Intelligence on the NIE

Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit, refutes the NIE’s contention that Al-Qaeda’s Iraq presence has any bearing on the group’s international planning.

Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's Bin Laden unit, analyzes the conclusions of the National Intelligence Estimate, refuting its contention that Al-Qaeda's Iraq presence has any bearing on the group's international planning and that the Iranians have been more active than "key Sunni regimes" in supporting their proxy militias in Iraq. In an interview with National Interest online editor, Ximena Ortiz, Scheuer also said that in broad strokes, the document provides an impressively frank description of the dire conditions in Iraq.

NIo: According to the NIE, one of the potential consequences of a rapid withdrawal from Iraq would be that Al-Qaeda "would attempt to use parts of the country, particularly Al-Anbar province, to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq." How do you balance that threat against the recruitment advantages that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq gives Al-Qaeda?

MS: I think there's been a fundamental misunderstanding of what Al-Qaeda saw in Iraq from the beginning. They saw an opportunity certainly to kill Americans. They welcomed Washington's blind effort that resulted in clerics all over the world calling for defensive jihad against the Americans in exactly the words that Bin Laden and Zawahiri have used.

But most of all, Al-Qaeda derives from our invasion of Iraq an opportunity to push its center of activities 1,000 kilometers westward. They saw Iraq as contiguous territory from which to launch attacks and infiltration to the Arabian Peninsula, into Turkey and into the Levant, and eventually, into Lebanon and Israel. And so, I think that idea had stood from the beginning but people didn't look at it from Al-Qaeda's perspective.

Bin Laden of course grew up in the Afghan War and has consistently said over the years: "I can't attack the Israelis because I don't have contiguous territory." He also pointed to that reason in explaining why they couldn't get to Bosnia, because they couldn't base in Catholic Croatia or Orthodox Serbia. And so Iraq fulfills one of his ambitions, which is to have safe-haven for his people to get into the Levant, as I said Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula.

America's "Disastrous Position"

NIo: In terms of your first point, in terms of seeing an opportunity to kill Americans, if the Americans are no longer there, that opportunity would no longer exists. But on your second point, has Al-Qaeda been able to, in your view, establish that contiguous territory?

MS: Certainly the Israelis are claiming that they've established themselves in Palestine and Lebanon. Al-Qaeda organizations have announced their presence in Syria, in Jordan, in Egypt, all since the beginning of the Iraq War. So it's hard to define, or decide, whether or not these claims are legitimate. But they certainly make sense. There's been an ambition, as I said, of Al-Qaeda to be able to reach in to these areas and I think that's probably happening.

America is in a disastrous position really, because we're damned if we stay and we're damned if we leave. And I think you'll recall just on the eve of the invasion, Zawahiri said "Praised to God for the Americans invading Iraq", because once they get there, they won't be able to stay, but they won't be able to leave and they'll just bleed.

NIo: In view of the fact that they've presumably been able to establish this contiguous presence, to what degree do they then still need Iraq? And if the U.S. troops were to leave, would Al-Qaeda be able to significantly expand its presence in Iraq or do you believe that the Mahdi Army and other militia groups could contain that expansion?

MS: I don't think they're very interested in expanding their presence in Iraq. They really need a very small presence in mostly, as you say, in Anbar. It is the one place that was mentioned by Bin Laden in his speech before the invasion where he said, that's where we're going to concentrate, that's where the heroes of Islam will be, in Anbar. I don't think it matters to them really whether we stay or not, the presence is established. One thing I read in the NIE that was I thought a little Pollyannish was the idea that Iraq's neighbors wouldn't be driving the violence in Iraq, and I think that's a mistake.

NIo: Yes, it said that not only would they not be driving the violence significantly, but that also they would not really be able to be drivers for stability in any substantial way.

MS: Well they would not be drivers for stability because stability by the reality of the population would be a Shi‘a state. Which is exactly what the Egyptians, and the Jordanians, and the Saudis and the Kuwaitis don't want to be part of.

What the NIE said to me was, we're still, as an intelligence community at least in our publicly released documents, afraid to discuss and account for the power of religion. What we've created in Iraq is an arena for the playing out of the Sunni-Shi‘a confrontation that has been festering for a millennium.

And the NIE, at least what I've read of it, does not take account for the Sunni governments that are going to ride to the rescue of their brothers in Iraq. You know, in many ways it's going to be like Afghanistan over again, but Shi‘as are much more hated than the Russians. So, Americans unfortunately tend to try to compartmentalize the world and we assume that when people say, when governments say, "We all want a stable, peaceful, prosperous Iraq", that each of those governments are defining it the same way America does. It's the problem we have in Afghanistan. The Saudis' definition of a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan and a peaceful, prosperous Iraq are probably almost diametrically different to ours.

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