November 16, 2016 - The third panel of the Middle East Institute’s 70th Annual Conference, "The Evolving Fight against Terrorism," was a conversation between Richard A. Clarke (Fmr National Coordinator for Counterterrorism), and Nicholas J. Rasmussen (Director, National Counterterrorism Center, Office of the Director of National Intelligence).
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Richard Clarke: Well, just so that we are entirely transparent, I want you to know I've known this man for 26 years and followed his career as he's worked for Republicans and Democrats in the White House, in the State Department, and in the intelligence community. And we're really honored, Nick, that you were able to take your some time out of your – what I know is a ridiculous schedule. I know this means you'll probably work till 10:00 tonight to make up for it. So, thank you for coming.
Nicholas Rasmussen: The other thing that was left out of the introduction, in addition to our 26-year history, is the fact that Dick hired me out of graduate school 26 years ago, so –
RIchard Clarke: Well, everybody makes a mistake now and then.
Nicholas Rasmussen: So, we have a history.
Richard Clarke: So you've been doing national security for 26 years, but for the last 16, really, since 9/11, you've been doing counterterrorism either in the White House or in the intelligence community. That’s a long time – a lot longer than I did it. And, I wonder if you can look back over those 16 years, if you put yourself back in to September 2001, which was a traumatic time for all of us, literally – we were traumatized. And, how – how has terrorism – the role of the terrorism professional, changed? What are you working on now that didn't exist then?
I will – just give us a short – take 16 years and tell about to tell us about 15 minutes.
Nicholas Rasmussen: Sure, well a lot of things have changed over that. I think in terms of the threat landscape that we are dealing with and that we are managing, that has changed pretty significantly, and a lot of that change I think has been telescoped into the last few years with the emergence of ISIL/Daesh an the particular set of innovations that they brought to the terrorists' playbook. We can go into that separately.
But, I think much of the period after 9/11 in the first several years – maybe the first decade after 9/11 – we were still very focused as an intelligence community and as a as a counterterrorism community, focused on groups and the effort by known terrorist organizations to carry out organized plotting, often complex, often aimed at carrying out mass – generating mass casualties, or generating catastrophic effect.
And, that the effort too – much of the effort our intelligence community, and of our diplomatic military and intelligence personnel was focused on defeating that threat.
Richard Clarke: So, you're looking for another 9/11 – for a repeat.
Nicholas Rasmussen: Exactly, and by all accounts, that was what al-Qaeda was trying to do to us. And, so it was no it was no accident that was where the weight of our effort was –
Richard Clarke: And they did in London, and Bali, and Madrid –
Nicholas Rasmussen: Exactly, and what has probably shifted the terrorism landscape more than anything else over the last two to three years has been that the significant diversification of that threat landscape. That threat landscape still includes all of what I've just described, that the idea that a terrorist organization might carry out a complex attack with a gestation period of many months, or even years – the way 9/11 was, but we are also now dealing with a threat landscape that is populated with many more extremists, and potential terrorists, than any point in our history.
And, each of those terrorists might – on his own – his or her own, find and take the opportunity to carry out their own little terrorist attack in their own location using whatever resources are available to them. And, so that becomes a different problem to be solved – because, one, the set of tools you would use to disable and disrupt that individual are a lot different than the set of tools you would use to go after an al-Qaeda senior leadership resident in the tribal areas of Pakistan, for example.
And, I guess what I would say is what's made it particularly challenging for us in the intelligence community and in the counterterrorism community is that the latter phenomenon, that lone actor phenomenon, is proving to be additive – it is coming on top of – not at the expense of or in lieu of, that other plotting.
Richard Clarke: So, you have to worry about both.
Nicholas Rasmussen: You have to worry about both, you stretch capabilities thinner, you know you take analysts away from topics where the threat has [not] gone away, it just simply has been shoved aside a little bit, as other threat vectors have risen to the fore. And, so I can't remember the last time we had something kind of fall off the plate as not being of concern anymore – something you could take your felt-tip pen and just cross off the list and say "not a problem." It keeps becoming additive.
Richard Clarke: It gets bigger. If you go back to when you started in 2001 on terrorism – counterterrorism – our worry then was al-Qaeda, and over the course of many years, al-Qaeda has been significantly eroded -- [to audience] and know that if you look at the pictures in the White House Situation Room on the night that Bin Laden was killed, this guy’s standing there behind the President. You did a lot of damage to al-Qaeda, but it's still alive.
Nicholas Rasmussen: It is, and one of the things – I’m often given the opportunity to testify in front of the Congress –
Richard Clarke: It is such a great opportunity too isn’t it? I always loved that. [Laughter.]
Nicholas Rasmussen: And, I get a couple of very structured opportunities to do that every year alongside Director Comey and Secretary Jeh Johnson of Homeland Security. We testify in front of a number of different committees to describe the homeland threat picture that we face. And, as you can imagine, in recent years, that has been an ISIS or ISIL-driven conversation, both in our testimony but also in the kind of range of questions that come at us from the Members of Congress.
But, in my testimony, and in, certainly, in the, in the actual conversation with the – with the Members, I go to great lengths to try to bring them back to the – to the question of al-Qaeda, so that it's – we don't lose sight of the fact that we are still facing a pretty significant al-Qaeda threat.
Richard Clarke: Is it one that's – in the old al-Qaeda was as – we shorthanded it by calling it al-Qaeda Central, which was in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And it was very hierarchical, I mean there was a Shura Council with a limited number of people we knew who those people were – most of them are no longer alive. But, there's a new Shura Council, one hears. Is it still a hierarchical organization with central control?
Nicholas Rasmussen: Yes and no. I mean, there's no doubt but that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership structure has adapted and evolved over time. It is now not so exclusively focused on the tribal areas of Pakistan. it involves senior leaders from various al-Qaeda affiliate organizations to include those in on the – operating on the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, to include those operating in North Africa, AQIM, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, to include those operating in Syria - al-Jubhat al-Nusra, or as we talk about it often in the intelligence community, al-Qaeda operating in Syria. And, so what you have –
Richard Clarke: [They] keep changing their name in Syria –
Nicholas Rasmussen: And, we've written several memos inside the intelligence committee just trying to literally get our hands around a consistent nomenclature, because it's such a challenge. But, my point is what you have is the center of gravity of that al-Qaeda leadership shifting beyond South Asia, and perhaps becoming over time more Levant-centric. I wouldn't say that that's a light switch that has flipped entirely. That is something that may be happening over time –
Richard Clarke: But these cells in Africa and increasingly further south in Africa, in Yemen and Syria, there's a connectivity?
Nicholas Rasmussen: There's a degree of communication between al-Qaeda nodes and affiliates that perhaps didn't exist earlier because before it would go back to the center and then back out from the center. Now that kind of communication can look much more spaghetti like in the way those connections are being maintained. And that's not just a function of the way the leadership is functioning, but it's also I think just a recognition of what is true over time. Terrorists who’ve been operating in this clandestine network for well over 15 or 20 years have pretty full rolodexes and know how to maintain ties to each other even if they are occupying, you know, expanses of geography pretty far away from each other, so there's a less tightly controlled, or less tightly structured, command and control arrangement than perhaps we saw the in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
Richard Clarke: But, they're still – they’re still out there. and so Zawahiri, who is the titular head who took over after Bin Laden was killed, he's still out there somewhere, and one hears that he's trying to build another al-Qaeda branch in the subcontinent, and this is mainly Pakistan and in the slums of Karachi. And do we worry about that?
Nicholas Rasmussen: We do, because obviously if an al-Qaeda branch operating in South Asia can again prove capable of carrying out significant attacks against Pakistani or Afghan interests, or against Western interest in the, in South Asia, then that will contribute to the effort to restore al-Qaeda to the – what they believe is their rightful position at the forefront of the global jihad.
Richard Clarke: So, we need to worry about Pakistan.
Nicholas Rasmussen: So, we need to worry about that. You know for me it, as an amateur analyst -- and I say that because I, even though I lead an intelligence organization, I’m not a career intelligence analyst -- but I don't think it's too much of a reach to say that there's a bit of a pivot point that will come for al-Qaeda when Ayman al-Zawahiri is ultimately gone from the movement – whether he dies a natural death or is killed in a counterterrorism operation.
Richard Clarke: Hopefully the latter.
Nicholas Rasmussen: So that pivot point will up – will the center of gravity as I described earlier completely migrate outside of South Asia, focus on other safe havens, potentially the safe haven of greatest concern obviously being in the Levant right now –or will this distributed architecture that I described persist?
Richard Clarke: So al-Qaeda was always focused on what they called the far enemy, which was us. That seems to be less the case in the last five years?
Nicholas Rasmussen: Again, I'd say yes and no. I mean, if you look at particular al-Qaeda nodes – al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for example – obviously the political turmoil and Yemen – the fact that you have very difficult circumstances in Yemen right now in terms of the effort to create a unitary state. Al-Qaeda operating in Yemen is certainly looking to take advantage of that. Their priority, though, I would, I would argue that their priority continues to be to try to carry out attacks against Western targets and potentially including even the homeland.
And what's been – become more difficult over the last two to three years as the situation in Yemen has deteriorated, it's become more difficult for us to operate in Yemen and collect the kinds of intelligence that we would need to get out ahead of that. So, just the fact that you don't read about it as much as you used to, when you would read about aviation plotting emanating from Yemen, you know, that the Christmas Day bomber in 2009 –
Richard Clarke: ... doesn't mean it's not happening.
Nicholas Rasmussen: Doesn't mean it's not there, doesn't mean that the leadership doesn't aspire to do just exactly that. It just means that we face a much tougher intelligence challenge in collecting that intelligence.
Richard Clarke: Al-Qaeda in Yemen seems to be doing a very different approach toward governance, because it had some cities there for a while in the [inaudible] – still have some territory. And, their approach to governance as compared to Daesh was more participatory, taking into account the concerns of the community, whereas Daesh was much more imposing from the top down.
Nicholas Rasmussen: I think that's right. I think there was always an effort on the part of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to kind of take advantage of the fact they're operating inside a very traditional Yemeni tribal structure and to seek to capitalize on that.
Richard Clarke: I think they can provide some services the government couldn't.
Nicholas Rasmussen: I think over time they realize that the burden of running a quasi-state in even portions of Yemeni territory was a burden they didn't necessarily want to bear, and it became more of a – more of a burden than a boon – particularly as it – as it drained resources away from other parts of the organization that – that they might want to exploit to carry out the kind of external plotting I’m talking about. But that was it, that was in an atmosphere where the Yemeni state was a unitary state, and now we can't say that, so I think right now, along with our Gulf partners, we're trying very, very hard to make sure that AQAP, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, doesn't find a way to control territory in that way again.
Richard Clarke: Yeah, well I suspect everybody in the audience thought we'd start out talking about Daesh – Nick calls it ISIL because the administration and only the U.S. administration calls it ISIL. So, let's go there. Look, let's talk about them. There they were, an incredible phenomenon, seemingly coming out of nowhere, taking over several cities, large cities, and Libya and Iraq and in Syria – probably ruled millions of people at one point in time. It seems like the operations in Iraq - steady, systematic - are eroding their control of cities.
Mosul seems to be going faster maybe than the Iraqis had thought, and Secretary Carter says we're beginning to make shaping operations, whatever that means, around Raqqa in Syria. What happens – let’s assume for the sake of argument that this time, you know – three months from now, six months from now, they don't control any of those big cities. How does that change the nature of the threat, and how does that change the nature of their raison d'etre of their organization?
Nicholas Rasmussen: So in terms of the threat picture – the threat that Daesh/ISIL represents, particular to us here in the United States and – and I would argue more broadly to the West – does not change in the near term simply become – as a result of territorial setbacks inflicted upon Daesh. And that's something I've spoken openly about in public testimony and we've – we've talked about pretty openly. Over the last 18 months to two years, ISIL has devoted significant effort to creating a capability to carry out external operations – to look beyond Iraq and Syria and look to carry out operations against members of the coalition – Western targets – whatever you want to identify as the targets.
Richard Clarke: Does it need a safe haven for that external capability to work?
Nicholas Rasmussen: And, that's the point. That network that has been created will survive, or will – will certainly still exist even if the immediate safe haven they enjoy right now is disrupted. Now, we're spending a lot of time thinking and analyzing and assessing what happens to that network. Those into it to do – individuals who flowed to the region, to the conflict zone, return to their places of origin – be that Western Europe, be that the Gulf, be that North Africa. Do they look to move to another safe haven that could serve as kind of a center of gravity for ISIL?
I think there was some thought, at least then in some circles, that Libya might be that place, at an earlier stage. I don't know that I would argue that at present, but in my mind that kind of, the specific question of external plotting of the ability of ISIL leaders to reach out and organize, and deploy, and activate individuals to carry out attacks of the sort you saw in Brussels, in Paris, or to inspire individuals to carry out the kinds of attacks you've seen even here in the United States – that doesn't go away simply because physical location has been disrupted.
It will certainly make the project harder – so that the territorial – I don't wanna minimize that. The territorial success that the coalition and the Iraqi government is having against Mosul and ultimately the coalition and other partners hopefully will have against Raqqa, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for addressing that threat environment that we're dealing with.
Richard Clarke: It damages their brand, I would think right?
Nicholas Rasmussen: It damages their brand and you could certainly make the argument that it will reduce their ability to attract, motivate, and recruit foreign fighters, and you, as you know, the foreign fighter pipeline had been on a pretty steep upward curve for a long time.
Richard Clarke: And, maybe their money ...
Nicholas Rasmussen: And, maybe their money, but again even if you posited – just for the sake of argument – today the flow of foreign fighters stops right this minute – there's still a pretty big pool upon which to draw if you're an ISIL external operations plotter, and you're looking to set some kind of plotting in motion.
So, when we talked about this publicly I’ve tried to talk about a kind of a lag effect – that it will take a period of time, and I can't define what that period of time is, it will take a period of time before the success they were having collectively on the ground against Daesh in shrinking the size of the territory controlled by Daesh – before that translates into true shrinkage of the external threat that the group poses.
Richard Clarke: Is there is a risk that – because they've lost metropolitan areas, and their brand is damaged by that, is there a risk that they think they have to do something in the West to compensate for that – so that they prove they're still alive and well?
Nicholas Rasmussen: You know, there was a little bit of an analytic debate about this going back several months when the territorial reverses first started to accumulate, and you had some people, you know, even saying publicly, well now that they are suffering setbacks, they will pivot and start looking to do spectacular things outside of Iraq and Syria in order to burnish the brand, and make – you know, keep themselves relevant – sustain the notion that they are somehow winning. We never really bought that in the intelligence community because I think we had already concluded that Daesh, ISIS, ISIL was an organization that was moving down the path of wanting to carry out those kinds of Western attacks –
Richard Clarke: If they could do it, they're going to do it, doesn’t matter –
Nicholas Rasmussen: And, I think at an earlier stage we might have thought of it as being more sequential – something – first they will try to establish the Caliphate, and stabilize and solidify their hold on territory, and then at a later stage they will look to advance the global jihadist effort by carrying out these kind of external attacks – more sequential.
Well, those sequences kind of collapsed into each other. I think if we were – I push back on the idea that we were caught by surprise on many things involving Daesh or ISIL as an intelligence community, but I think we were fair – on record in doing a pretty good job of describing the growth of the organization, and the threat posed to institutions in Iraq. If there is something that we're probably a little – we thought we may have had more time on, than we ultimately proved, it was that Western plotting agenda which I think came upon us
Richard Clarke: Quicker –
Nicholas Rasmussen: More quickly than we perhaps anticipated – that pool of foreign fighters from European countries, even including from the United States, we thought would be, for a long time, on the ground fighting in the conflict zone –
Richard Clarke: They trained them and sent them back very quickly.
Nicholas Rasmussen: And, someday – that has happened more quickly. And, then again this is where even some of our success has worked against us – in that fighters who would have sought to go to the conflict zone a year ago or two years ago, now find out a much harder project. The United –
Richard Clarke: They’re even telling them stay home.
Nicholas Rasmussen: Yeah exactly, the amount of effort it takes, the amount of work that Western countries have put into the project of preventing that travel – now leaves those individuals in the position of staying at home, and they've received guidance, as you said, Dick, to carry out whatever action you can, using whatever tools you have within your reach. And, so in some ways, that has brought it – the homeland threat picture into a little sharper relief than it might have been if all these individuals were simply traveling to the conflict zone.
Richard Clarke: So, when you think about the homeland and Europe as a theater of operations for Daesh or al-Qaeda, what we, I, spend a lot of time thinking about is this notion of counter messaging, the war of – the battle of ideas, the war of ideas, which collectively is now under the heading "CVE," countering violent extremism. it seems to be working in some places, not working in others. Do you get the impression that there's a systematic network among Western governments that's sharing best practices, and .. ?
Nicholas Rasmussen: I think the way you framed the question is pretty much the diagnosis of what we're seeing. One of – I think the things we as a community, as the intelligence community, have concluded about countering violent extremism, CVE, efforts – is that it is a very – success is often a very localized phenomenon. What works in one environment, whether to make the metropolitan area, or a village, or a country, or any one place – what works in one area is not necessarily guaranteed to work in any other area.
And, that – I break it in my own mind into thinking about the work we do at home on this problem here inside the United States, and the work we and our partners are trying to do overseas on this. But, the common thread across both of those landscapes is that it looks different – success looks different almost everywhere you look.
Richard Clarke: But, there are successes.
Nicholas Rasmussen: But, there are successes. They tend to be in pockets – places you can point to and say "ah-hah, that is working well!" When it is working well – some of the common themes that seemed – that we seem to have drawn from those success stories is involvement of local stakeholders – actual community organizations who can deliver services, manage – in a sense, case management on the ground is essential to success.
Richard Clarke: It depends on the community itself, organizing –
Nicholas Rasmussen: Exactly, and so here in the United States a federally the – federal government and some set of programs that will be foisted upon a community –
Richard Clarke: Won’t work –
Nicholas Rasmussen: Won't work – so I think what we've concluded is we can do the most good by providing information and analysis, which [and] allows communities to know what they are dealing with – to be able to spot at an early stage, and hopefully conduct their own versions of intervention involving community leaders, religious leaders, educational leaders, and do so in an effort to get out ahead of law enforcement. Get to the point where this is not a problem where the FBI has had to open a case on an individual, and is now employing all of the investigative tools of the FBI. Because if we're at that point, chances are we're past the point where this is a collaboration effort between community and government, and it's much more at that point a – what are you doing to my son, arresting my son? So –
Richard Clarke: There's a sort of civil liberties issue here, and I know – I struggled with the maintaining our belief system in civil liberties, and also doing counterterrorism. I know the worst thing for counterterrorism is to track the radicalized individual who is simply exercising his own rights of freedom of expression, and wondering when is the switch going to flip? Do – when that person is going to go violent? And, the former state is legal, acceptable, there are lots of people who have radicalized views, and you can't tell when that switch is going to be flipped. And, you don't know, and when it – and when they switch that – flip that switch in their own mind, it may be a day or two before they do something.
Nicholas Rasmussen: Well, you know one of the NCTC, the National Counterterrorism Center, my, my team at NCTC, contributes to our CVE efforts in two ways. One of them, the first of them, is kind of the foundational analysis analytical work that helps us understand just that process – how does a person move from being a consumer, but a passive consumer of extremist material in an online environment, or in some other environment –
Richard Clarke: Which is legal –
Nicholas Rasmussen: Which is legal, and actually, we wouldn't have the resources as an intelligence community or as law enforcement to follow everybody who consumes extremist material, even if we had the desire to do that. But, the kind of study that – the way we have looked at that process of transformation from simply passive consumption, to mobilization, to violence, to actually taking an overt act – what we've learned is that there is no single one pathway or timeline that tells you when things will be triggered.
But, if there is a common factor, and I think we – working along with FBI – some of the experts in the behavioral analysis world at FBI, and with our own social scientists, including psychologist at my organization – one of the things we've determined is that in the vast majority of the cases of homegrown violent extremists who have done – who moved in that direction, and ultimately look to carry something violent out, there was one common factor.
And, that common factor was that there was a bystander – there was somebody along the way who, upon reflection, in the aftermath said, "I actually did think something was not right – I actually did wonder if that person was headed in the wrong direction." And, in some cases, that person says, "I wish I had done something." In some cases that person says, "I don't know what I could have done" – because if the only option might have appeared to be calling the police, or the FBI, that's not always a palatable option for a family member. But, that bystander phenomenon is, I think, the insight that is giving us the kind of – the directional pointer for how to do domestic CVE here in the United States. If we can find ways to empower with information, people who might fit into that bystander category. A coach, a teacher, a colleague, a friend, a cousin, an uncle, a parent –
Richard Clarke: And, if there's someone they can go to other than the FBI –
Nicholas Rasmussen: Exactly, and –
Richard Clarke: That's a big jump.
Nicholas Rasmussen: And, that is a big jump. And I think right now what if there's – an area which needs the most development in the CVE realm, it's the how do we construct intervention models that work? Intervention models that allow a community to kind of sit around a conference table and figure out who's got the right set of tools to react to this person's potential move towards extremism. Again, is that a social service provider, is that a religious organization, is that an NGO that has sprung up and is doing great work to try to – to play in this arena? And I’m – from my perspective sitting in Washington, the thing we're lacking right now is resources – because I think a lot of those things take money, and so the more we can do to resource community organizations that were going to be positive players, the better.
But, the other thing we're lacking, and I think we're trying to address it – is, who is the natural quarterback for that conversation? Or, the convener – so that when somebody comes to the attention of local authorities who might fit into this category of being someone who might act – who calls the meeting and says let's sit around the table?
Richard Clarke: Right.
Nicholas Rasmussen: You know, it's unfair to ask FBI in some ways to be that provider of social services.
Richard Clarke: Oh no, ideally it's the imam, or someone in the, in the community, but you can’t always count on that. So, the British are doing a lot of work in this field, too. And, it looks like they're getting some progress. Generally, when you look at the European response to Daesh, most of the external Daesh activity has been in Europe and has been horrific. The Europeans – from an outside perspective, Europeans look a little ragged in their response.
Nicholas Rasmussen: I love the leading questions –
Richard Clarke: Just commenting; wasn’t even a question.
Nicholas Rasmussen: Well, there's no question that Europe is facing a terrorism environment and landscape that is dramatically different than it was two years ago. And, so while we've always had strong effective counterterrorism partnerships with a handful of European countries, with whom we work very closely on all intelligence matters, it wasn't the case that we had kind of a across-the-continent counterterrorism effort – kind of woven together with all of the partners working together. And, that's kind of what's required now.
Richard Clarke: They don't seem to be talking to each other either.
Nicholas Rasmussen: And again, I think you can think about this at a couple different levels. The kind of the baseline challenge of sharing intelligence information among services – security services of different countries, and that I think generally moves and works pretty well when it's in bilateral channels. The harder or the wider the group, the harder it gets, and especially when countries are asked to share information on their nationals, that becomes a sensitive topic, and something they only want to do in the in the smallest, tightest of groups.
So, that kind of information sharing I think is happening pretty effectively, though not without some challenges. The harder thing is something that we had to address ourselves in the wake of 9/11. And that is, how do you move information across the divide between law enforcement organizations and intelligence organizations.
Richard Clarke: Within one government.
Nicholas Rasmussen: Within one government. And, there are some cases I've seen where partners have shared information with us because they knew we would feed it to somewhere else even in their own system that they couldn't. Just an elaborate, or not so elaborate, workaround of their own legal structures and parameters. And so, you know it took 9/11 for us to break down the wall between law enforcement and intelligence information. And obviously, Europe hasn't experienced anything on that scale. And, I think among the group of career professional security officers who are in, you know, positions of leadership – they get that that's a comparative right now.
But, finding the ways for their parliaments or their legislators to kind of catch up and enable that kind of sharing of information – that may take time. And, I was saying to Dick when we were having a conversation beforehand – when you think about even in the United States – the fact that it took us 5, 10, and now 15 years after 9/11, just inside the United States, to rationalize the sharing of information among the federal government with state [and] local governments that we work with day-in and day-out. One can only imagine how much harder it is in a European environment, where they are working in a Schengen system where they have one common border, where they have federal authorities, state authorities, European Parliament to deal with, European Council to deal with. The number of institutions involved in decision-making is just that much more –
Richard Clarke: And, much higher protections for privacy rights and civil liberties.
Nicholas Rasmussen: Exactly, though that is ground I’m reluctant to seed sometimes because that somehow implies we Americans don't ourselves value civil liberties and protection of civil rights in the same way that – you know and some – to be lectured in that regard sometimes –
Richard Clarke: No. Having [at] President Obama's request reviewed the internal procedures at NSA – I can assure you it's very very difficult to get permission for – I say to get permission to monitor in America. But, let's look – this is great and you and I could go on for five hours, but if we did we'd have to open a beer. I know there are people in the audience who are dying to ask you questions, so we've got two microphones, I think, am I right? That's certainly one here – if you line up – and if you could please state your name, and if you have an affiliation before you ask the question. And, try to make it a question and not a speech. If you're making the speech, I’ll cut you off. Do you just have this one? I guess okay – yes sir. Can we get the sound on this mic? Try again, that works.
Audience member: I’m Ruhal Usla from your Virginia International University. By training, I'm a Turkish terrorism expert. I’m wondering – in the Middle East in recent years, some politicians are using anti-Americanism as – for domestic purposes. I was wondering whether you see any correlation between anti-American political rhetoric and jihadism – direct correlation between these two – and I’m gonna – thank you.
Nicholas Rasmussen: Well, I’m not sure I would restrict it narrowly to anti-American rhetoric. I think it took two – to the degree that there are anti-western or anti-coalition kind of themes being put out by your government leaders in a particular country – yes that can kind of spur people to, particularly if – those individuals are predisposed to hold those views anyway. I mean, obviously that the Daesh narrative –as does the al-Qaeda narrative, kind of hinges pretty dramatically on the [inaudibel] way in which US foreign policy is portrayed.
Our objectives in the Middle East, our objectives with respect to the Muslim world more broadly, and so to the extent – and I think as we think about our own counterterrorism actions, we’re always conscious of not doing anything to contribute to that narrative in ways that we don't have to.
Richard Clarke: Which is hard –
Nicholas Rasmussen: Which is hard – I mean particularly when you're relying on drone activities, sometimes one makes mistakes. If you weren't using drones – if you're using something else, it would be a lot worse. And, I think the questions of hard power versus soft power are always challenging when you're talking about trying to affect the narrative that terrorist organizations are using it against us. But, I would just urge that when people think this through, there’s usually a trade-off involved. And, that trade-off is always going to look a little different to – or differently to an administration – who feels like its first obligation is to prevent specific acts of terror from being launched against Americans. And, either in the homeland or in a serving – or living overseas, and so –
Richard Clarke: That's the burden. The burden – I felt the burden that you feel every night is what – you know what mistake have I made that I – what did I overlook, what did I not know about that's going to cause me to wake up at 3:00 in the morning – the phone call that some horrific attack has just occurred. That weighs on you, and that's the – your most important driver.
Nicholas Rasmussen: And, it does create a bias in favor of action when you believe you have sound information on which to base that actually.
Richard Clarke: Absolutely, next question.
Roy Gutman: Yes, Roy Gutman, I’m a freelance journalist based in Turkey. A question about – two questions about Syria. Is there any relationship in your mind between the government of Syria and Daesh? They’ve been operating since 2013 – pretty much with impunity in Syria – they've got a safe haven in Raqqa, even to this day from the government. The government almost never involved them, even when they had the black flags up in front of the governor – government offices there. An awful lot of Syrians at every level, including a lot of [defecting] senior intelligence people, say that there is a relationship, and they say, in fact, that the government has penetrated Daesh. Do you think that that's true?
The second question relates to something that's been in the news the last couple days – that is the – what's called the Jaish Fatah al-Shaam, the successor organization to Nusra. The U.S. government seems to contend that they are plotting in Syria against international targets, including the United States. And, that the Khorasan group is there and inactive. But, I don't know any Syrians in this group that I – people that I’m mentioning here – or even outsiders who know very much about anything – that I've seen any sign that JFAS is actually doing these plotting. Can you comment on that?
Richard Clarke: Good questions, we got them.
Nicholas Rasmussen: Okay, the first one’s kind of easy to answer because I'm just – I'm not aware of any information that would suggest a Daesh – I mean a Daesh –
Richard Clarke: It’s considered a conspiracy theory that's out there. You know, those of us who work in the Middle East, we never have conspiracy theories, but occasionally one slips into the Middle East. And, there's a conspiracy theory that because they don't bomb Raqqa – because you know, they’re busy using all their bombers somewhere else, but that's the theory.
Nicholas Rasmussen: With respect to the second set of questions about a Jabat al-Nusra, the kind of the renaming of the organization, and to what degree the organization may be outwardly focused on plotting against the West, or at least actors outside Syria. I think we've been pretty clear about saying that that the renaming and the reorganizing and the rebranding is simply that – a fairly transparent effort to hide the ball on the fact that this particular set of actors – yes, be a Syrian opposition as they are – also view themselves, or at least leadership views themselves very much as being a part of the al-Qaeda global movement. And, so – and we know plenty about what the aspirations are of al-Qaeda in terms of its global agenda. I'm not trying to simplify it and make it sound like I'm painting with one, you know, insanely broad-brush. I just think it's – just a matter of logic.
Now, you could make the argument that there's a prioritization process going on in which the organization has to devote resources to advancing their agenda as an opposition organization going after the Assad regime – trying to bring down Assad. And, what, how, that stacks up in the kind of daily racking and stacking of priorities that they have alongside the priority –
Richard Clarke: But, they do have an external –
Nicholas Rasmussen: But, they do have an external operations agenda, and I can't say much more than that without getting into the areas I can't. But, it is something we worry about and watch pretty closely.
Audience Member: Muhammad [inaudible], a Fulbright fellow from Yemen. My question is that it seems like the counterterrorism – its focus only, or mainly in the intelligence and military operations. It seems like it's missing the country and the narratives – it's fighting the extremism. After they've been recruited, or being a member of these groups – how do you value the contribution of our Muslim countries in the middle east of countering the narratives of the country, and narrative of the radical groups? Thank you.
Nicholas Rasmussen: It's a good question, and I mean how do we value it? I think we it receives maximum value from those of us in the counterterrorism profession because from our perspective the more effective – if we could achieve greater effect in the effort to prevent radicalization, we certainly would be dealing with much less of a terrorism problem than we are.
I think what we have found though, at least this is me speaking personally, is that when you're sitting in Washington, and you're trying to devise strategies to try to deal with the problem of extremism in a foreign country, sometimes the tools we have are fairly limited, and so are our best opportunities in most cases – come from empowering governments in the region to do more themselves –
Richard Clarke: Empowering [inaudible], I mean you're also saying to some of them you know – you're not doing enough.
Nicholas Rasmussen: Yeah exactly, and again there's a short-term/long-term problem here because – the kind of programming that goes on all across our government in areas outside of the intelligence community that supports these kinds of efforts is usually not programming that has near-term payoff. The kinds of programs that we as Americans can support in countries where extremism is a problem are usually tied to good governance, rule of law, doesn't – I hesitate to say democratization, but focused on rule of law and good governance as a means of decreasing the attractiveness of the of the extremist narrative.
Richard Clarke: But be asked about messaging, counter messaging. Is the U.S. government any good at counter messaging?
Nicholas Rasmussen: Again, this is an area where my 15 years of experience that you hearkened – or you hailed in the intro, Dick, kind of gives me a great deal of humility and modesty about how well we do this. And, so we seem to have much greater success when we find partners who we can enable and empower rather than dealing with this with a U.S. government brand on it.
Richard Clarke: That's probably a mature U.S. response, right?
Nicholas Rasmussen: But, unfortunately it – you know any time you were working through partners, it's things don’t move as quickly as you would like. You don't achieve results as quickly as you would like. It’s harder to demonstrate where – you know action by us has resulted in success over here, so it ends up being important but frustrating work. So, messaging is important, but we look to our allies and partners to do a lot of the spadework.
David Russell: Thank you both for a great discussion. My name is David Russell; I'm an intern at the Middle East Institute. My question also regards Jaish Fatah al-Shaam and kind of debate over whether it's focused more on the near enemy now then it is in the far enemy. Because I think that it really does represent a shift in al-Qaeda’s of mentality from, you know, focus on the far enemy being more internationally based – internationally focused organization – with the rebranding of Jubhat al-Nusra, Jaish Fatah al-Shaam it's abandoning its international ties to al-Qaeda, at least officially. And with al-Qaeda’s approval to integrate itself better with the other local actors in the Syrian revolution.
So, at least in the short term it seems like they are focused more on a near enemy. And, so what do you think the reasons are for this shift? Why have they shifted more towards focusing on a near enemy, focusing on local goals, and local actors? And, doesn't have anything to do perhaps with the rise of Isis as is an attempt to distinguish themselves from the Islamic state?
Nicholas Rasmussen: Again, I guess I don't necessarily buy a hundred percent the premise of the question, because again the rebranding of the organization to me does not represent a fundamental change in its objectives. It simply speaks prioritization in the kind of near and medium-term. And so this is – it’s hard to say much more about this because this is a really challenging and difficult intelligence question that we're spending a lot of time trying to gain greater fidelity on. And, I'll just kind of leave it there. We are spending a lot of time trying to figure out where the threats of greatest concern – the threats of the greatest eminence emanate from.
And, as you know, I talked about earlier we already face a very difficult and acute threat environment tied to Daesh, and so it's important that we not kind of lose sight of other – especially al-Qaeda-linked threat activity that could come our way. So, you know, from a resource perspective it would be easy to say "ah hah, that stuff tied to al-Qaeda operating Syria is an over the horizon problem because they're focused on in the near-term on dealing with the regime, so, let’s not worry about it."
Richard Clarke: But, you can't say that.
Nicholas Rasmussen: But, we could wake up one day and find that picture had flipped – that's switch had flipped overnight.
Richard Clarke: It was fairly transparent rebranding – I mean did they really think that just by changing their name we would –nothing else happened – like they took the sign down and anyway.
Audience Member: Staffa Malol [?], I’m a journalist and researcher here in Washington. My question is about the source or sources of terrorism. During the colonial era, and immediate aftermath, America was the only good western country in many Muslim countries because American presidents criticized European colonialism. France and Britain were hated universally. So, what's happened in the last 30 years or so that certainly in the same societies anti-Americanism and anti-American terrorism has spiked. Has something happened to the Quran madrassas in Islam? Or, American policy has something to do that contributes to it.
Richard Clarke: Why don’t I answer that?
Nicholas Rasmussen: Yeah.
Richard Clarke: It is difficult to ask an administration official to criticize American policy, so let me – let me take that one. Look, it's obviously the answer your question is both – you know both a radicalization in the – some of the countries involved here where there was an increased program of teaching a radical view of Islam. And, attempt – an overt attempt to spread that radical view, and it succeeded. in addition to which, there were American responses to things that happened in the region and things that happened to the united states that provoked resentment – beginning with the first Gulf War.
The fact that the United States dropped a half million troops on the Arabian Peninsula to save a – an Arab country that had been invaded and occupied – but nonetheless the fact that half a million U.S. troops showed up created some resentment some quarters. After 9/11, some of the tactics that were used by the United States were very counterproductive and certainly fueled further terrorism. So, I think the answer to your question is both.
Audience Member: My name is Hani Aldeep [?], I’m on educational – sorry - I'm an educator and consultant of Egyptian American origins. My question is during the elections, in Mr. Trump advocated claim that is very popular actually in Arab countries – which is that President Obama and Secretary Clinton founded that [inaudible]. And, before that, Secretary Clinton said I think in a briefing to Congress that President Reagan founded al-Qaeda.
So, there is a belief you know – in in the Arab countries – that actually the United States is the one who founded you know, these terrorist organizations. And, then we are fighting them at the same time. So, the question is – is it a matter of one branch of the government creating terrorist organizations, and then the other branch fighting them? Or, is our fight – anti-terrorist fight not credible really? I mean, how do you see that?
Nicholas Rasmussen: You’ll not be surprised to find that during a period of transition I will be choosing words carefully –
Audience Member: About I think –
Richard Clarke: Let me rephrase the question –
Nicholas Rasmussen: But, even as a matter of intelligence, I don't think we ever looked at Daesh as being formed in some way as an outgrowth of anything – any steps that the United States –
Richard Clarke: But, we know – we know who created al-Qaeda, we know where they created, when they created, we know who created Daesh – when and where. And, they were not anywhere connected to the United States. And, you know again, the Middle East is a great place for conspiracy theories, and it's incredible to me sometimes how many people fall in the Middle East – fall for these, what I would call whack-a-doodle theories, but they do, and then and even some very senior people do. We need to get away from the absence of facts in our analysis and try to be more fact-based when we see conspiracies like that – conspiracy theories like that. We just need to – all of us have an obligation to shut them down, because there's just nothing about those theories that's true.
Audience Member: Peter Apree [?], I’m an analyst, a broadcaster, and a former diplomat. My tremendous fear is that the clouds are within center of gravity of the jihadist problem is the Quran itself. There’s 100 profoundly bad senses in there, and anybody who abides by every sentence in the Quran is a jihadist. And, my fear is that we will be stuck with this problem until we find a way to address this closet within in center of gravity. So, I'm wondering – how do we get the rest of Islam to sort of ignore the hundred senses, and why isn't the CIA and State Department engaged in information operations that quote other portions of the Quran to try and negate these horrible passages within the book?
Nicholas Rasmussen: Well, I'm not going to speak about what information operations the CIA may or may not be engaged in, but I guess what I would say is without necessarily granting the premise of the question, I will say that one of the things we're thinking about inside the government is post-Daesh, just as there was a post core al-Qaida that, now Daesh is at the forefront of this problem that we're dealing with – and there will be a post dash period and there may be some other form of extremist terrorist movement that takes the fore in the – in the broader Sunni world. We don't know what that is yet, but my question I've asked our analysts to think about is, does that – is there an endpoint to the arc of Sunni-tied extremist ideology? Is there – is there something about it that naturally contains the seeds of its own destruction, so that ultimately it consumes itself like fire, and burns itself out?
Or, is it something so – tied so tightly to political and social conditions in a part of the world that is struggling with change – that we're going to be dealing with it for decades, if not generations. That’s a big analytical question, and it's a question we're asking not just to inform your – help inform the next – for the incoming administration's counterterrorism strategy, but just to help us think about this as a problem. Is this – we've talked about it as being a generational problem – something we're going to be dealing with for a long time, but what do we mean by that? And, so I don't expect out of this analysis will come immediate prescriptions, but I think at least reaching some judgments about whether this is a problem that's even subject to intervention from outside, if you will.
Richard Clarke: Yeah, they get – it gets back to the only old question of is terrorism caused by socioeconomic conditions – poverty, unemployment, lack of participation in government. Or, is it caused by beliefs, religious beliefs, misinterpretations of the Koran and what not?
Audience Member: They’re not really misinterpretations; I mean they’re pretty clear.
Richard Clarke: I don't want to debate it, but the question is – isn't ideological element, and then there's sociological economic argument – when we looked at the 9/11 terrorists, they were not people who were suffering socio-economic deprivation. They were they were sort of upper middle class. Now, when we look at the whole body of terrorism, we find some poor people, some upper middle class people. It seems to be – so the argument that it's just ideology, I think, probably isn't true, but also the argument that it's because of poverty and political exclusion probably isn't true either. It's a combination of some of these.
Nicholas Rasmussen: Again, we've studied this more intently with the more accessible population to us, which is the number of homegrown violent extremists that I talked about earlier – when I talked about the bystander phenomena, and unfortunately that, looking at that population, that kind of mix of factors to include everything you just described it, but also mental health, family situation – you know that the stew ends up being a little bit different in almost every case. And, so picking out what the causal element was –
Richard Clarke: It's pretty clear that some of the U.S. recent cases were mental health problems.
Nicholas Rasmussen: So, it just – unfortunately what that does is make it very difficult to devise strategies that will address, you know, address all of the cases that we might encounter.
Richard Clarke: Last question.
Audience Member: My name is Yayaf Nusea with United States of Africa, 2017 project task force. Came to this country 1967 and now always tell Americans – as well as government official that I meet – if you don't go stop interfering in areas where people don't look like you, you'll be alright.
Richard Clarke: Well, thank you for that advice.
Nick, I really, on behalf of Ambassador Chamberlin and the MEI team, Kate and Paul and everybody here – can't thank you enough for coming and spending the time. we've been up here an hour, but it means by the time you get back to the office, it will have been the three or four hours off work, and I was serious when I said I know that means you're going to be there late tonight – because I know how tough the job is. I did it for 10 years; you’ve now done it for 15. I don’t know how you do it – just on behalf of the American people; I really want to thank you.
Nicholas Rasmussen: Thank you, Dick
[End of Audio]
Duration: 60 minutes