Intelligence failures and holy war
“The necessity of procuring good Intelligence is apparent & need not be further urged – All that remains for me to add is, that you keep the whole matter as secret as possible. For upon Secrecy, Success depends in Most Enterprizes of the kind, and for want of it, they are generally defeated, however well planned & promising a favourable issue.”
– General George Washington, 8 miles east of Morristown, New Jersey, July 26, 1777
Like all of you, I had different plans for how I would spend last week. You are reading the 250th EIA Communiqué – and I wanted to contemplate how to mark the occasion. But that was all before the entire nation found itself living out the plot of a Tom Clancy novel.
Despite the calls to return to business as usual, it seemed wildly inappropriate to blithely report on public education and the teachers’ unions as if nothing had happened. I could not bring myself to do it. So I had to draw on previous experience – military, aviation, history, and a short but intensive stint as a researcher for Dr. Daniel Pipes, one of America’s leading experts on the Middle East – to provide what I hope is a somewhat different analysis of the September 11 attacks and what we might expect next.
As George Washington understood so well, the control of information is one of the most important levers of power. It is not the only one. Knowing what your opponent is about to do is not the same as stopping him from doing it. And “knowing,” in intelligence terms, is not the same as “knowing” the sun will come up tomorrow morning. It has quickly become the conventional wisdom that the September 11 attacks constituted a criminal failure of intelligence. Ironically, many of these accusations came from people who reported on Tuesday morning that a car bomb had exploded outside the State Department, that a truck with explosives had been found under the George Washington Bridge, that car bombs had been discovered and defused outside Los Angeles International Airport, and that 10 policemen, alive under the rubble, had called relatives from a cell phone – none of which turned out to be true.
Of course it was an intelligence failure. But we need to be very specific about what part of the system failed. Many experts have blamed this on an overdependence on electronic intelligence gathering at the expense of human intelligence gathering. While these two methods do seem to be out of balance, it is far from certain that spies would have prevented the attacks. Case in point: Two days before the World Trade Center crumbled, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the famous leader of the mujahidin resistance during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, was assassinated. Massoud was the primary military leader of the Northern Alliance, the ongoing rebel opposition to the Taliban, the fundamentalist rulers of Afghanistan. It is fair to assume that Massoud had dozens, if not hundreds, of spies in Kabul to pass critical information to him and his forces. He knew his enemies’ mind, having fought with them for 10 years. He spoke the same language, knew their customs, and had the advantage of close proximity to his sources of information. How was he killed? Two men, posing as television journalists from Morocco and Tunisia, detonated a bomb hidden in a camera. Perhaps bin Laden himself had his agents perform this service for his Taliban benefactors.
In the weeks ahead, through the benefit of hindsight, we will learn that all the information to warn us of the impending assaults was available and at hand. What was lacking was someone able to take all the isolated, insignificant clues and turn them into an identifiable scheme – which is much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box.
All wars begin with a failure of intelligence. But the first failure of intelligence that began this war was not made by Americans, but by the terrorists themselves. The people who plotted this so well for so long didn’t do it just out of blind hatred of the United States. They do blindly hate Americans, but they also believe that we are weak and corrupt. As American culture sweeps the globe, these fanatics believe their own Islamic culture is being weakened and corrupted. They strike at us not only to hurt us, but to demonstrate to Muslims that they are following a weak and corrupt Western society to damnation.
“Bin Laden has been trying to show that a band of faithful Muslims can, with the right weapons in the hands of death-wish believers, reverse the history of the Muslim world,” writes terrorism expert Reuel Marc Gerecht in The Weekly Standard. “If you can repeatedly maul the United States, the spiritual cutting edge of Western civilization, and get away with it¼ you simultaneously degrade the West’s ideals, which is the ultimate objective. The collapse of the World Trade Center is in this sense, for an Islamic holy warrior, the most potentially promising victory since the Ottoman Empire took Constantinople in 1453.”
It should come as no surprise that Gerecht refers to the 15th century, or that President Bush referred to our impending response as “a crusade.” If Gerecht is right, and I think he is, the perpetrators of the World Trade Center atrocity are laboring under the badly mistaken notion that 21st century America is roughly akin to 15th century Byzantium – that is, a formerly great and powerful state on its last legs. It only takes a daring initiative by a group of devoted believers to topple the weakened giant.
What they are about to learn is that they have suffered their own intelligence failure. They fully expect America to talk big, launch a few dozen cruise missiles, and then lose interest. They have no conception of what they have unleashed.
After Pearl Harbor, the United States Navy, America’s main method of projecting force abroad, was decimated. The United States faced battle-hardened enemies who controlled all of Western Europe and the Pacific Rim. Less than four years later, not only had these enemies been utterly destroyed, but Americans had developed and used the deadliest weapon the world had ever known.
After the World Trade Center, the United States military is completely intact, a mere 10 years from a resounding victory in the Gulf War. The United States faces an enemy who controls no territory, and who in many cases must hide from local authorities. This enemy, in one day, murdered thousands – not soldiers, sailors and airmen on a distant military base while a world was at war – but secretaries, accountants, stockbrokers, mail clerks, firemen, medics, priests and mothers in the nation’s first city while a world is at peace.
My friends, the men who hijacked those airliners and those who supported them, directed them and harbored them believe they are engaged in a holy war with the United States. They are about to personally experience something directly out of the Old Testament — specifically Hosea 8:7, “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” Live your lives without fear. They are the ones who should be very, very afraid.