Today's date:
Fall 2006

Al-Qaida Is Down, But Not Out

R. James Woolsey was the director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1993 to 1995. He spoke with NPQ in early September.

NPQ | Five years after 9/11, there are two trends of analysis. Some say we have won the major battle in the war on terror. By dismantling al-Qaida’s bases in Afghanistan, knocking out its command and control and disrupting its financial and communication networks, it has been operationally disabled, an inspiration now more than an organization.

What remains are locally generated attacks around the world akin to the anarchist threat of the early 20th century—but not an existential threat like war with fascism or the Soviets. It is a police and intelligence, not military, matter.

There are others who think we are entering “World War III” against Islamic fascism.

Which is it?

R. James Woolsey | That is a false dichotomy. It is both. It is a raging, long struggle we must engage with Islamic fascists, but the form of much of it is not necessarily military, as you suggest. You can believe it is a world war but also a different kind of world war, a lot different from the kind of battlefield fighting we saw either in World War I or World War II, or indeed the Cold War. The threat is certainly existential if they get hold of a weapon of mass destruction.

A lot of this “war” is about intelligence and police work against terror networks, whether linked to al-Qaida operationally or inspired by it or on their own. For those of us on the receiving end, it doesn’t much matter. What is clear is that they are all motivated by the intolerant view of radical Islam seeking to establish a global caliphate by striking at the West.

As far as al-Qaida is concerned, yes, it has been set back by effective United States intelligence operations—including the successful interrogations since 9/11 of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other special CIA prisoners President Bush noted on the 9/11 anniversary—as well as by the early war in Afghanistan. They have definitely been whittled down, but not taken out of the fight. Only weeks ago, remember, they were stopped in their tracks trying to bomb those airliners out of Britain over the Atlantic.

NPQ | Do you share President Bush’s oft-repeated view that Iraq is the “front line” of the war on terror?

Woolsey | It is certainly one of the very important front lines. If it turns completely sour the terrorists will get a huge benefit. It would give them a base. It would give them confidence by telling them and their fellow travelers that the US can be beat and they should persist in their struggle, that history is on their side.

If it ends up that the whole of Iraq can be governed in a manner similar to Kurdistan, then the terrorists will be set back.

NPQ | Sunni governments in countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan worry that the “Shiite crescent,” which has emerged with an empowered Shiite majority in Iraq, an emboldened Iran and highly armed Hezbollah, threatens them.

At the same time, all terror attacks on the West itself—in Madrid or London or the US—have been by Sunni radicals, not Shiites. They are fighting in their own lands.

How should that fact shape strategy?

Woolsey | It is true that Shia groups have not attacked New York or London or Madrid, but it is not true that they fight in their own lands.

Iran’s assistance to Hezbollah is obvious in Lebanon. They influence (militant Shiite cleric) Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq. Syria, which is technically a Shiite-governed state—although many would question whether the Alawite ruling clan is really so—also has been supplying Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The overall point is that, yes, the moderate Saudis, Jordanians and Egyptians are right to be worried about the rise of Shia power. But the Saudis could help reduce the possibility of chaos in Iraq by stopping their imams from encouraging young men to leave Saudi Arabia and become suicide killers in Iraq and elsewhere. They’ve been doing that for years.

NPQ | What is the single biggest security failure since 9/11 for the US?

Woolsey | The failure to move toward oil security and energy independence from the Middle East is a big part of what has not been done. Today, a majority of the world’s capacity to export oil is in the hands of autocracies and dictatorships that can use that wealth to destabilize the international system. Thus, the future of our economic and national security is more than ever coupled to our energy policy. The democracies’ ability to prevail in this long war against Islamic fascism will be compromised so long as such states control this part of the world’s economy.

To enhance global stability, the US ought to commit itself to diversifying its fuel supply and shifting the transportation sector, which comprises 97 percent of our energy use, out of conventional petroleum to a robust system based on next-generation fuels and vehicles.

The US is no longer rich in readily recoverable oil, but it has a wealth of other energy sources from which transportation fuel can be safely, affordably and cleanly generated. Among them, vast rich farmland, hundreds of years’ worth of coal reserves and billions of tons a year of agricultural, industrial and municipal waste.

Each of these can generate alcohol fuels—such as bio-diesel, ethanol and methanol—at a price cheaper than current gasoline.

Another major failure has been to properly secure the US infrastructure, including our energy infrastructure, as well as everything from ports to our communications networks. Very little has been done here over the past five years on this score. We’re vulnerable.

NPQ | You drive a hybrid car, right?

Woolsey | We have two in my family, our small contribution to energy security.