October 29, 2007, 9:00 am - May 19, 2019, 5:05 am


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These remarks were delivered by Richard Clarke at the 61st annual conference in November, 2007.


It is the day before Halloween, which in some ways seems like an appropriate time to hold a conference discussing things about the Middle East. I thought in keeping with that theme that I would tell you four or five stories that you can tell your children tonight to scare them. Now, these are myths — like most stories that you tell your children at Halloween. In some cases the myth is what is scary; in some cases the truth is what is scary. But they are all about the Middle East, they are all about terrorism, and they are all about the choices that we face in the near future.

The first myth is that, as President Bush has said, ‘Usama bin Laden has become irrelevant and two-thirds of the al-Qa‘ida managers have been captured or killed. You have heard both of those statements. They are both myths.

The myth about al-Qa‘ida that grew up in the years 2003 and 2004 was that al-Qa‘ida no longer mattered — that Al-Qa’ida Central or (as my friend Peter Bergen calls it) Al-Qa‘ida 1.0 had become a spent force, in part because the United States eventually invaded Afghanistan and smashed the sanctuary there for al-Qa‘ida. Unfortunately al-Qa‘ida was not smashed. Bin Laden was not captured. His number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was not captured. The organization reconstituted itself — not in Afghanistan initially, but it reconstituted itself on the Pakistani side of the border in the North-West Territories and in Waziristan. Although it was true that large numbers of al-Qa‘ida managers had been captured or killed in 2001-2002, they were all replaced. The organization began once again to recruit personnel from Afghanistan and Pakistan but also from throughout the Islamic world. Once again, it began to draw them up into the mountains, into newly established terrorist training facilities, to indoctrinate them there, to teach them the ways of terrorist attack, to teach them the ideology of hatred, and to send them back out around the world. Unfortunately, attacks that took place in England, attacks that were attempted in Germany, attacks that took place in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, were a direct result of the training and planning that took place in those al-Qa‘ida camps.

The result is — as Bruce Riedel so keenly pointed out in his article earlier this year in Foreign Affairs — al-Qa‘ida is back. The original al-Qa‘ida organization run by bin Laden and Zawahiri is back, is planning attacks and is in many ways as strong as it was immediately following the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, the National Intelligence Estimate this year admits in the unclassified key judgments that al-Qa‘ida has reconstituted and now poses a threat again to what the National Intelligence Estimate calls “the homeland” (their somewhat Orwellian way of saying the United States).

So let’s understand this. Six years on from the 9/11 attacks, when destroying al-Qa‘ida was finally our number-one national priority, al-Qa‘ida is not destroyed. Its top leadership has not been captured or killed. Its mid-level managers have been reconstituted by others moving up and it once again poses a threat to the United States in the United States, according to the National Intelligence Estimate.

I am not sure if you should tell that story to your children because it is a little too scary. It is a little scary that even after the wakeup call of 9/11 that this government has been unable to destroy a small terrorist organization intent on killing Americans.

But there is a related myth, a second myth, that you can tell your children, that is meant to reassure them. It is the myth of the GWOT. You all know the GWOT: the Global War on Terrorism. It has an acronym because the Pentagon has to give everything an acronym. So: the GWOT.

The problem with the Global War on Terrorism is that it is not global, it should not be a war, and it is not really about terrorism. What do I mean by that? It is not really global — we are not really talking about activities in South America, to a large extent; not really talking about activities in southern Africa, to much of an extent; not really talking about a global activity. We are talking about a fight largely in the Islamic world, a struggle within Islam.

It is not really a war, with the exception of the war that the United States chose to make in Iraq — which had nothing to do with al-Qa‘ida when we made it. With that exception and the exception of the war in Afghanistan, the struggle against extreme, violent Islamists is a struggle that is largely fought by police and by intelligence units. If you look at those al-Qa‘ida leaders who have been captured or killed, if you look at the leaders of other terrorist organizations affiliated with al-Qa‘ida around the world, the vast majority of those people have been captured or killed by intelligence operations and by police, not by military. The ways in which we can most effectively deal with violent Islamist extremism is on the one hand through police and intelligence activities and on the other hand through activities that do not involve the use of force at all, but involve ideology.

It is not global, it is not a war, and it is not on terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic. Terrorism is a tactic used by lots of organizations not involved in this particular struggle. There are terrorist groups like the FARC and others in South America that have little or no connection to what we are talking about here.

This is a struggle against violent Islamist extremism that uses, among other things, terrorist attacks as a tactic. It is a struggle to prevent those organizations from overthrowing what they believe are apostate governments in the Islamic world and replacing them with what they would replace them with — caliphates run by themselves. The thing that people sometimes miss in analyzing al-Qa‘ida’s goals — we talk about the near enemy, the far enemy, the caliphate — the real goal as articulated by al-Qa‘ida is to have a caliphate run by them. This is all about a small group of unappointed, unelected and very often uneducated (in the ways of Islam) people who wrap themselves in the mantle of a religion they do not really understand and on that basis say that they should run their countries. When they or their allies run things we see what happens. We saw what happened in Afghanistan when the Taliban ran it. We saw in Anbar province what happened to cities and towns when al-Qa‘ida-related personnel attempted to run those areas.

The way in which we best struggle against violent Islamist extremism is ideologically — or as the 9/11 Commission called it, the “battle of ideas.” Unfortunately, I believe the United States has little to contribute to that battle of ideas — certainly not our radio stations and TV stations paid for by the State Department, which has been our response in large measure. The United States has no credibility left in most of the Islamic world because we have abandoned our values here at home and abroad in what we say is the fight against terrorism. Until and unless we get out of Iraq as an occupying force, we will have no credibility in the Islamic world to engage in any sort of ideological debate.

The third myth has to do with why we went into Iraq and why terrorism is funded. It is the myth of oil. You may have heard someone recently say that the war in Iraq was all about oil — that person was Alan Greenspan, a respected expert on finance. When I start giving you advice and you start listening to it and taking it on finance, then you can start listening to Alan Greenspan on Middle East wars.

There were many motivations that many people had about going into Iraq, motivations which were wrong, misguided, not based on an understanding of the region or its history, but oil featured only as one of those many reasons. But we are told repeatedly in this town that oil is the reason the United States goes to war in the Middle East and we are told that every time we buy gasoline at the pump we are fueling terrorism as well as our cars. Somehow the money that we pay for oil in this country gets into the pocket of ‘Usama bin Laden and al-Qa‘ida. In fact, my friend Jim Woolsey (the former director of CIA) has a plug-in hybrid car — which is a very good idea – but he has on it a bumper sticker that says, “Bin Laden Hates This Car.” I don’t think bin Laden hates cars at all. In fact, from what I know about bin Laden, he actually enjoys playing with engines in cars and tractors.

Bin Laden does not get money from American oil companies. Al-Qa‘ida does not get money from American oil companies. When the United States imports oil, most of it comes from Canada and Mexico, not from the Middle East. It is true we get some from the Middle East and it is also true that oil is fungible on the world market, but the revenue that is paid for that Middle Eastern oil goes to governments high on the list of bin Laden’s list of apostate governments. That is why bin Laden has told people repeatedly to attack oil facilities. That is why al-Qa‘ida tried to blow up the largest refinery in Saudi Arabia at Abqaiq last year. If al-Qa‘ida were getting money from oil, would they be trying to blow up the oil facilities? Think about it.

The governments that run the largest exporters of oil in the Middle East — governments like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar – the leadership of those governments would be the first people to be beheaded if al-Qa‘ida took over. “Chop-chop Square” in Riyadh would be a busy place if al-Qa‘ida took over and the people who are now getting the revenue from oil — the Saudi government — would be lined up at the guillotine. It is a complete and utter myth that the United States is funding terrorism by our oil imports.

The fourth myth is if we were to do as I suggest and leave Iraq, abandon our notions of permanent military bases, withdraw all major combat forces — if we leave Iraq there will be chaos and al-Qa ‘ida will build a sanctuary there just as they had earlier built one in Afghanistan. Let’s think about that.

First of all, if we leave Iraq there will be chaos. How would you know? How could you tell the difference between what is going on now and has gone on for the last three years in Iraq and something called chaos? What is going on in Iraq now and what has gone on there for the last three years must be the definition of chaos — a higher murder rate than anywhere in the world, civilians as well as combatants; destruction of infrastructure; occasional electricity, occasional other services; massive unemployment, as Ambassador Chamberlin knows very well; huge refugee outflows and huge numbers of internally displaced people. Iraq is the poster of chaos.

But if we leave there will be more, we are told in this myth. Perhaps. Perhaps for some period of time the chaos level will come from here to here — maybe it will go up for some period of time. We do not know that, but it could. So is being there, with all of its costs — the costs in American lives, the costs in Iraqis killed by Americans, the cost to our global reputation, its cost in fueling the al-Qa‘ida movement globally, the financial cost — are all of those costs worth the potential delta in levels of chaos for some period of time? Try to quantify that. I don’t think you can and I don’t think it justifies staying on.

But the justification that you hear is in this higher level of chaos, al-Qa‘ida will create a sanctuary in Iraq much like it did in Afghanistan. There is a problem with that too. First of all, it seems rather obvious that al-Qa‘ida has had something of a sanctuary in Iraq for the last three years. Al-Qa‘ida, although it is a small percentage of the insurgents, has nonetheless been able to operate successfully in large sections of Iraq for three years. Now with the surge, some of that area where it has been able to operate has been reduced. We will see when the US surge troops pull out whether or not al-Qa‘ida goes back. But they have had not only a sanctuary, they have had a training ground; and not only a training ground in Iraq, but a training ground where we brought the targets to them. As a result, hundreds of US forces have been killed by al-Qa‘ida.

But let’s look at a future where the United States has withdrawn major combat units and let’s suggest the possibility that the myth is right, that al-Qa‘ida will create new terrorist sanctuaries and training camps in Iraq just as they had in Afghanistan. Who will let them? Will the Kurds let them – the Kurds who have fought al-Qa‘ida? Will they let them do that in the north? Probably not. Will the Shi’a let them in the south – the Shi’a who hate al-Qa‘ida and who have been attacked by al-Qa‘ida? Will the Shi’a let them establish sanctuaries in the south? Probably not. That leaves us then the Sunnis. Will the Sunnis allow them to create sanctuary camps in Anbar — the Sunni leadership in Anbar which has been fighting al-Qa‘ida for over a year now? Probably not.

So I do not know where exactly this sanctuary camp will be but let’s assume that somehow, somewhere in Iraq, somebody allows al-Qa‘ida to build a large sanctuary camp. Because we have withdrawn all of our major combat forces at that point, we have no option but to sit back and accept the existence of that al-Qa‘ida terrorist camp. Is that right? I wouldn’t think so. I would think the United States would treat Iraq like it should treat every other country in the world. If we find that there is an al-Qa‘ida terrorist training camp, we ask the government in that country to eliminate it; and if they do not eliminate it, we do. We can do that without having 160,000 US combat troops in Iraq. In fact, we could do that without having any US combat troops in Iraq. We will still have airplanes. We will still have cruise missiles. We will still have Special Forces across the border in Kuwait. We will still have Marines on aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. We will still have the ability of dropping airborne forces in from Jordan and elsewhere. There is absolutely no reason why we would have to tolerate an al-Qa‘ida training facility in Iraq even if we had no US combat troops there. So I think that is a myth.

The fifth and final myth that I want to talk to you about today is one that scares me. It is about Iran and our need to consider military force against Iran. The myth goes something like this: Iran has inexplicably become aggressive and therefore must be dealt with militarily to restore peace and order to the region of the Gulf. There are people in this town who actually believe that. Let’s deconstruct it.

First, the notion that Iran has become inexplicably aggressive. I know this is unpopular but try to put your shoes on Iranian-style — try to put yourself in the shoes of the Iranian government and roll the tape back to 2001. Suddenly you wake up and American forces have occupied the country to the east of you. Then you wake up and American forces have occupied the country to the west. Then you wake up one day and you learn that you are on an exclusive list of two other countries — North Korea and Iraq — and the United States has invaded one of them and is saber-rattling about bombing or doing something to the other. And if press reports are to be believed — and I know we cannot always believe press reports — American Special Forces have entered your country and are doing reconnaissance of targets. Perhaps Baluchi tribesmen, perhaps Azeri tribesmen, perhaps Arabs in your province of Khuzistan are being paid by the United States or its friends and allies to make trouble inside your country.

If all of that were to happen to you when you put your Iranian shoes on, would you worry a little? Or would you “inexplicably” become aggressive? I do not think it is at all inexplicable that the Iranian government might react in ways that we could interpret as aggressive if all of those things happened — and we know some of those things happened and perhaps all of them have happened. But we are told that the leader of Iran, who we now call “Dinner Jacket,” has become inexplicably aggressive and the only way to deal with Mr. Dinner Jacket is to use military force to restore order to the Persian Gulf region.

Think about how force can restore peace, how force in that region can restore order. What would the use of force by the United States against Iran look like? It would undoubtedly involve bombing. We would bomb something. If we knew where their nuclear facilities were and if they were underground and we could destroy them anyway, we would bomb them. But in addition to bombing nuclear facilities we would probably have to bomb air defense facilities in order to get in to bomb the nuclear facilities. And because we might anticipate that the Iranian navy would come out and try to attack the United States aircraft carriers that were engaged in this bombing operation, to stop that we should probably bomb the Iranian naval bases as well. So now we have gone from a handful of suspect nuclear sites to a much larger number of air defense, missile sites and air bases, to a number of naval bases and perhaps command and control facilities, and by now we have bombed several score, up into the hundreds of places all over Iran.

Now you, with your Iranian shoes on, wake up and find that that has happened. What are you going to do? I doubt very much that you are going to turn the other cheek – you are going to respond. You are going to respond in ways that you can, using the forces that you have. That means you are going to attack American forces where you can find them. Fortunately for you as an Iranian, the United States has moved most of its forces to countries nearby — Afghanistan and Iraq — and in little bases scattered along the southern littoral of the Persian Gulf. You can probably find people in those countries that will engage in attacks which America will call terrorism on those forces.

So move one: the United States bombs things. Move two: Iran responds militarily and with terrorism against American forces, probably killing hundreds of Americans in several countries within a few days. Perhaps because the Iranian homeland has been attacked, they use unconventional forces, Special Forces, to attack inside the American homeland – something that they could probably do. So now we have the picture of attacks against American forces in three or four countries and an Iranian-inspired attack in the United States. What will the man or the woman down the street do then? Well, we will have to bomb them again. But we bombed most of the interesting things so this time we will have to start bombing some of the uninteresting things — a second-wave bombing attack.

I ask you in your spare time to play out this scenario because the move/countermove goes on through several moves and countermoves. I have played it out several times over several years and the answer always comes back the same: at the end of four or five or six moves, the United States player wishes he had never started. The last thing that we have, the thing that is furthest away as a goal after five or six moves, is peace and order in the Persian Gulf – that thing that we had started out to achieve by bombing.

These are all myths that are floating around Washington: that bin Laden is irrelevant and al-Qa’ida’s managers have been captured or killed; that we are engaged in a global war on terrorism; that oil is the reason that we have gone to war in the Middle East and that every time we buy oil we fuel bin Laden and terrorism; that if we leave Iraq there will be chaos and al’Qa’ida will have a sanctuary in Iraq. But the most important of these myths that I would like you to take away today is that Iran is inexplicably aggressive and the way to deal with that is to use US military force to restore order and peace in the Persian Gulf – because that is the biggest myth of all. Thank you very much.

Ambassador Chamberlin: Thank you very much, Dick. You see why I was frightened by his analysis. We have only time for three quick questions.

Stanley Kobar from the Cato Institute: How effective is the bombing of the al-Qa‘ida training camps? The bombing in Afghanistan leading to innocent casualties and growing anti-American sentiment — so how far do we go in bombing? Should we bomb in Pakistan too if we are to deal with this threat?

Richard Clarke: I spoke to a mid-level American commander in Afghanistan last week and asked him about this issue of collateral damage from bombing. He said the practice of artillery shells and air strikes by American units is very much at the discretion of the localized American commander and that some units are more trigger-happy than others. This particular commander said that he tried to be as restrained as possible and err on the side of not calling in artillery barrages and air strikes because the after-action reports have such a high incidence of mistakes, and that in fact the Taliban operators and the al-Qa‘ida operators are trying to draw American artillery fire and air strikes into areas where there will in fact be high levels of collateral that will turn the local tribes people against the American and coalition forces. So it is very tough when you are being shelled with mortars not to respond in the easiest way possible, which is to fire back with mortars or artillery. But as this commander explained to me, in the long run to achieve our goal – which is to have the locals support us and be against al-Qa‘ida — the best way frequently is to restrain fire and to try to go out there on the ground. But if you go out there on the ground you run the risk of high US ground casualties, so it is a very difficult task in many of these regions. But I think in general less repressive fire turns out to be the better tactic.

Ambassador Chamberlin: Fred Axelgard, General Dynamics: Dick, talk about Israeli perceptions of the Iranian threat.

Richard Clarke: I think the Israelis have probably a very realistic perception of the Iranian threat because I think they know more about Iran than we do. There are large numbers of Israelis who are in fact from Persia in the past. But Israel sees it through a slightly different prism than we do. If somehow a nuclear weapon got into Manhattan and went off — which is one of those horrific nightmares that we worry about, the low-probability/high-impact disaster that we really do not know how to plan for or address (and Graham Allison has written about so graphically) — if that were to happen it would be a terrible day for the United States and it would take a long time to recover. If, however, it happened in Tel Aviv it could be the end of Israel. When the Israelis say that Iran or nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists in general are an existential threat, that is what they mean – their existence is at risk and they therefore have to have a much lower tolerance.

But I think having established that it is a threat if nuclear weapons got into the hands of terrorists, I think Israel also engages in a form of mutual assured destruction. There is nothing that Iran or anybody else can do that would eliminate the Israeli nuclear deterrent; the Israeli nuclear deterrent would survive any attack on Israel and the Israeli nuclear deterrent, while it could not eliminate all of Iran, could eliminate so much of Iran that the remaining Iranians might wish they had been eliminated.

So as long as there is a rational calculus going on then I think deterrence can be achieved. The problem is that people are not sure – Israelis are not sure, we are not sure — that a rational calculus will always take place. So far we have had probably over 100,000 nuclear weapons made in the world and there are a lot fewer than that number around today. But none of them, as far as we know, have gotten into the hands of terrorists and we can be fairly confident of that because if a terrorist had a nuclear weapon he would get it to someplace like 14th and I Streets very quickly and detonate it — and that hasn’t happened. But would it happen if the Iranian government had the weapons? I don’t know. Is there any reason more to worry about Iran giving nuclear weapons to terrorists than, say, Pakistan or India or Russia? That is the fear and it is a very hard one to calculate, and if you are wrong in your calculations and they do get a weapon and they do use it against Tel Aviv, there is no tomorrow for Israel.

So that is their perception. The problem is, it does not lead to an obvious solution. I don’t think Israel can say with high confidence it can find and eliminate all of the nuclear weapons-related facilities in Iran, and even if they did or even if we did find and eliminate all the nuclear weapons facilities, they could rebuild them in two or three years (or three to five years – pick your estimate). They could rebuild them and they could rebuild them in a way that we would never find, or that there would be so many of them and they would be so widely dispersed and so deep underground that they could not be attacked.

So an attack program aimed at the Iranian nuclear program would at best really tick off the Iranians, really unite the people behind their government, and achieve only three to five (or two to three) years of retardation of the Iranian nuclear program. So it is a very tough analytical issue. It is one of those issues that make me glad I am no longer in government.

Ambassador Chamberlin: Shafiya Daleh [phonetic], retired lecturer for Middle East politics, University of Connecticut: What do you mean by caliphate? Is it true that what mainly inspires al-Qa‘ida is not religion but rage — rage against real or perceived grievances against the West in general and Americans in particular regarding abuse, injustice or humiliation inflicted upon them?

Richard Clarke: I think that is a good question because it poses the difference between the al-Qa’ida-announced and articulated goal of establishing the caliphate and the motivation behind a lot of the people in al-Qa‘ida, which really is not to establish the caliphate. The motivation for a lot of the people in al-Qa‘ida is precisely that sense of perceived injustice, that sense that the United States and the West are engaged in anti-Islamic activities, that we are at war with Islam, that we want to control the Islamic world and turn it into Tysons Corner Galleria.

So I think there is a difference and not a lot of thought has gone into the caliphate, at least in the public writings of al-Qa’ida. If you look at their writings it is all about why the West is bad and why the apostate governments are bad, why the near enemy has to be overthrown and why the far enemy has to be overthrown, and then the miracle occurs and there is a caliphate and everything is good. There is not a great deal of detail about how you get to the caliphate, who runs the caliphate or what the caliphate does. It is largely inferential based on what the Taliban did, which al-Qa‘ida has said it liked, and on what Taliban people have done in villages in Pakistan, what al-Qa‘ida people have done at the village level in Iraq.

This is not really a political program. People keep comparing it to communism and to Nazism and fascism – all these silly phrases like Islamo-fascism — but it is really not a political program that is similar in those ways. They do not have a lot of detail about their social programs or governance programs. They are mainly an anti-program that waves a magic wand and says when the bad guys — the Americans and everybody else — are defeated a new kingdom on earth will be established which will be better. They do not know what that means except that they would be in charge of it.


About this Transcript:

Richard Clarke delivered his remarks at MEI's 61st Annual Conference at the National Press Club, Washington DC

Assertions and opinions in the Insight do not reflect necessarily the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.