Michael Scheuer

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Michael Scheuer

The Diplomat contributor Michael Scheuer is a best-selling author and the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit. He shares his thoughts with us on Afghanistan, Bin Laden’s current status and the importance of questioning the rhetoric of Western leaders.

You’ve served as head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit. Do you think Bin Laden’s capture would have had any impact on what has happened in Afghanistan?

Timing is the critical component here. If Bin Laden had been captured or killed before 9/11, he would have been remembered by Muslims as yet another Arab radical who failed in challenging and hurting the United States. Though al-Qaeda (AQ) had attacked the United States half a dozen times before 9/11, the attacks fell roughly into the category of ‘traditional’ terrorist attacks. Then, after 9/11, when the plausibility of Bin Laden and AQ being a genuine national security threat to the United States became apparent, the US military had the chance to capture or kill Bin Laden at Tora Bora but failed to do so.

Had the US military succeeded at Tora Bora, the view in the Muslim world would have been that Bin Laden and AQ seriously challenged and hurt the United States, but really to no avail because the United States then simply reached out and squashed them. When he exited Tora Bora as a living mujahid and not a dead terrorist, however, he became a symbol of hope among Muslims who viewed US foreign policy as an attack on their faith and was seen by them as what Bin Laden himself called a ‘strong horse’ who had successfully defended Islam—something, it’s worth noting, no Muslim government had proven itself willing or able to do.

Bin Laden’s ability to elude capture or death at the hands of the world’s only superpower since he declared war on America in August, 1996, also has made him in the minds of many Muslims a kind of ‘destiny’s child’ for whom providence has some special task in mind. Many in the West will scoff at this as religious mumbo jumbo, but that’s only because we in the West are largely ignorant of our own history. The symbolic power and impact of Bin Laden’s survival, for example, ought to ring loud alarm bells in the minds of Americans, if so many weren’t ignorant of their own history.

George Washington, the greatest American, lived the life of a soldier before and during the French and Indian Wars and during the American Revolution. Revolutionary-era Americans came to view Washington’s battlefield performances and subsequent survival as a clear sign that providence intended him for special work and achievements. Washington’s leadership in holding the nascent United States together through the formation of the Constitution and two presidential terms was supported virtually unanimously by Americans because they believed he was indeed the ‘strong horse.’ It’s at our own peril that we scoff at the potential of leaders who are perceived—as is Bin Laden—by large numbers of their brethren as marked by providence for greatness.

How important do you think Bin Laden remains to al-Qaeda?

Bin Laden remains the key AQ leader and the chief inspirer and instigator of jihad in the world. Many US and other world leaders have portrayed his relative silence over the last several years as a sign that he is no longer functioning as AQ’s day-to-day leader, but that is only because Bin Laden recognizes the power of silence. His importance also has been blurred, for Americans at least, by Bush and Obama, who have sworn to Americans that Bin Laden’s ‘running from rock to rock, and cave to cave’ and can’t ‘communicate with his fighters.’ This is pure Hollywood nonsense. Anyone with a lick of sense knows that if Bin Laden was moving frequently he would be dead, as moving insurgents are very prone to making mistakes that give their positions away and lead to a drone or some other lethal attack on them. In terms of his ability to communicate, I’ve never understood why no journalist has ever asked Bush or Obama whether they have been in a Radio Shack store in the last 20 years and seen what sort of satellite communications equipment is available off the shelf. Asking this question once would make sure that no US government official would ever again make the silly claim that Bin Laden cannot communicate with his fighters.

Is there anything looking back you wish you’d done differently with the Bin Laden Unit?

Not really. The officers that I had the honour to lead, with the unstinting and courageous cooperation of their colleagues deployed overseas, completed the mission assigned to them by the president of the United States and his national security advisers. The latter refused to act on the intelligence they had in hand—which was more than sufficient to capture or kill Osama bin Laden—because of a combination of moral cowardice; a stark fear of media and European criticism; the need to avoid alienating Arab tyrannies who supply our oil and buy our arms and debt; and a desperate desire to avoid doing anything that would hurt the chances of keeping the White House in Democratic hands. The foregoing will be fully validated when the 9/11 Commission’s archive is opened to the public.

You’re now a professor at Georgetown University. Was there anything particularly challenging about the transition from high-level government service to lecturing?

I actually don’t do a lot of formal lecturing. My approach has been to design a course that involves a great deal of reading in the primary AQ sources that have been translated from Arabic and other languages, with the goal of giving the student a broad opportunity to see what the Islamists say about themselves and their goals, rather than what Western politicians and pundits say about them. To be sure, there are readings by leading Western analysts—Richard Betts, Robert Pape, Martin Lings, Peter Bergen, Martin van Creveld, Ralph Peters and others—but the great bulk of the course’s readings are authored by AQ or other Islamist writers and such fine Muslim writers and journalists as Amin Maloof, Abd-al-Bari Atwan, Ahmed Zaydan, and Rahimullah Yusufzai. This approach is meant to give students a chance to view the world through the ‘enemies’’ eyes, and, more important, to see that not only does the enemy have a vote in how this conflict will turn out, but that a victory by America and the West is no sure thing as long as Western leaders deceive themselves and their populations about the Islamists’ motivation.

You’ve obviously had, and perhaps still have, access to information and sources of a very sensitive nature. As a writer, how hard is it to draw the line between what should remain confidential and what you should share?

On the subject of Bin Laden, AQ, and their allies it’s not very hard at all. Not since Ho Chi Minh and General Giap has America had enemies who so clearly and repeatedly describe their motivation, how they intend to proceed, and how they will measure the success of their campaign. The mass of statements, interviews, speeches and essays that have been produced by Bin Laden, his lieutenants, and AQ’s media organization (al-Sahab) tell Americans all they need to know about this enemy.

The hardest part of exploiting this material is encountering the students and people who attend my public talks or read my books who’ve trusted Clinton, Bush and Obama to teach them about the nature and motivation of America’s Islamist enemy. A good portion of these individuals truly believe that the United States is being attacked because of its freedoms, liberties, gender equality, Christianity, elections, etc, and not for what the US government does overseas. It’s only on reading what Bin Laden, et al have said and written that they begin to question what’s been told them by their last three presidents and begin to realize that Bin Laden represents an international Islamist movement that is much larger, more lethal, and more genuinely motivated by faith than the nonexistent small group of ‘thugs, criminals, cowards, and nihilists’ described by Clinton, Bush and Obama.