According to Richard Miniter, an American investigative journalist who is an expert on Islamic terrorism, the West is capable of winning the war on terror. In fact, he thinks it is winning. Miniter, who is a weekly guest on Fox News, has travelled extensively all over the globe and was in Brussels early this week on his way to Afghanistan. The Brussels Journal interviewed him.
Paul Belien: Rich, you have written two bestselling books about terrorism so far. The first one, “Losing Bin Laden,” is a chronicle of what happened under Bill Clinton’s presidency and the second one, “Shadow War,” is about the war on terror during the first term of George W. Bush. In this last book you argue that America is winning the war on terror. Europeans find this hard to believe. Given the London bombing early this month, do you still think that we are winning the war on terror?
PB: Some people, however, say that we have called terrorism upon ourselves by the invasion of Iraq. It seems that the threat of terrorism is worse now than ever before.
RM: I don’t think that is true. I have a minority contrarian view, but here it is: The death toll on September 11, 2001 of the attacks on New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania was more than 3,000 people. The Bali bombing on October 12, 2002 killed 202 people. In the Madrid bombing of March 11, 2004 191 people perished. That is one order of magnitude less than on 9/11. In London earlier this month 53 people died. That is a second order of magnitude less than on 9/11. If anything, the lethality of al Qaeda is decreasing over time. The terrorists are losing their ability to carry out large, complicated operations, where they need perfect surprise in order to succeed and perfect coordination in order to have mass casualties. With the exception of the bombings in 2003 in Turkey, no al Qaeda cell has been able to strike twice in quick succession in the same country. American, European and Allied governments have been very successful in breaking up these cells.
As for this idea that Iraq has brought terrorism onto Europe and onto America, do not forget that 9/11 occurred before the Iraq war. Let us also remember what happened in the 1990s when we had a series of al Qaeda attacks on American, British and French interests from 1992 onwards. In one of these attacks, on August 7, 1988, two U.S. embassies were hit, one in Kenya, the other in Tanzania, killing hundreds of people, mostly Muslim Africans. That certainly was not brought on by the Iraq war. The November 13, 1995 attack in Riyadh which killed five Americans, two Indian nationals and an unknown number of Saudis, that was not brought on by Iraq either. Nor were the attack on U.S. forces in Somalia on October 3, 1993, which we now know was organised by elements of al Qaeda, the 1993 WTC bombing, which killed seven people (I say seven because I also count the unborn son of Monica Smith), the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, the attempt to destroy the Eifel Tower by driving a plane into it in 1994, and the attempt to kill the Pope in the Philippines in 1994.
PB: Some people say we have exacerbated the hostile feelings among Muslims by invading Iraq.
RM: How do we measure public opinion in Muslim lands when these are all but one, Iraq, dictatorships?
PB: They mean Muslim populations in Western Europe.
RM: This is simply asserted but not proven. How can they possibly know? There has never been a scientific series of polls which has measured Muslim public opinion in Europe over time, using the same methods. I do not know whether to believe or disbelieve this assertion because I do not think there is enough evidence one way or another to know for sure. What is amazing to me is that people make assertions without feeling the obligation to bring forth some kind of evidence that muslim public opinion in Europe or America or anywhere has changed.
PB: Some people fear that if our secret services are going to control the Muslim populations in Europe, then our civil liberties will have to be limited and restricted. There was an article recently by Daniel Pipes in the NY Sun in which he says that France is doing a better job in fighting terrorism than Britain because the British allow too many liberties to Muslim groups. What do you think about that?
RM: I think it is fairly well established that the French have the most restrictive counterterrorist policies in Europe and perhaps in the Western world.
PB: And is it a good thing to have such restrictive policies?
RM: There are two questions here: one, does it work, and two, is it morally justified? I do not know if it works. Certainly the French have stopped a great number of plots, and France has not seen a widespread attack like London, like Madrid, and like New York. So, is it because they are very good or is it because they are lucky? I don’t know. However, France is a wonderful case for those who say we have to diminish civil liberties in order to crack down on terrorism. France has the most restrictive and perhaps the most effective counterterrorism policy, but France is still by and large a free country. The biggest threat journalists face in France is not censorship by the government but lawsuits by interested parties that do not like what they have to say, and that is, of course, a problem in other European countries, too, but is unrelated to the counterterrorism policies. If Britain, Germany, America and other countries were to pursue a more aggressive counterterrorism strategy it would probably look a lot like France, which is not a nightmare scenario. France, for better or worse, is not Nazi Germany, it is not Egypt, it is not Saudi Arabia, it is not Poland in 1981, it is a state with a strong instinct for the survival of its people and, so far, it seems to have been pretty effective.
PB: You are working on a third terrorism book: “Misinformation.” By this, I think, you mean how the Western media are helping the terrorists in certain ways.
RM: I think that is actually overstating my case a little bit. I do not think the media are actively helping, with a few exceptions, the terrorists. However, they have created an environment of poisonous scepticism, raising questions about things where the truth is very easily known and is exactly the opposite of what they are saying. Newsweek recently ran the story of the Quran being flushed down the toilet to intimidate Muslims in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo. Newsweek had this story from what it considered to be a reliable source but the magazine failed to do some basic investigation.
Here are the questions that it did not ask: How many Qurans were distributed by the U.S. military to prisoners in Guantanamo and elsewhere, how many do they have now, are any missing? What are the dimensions of those Qurans? This is important to know whether it is physically possible to flush such a book down the toilet. In fact, the toilets they use at Guantanamo are not flush toilets but chemical toilets. The Qurans could not have been flushed, and even if they were put in a toilet they could not have gone down because the access pipe is too small. If a journalist is given information by sources he has an obligation to check out the facts that are knowable and see whether the assertions are physically possible.
PB: But that is just an example of sloppy journalism. We also had that during the Cold War. Can you give us another example of misinformation?
RM: A classic example is the assertion that Osama bin Laden is on dialysis. This was misinformation put out by the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, in late 1998. The Pakistanis were getting a lot of pressure from the Clinton administration to turn over bin Laden for the attacks on the embassies in Africa. Bin Laden was probably in Afghanistan, but the Taliban government in Kabul had been set up by the Pakistanis. In fact, if you talk with Pakistani officials they will very rarely refer to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instead they refer to the Durand Line. They consider Afghanistan to be an extension of Pakistan. So Pakistan set up the Taliban in order to control that territory. It was a government created and funded by the ISI. The Pakistanis did not want bin Laden to be handed over, because he would reveal the degree of collusion between the Taliban, bin Laden and the Pakistanis themselves. Moreover, they had future uses for him. The Pakistanis were very shrewd. They figured out that if they could give the Clinton administration a plausible excuse not to act, then it would not act. They told the Americans: “Bin Laden is on dialysis and he will probably die anyway.”
This myth has continued long after 9/11 in the absence of any evidence. In fact, there is lots of evidence to the contrary. After Bin Laden’s personal doctor, who was captured in Pakistan and held in U.S. custody for more than three months, was released he gave a number of interviews. He said that bin Laden had a bad back and other health problems but he certainly was not on dialysis and had no kidney problems. Bin Laden himself has said to a Pakistani journalist that he has no health problems at all. Doctors and intelligence agents with medical backgrounds, who study bin Laden on his tapes, point out that people who are on dialysis for years acquire a discoloration of the skin and certain features none of which bin Laden displays.
PB: You are going to Afghanistan next week. Do you think Afghanistan is the place where bin Laden is hanging around nowadays?
RM: It is certainly possible. The Pakistanis say that he is in Afghanistan. The Afghans say that he is either in Pakistan or in Iran. Certainly the Afghans have a reason to turn him over. The Karzai government is continuously destabilised by elements of al Qaeda and by the Taliban. To this day there is major fighting in the Paktia province and other eastern and southeastern provinces along the border with Pakistan. I do not think that there has been enough scepticism of Pakistan’s role in the war on terror. In one sense they have done a lot. They have captured more than 700 al Qaeda members since 9/11, more than any other nation including Iraq or Afghanistan, but we should be far more critical, not just on the human rights record of Pakistan, but their general behaviour.
PB: Pakistan is not on the list of the rogue states of the United States. So Washington considers it to be an ally.
RM: It is an ally, but it is a very two-sided ally. As in the Cold War, in the war on terror you will have to choose your enemies and your allies, and sometimes you are choosing from the same pool.
PB: That takes us to another traditional ally of the United States: Saudi Arabia. It is said that a group of rich Saudis is actually funding Muslim fundamentalists. This seems to be an ally that is not really an ally. What do you think about the Saudi position regarding the fight against al Qaeda?
RM: They are technically our friends. I do not think the Saudi state has funded al Qaeda since 9/11, but individual sheiks and Saudi princes have continued to fund it.
PB: If the state knows it, it can crack down on them and try to stop the funding of al Qaeda.
RM: Let us first try to understand a little bit about Saudi Arabia. I am not making excuses for them but I am saying that if we are going to criticise them let us do it in an informed way. Saudi Arabia is run by two clouts of people – and I say “clouts” because they are very loosely affiliated and yet they all matter. There are the clerics, about 4,000 of them, and there are the princes, also about 4,000 of them. For anything to get done you need unanimity or near unanimity with these two groups of people. Any kind of crackdown threathens not just that consensus but the legitimacy of the state. What Saudi Arabia has to offer the residents of Arabia is order. That is basic. They provide very little in terms of welfare, in terms of schooling, there still are less than one hundred hospitals, very few universities, very few education opportunities, despite the immense oil wealth. More than one third of the world’s proven oil reserves are in Saudi Arabia, but the per capita income when you take away the money that is used for the princes, is low.
PB: They use the money to fund fundamentalist mosques in Europe.
RM: Yes, but of course the European governments are complicit in that. If Europe was serious about counterterrorism it would say that no religious institution, church, mosque, synagogue, or whatever can receive funding from outside the country, and it would further stipulate that the congregation must provide at least half of the funds necessary before the state could provide any funds. In a more radical view I do not think that the state should finance religion at all. I think state funding of religion is ultimately bad for religion as well as bad for the state. I think the promotion of religion is healthy for a state because something beyond economic self-interest has to hold the country together. There has to be something higher, intangible, mystical, methaphysical, but nonetheless present and real. Religion has traditionally in every society known to man provided some of that connecting tissue that makes a group of people into a nation and a nation into a country. When you finance religion, however, you necessarily change it and warp it to serve the politicians.
PB: In Western Europe it is the state that finances religion. In the United States it is not. If you are a Muslim in the US you can ask the Saudi princes for subsidies.
RM: I think there have to be some restrictions. I think that the money should not be able to come from abroad. I do not think that would be a problem if you extend this restriction to the Catholics. In our countries the church money goes to Rome, it does not come from Rome. Hence applying that restriction here would not have deleterious effects. But you have to stop the overseas funding.
I am prepared to believe that most of the Muslims are moderate. They have left a more fundamentalist society to come to the West. If they wanted to be fundamentalist they find more opportunity and scope to do that in their home countries. They are interested in economic opportunity, which means that in some small way they are interested in changing. And maybe they think they are going to change in small ways in terms of improving their economic outlook and improving their education, but in the course of doing these two things, things about you change. Europe has to think about how it wants to make these people assimilate, because they must be made to assimilate or they will become a mortal threat to our societies over time. When I want to frighten Europeans I say: who is going to pay your social security when the average European prays five times a day?