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Links Between the Iraq War and 'The Next Attack'

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Links Between the Iraq War and 'The Next Attack'

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Links Between the Iraq War and 'The Next Attack'

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now a disquieting answer to the question: Are we winning the war against terrorism? Daniel Benjamin used to work on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration. He and Steven Simon have written their second book about counterterrorism post-9/11. It's called "The Next Attack," and Daniel Benjamin's answer to the question `Are we winning against the terrorists?' is an emphatic no.

Mr. DANIEL BENJAMIN (Author, "The Next Attack"): We know we're not winning the war by looking at a variety of factors that suggest there is, in fact, a gathering storm out there of jihadists, antipathy and, in fact, violence. For example, we see a growing number of groups that have essentially picked up the al-Qaeda ideology without being connected directly, either organizationally or even by communications often with al-Qaeda. We see these in Europe: the Madrid cell is the classic case of this, the one that blew up the trains in 2004; the London cell, which carried out the bombings in the subways. We've seen it even in Pakistan, where there is an established jihadist infrastructure.

There are other indicators as well. We see that there is a large group of people who are increasingly attracted to the jihadist Internet. We also see the spread of Islamist violence in an area where there wasn't much, and that is, incidentally, the Middle East. We have seen a jihadist revival in Syria, a country that didn't have it for 20 years or so--did not have Islamist activity because it had been crushed in the early '80s violently. We've seen the spread of bomb technology from Iraq to Saudi Arabia. And perhaps most importantly, we see a jihad under way in Iraq and the establishment of a jihadist sanctuary in western Iraq.

SIEGEL: But what you're describing is not merely the growth of the al-Qaeda directed organization chaired by Osama bin Laden, deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. You're talking about groups that are simply cropping up...

Mr. BENJAMIN: Yes. They're...

SIEGEL: ...without connection to that ...(unintelligible).

Mr. BENJAMIN: ...inspired by the ideas that bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri espouse, and they view them as being global leaders. But they have no direct connection to them, and so they're acting on their own. They're acting because now you can self-enlist as a terrorist using all the information available to you over the Internet.

SIEGEL: But of all the places that you list where we see jihadists or jihadism on the rise--didn't mention New York. You didn't mention the Pentagon or Los Angeles or Chicago. So in that sense there hasn't been a repeat of the sort of attack we witnessed on 9/11.

Mr. BENJAMIN: No, that's definitely a success story, but we shouldn't make the same mistake that we made in the late '90s of ignoring what's going on overseas. We have been fortunate not to be hit again. We think there are a number of reasons. One is that it is--we are a more vigilant country because of what happened on 9/11. It is also harder to get in here. American Muslims, to a certain extent, have rejected the jihadist idea, but it's also true that the global jihad is getting what it needs in Iraq.

SIEGEL: As far as you're concerned, you and your co-author Steven Simon, you believe that the war in Iraq was a distraction from the war against terrorism.

Mr. BENJAMIN: At a minimum it was a distraction. In many ways it was a big step backwards because it gave the jihadists an enormous present. It confirmed their narrative to much of the Muslim world--that is, bin Laden and his followers say, `The United States is our eternal enemy, wants to occupy our countries, destroy our faith and steal our wealth.' And because we went into Iraq, we allowed them to point at Iraq and say, `You see, we were right,' and that has made real inroads in the Muslim world.

SIEGEL: You write about the enclave in the north of Iraq where prior to the US invasion a terrorist group had set up. And the discussion that went on--the debate went on about what to do about Ansar al-Islam operating from this little nook of what we think of as the Kurdish north of Iraq.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Yes, there was a camp in a place called Kremol(ph), and the camp belonged to a Kurdish jihadist group, but the person who had affiliated with them was none other than Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who's gone on to be the face of the insurgency in Iraq. We had very good intelligence about what was going on there. We know that they were, for example, making ricin, the biological agent that has been used in a number of conspiracies. The...

SIEGEL: And this was happening on Iraqi soil but with a big proviso attached to it.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, it was Iraqi soil in a technical sense, but it was in the autonomous Kurdish enclave under our protection. It was from the air. And as a result, the Pentagon, the uniformed military, was eager to strike at this enclave and thought that that was what the war on terror was about. And twice the proposal was put forward to strike it, and twice the administration declined.

SIEGEL: When was this happening? In what years are we talking about?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, it happened, I believe, in 2002 and again, I believe, in 2003. Certainly the first time in 2002 is the critical moment because it hadn't leaked in the press yet that we were watching this. But the curious thing was not--first, the administration declined to take out this camp, and second of all, that, you know, we were just watching Zarqawi, completely misunderstanding what he was doing there. It was clear that he was preparing his insurgency, but because the administration was so focused on what it considered the greater threat of Saddam, we just gave them a pass.

SIEGEL: A tremendous amount has happened since 9/11: I mean, two foreign wars, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, reorganization of intelligence. Your account of all this is not terribly encouraging about how much less vulnerable we might be after all this has happened. Some glimmer of improvement here, something you can say about something that's been gotten right since 2001?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, our biggest advantage is, of course, that we're now a nation aware of the threat. Now one of the concerns we voice is that the lights are kind of going out on this and the polling indicates that people are less concerned about terror than before, but there certainly has been institutionalized a big concern. I think we've lost an enormous amount of time organizing and reorganizing ad infinitum, and the recent press accounts of the turmoil at the Department of Homeland Security, I think, are very much to the point. I think that at least now there is the basis for building on that concern and a recognition of the threat, but we are so far down the wrong road in terms of dealing with this threat that it will take some mighty efforts to get ourselves going on the right road.

SIEGEL: Daniel Benjamin, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BENJAMIN: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Daniel Benjamin, along with Steven Simon, is an author of "The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right."

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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