Recent interviews:

Larry Thompson: War's Forgotten Faces (December 18, 2001)
Larry Thompson of Refugees International describes what life is like for the refugees of conflicts, old and new, in Afghanistan.

Alice Munro: Bringing Life to Life (December 14, 2001)
A conversation with Alice Munro, whose stories are fueled by her fascination with the way people portray their own lives.

Elinor Burkett: Back to School (November 28, 2001)
Elinor Burkett, who at age fifty-five became a member of the class of 2000, reports on high school today through a journalist's eyes.

William Langewiesche: Culture Crash (November 15, 2001)
William Langewiesche, the author of "The Crash of EgyptAir 990," on the cultural reverberations of a seemingly straightforward airplane crash.

Ruben Martinez: The Hearts of Strangers (November 14, 2001)
Ruben Martinez, the author of Crossing Over, describes the Mexican migrant experience, and reminds native-born Americans that they too were once strangers in a strange land.

Robert Kaplan: The View From Inside (November 2, 2001)
The foreign correspondent Robert D. Kaplan talks about his days among the mujahideen, the killing of Abdul Haq, and why the U.S. must not be afraid to be brutal.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on the war on terrorism in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Atlantic Unbound | December 28, 2001
The Necessity of Fear

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA spy in the Middle East, argues that the only way to douse the fires of Islamic radicalism is through stunning, overwhelming, military force


n "The Counterterrorist Myth" (July/August Atlantic), Reuel Marc Gerecht, who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for nine years on Middle Eastern matters, argued that despite its claims that it was "'picking apart' bin Ladin's organization 'limb by limb,'" the CIA's chances of infiltrating and gaining good intelligence on bin Laden's al Qaeda network were pathetically negligible. Gerecht described a CIA operation which had few operatives of Middle Eastern background, let alone ones who could "go native" in Afghanistan or Pakistan without attracting immediate notice. He also pointed out that the CIA—"risk-averse and bureaucratic"—had little inclination to take on the types of difficult, dangerous missions necessary to gather useful intelligence on al Qaeda and the Taliban. As a former senior Near East Division operative told Gerecht,
The CIA probably doesn't have a single truly qualified Arabic-speaking officer of Middle Eastern background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist who would volunteer to spend years of his life with shitty food and no women in the mountains of Afghanistan. For Christ's sake, most case officers live in the suburbs of Virginia. We don't do that kind of thing.
Gerecht's skeptical assessment of the CIA's ability to "pick apart" al Qaeda was proven terribly prescient on September 11, three months after the article appeared. In "The Gospel According to Osama bin Laden," in the current issue of The Atlantic, Gerecht turns away from the subject of intelligence and focuses on the powerful ideas of al Qaeda's leader. Far from being the "loony ideologue" that many Americans would believe him to be, bin Laden—through his skillful rhetorical allusions to the Muslim world's humiliations at the hands of Western powers and his keen understanding of how to bridge the gaps between Islam's various factions—has managed to bring radical Islam into the mainstream. The strength and pull of bin Laden's ideas may well continue to inspire holy warriors even after he is gone—which is why Gerecht believes it is essential to defuse Islamic radicalism by maintaining a strong military stance in Afghanistan, and perhaps in other Muslim countries where anti-Americanism is a guiding philosophy.

Gerecht is well-qualified to write about both espionage and radical Islam. He is the author, under the pseudonym of Edward Shirley, of Know Thine Enemy, A Spy's Journey Into Revolutionary Iran (1997). Under the same pseudonym, Gerecht wrote "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?" (February, 1998, Atlantic), about the deeply hidden problems and fundamental incompetence within the Agency. Gerecht has written for such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic. In addition to being a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, he is a resident fellow at The American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on Afghanistan and the Middle East.

I spoke with him by phone on December 18.

—Katie Bacon

In "The Gospel According to Osama bin Laden," you wrote that al Qaeda will "outlive bin Laden unless the United States physically eliminates al Qaeda's entire command structure." How likely is it that the U.S. could succeed in this? Our pursuit of bin Laden, Mullah Omar, etc., so far does not inspire too much confidence from the outside that we're going to be able to systematically eliminate al Qaeda's command structure.

I think the U.S. has already inflicted severe damage. It's too early to tell whether we have been able to knock out the brain-power of al Qaeda, but certainly the odds are at least decent that we will, in the not-so-distant future, have gotten the top three. Atif is already down. We do not know about az-Zawahiri and bin Laden. If you can get those three, that would go a long way toward disrupting the commanding echelons of al Qaeda.

But that won't be sufficient. One of the hallmarks of the institution does appear to be that though the various cells are not autonomous, they do nevertheless have a great deal of flexibility. If you look, for instance, at the cell that wanted to blow up the embassy in Paris and to bomb NATO in Brussels, these individuals were independent, but they were waiting for instructions from bin Laden.

The members of al Qaeda seem to be spiritually dependent but tactically independent. That's obviously going to make it much more difficult for us to eliminate them, and certainly these individuals can go underground for a very long time. I think the most worrisome cells are the ones in Europe, and secondarily the ones in the United States. Those tend to be the most lethal, the most accomplished. I think the cells that are in the Middle East are probably of a lesser rank. The al Qaeda members who are truly scary are people like Mohammed Atta. He, I think, achieved his "graduate degree" in Europe—that's where holy warriorism glows white hot.

I was in Germany not that long ago, and Germany's security officials were suggesting that they didn't know how to profile these individuals—short of arresting every Arab male from the ages of 18 to 40, it's very difficult to lock onto these individuals, because they do not associate on a regular basis with known radicals. It's different from, say, the Iranian community. In the old days the Iranian community tended to gravitate around a few individuals—often a cleric—and one had a better chance of figuring out who was in town and who was not.

How important is it that we get rid of bin Laden? It seems that if we don't get him, we run the risk of appearing impotent, but if we do, we may make his ideas even more powerful by creating a martyr.

I think you have to deal with martyrdom. If you were to examine Islamic history you would find emirs and sultans and shahs much preferring to deal with a dead martyr than a live enemy. I think we should take note of that. It is far preferable. If bin Laden stays alive and escapes, then we have got a problem. If he can stay alive and conceivably get out of Afghanistan, his status will go up considerably, and the sense of victory that we now enjoy in Afghanistan will plummet. If I were him I would make a beeline for Karachi, where you're more or less untouchable, and then figure out someplace else to go, which is tricky.

This would be the real test of bin Laden's organization and the cohesiveness of it—for them to clandestinely move him and others on the run. The operations of al Qaeda have been reasonably good on offense, but they haven't been terribly clever after the fact. It has been fairly evident who did what once the bombs went off. So it is hard to say how good bin Laden and al Qaeda are in this type of situation. He has obviously never been in it before. If they can pull it off, then it is a truly first-rate institution. One thing you can say about al Qaeda is that for a very long time it wasn't very good. In the last five years, it has had an impressive learning curve. That has been, from my perspective, one of the intriguing things to watch: how it has improved its performance and how its goals have become more ambitious. Logistically, getting him and others out of Afghanistan would be in many ways the most amazing accomplishment of al Qaeda. Far more complicated and far more difficult than bombing New York and Washington.

You point out that bin Laden has been more successful than any other leader in recent memory at "taking Islamic radicalism mainstream" and uniting the world's Muslims around his anti-Western ideas. Obviously we're countering this with the campaign in Afghanistan, but are there other ways that the U.S. can defuse the radicalism that he has inspired?

I think the only way you're going to defuse Islamic radicalism is the way Islamic radicalism has traditionally been defused, and that is on the battlefield. I don't think you're really going to wage a tit for tat propaganda campaign or any type of covert action. I think that won't work and will look fairly silly. The key here is you have to quell the virulent anti-Americanism that has grown up in the last decade and that you see expressed not only by al Qaeda, but also everywhere throughout the Middle East, particularly in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who are nominally American allies. The primary jet-fuel for that anti-Americanism has been the impression, more or less justified, that the United States has been on the run. If you read Bin Laden's commentary, and he is by no means alone, he enumerates many instances of American weakness, and I think he really did believe that if you could continue clandestine guerrilla operations against the United States, you could put America to flight.

The one thing that everyone in the Middle East knows is that we have been running the last ten years from a direct head-to-head conflict with Saddam Hussein. That's why I think Iraq must be the next place we go after Afghanistan. It is, more than anything else, the one issue that has cracked the awe of America in the Middle East, and I think it is the one issue that we must handle if we really are serious about regaining the essential fear and respect without which American interests and American citizens are simply not safe. We should not deceive ourselves that one victory in Afghanistan, as overwhelming as it is, necessarily has a long shelf-life. The Gulf War victory, for many Americans, seemed more overwhelming, yet the Gulf War became in Middle Eastern eyes quite quickly a defeat.

So they obviously have no respect for the type of airstrikes we've done periodically against Saddam Hussein.

No. Those are pretty silly. When you bomb an Iraqi intelligence headquarters early in the morning hours because you want to minimize casualties, it hardly sends a terribly convincing message. Bombing as the Clinton Administration did after the attack on the embassies in Africa—firing cruise missiles at mud huts in Afghanistan for one day—is hardly impressive, and with the Cole attack we didn't even reply at all. So no, unless you use military force overwhelmingly, stunningly, then in fact using it in the way that it has been used in the past few years is actually highly counterproductive. It's best not to even use it at all, I suspect.

Do you think our campaign in Afghanistan is inherently impressive to people who are there, and to those who are watching it from the outside?

I think the American campaign is very impressive. I mean, one could nit-pick—I would have preferred to see a greater use of American ground forces at certain spots, because I think that would eliminate what I hope is a myth that the U.S. military is afraid of putting its soldiers into harm's way. But even with that qualification, there is certainly a lot to be said for having the Afghans do most of the work on the ground. It is ironic that bin Laden in the past—in his Soviet-Afghan War days—was often fond of referring to the Afghans as the best of all Muslims. So there is something delicious about them chasing him and al Qaeda through the mountains of Tora Bora.

I was interested to read that you were critical of Colin Powell's efforts to build a Muslim coalition. Could you talk about why you think these efforts are wrongheaded?

Those efforts actually diminish the United States throughout the Muslim world. This is part of a problem that the United States has had for a long time, and the source of that problem, certainly diplomatically, has largely been located in the Near Eastern Bureau of the Department of State. They have consistently failed to realize that the primary element that gives you respect in the Middle East is the awe that you possess. Now, there are other factors about the United States that come into play. You do not have Muslims throughout the entire Middle East lining up at American consulates to obtain visas because they fear the United States and they want to go there because they're scared. They want to come to America because of all the promise that the United States holds, promise they do not have in their own land. But if you do not understand the fact that you must command fear—that you must, as they say in Arabic, have hayba, awe—if you do not use that as the cutting edge of your diplomacy, then you're going to end up always looking weak, if not foolish. The United States has had a very uncomfortable time, particularly since the Vietnam War, in projecting power. We'd rather project something else—our peaceful virtues. However, American ideals and American power are glued together, and if you don't project strength and military awe, the ideals aren't going to go anywhere either—at least in the Middle East, where power politics reign supreme. Secretary Powell's coalition—which at its Arab core is Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—in Muslim eyes strongly suggests that we need moral camouflage for our actions, that our actions are somehow more legitimate by having Muslim partners. This isn't Middle Eastern realpolitik at work—it's American uncertainty and political correctness elevated into strategy.

That's quite different from a lot of the interpretations that have been put forth lately—that anger has boiled up against the U.S. precisely because we are so powerful.

I think the root of the hostility is unquestionably that the United States is the pre-eminent Western power. And the hostility really grows from the 1400 years of tension, tug of war if you will, between Islam and the West—that is, Christendom. Part of bin Laden's genius has been to tap into that sense of frustration that is felt throughout the entire Islamic world. Muslims live history vividly, more vividly than we do. And the primary reason for that, I suspect, is because the Koran is the literal word of God. That's not true of the Gospel; it's not true of the Talmud. Muslims refer to battles, they refer to men of history, almost as if they're still with you. For a thousand years Islamic civilization was triumphant, and that is what you would expect if in fact Mohammed was the last of the prophets and Islam the last of the revealed religions. So it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to them that for the past 300 years they've been consistently losing on the battlefield. It is illogical. It is depressing. And that's one of the reasons why, for example, conspiracy theories run amok throughout the Middle East. Because people quite understandably are trying to figure out how this can be, because it just shouldn't be.

Most Muslims in the Middle East probably admire the creative genius—at least the creative technical genius—of the West. They admire, even if they can't or choose not to emulate, many of the Western habits—individual initiative, personal discipline, civic responsibility, personal and corporate honesty—connected to this technical creativity. They certainly envy and in some countries (like Iran, where the Westernization of political thought is very advanced and ever-more deeply rooted in the society) they passionately want to have a freer society constructed on Western principles and institutions. Many Muslim women want desperately to taste some of the freedoms that they know reside as birthrights in the West. Yet with all this pro-Western envy and sympathy a powerful crosscurrent runs in most Muslims. They, like Jews, are part of a peoplehood, a community of believers, with a powerful collective identity, based in faith and a glorious history, which took for granted its superiority over the West.

From the archives:

"The Roots of Muslim Rage" (September 1990)
Why so many Muslims deeply resent the West, and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified. By Bernard Lewis
Bernard Lewis once used a French parallel in trying to explain the sense of inferiority, the sense of shame, that very ordinary Muslims can have when they start thinking about the West. Think of the way France felt when Germany rolled over it in World War II. Take that sense of inferiority and shame, multiply it by about a thousand times, and you begin to appreciate what, certainly in intellectual circles, has driven Muslims in the Middle East nuts for quite some time. But that isn't the jet fuel that inspires holy warriors. What actually propels men to take airplanes and drive them into skyscrapers, and to blow themselves up on buses, is the sense that they're actually winning. They're not killing themselves out of desperation—they are killing themselves eagerly and with euphoria. They think they can win. What burns this confident zeal out is losing on the battlefield, because then it's obvious that you are no longer vouchsafed victory by God.

What is your view of the bin Laden tape that was released in mid December? Does it give you any new insight into his rhetorical appeal or the role that bin Laden has in the Muslim world now?

That tape reminded me of videos I have seen and stories that I have heard about the early days of the Iranian revolution, where fire-breathing clerics could talk about the most ferocious things in a fairly light manner, often deploying a good deal of wit. I don't think bin Laden is as funny.

I thought it was absolutely great that that tape was released. It is a fascinating piece of personal bio on bin Laden, and it allows you to see him in a quiet, relatively private moment, and I think that is always valuable. But it is not surprising psychologically, and I think that by releasing the video the Administration was more or less trying to hammer an issue that really didn't need to be returned to. Certainly no one had any doubt before—or they shouldn't have had—about his culpability. It would have been pretty hard to find someone in the Middle East who thought he was innocent. After all, bin Laden was a hero not because they thought he was innocent, but because they thought he was guilty. I think that is the problem with Americans tending to take statements made in the Middle East at face value—the vast majority of people who said, "we don't believe he did it," were actually convinced that he had done it and were quite proud that he had done it.

Do you see any signs that the intelligence failures exposed so dramatically by 9/11 will lead to the types of fundamental changes in the CIA that you have called for in "The Counterterrorist Myth" and "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?"

In all probability, no. I've spoken to several officers since 9/11, and my distinct impression is that the bureaucratic structures that were there before are there now. From what I've gathered, there has been extraordinary reluctance on the part of senior management to publicly admit how big a mistake they made, and there has been a certain flippancy amongst the senior management in trying to pretend for the outside world, and also for themselves, that they had innumerable successes and then this one little mistake. Now, that's nonsense. And it's fairly repugnant in its flippancy. You can bet a large amount of money that the successes the Agency speaks of were mostly liaison efforts—primarily the work of foreign-security services operating in their own countries. That is part of the larger problem, of course. When good liaison information and action aren't there, and they usually aren't, we're almost always blind. In Kenya, Tanzania, Yemen, and in New York and Washington we had no idea of what was coming at us. So no, I don't think you can really have major reform until people on the inside very openly and seriously and thoughtfully confess to themselves how bad the service has become.

Leading into World War II, the United States military superannuated a significant chunk of the officer corps because it realized that much of the corps had become incompetent during peacetime. There is no proper parallel, unfortunately, for an intelligence service, because it's a closed game. If you're on the battlefield and in open sight, you know if you have incompetent officers. You don't know that in a clandestine world. What essentially you're asking is for the clandestine officer corps to be severe on itself. There's no tradition of that in the Agency, certainly not in the senior ranks.

Rule of thumb: if you don't see massive "retirements" in the senior grades, starting with the director, George Tenet, the deputy director, the executive director, and the leadership and senior lieutenants in the clandestine service's regional bureaus and in the Counterterrorist Center, then you cannot realistically expect to see reform in the service. And removing the pre-9/11 crowd would only be the first step. You'd have to find someone to replace them—no easy task for a new director who wouldn't have any idea of who inside was truly competent and who'd just prospered through paper-pushing. Then you'd have to get down into the bowels of the organization, changing fundamentally the bureaucracy and culture. It's a daunting task, and the bureaucracy would fight real reformers with their last tooth and toenail. That is why nineteenth-century Ottoman sultans who wanted to reform the Janissary corps—an established military bureaucracy—just disbanded the corps, after shooting many of them. Washington very rarely eliminates and replaces bureaucracies. And Americans rarely fire (let alone shoot) incompetent civil servants. So, the odds for meaningful reform aren't inspiring. I suppose if Washington really believes its own rhetoric—that we are at war—then perhaps reform is possible, since the White House and Congress would be prepared to undertake drastic actions. But the first signs aren't promising. Neither the White House nor the intelligence oversight committees have yet suggested that heads ought to roll because of 9/11.

A senior official told Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, "The gloves are off. The President has given the agency the green light to do whatever is necessary. Lethal operations that were unthinkable pre-September 11 are now underway." Many people have argued in recent weeks that in order to get good information on terrorists, the CIA and other agencies will have to use brutish methods that will clash with American rules of law. Does this matter?

Well, would that U.S. intelligence ever met terrorists, let alone worried about hurting them or compromising our own morality recruiting them. So I think it's a bit premature to start getting terribly excited about whether the United States is going to start taking the gloves off. First they have to find the guys. Do I believe that at times it might be a good idea for the United States to assassinate a given terrorist leader? Sure. If we could have killed bin Laden a couple of years ago, so much the better. It's rather undemocratic to seek to kill the little holy warrior—to bomb his mud hut—and not aim at killing the top man. But realistically, I think this is a diversion from discussing the real issues of intelligence reform. It's camouflage. Some in the Agency love to talk about this, because it moves the conversation away from the real issues of whether the hundreds of officers they've got are really doing anything substantive, or whether they're just on the dole. That's the real conversation, not whether you need to employ dirty tactics. There is perhaps a time and place for some of these tactics, though not often. But it's really a tertiary issue when you've got this level of incompetence. It's like talking to a man who's got brain cancer about his head cold. And anyway, to the extent that you start having "dirty tricks," it's pretty hard to imagine that these things won't be carried out by paramilitary units, which are far more competent, far more lethal, in the Pentagon than they are in the Agency.

One of the undiscussed issues of the war is that the Agency, to the extent that it was trying to help U.S. military forces on the ground in Afghanistan, didn't do a very good job. That was one of the reasons why the war got delayed for a month, because the special-operations forces within the Agency really didn't know as well as they should have what was required by the U.S. Air Force for targeting. When they started bringing in real American soldiers to handle these things, then targeting got a lot better. We're talking about the art of war here, and this is Pentagon property, not Langley's.

You are not going to beat Islamic holy warriors through an intelligence game. That's a myth. September 11 didn't suddenly change the game there. In Europe, police services, security services, have kicked into hyperdrive, and we'll see how much better they become. But again, I think that when it comes to Islamic terrorism, the only way you're going to be able to handle this is by going directly to the Middle East and dealing with the states that threaten the United States and encourage the image of a weak America, and that also sponsor state terrorism.

What do you think of the government that is being set up in Afghanistan? Will it serve U.S. interests there?

I'll wait and see. I can't say I'm wildly optimistic. I think it's very difficult for the Republicans in general to be terribly enthusiastic about the idea of nation building. (The same could be said of many Democrats after the Vietnam War, but since the Republicans are in the executive branch, they're the ones you have to talk about.) I think it's imperative that the United States win the post-war propaganda war. I wouldn't go so far as to say that if we fail, then we're going to have a repeat of bin Ladenism and the Taliban in Afghanistan. That's perhaps a bit much. But I think it's a very good idea that we stay there, for many reasons. For one, I think it's inevitable that the forces in Pakistan that helped create the Taliban are going to make another run for it. And it would be a good idea for the Americans to be forcefully in Afghanistan and to let the Pakistanis know that the United States isn't running—that the United States intends to take a long-term interest in Afghan affairs. I hope it will take an active interest in dissuading harmful radical Islamic forces from once again taking root in the country.

The United States doesn't really have to do a lot to achieve a lot in Afghanistan, because the country's been so poor and has been blown to pieces. You just have to get the roads back in order, you have to get agriculture back in order. You have to bring electricity to the country. You have to bring running water to the country. The military part has already been done. I think it's a mistake for the United States to want to win the war and then give this responsibility to others. I never met an Afghan who was impressed by the United Nations. I've met a lot of Afghans who, even before the war, were impressed by the United States, even among those who were mad at the United States for abandoning Afghanistan. So I think we should be very leery of trying to give to others what really ought to be our responsibility. And if we're wise, we would look fairly eagerly upon the chance to do something for the Afghans. It's going to be a long, hard process. It's probably going to be messy, but the United States is, after all, a great power. And it should, after all, have some staying power.

What do you think? Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Katie Bacon is an editor of The Atlantic Online. Her last interview was with Larry Thompson.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.