Al-Qaeda is far more dangerous than it was 10 years ago, the former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit tells Deutsche Welle in an interview. He is also worried about the increased domestic threat the West is facing.
Michael F. Scheuer is an adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. A long time counterterrorism official, he was the former head of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit. Scheuer is the author of "Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam & the Future of America" (2003) and "Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror" (2004).
Deutsche Welle: There is some confusion about the current threat of terrorism in Europe, specifically in Germany, France and Britain. While the US, British and Australian authorities have issued a travel alert for Europe, German officials have downplayed the threat saying there were no indications of an imminent attack. Since the US and Europe share intelligence information, how do you explain the discrepancy in judgment?
Michael F. Scheuer: At least in the American case we have a government that's extraordinarily incompetent in terms of experience with these kinds of things. And they are covering their behinds as much as they can. Certainly in the last weeks running up to the midterm elections here in the United States they don't want to be blamed for any kind of a security failure. That said, it was very unusual in my experience for the United States to issue a travel alert for Europe. They are always very reluctant to do that because they are afraid to hurt the transatlantic economy. So I suspect there is something to the overall discussion of a current threat.
Law enforcement and intelligent officials are of course walking a fine line in deciding when to go public with a warning about a possible terrorism threat. It seems that the US government is generally quicker to issue terrorism warnings than European countries. From your experience what's the better approach?
I think every government has to decide that for themselves. But my own impression is that since 9/11 the approach by the United States government is often quite juvenile in the sense that they want to cover their backside so nothing happens that they can get blamed for. Certainly in my experience while I was working at the CIA the British and the European services were more willing to follow a threat a little longer than we were in order to try to break it up more thoroughly.
Intelligence officials point to an increased amount of chatter as a reason for the terror alert and the German interior minister said there is a high level of abstract threat for Germany. Can you explain what that means from your experience in practical terms?
Very often information about terrorism is not clear cut one way or another. You are trying to figure out what they are saying, they are using code words, so it's very hard to tell whether it's imminent. I think what he (Germany's interior minister - the ed.) means by abstract is that people are debating whether to do it or not or whether they have the capability to do it.
In the European context though I think one thing that perhaps Europeans don't realize is that they are begging to be attacked, they have done virtually everything they can to make sure that they will be attacked whether it's the caricatures of the prophet Mohamed in a Danish newspaper that are now published in a book, the French ban on the burka. At least in cultural terms, many of the Europeans countries appear to have declared war on Islam and its traditions. And so the idea that we are getting this threat now and that there is a lot of chatter about it should not be a surprise to the Europeans.
From your perspective, have European governments done enough to secure their countries from an attack?
No of course not. Like the United States they have no idea who is in their country. Their immigration policies have been anything from a shambles to a disgrace for the last 20 years. They have no idea who is in Germany or Spain or Italy or the United Kingdom. So the police authorities really don't have an ability to preempt these things with any degree of certainty. They do a very good job, but the politicians flooded the playing field if you will with players that no one can identify.
You have worked closely with European and German authorities during your long career with the CIA. How would you rate the work of German intelligence services and the transatlantic cooperation on intelligence matters?
I thought that the German BND was always a little bit standoffish, who were not always ready to cooperate in terms of terrorism activities. That may have changed, I have not been working now for five years. On the other hand, the state and the federal police force in Germany were always very helpful and eager to help protect their citizens.
Basically I found the same thing in Britain, that the external service was a little less cooperative than MI5 for example. The MI5 was always an extremely good ally and a very competent service.
And finally, you have been tracking al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden for years. How dangerous is al-Qaeda nine years after 9/11 and what's bin Laden's role within the organization today?
Certainly it's a much more dangerous organization today than it was in 2001. Just from the perspective of where we had to focus, we in the West, in Europe and in the United States. Before 9/11 most of the activities that were directed against us came out of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Today we have them coming from there, but we also have them coming out of Yemen, out of Iraq, out of the Levant, out of Somalia and out of North Africa. So the platforms from which people are being directed toward us have grown considerably.
As for the second part of the question, al-Qaeda and bin Laden have always seen their role primarily as violence or military activities, but also through inspiration, providing the materials whether written or spoken that would inspire other Muslims to conduct Jihad against the West and especially the United States. And I can't think how you can avoid the conclusion that that has been tremendously successful. The number of young Muslim males in Europe and the United States, Canada and Australia who are willing to at least consider and increasingly are ready to pick up the tools of violence against their home countries has increased dramatically since 2006.
Part of that is due of course to our own foolish invasion of Iraq, but much of it is due to the religiously consistent rhetoric of Osama bin Laden. And so I think this is a fight that we are really not cognizant of in terms of its dimensions and of its length. And one that will turn out much more bloody than we expected.
Interview: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge