, and the ultimate kind of power is violence.”

Bin Laden originally declared that he wanted to liberate the holy places of Mecca and Medina and to expel from Saudi Arabian soil the U.S military “crusaders” (to use Bin Laden’s term) whom the Saudi princes had invited to build bases there. But he drew relatively little attention and support in the Muslim world, so he began broadening his appeals and his message, suddenly taking an interest in the plight of the Palestinians, for instance. Since the defeat of the Taliban and Al Qaeda regime in Afghanistan he has had no choice but to cast the struggle in the widest way possible: as a clash of civilizations. Bin Laden has succeeded as no other terrorist chieftain before him at creating a fairly effective umbrella organization to bring together disparate Islamist groups that in the past had not had much to do with one another. That’s why his training camps and bases in Afghanistan were so important. They were for hands-on training, to be sure, but they were also places to make real Bin Laden’s vision of a global insurgency held together by religion.

Why do I find Bin Laden a cynic? To my knowledge, he has no theological credentials (his academic background, significantly, is in economics and public administration) but he issues fatwas — religious edicts. This betrays an instrumental and opportunistic attitude toward religion. His ultimate goal, like Asahara’s, is to seize power. He wants to defeat the House of Saud, and he wants to defeat the United States—not just because we’re infidels and Westerners but because, like many others in his part of the world, he sees us as an obstacle to revolution, both directly and through the governments we support. Over time, Bin Laden has sought to broaden his appeal with more religious rhetoric about restoring the greatness of Islam and so on, but in his mind, it comes down to power and revolution.
I think it is most useful to view him not as a traditional mullah, which he surely is not, but as a modern corporate CEO. He has vision, money, patience, cunning, and organizational skills. He has a long-range plan whose first major goal is to take over Saudi Arabia. One of the extraordinary things about Bin Laden and Al Qaeda is their patience. They spent at least four years planning the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Lag times between other operations and their follow-ups seem to have been about a year or two. He has harnessed modern technology to a retrograde worldview based on religious precepts. A figure like him couldn’t have existed before satellite phones and computers; they’re what make his kind of worldwide terrorist operation possible. And like any savvy head of a multinational corporation, he has been good at taking advantage of globalization and changing technology.

In the 1990s many corporate bosses made their businesses “flatter” with less top-down decision-making. Bin Laden did the same thing for terrorism. Al Qaeda does not seem to have the pyramidal hierarchy of most other terrorist organizations. Bin Laden does act as the president or CEO — he gives orders and probably has final say. But he also functions as a venture capitalist. People come to him with ideas, and he decides which ones to back. This is what makes Al Qaeda so formidable. It doesn’t have just one set modus operandi; it operates on at least four levels. On one, you’ve got a CEO, trained operatives, and tremendous planning. We know that Bin Laden looked at surveillance photographs of the Nairobi embassy and said, “Put the bomb right there.” We know from the home video found in December 2001 that he micromanaged the September 11 operation. These people are highly dedicated, well trained, and well funded.

And then on the second level you have the amateurs like Ahmed Rasalum, the would-be “millennium bomber” who was arrested in Port Angeles, Washington, in late 1999. When he finished his training at an Al Qaeda camp, he was simply told: “We’d like you to attack some commercial aviation target; it’s up to you to decide which one. Here is $12,000 in seed money. Commit crimes to raise more, then recruit your own cell and go and do mischief.”

On the third level, you have the walk-ins: radical Muslims in Jordan, for instance, who noticed in 1999 that lots of Americans and Israelis stayed at the Radisson Hotel in Amman and presumably went to Bin Laden saying, “Can we attack these American and Israeli tourists during the Y2K festivities?” They were bankrolled to do that. In Milan, a cell involved in similar planning for attacks on tourists was recently broken up.

Finally, the fourth level contains like-minded insurgencies such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Lashkar Jihad in Pakistan, and Jama Islamiya in Indonesia. Some of these groups, including the Jaish-e-Muhammad in Pakistan, have been tied to Al Qaeda.

Let me add a few more points in closing. First, in an era when history and the social sciences have diminished the role of the individual and focused instead on impersonal, global economic and political forces, Bin Laden has shown once again the power of the individual. He’s very savvy in his media messages. Within hours of the first air strikes in Afghanistan, he had his message out on video.

Bin Laden has also shown that terrorists use violence as part of a plan and are not mere irrational fanatics motivated by pure bloodlust. I’ve heard people from assistant FBI directors to senators opt for that second understanding. They are mistaken: there is always a purpose. We may not understand the inner logic motivating terrorism, and we certainly do not sympathize with it, but there always is some rationality behind it.

Second, terrorism is and always will be a form of psychological warfare. The killing and destruction are designed to send a broader message, to harm the economy, to sap our will to absorb casualties, and, last but not least, to undermine confidence in leaders and the government.

Make no mistake: the United States will remain vulnerable. You can’t defend everything everywhere at every moment. What I find most worrisome about our official response so far is the stress on this or that threat du jour rather than any long-range systematic analysis of what’s most vulnerable and consequential, and how to protect it. Certainly terrorists will remain able to inflict a lot of pain with slender resources, a basic asymmetry that is central to terrorism’s appeal.
The enmity towards the United States is hardly going to diminish. We have scared a lot of people and shown our resolve, but at the same time, powerful motives of revenge can now be factored into whatever motivation Bin Laden had before. And he probably sees the way we fought the ground war in Afghanistan — with air power, native Afghan proxies, and a minimum of U.S. troops — as evidence that we remain highly averse to casualties and therefore psychologically vulnerable.

The hard truth is that fighting terrorism is a perennial, ceaseless struggle. Terrorism has been around for more than two thousand years, so perhaps saying we are fighting a war on it suggests a finality that may be beyond our reach. As the focus of conflict shifts away from Afghanistan, it is very likely that terrorism will shift and change accordingly. Terrorism is the archetypal shark in the water. It must move forward. It must change constantly to survive.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Thank you, Bruce. Our respondent is Jeffrey Goldberg, who has written for the Washington Post and the New York Times Magazine and now covers the Middle East for the New Yorker.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: I agree with Bruce when he says that Osama Bin Laden is a cynic and has temporal, worldly goals. But I think there’s a danger here for more or less secular people, because we always look for explanations other than simple belief when in fact sometimes belief is simply that — it can’t be explained away or reduced to something else. Sometimes these beliefs contradict our own beliefs, and sometimes these beliefs are actually dangerous.
Moving to the more overtly Islamic side of Palestinian nationalism, I am struck by the debate on suicide bombing among Islamic scholars and authorities, in which their justification of the act has expanded from blowing up Israeli soldiers to blowing up Israeli settlers to blowing up Israeli teenagers at a disco in Tel Aviv. How much of a leap is it from thinking it’s all right to blow up Israeli teenagers at a disco to saying, “Americans support Israel” or “Americans support India in Kashmir,” so Americans themselves may be targeted. This has repercussions within the Arab world as well, since as Secretary General Amir Mussa of the Arab League has told me, once clerics empower Muslim extremists to use techniques such as suicide bombing against civilians, no Muslim leader is safe either. So we might one day see Arab leaders being targets of suicide bombers, just as those buses full of commuters in Israel are.

I would like to know what Bruce thinks about the argument, made separately by Martin Kramer and Bernard Lewis, that 9/11 happened because certain Muslims had contempt for America, thinking we wouldn’t respond, or would respond weakly because we fear more losses. To put it crudely, what Kramer and Lewis argue is that we need to inspire fear, or in Arabic, hayba. We must make ourselves widely feared; the might of America must be brought to bear on the Muslim world. Then they might still hate us, but their fear will be stronger than their hatred and they will leave us alone. Do I buy this? I don’t know. But I’m curious to know what Bruce thinks about it.

MR. HOFFMAN: In my book and earlier writings, I cite the important role of radical clerics in the violence. The focus on children that has been cropping up in Bin Laden’s recent propaganda worries me. Bin Laden’s efforts at legitimizing his violence have kept broadening the slate of those who can be considered enemy combatants. The same sort of linear progression is evident. At first Bin Laden attacked U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia (the bombing of a joint Saudi/American military training center in 1995) and issued edicts demanding that the “crusaders” withdraw from sacred Muslim soil. When we didn’t leave, he issued his notorious 1998 fatwa saying that Americans anywhere and everywhere were fair game. And he has stuck to this linear path of escalation. If we’re not afraid of him, then he is going to make sure that we become afraid.
Bin Laden has not so far specifically threatened our children as such, but since we went into Afghanistan he has been talking persistently about the suffering of children in Palestine and Iraq. Given his record, obviously, we ignore him at our peril. His talk about getting chemical and nuclear weapons is also very scary. Many years ago, and I say this with regret, I once wrote while debating two Clinton-era NSC staffers in the publication Survival that Bin Laden was just saber-rattling, trying to scare us without having to lift a finger. Now we know that he was in fact working toward obtaining chemical and biological weapons. He also has nuclear ambitions. He is someone we should take at his word. He wants to escalate, and he intends the worst.
JAY TOLSON, U.S. News & World Report: Bruce, some of your RAND colleagues have been talking about “netwars” and Bin Laden’s adeptness at this new kind of weapon — the same theme you touch on when you talk about his grasp of the advantages of “flat” organizations, the Internet, satellite phones, and so on. It seems that a decentralized style of organizing for asymmetric warfare is converging with a religion that itself is traditionally quite decentralized. This seems particularly frightening because here we have new modes of communication and organization that seem ideally suited to a form of religious terrorism emanating from within the already decentralized world of Islam. Could you address that?
MR. HOFFMAN: Clearly, the opportunity to gather a large group of people in one place to hear an address — as at Friday mosque services — is a superb communications opportunity, a chance to reinforce beliefs and back them with the weight of religion, especially in places where literacy rates are not that high. But Al Qaeda is not totally decentralized. It’s a mix-and-match organization. Parts of the operation are actually very rigid. So it goes both ways.
The terrorists are going to change their methods. We’ve taken away their country sized physical sanctuary and many of their fixed training bases. But they are not going away. Instead, I think that their organizations will get even flatter. They have no choice. Al Qaeda’s hallmark has been that they train and train, plan and plan. Now they can’t do those things conventionally, as they did when they had camps in Afghanistan, so they will have to find another way. While I have always been kind of skeptical about cyberterrorism given the paucity of documented episodes (teenage hackers and hostile governments don’t count), I do think that now terrorists may become more interested in striking at us through electronic means.
MR. GOLDBERG: Is this an optimistic point? Does it mean we are finished with physical violence?
MR. HOFFMAN: No, unfortunately. What I expect is a mix of attacks. Some will be electronic. Low-level chemical and biological assaults are a big worry; as the anthrax-by-mail incidents show, you don’t need to kill huge numbers of people in order to spread an enormous amount of fear and even panic. So in addition to weapons of mass destruction, we need to guard against the small-scale use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons — the kinds of things that can be cooked up in an apartment.
JUDITH SHULEVITZ, The New York Times: One of your major points is that terrorism means committing violent acts in order to send a message. Doesn’t that make us as journalists part of its workings? Forget about questions of censorship and whether or not we play this or that tape that is said to be from Bin Laden. The real “tape” that he wants us to play — and we’ve played it over and over again — is the one with images of the World Trade Center falling. That’s the most effective message he can get across. Of course we want and need to see those images for our own purposes. But is there a way to talk about the role of journalism in all this that doesn’t break down into a hackneyed debate about censorship?
MR. HOFFMAN: Your point about the Bin Laden case is a good one. What most countries don’t have is a comprehensive strategy for how the press can deal with terrorism and all its dimensions, and that includes, I think, a very strong public diplomacy.
The idea of banning Bin Laden’s tapes from the airwaves bewilders me, because I think those videos hardly portray him in a way that anyone is likely to find favorable. We saw him gloating over the World Trade Center casualties, acting childish, and apparently finding it amusing that some of the hijackers — his own people — did not learn until the last minute that these were suicide missions. In the October 7 tape he did make the astute point that this is a war of ideology. But other than that, Bin Laden seemed completely divorced from reality. Of course, all terrorists believe their own fantasies and interpret every tactical success as a great victory. Then too, the man lives in a cave, so maybe it’s starting to show.
The lesson here is that the media coverage does not always have to serve the terrorists’ purposes. We should be thinking seriously about ways in which coverage can be used against them. We lack an understanding of how to do really sophisticated propaganda — it doesn’t always have to be a dirty word — and public diplomacy. And sometimes the media fall down by uncritically reporting official leaks, as in the case of the FBI leaks about Richard Jewell following the 1996 Olympic bombings in Atlanta, or by over hyping sensationalistic stories about supercatastrophic terrorist threats when more realistic threats (such as we saw come true in the anthrax incidents) went undercovered. Because in journalism there are so many pressures to be the first to break a story, often what officials do and say is taken at face value, and the media become the government’s messengers.
E. J. DIONNE, The Washington PostPeople in secular groups such as Fatah who chant Islamic slogans may begin as semi-cynics who just want to manipulate religion. But isn’t it possible that they might wind up changing their own minds, or at least creating a climate less friendly to their own secular ideas? Perhaps this explains the power shift we see going on within the Palestinian community — away from the secular nationalists and toward the Islamists.
MR. GOLDBERG: Although I believe that Yasir Arafat — who came out of a Muslim brotherhood and not a secular tradition — uses religious rhetoric sincerely, I’m not sure of the authenticity of the larger trend. There is intense jockeying for primacy in the Palestinian community, as you know, and I think that the imperatives of that struggle, and not religious feeling, are what drive the use of religious language by many of these militants.
As for the people in the street, as conditions in the Palestinian Authority have deteriorated we’ve seen a rise in the prominence of men like Bassam Jarar, a Hamas member in Ramallah who writes eschatology. He does a lot of numerological heavy lifting in order to claim that Israel will be destroyed in the year 2021. So there is a turn toward this kind of mystical “end of days” thinking that is drawn from Islamic eschatology.
MR. HOFFMAN: In the Palestinian case, I think we are seeing fallout from the failure of secular nationalism. The collapse of the Oslo Accords and the last Camp David attempt underlined this failure, and so Palestinians are turning to something different that is more appealing on a visceral level. In Kashmir and other places around the world where there are separatist or irredentist groups drawn from historically Muslim populations, the degree to which these movements should be called secular as opposed to religious always seems to be up in the air. Right now, religion seems to be a potent rallying point and means of cohesion, perhaps because a kind of muscular Islam seems to be reasserting itself generally throughout the Islamic world.
PAUL RICHTER, The Los Angeles Times: I’m interested in your description of Al Qaeda as an organization that has Bin Laden at its center but is also decentralized and non-hierarchical in important ways. To what extent would Al Qaeda be crippled both on an inspirational level and in a practical way if Bin Laden were captured or killed?
MR. HOFFMAN: That’s the question of the hour. I don’t think Al Qaeda will be crippled; I think they have a succession plan that includes not only Bin Laden’s senior lieutenants but levels deeper down in the organization. Given what we know about his penchant for meticulous planning, I’ve never thought that he was going to sit around and wait to be killed or caught anyway. Certainly Al Qaeda can be weakened and rendered less effective, but it will not be eliminated entirely, and we can be sure that Bin Laden has planned for contingencies.
KAREN TUMULTY, TimeOne argument that we’ve been hearing from the Bush administration, and particularly from Secretary Rumsfeld, is that these tapes have hurt Bin Laden and his associates by revealing their true agenda. Osama set up those suicide bombers, who didn’t know that they were not coming back; Mullah Omar tells everybody that this is a great opportunity to become a martyr and then flees. Is it naïve to think that tapes such as these actually discredit Al Qaeda?
MR. HOFFMAN: Well, my personal view is that it does make Bin Laden seem like a worse person if those fifteen hijackers were tricked. But the Al Qaeda jihad manual that was found in Manchester, England, says explicitly that the leaders of an operation should keep as much of the operation secret as they can until the very last minute and only tell their subordinates right then. We already saw that these people have tremendous dedication. Did those who were sent to the United States to help take over the planes know they were going to die? If they did, they probably saw it as an honor.
Even if these guys weren’t told beforehand, they knew they were doing a hijacking, and no hijacker in his right mind could believe you can maintain control of a plane and its passengers indefinitely with nothing but box cutters. In all likelihood these men knew they had a one-way ticket. We have to resist the temptation always to see things through our own eyes and assume that the terrorists’ reactions must be the same as those we would have.

KENNETH WOODWARD, Newsweek: I am not sure that Bin Laden is the cynic that Bruce describes. Didn’t he study under some pretty forceful mullahs at a formative time in his life? Sure, Bin Laden is a CEO type, given the money and the family background that he comes from, but it seems to me that he could be a very extreme and committed Muslim at the same time.
MR. HOFFMAN: I didn’t deny that he’s devout; I just said that he lacks the theological training to issue fatwas. People wouldn’t be listening to him if he weren’t such an effective terror master. I don’t mean to gainsay his commitment to his religion. That’s really there. But I do think it’s useful to look at him not only from the religious angle but also as a product of globalism and corporate-management training. It’s these qualities, and not the religious element, that make Al Qaeda so different and so effective. This is not some chowder head running the show. It’s somebody who knows and understands management, which means—more fundamentally than making money –knowing how to motivate people. That’s one of his big assets.
DAVID BROOKS, The Weekly Standard: My first question has to do with something Bruce said about Bin Laden being mostly interested in toppling the House of Saud. Does this mean that 9/11 really wasn’t about us, and that we are vain and narcissistic to think that it was? And secondly, I wanted to raise the general issue of state-sponsored terrorism. I know that both of you think we should not invade Iraq.
MR. HOFFMAN: I don’t think that we are being narcissistic or vain to interpret 9/11 as we do. My point is that Bin Laden began with the narrower goal of fomenting revolution in Saudi Arabia, and has come to see the United States as standing in his way. He has broadened his constituency to include many Muslims who resent the United States as a hegemonic power. He probably thought that 9/11 would contribute to his cachet and power. I think he overplayed his hand, but clearly he has benefited from this “David versus Goliath” depiction of himself since 1998. That has resonance, as does his assertion of personal agency in a part of the world where many feel an angry sense of dispossession and powerlessness. He knows that this stuff sells.

The United States is as much in his gun sights as Saudi Arabia, and to an extent always has been. Part of his reasoning, and it’s a view shared by many in the world today, is that the local government he hates wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for American support. Strike the puppet master, he seems to be thinking, and the puppets will tumble.

As for state-sponsored terrorism, one of the things I find interesting about Afghanistan is that it was the terrorists who were running the state, to the extent that the Taliban regime can be called a state. Something like that has been happening more often in recent years, with states themselves becoming less important and terrorist or militant organizations having an influence that goes far beyond their numbers on the ground. Before 9/11, the Kashmiri separatist groups had a disproportionate amount of power vis-à-vis the Pakistani government. None of this means, however, that the threat from state-sponsored terrorists is gone. The Karine A, the ship loaded with arms that the Israelis just seized on its way to the Palestinian Authority, came from Iran. The problem we need to focus on is how to sort out and rank these threats. Are Iraq and Al Qaeda the same threat? If not, which is the more salient right now?
NINA EASTON, Columnist and author: What should we as journalists be focusing on right now so that 9/11 doesn’t happen again?
MR. HOFFMAN: Many Americans have an understandable but quite unrealistic desire to return to a world before 9/11. It will be a big challenge for our leaders to sustain national interest in global terrorism. And it may be part of Al Qaeda’s strategy to wait until we have lapsed into complacency before mounting any more big attacks against us here at home. In most countries that are targets of terrorism, the threat is everyday but low-intensity—a reality, but in the background. In London, Madrid, or Tel Aviv, attacks can come at any time but are likely to be fairly small-scale. We, however, are a huge target; we may not experience frequent attacks, but when one is attempted it will be big.
MR. GOLDBERG: It’s amazing that no one is really writing on the catastrophic failures of the FBI, the CIA, the FAA, and the INS, which all contributed to one of the worst disasters in American history.
MR. BROOKS: On December 9, 1941, there was a vicious debate in the U.S. Senate over who screwed up at Pearl Harbor. They immediately kicked in an inquiry, and there was a brutal report within three months. I think we are more emotionally scarred by 9/11 than our parents or grandparents were by Pearl Harbor. They didn’t cancel any football games or Christmas parties after Pearl Harbor.
MS. SHULEVITZ: On the earlier point about why there has been no blame shifting: the biggest, most telling indicator of this is the fact that nobody has been fired. But I think that not only do you have to look at how the country reacted to it—you also have to look at George Bush and his modus operandi; that’s just the way he operates. The first thing he did after it happened was wrap his arms around George Tenet. So I think that the tone of this has been much more emotional.
JOHN COCHRAN, ABC News: Is the risk-averse or casualty-averse strategy that we are using in Afghanistan such a bad approach? Is the United States also keeping its ground-troop commitment limited so as to avoid looking like a blundering elephant? Isn’t that a good idea?
MR. HOFFMAN: My comments about our risk-aversion and reluctance to countenance casualties had to do with how Bin Laden views us. When you look at his statements, there are two episodes that he cites. One is the pullout from Lebanon after the truck-bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. The other, from ten years later, is the Black Hawk Down firefight in Mogadishu, which led to another U.S. pullout. In his view, episodes like these prove that Americans are a bunch of sissies. He says that Americans don’t like to fight on the ground, and therefore use high technology to avoid having their own people killed. When he struck us on September 11, I think he probably thought he was striking a paper tiger. And it’s true that casualties burn us, especially if they are civilians.
I’m not saying that using cruise missiles and Predator drones and air strikes is a bad idea. It does spare the lives of American troops. But to Bin Laden, our strategy in Afghanistan says that he’s right. When Johnny Spann was killed, CIA officers couldn’t believe how much attention that got. When Sergeant Nathan Ross Chapman was killed, that was a major story. That’s how we are: every life is valuable. But in Bin Laden’s mind, that is our weakness. We are gauging the war in Afghanistan as a success because we’ve lost so few service people there. But Bin Laden says to his followers: “What did I tell you? They are cowards! They use the Northern Alliance to do all the fighting and dirty work, while they call in air strikes and stay in the background. We may not have beaten them in Afghanistan, but we can beat them in the next place.”

For him, not losing is winning; the strongest country in the world wants him dead, but he is still around.

MS. EASTON: Do you think ground forces would have been more effective at really eliminating Al Qaeda?
MR. HOFFMAN: It’s impossible to say. Our way of going to war is based on allies. Perhaps we might have portrayed it differently; what won the war, really, was the coordination between our Special Forces and our airpower, working together to target pinpoint strikes that shattered highly mobile Taliban units. But we also had the Special Forces and Army Rangers tracking down and systematically engaging Al Qaeda cadres on the ground. Maybe we could have played up that angle as a form of psychological warfare, forcing Bin Laden and his followers to confront this aspect that does not conform to his “Americans are cowards” script. But I fear that such an opportunity has been lost, and that Bin Laden and his followers still think of us as casualty averse.

MR. COCHRAN: Going back to Iraq in 1991, I wonder: If we had gone all the way then and not only toppled Saddam but established ourselves as strong and far from risk-averse, would we be in a more secure position now?
MR. HOFFMAN: The mistake wasn’t so much refusing to go to Baghdad as it was letting the Kurds and Shi’a get annihilated after they rose up against Saddam. That challenged our credibility in that region. We got a reputation for walking away.
MR. GOLDBERG: I agree: it was not only a mistake but a moral tragedy to walk away from allies who had been slaughtered after we encouraged them to rise up. What we did with Iraq was like hitting a hornet’s nest with a stick and then running. A Turkish general once said that the problem with America is that you never know when it is going to stab its own in the back. And you never know when Americans are going to do something that is screwy and walk away from an ally on the way to victory. The Kurds and the Shi’ites in Iraq are very wary of us. When and if the time comes, they are going to want all kinds of ironclad guarantees that we really mean it.
ALAN COOPERMAN, The Washington Post: The impression has been that the Saudis, who should have responded to 9/11 in spades, have actually done very little. Is that correct, or is there something we don’t know about the Saudis’ response?
MR. HOFFMAN: I’m concerned that Saudi Arabia’s degree of cooperation has seemed to be uneven. The Saudis’ internal situation may have affected this. I think they’re very concerned that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudis. The Saudi princes are probably thinking about what happened to the Shah, and they don’t know what to do for fear of being seen as too close to the United States.
DUNCAN MOON, NPR: How badly has it hurt Al Qaeda to lose Afghanistan as a base?
MR. HOFFMAN: I think it’s enormously important. It certainly diminishes their ability to operate. After the Israelis kicked the PLO out of Beirut, the PLO was never the same. It’s thought that tens of thousands of people — maybe as many as 60,000 — got Al Qaeda training in Afghanistan. Losing those camps hurt them. But terrorists rarely lay down their arms and leave the playing field. Instead, they adjust their tactics and targets and carry on. That’s what I think will happen now. The Viet Cong took astronomical losses during the Tet Offensive, but they kept on fighting, and they changed their tactics.
So by all means, there has been progress. I don’t want to denigrate or diminish it. God willing, there may never be another September 11. But I still believe — and I certainly hope I’m wrong — that another big terrorist spectacular is already in motion. That’s been Al Qaeda’s modus operandi all along. And as the intense fear and anxiety over anthrax showed, you don’t have to kill 3,000 people to inflict pain. Our sensitivity, ironically, may have increased. We remain resilient, but even a low-level attack could have grave psychological implications, which is what the terrorists want.

MR. TOLSON: This country is always looking for a moral equivalent of war in order to focus its energies, and perhaps also to transcend partisan differences. Do you think that the struggle against terrorism should be thought of as a war? As the historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, the period from 1989 to 2001 was one of great purposelessness in U.S. foreign policy. We acted as if we had no objectives, no compass, no consensus. Does the struggle against terrorism give those back to us? Do we need to emphasize again and again that the threat of this kind of terrorism — working through networks, using tremendously lethal weapons –must be resisted in a warlike fashion?
MR. HOFFMAN: There are two problems. One is that our response to terrorism has always been spasmodic; it hasn’t been sustained at a level that it’s constantly inflicting pain. We’ve done sharp jabbing rather than persistent choking. One of the big challenges will be to sustain interest, especially if there are no dramatic new terrorist incidents. This challenge will be even greater as the war shifts from Afghanistan — highly visible and very telegenic — to behind the scenes. And that’s the next phase of war, in my view. The battle against Al Qaeda is going to be very much a behind-the-scenes war, predicated on intelligence and on dealings with local authorities in places like Singapore. But here’s the rub: averted terrorist incidents never have great impact. There were plenty of averted terrorist incidents before September 11, but instead of scaring us they may have had the opposite effect, making us more complacent and leading us to underrate the terrorist threat. We need some way to elevate wariness to something that is sustainable.
On the other hand, we use war metaphorically for all sorts of other crusades: the “war on poverty,” or the “war on drugs.” Now we have a real war on our hands. But to most people, wars are specific, are fought on battlefields, and end in defeat or victory or some sort of settlement; then you go back to normal life. That’s the way history looks to us. It does not look that way to people living in the places in the world where we are now involved. There it is more common to think of being “at war” as a normal condition.
MR. COOPERMAN: Bruce, how do you define terrorism? Are we are stepping into a sort of gray area of that definition?
MR. HOFFMAN: Terrorism is an enormously elastic concept. It was born during the French Revolution, and was closely associated with democracy. Today its connotations are different. My nutshell definition is, the use of threats and violence designed to achieve far-reaching psychological repercussions in a targeted audience. And I believe that even religious terrorism is about power and politics.
I don’t think that we created Bin Laden, but he certainly has been able to stay one step ahead of us. Everything we did to try to weaken him and bring him to justice he has been able to use to increase his strength. We flooded the Middle East and South Asia with matchbooks bearing his image, and we upped the price on his head from one million to twenty-five million dollars. But that just made him seem more like David holding out against Goliath. He was very effective in turning that against us.

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