U.S. Still Unprepared for Al Qaeda Attacks, Expert Says

Brian Handwerk
National Geographic News for
the National Geographic Channel
August 12, 2005
Terrorists would not have much more difficulty attacking the U.S. today than they did before September 11, 2001, says a former senior analyst of the Central Intelligence Agency.

"The reason it's going to occur is because we've done nothing about our borders," said Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit. Scheuer also authored, anonymously, a controversial analysis of the war on terror entitled Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror.

Scheuer is one of several experts who contributed to Inside 9/11, a documentary that airs on the National Geographic Channel. The documentary uses declassified documents and scores of interviews to piece together how terrorists succeeded in catching the U.S. intelligence apparatus off guard.

Can it happen again? National Geographic News interviewed Scheuer about this and other issues in the war on terrorism.

What's your impression of the intelligence changes that have been made since 9/11?

I don't think it would be much harder to conduct a surprise attack today than it was before 9/11 or before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Just look at recent events. London may be the best policed city in the Western world, and their security services (the British equivalent of the FBI) are probably the best in the Western world. They were defeated twice in two weeks.

Even the Egyptians had an attack last April and another last month on two very important tourism targets. They have more security services than they know what do with, and they have no human rights issues or legal concerns [to complicate their work].

If you want your national security to depend on stopping surprise attacks, you're going to be a very beat-up society at the end of the day. We've given the police an impossible task, because the politicians of both parties are too cowardly to enforce the laws already on the books as far as immigration and finding out who's in the country illegally.

There will be no end of people who blame the FBI and the police after the next attack, but the reason it's going to occur is because we've done nothing about our borders.

The recent attacks you mention have been on a far smaller scale than those of 9/11. Why might that be?

The London attacks, I think, should be viewed as part of a secondary campaign that al Qaeda has been conducting since at least mid-2002. Bin Laden [and others] have warned the allies of the United States, especially those who supported us in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In public statements they've listed 23 countries that would be attacked, and all of them have been attacked in one way or another, from big bombings like Bali [October 2002] to smaller attacks like the German tourists in Tunisia [April 2002].

I don't think they want to be in the absurd position of pushing the Europeans back into alliance with the United States. So far, at least in Spain and Britain, there has been great criticism of ruling governments for having helped us in Iraq, rather than a great public response that says, Let's close ranks with the Americans.

Inside the United States I personally think that Osama bin Laden is uninterested in carrying out attacks like those in London or Madrid.

He's promised an attack that will be bigger than 9/11.

Since 1996 he has said that he will increase the pain against the United States, and he's done that [with each attack], so in terms of [the lack of] attacks in the U.S. I think we're counting our chickens before they hatch.

But al Qaeda does continue to strike at U.S. troops and interests.

It strikes me as rather odd to define the cost of a war only in terms of explosives detonated. Bin Laden describes the war in two phrases: "bleed to bankruptcy" and "spread out the forces."

Well, we're tied down in two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have troops in Yemen, in the Philippines, in many countries.

In the "bleed to bankruptcy category," you'd have to say that the cost of the war on terror is driving our budget deficit. Of course, we're also paying a very high cost in blood in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The third thing, I think, is psychological. Polls continue to show that Americans worry about more attacks in the United States and also about the erosion of our civil liberties. If our leaders took a broader view of what constitutes "war," they might conclude that we've been under attack every day since 9/11."

Is the al Qaeda network still operating under the direction of Osama bin Laden? How is it organized?

I think it's what it always has been. I think it's controlled by bin Laden, but he's always said that al Qaeda's main role is to inspire and incite other individuals and groups to attack America and its allies in an effort to get them out of the Middle East.

The fire that he's been trying to ignite seems to be spreading. In the Philippines, Bangladesh, northern Nigeria, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's a great deal more Islamic militancy today than there was in 2001—and certainly more than when he began [the organization] in 1996.

You've been outspoken about bin Laden's motivations and how they relate to U.S. policy.

Bin Laden has convinced many Muslims that American power is designed to kill Muslims and destroy Islam. He's been incredibly successful in getting that message across, and he's been helped by the fact that no Western politician, from Bill Clinton to John Kerry to George Bush, seems to believe that [the message is getting across].

They say that terrorists attack because they hate our values or they hate our freedom or they hate gender equality. But Muslims are willing to die because of our support for Israel. They're willing to die because we've occupied major Islamic [sites], and they're willing to die because we've invaded Iraq.

Bin Laden's "defensive" policy is perceived as true in the Islamic world because he has the extraordinary fortune to have arisen at the same time as the Internet and Arabic satellite television. When he says that the Americans and Israelis want to kill all Arabs and occupy their territory, every Muslim can turn on their television that same night and see troops in Iraq and the West Bank.

What's your best guess as to Osama bin Laden's whereabouts?

I think he's perfectly safe along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It's an inaccessible area where he can live among Pashtun tribes who value protecting a guest as a very important thing in their code of conduct. They are very conservative Muslims and unlikely to turn the great "freedom fighter" of Islam over to the Americans.

I think it's unlikely that we are going to get him unless we get very fortunate, but that can happen sometimes. The intelligence people are working very hard and sometimes when you work hard, you get lucky.

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