Was Declaring War on Terror a Mistake?

The former British spy chief says al-Qaeda's attack should have been considered a crime, not an act of war

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Director General of MI5 Eliza Manningham-Buller addresses delegates in Birmingham / Reuters

LONDON, UK -- Coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the former head of Britain's domestic intelligence service, which is popularly known as MI 5, has delivered an assessment that might be easily dismissed if it weren't for her credentials.

The attacks were a crime, a monstrous crime, not an act of war, Eliza Manningham-Buller said in a lecture broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday. It was a mistake to declare a war on terror.

The day after the attacks, she and other senior British intelligence officials flew to Washington at the request of President Bush. After meetings at CIA headquarters with exhausted officers from the CIA, the FBI, and NSA, the British team repaired to the British Embassy. "We were all in a reflective mood and talked late into the night in the garden about what had happened and what the next steps might be," Manningham-Buller said.

9-11 Ten Years LaterThat there would be a military response by the United States was inevitable, but among the Brits there was an agreement that the solution was in politics and economics, not the military. Even more intelligence gathering was not the solution, she said, somewhat surprisingly.

Her speech is worth reading, and absorbing, in its entirety.

A few highlights:

And I call it a crime, not an act of war. Terrorism is a violent tool used for political reasons to bring pressure on governments by creating fear in the populace. In the same way, I have never thought it helpful to refer to a "war" on terror, any more than to a war on drugs. For one thing that legitimizes the terrorists as warriors; for another thing terrorism is a technique, not a state. Moreover terrorism will continue in some form whatever the outcome, if there is one, of such a "war". For me what happened was a crime and needs to be thought of as such. What made it different from earlier attacks was its scale and audacity, not its nature.

During the question and answer period, Manningham-Buller was asked if she ever told President Bush of her intense disapproval of the phrase "war on terror."

She only met Mr. Bush once she said, and that was at a formal banquet at Buckingham Palace, during his state visit in November 2003. "That wasn't the moment to tell him what I thought," Manningham-Buller replied, bringing laughter from the audience.

Manningham-Butler joined the secret intelligence agency in the 1970s, specialized in counter-terrorism -- most agents at the time worked in counter-espionage, focusing on the Soviet threat -- and rose through the ranks to become head of the agency in 2002; she retired in 2007.

America's reaction to the 9/11 attacks played into bin Laden's hands, Manningham-Buller said in her lecture, creating fear, a massive security industry, and personal inconvenience (think airport security).

"Bin Laden must have expected that these murderous attacks would force a reaction that would make it easier for him to persuade others of his argument that Islam was under attack from the West. It suited his agenda for Muslims to be viewed with suspicion. In addition to mass casualties, Bin Laden sought an economic impact through driving up security costs and disrupting normal life."

Manningham-Buller rejects the notion that al-Qaeda is motivated to attack the West because of our freedom and democracy.

But I still find it difficult to accept that the terror attacks were on "freedom" or democracy as some have claimed. The young men who committed the crime came from countries without democratic rights and freedoms, with no liberty to express their views in open debate, no easy way of changing their rulers, no opportunity for choice and well aware that the West often supported those autocratic rulers. For them, as for many others, an external enemy was, I believe, a unifying way of addressing some of their own frustrations.

Manningham-Buller supported the war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. But she is unwavering in her thinking that the war in Iraq was wrong.

His human rights record was atrocious, his prisons torture chambers. He was a ruthless dictator and the world is better off without him. But neither he nor his regime had anything to do with 9/11 and despite an extensive search for links, none but the most trivial and insignificant was found.

Manningham-Buller supported the war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. But she is unwavering in her thinking that the war in Iraq was wrong, and has served as an effective recruiting cry for al Qaeda.

For many years, Manningham-Buller was focused on the Irish Republican Army, which carried out terrorist acts against civilians in London. The war in Northern Ireland ended not because of the might of the British military nor because of intelligence but because there was a political solution, with the bitterly divided parties talking to each other. Drawing on that experience, she said, it is necessary to talk to al-Qaeda.

Those were the key questions, she said, adding that she didn't know the answers. "What I think is that I hope -- I don't know -- that thinking about the answers to those questions is something that is currently happening. But to say that you're never going to speak to them or never going to try to, I think that's foolish."