News and Information

War on terror 'vanishes from agenda'
November 24, 2004
By Gordon Corera
BBC security correspondent

There is intense speculation in the corridors of Washington over where foreign policy might head in the next four years.

Police officers on guard in front of the New York Stock Exchange building in August 2004
The US is on guard - but is that enough?
But while Iraq and Iran may top the list, you hear almost no talk - at least at the moment - about Washington's "war on terror" against al-Qaeda.

After an election in which the fear of an attack hung over the campaign, there is now little discussion over whether the US is winning or what victory might look like.

While there is lots of talk about which countries the US should seek to press over terrorism, there is not much sign yet of a renewed focus on the ideological struggle or the kind of "imagination" called for by the 11 September commission.

Richard Clarke, the former White House counter-terrorism czar under both President Clinton and President Bush, has been an outspoken critic of the current administration since he left it.

He accuses the Bush administration of a lack of strategic thought.


What is al-Qaeda?
"So much of the US government's attention is on Iraq that they are really not thinking conceptually about the war on terrorism," he told me.

"President Bush has conflated Iraq and the war on terrorism into one thing, and therefore when they're working on Iraq they think they're working on the war on terrorism - which of course they're not because it's a very different thing.

"The administration probably believes its own rhetoric when they say they've captured or killed three-quarters of al-Qaeda leaders, and that al-Qaeda's on the ropes," he says.

New leaders

But Mr Clarke argues that such talk overlooks the possible rise of a new leadership - or of multiple, dispersed groups acting on their own.

"We're in a lull between the first al-Qaeda - which has been to some extent somewhat destroyed - and the second, which is I'm sure now building.

Obviously everyone here would like to see Osama Bin Laden's head on a spike in front of Congress, but that is not the only test
David Frum,
former Bush speechwriter
"People who are mad at the US for what we've done in Iraq and elsewhere are probably organising new networks we don't know about. But if that's true they'll probably be a lull between the time when the old al-Qaeda is destroyed and the new one appears."

But David Frum, a former speechwriter to President Bush says Mr Clarke's criticism is unfair.

He believes there will be some readjustments - but to a generally successful strategy.

"In many areas there are unflashy but important successes to report," he says. "There's the success in Libya. A lot of the component parts in the war on terror are not individually that dramatic, they're incremental.

"They are improvements. They are always imperfect, but I think you see a lot of progress. Obviously everyone here would like to see Osama Bin Laden's head on a spike in front of Congress, but that is not the only test."

'Lack of discussion'

But Mike Scheuer, a former head of the CIA's Bin Laden unit who resigned from the agency this month, says there is a dangerous lack of understanding in the United States about what motivates Bin Laden and those who support him.

Former CIA analyst Mike Scheuer
After the debate, the American people would be going into the future knowing they were faced with an extraordinarily long and bloody war
Mike Scheuer,
former CIA operative
This has led some wrongly to perceive the US as fighting a single organisation when in fact it faces a global, radical Islamic insurgency.

"Bin Laden is attacking us because a specific set of US policies that have been in gear for 30 years and haven't been reviewed, haven't been debated, haven't been questioned," says Mr Scheuer, who has written two books anonymously criticising government policies.

He cited the apparently unquestioning US support for Israel; America's presence on the Arabian peninsula; and support for regimes perceived as oppressing Muslims and for Muslim "tyrannies".

Mr Scheuer doesn't necessarily argue for a change in policy but says there needs to be a greater awareness of the roots of the problem in order to appreciate the potential longevity of the threat.

"At the end of the day it may be decided by the democratic process that these policies are good for us should remain unchanged... but the big difference would be that after the debate, the American people would be going into the future knowing they were faced with an extraordinarily long and bloody war to be fought because of those policies."

Fading memories

Cofer Black
The threat is real but the US is doing well, Black says
One problem for those pursuing the war on terror is that as the memory of the 11 September attacks begin to fade, questions begin to be asked about whether the threat may have diminished - or even whether it was exaggerated.

That is a concern for Cofer Black, who until this month was the State Department's counter-terrorism co-ordinator and who had previously served as director of the CIA's counter-terrorism centre.

He says the US has done well against al-Qaeda and its allies.

"We've had tremendous successes. The numbers are all good. Tactically the practitioners are doing very well but the threat is real - it is there," he told me in his last interview before leaving office.

"We are much safer, but we are not yet safe."

But, he says, those who work in counter-terrorism "are paranoid or haunted because all the terrorists have to do is be successful once and we have a cataclysmic disaster".


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