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A decade on from al-Qaeda’s attacks, The Henry Jackson Society was pleased to host, by kind invitation of Gisela Stuart MP, a discussion with Sir Richard Dearlove KCMG OBE. Sir Richard gave first hand expertise on Britain’s role in the War on Terror, the effectiveness of the Western response, and the future of national security strategy.
Sir Richard Dearlove KCMG OBE:
I am going to make a statement of the obvious, being one of the people heavily involved in the events of 9/11: we didn’t actually know what was going to happen next. We made a very good stab at trying to understand what might happen next, but of course much that is commented on now is done with the benefit of hindsight and I find that quite vexing. I’m mindful of what Karl Popper said when he thought he had established a proof against historicist views. He said ‘what we know next will change what happens next and we can’t know what we will know next, since if we could, we would know it now’ and I think that is a very wise statement. If you didn’t quite get it you can look it up on the internet.
Unquestionably 9/11 was a moment of definition and I mean by that it had a historical before and an after. It’s most obvious consequences were it caused a fundamental rethink of national security threats and a reordering of national security priorities. It had a huge impact on security, defence and intelligence budgets. I am not restricting my comments to the U.K; I am trying to talk generally. It caused a significant evolution and change of direction in U.S foreign policy and of course we live with the consequences today in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, to an extent in Iraq and perhaps across the Middle-east.
It is important to remind you of how this event was viewed in the States. It was an act of premeditated mass murder in a country which felt that it was immune from such alien imported interventions. It had a huge impact on the American psyche both socially and politically. In a way we are still living with the consequences of the depth of that impact and I think it will take a long time for the surface of American Society – in the light of those events – to become even again. To imagine within the U.S that it could be treated as a criminal act is to misunderstand the United States. I don’t think that an event of that magnitude could be treated by American politicians purely through the use of the criminal law and justice. We should also remind ourselves that though President Obama has cleverly remoulded the rhetoric around what the previous administration called ‘The War on Terror’, he has actually in some respects upped the aggression on al-Qaeda. There have been more targeted killings approved by the current administration particularly in northern Pakistan than under the Bush administration and of course there has been no closure of Guantanamo.
Now what is surprising ten years on is the relative failure of violent Islamism to make a more lasting political impact. Few of us would have predicted that failure at the time. We are in an ironical situation to an extent because what we are seeing- and I stress that my comments are personal, there may be misinterpretation but I stick by them – is a resurgence of moderate Islam with Islamist parties. These groups are now apparently arguing for the very democratic values and individual rights that al-Qaeda was so opposed to. This can be seen in what is happening today in Egypt, in Libya, the sort of things that Erdogan was saying on his visit to Egypt. The Turkish Prime Minister has recently been immensely important.
My views have changed over the last ten years and having the time to reflect and read which I didn’t necessarily have when I was in my previous job. At the beginning al-Qaeda had the view that it should purge Saudi Arabia of infidels. It then came up with this complex political model of the Caliphate, which I don’t think of as a political model at all, rather it was, a religious aspiration and remains so. Over ten years it’s lost that clarity which apparently it had at the start. I think the al-Qaeda narrative is perhaps losing purchase on the Arab street, not something we would necessarily have expected. Suddenly we have a different narrative, a narrative to which the al-Qaeda leadership is violently opposed, which is making the political and social weather across the middle-east. This is very important. Al-Qaeda to an extent is on the back foot and what is surprising is that intelligence has proven effective in blunting its efforts over the decade. It is apparently having great difficulty in mounting operations in the developed world.
Obviously when you are trying a number of conspiracies simultaneously some success is almost inevitable; witness the attacks in Madrid and London. I would argue that those attacks were not strategic in their consequence in the way that 9/11 was. It has become much more difficult internationally for al-Qaeda to act effectively. Hence, it is being diverted into softer areas with less stringent security; it is working on its periphery. I think at the moment –I’m reluctant to say these things publicly because in a way you feel like you are encouraging al-Qaeda by saying them- it faces an issue of credibility. It badly needs to demonstrate to its sympathisers and its core membership that it can pull of something big. In order to be really convincing it needs to do that in North America or in parts of Western Europe.
Now, I said I thought intelligence work against al-Qaeda had proved effective in blunting its projects. I would briefly like to talk to you about some of the characteristics of that type of intelligence work. The first point is that it is highly co-operative and interdependent on working with other agencies both domestically and internationally. It has been working against a background of unprecedented international and domestic co-operation that effective counter-terrorism work is conducted in. It also raises the issue of dealing with many different governments and legal systems different from our own. Particularly dealing with partners whose views of human rights and standards of individual rights is different from our own.
However by giving political clearance for operations, the U.K has clearly accepted that danger and difficulty. The intelligence positions are also highly mosaic. They are made up of fine small pieces and locking those together into a coherent picture is very complex. You also have to deal with the problem of extracting value from massive data flows, so you have to sieve very large quantities of material much of which is irrelevant or useless. You are also dealing with the challenge I like to call non organisations. Collecting intelligence on organisations that have organograms, telephone directories, papers in safes is relatively straight forward.
Dealing with transient conspiracies that are based around charismatic individuals that come together like flocks of birds and disperse, creates huge challenges and difficulties and the acquisition of sources can be very temporary and short lived. You also face the question, which the former director general of MI5 referred to in her brief lectures ‘the need to intervene, when to intervene’. You can’t just sit there and amass intelligence and increase your understanding rather like we did, let’s say in the Cold War and the Soviet Military; we actually have to do something with it. The final point I would like to make is that you always have to plan for the catastrophe, your having to accommodate and understand the possibilities of something truly dreadful happening.
As a general issue I am also worried about the breakdown in international cooperation. In dealing with and trying to find solutions to a number of issues: whether it‘s issues that relate to climate change, the economic crisis or cooperation in Europe or the U.S own financial difficulties. You are looking to cooperative solutions and where living in a period of high anxiety about the mechanisms we have built in the last 40 or 50 years to encourage international cooperation.
So my concern really is to an extent looking at the resurgence of nation state interests and the ability of certain countries particularly the more powerful or influential ones, to act autonomously when really they should be looking for cooperative solutions. This applies at many different levels and in many different arenas. That is why I think current events such as Europe’s current economic problems with attitudes towards Greece so crucially important in terms of the broader message they send about the ability of Governments with difficult political bases of their own, to reach a coordinated position on highly complex problems. Looking back at the period of my own career, although it was very troublesome time the level of cooperation internationally was exemplary. I find now some of the revisionism about that level of cooperation I find very distasteful.
For example any future exchange of information with the Russians, after the Alexander Litvinenko affair, is clearly a political decision for the Government. The intelligence agencies operate under a system of clearance and it is the responsibility of ministers to decide what the scope of that cooperation should be in the face of clashes of interest or clashes of legality. There are many different ways to view the problem. Until that moment when a solution can be found cooperation remains in cold store. We were cooperating quite extensively with the Russians up until we had this serious bi-lateral problem which predated the Andrey Lugovoy issue, also the issue with Berezovsky and other problems at the time. A potentially valuable relationship has become quite difficult to handle for political reasons.
I was puzzled as to why NATO invoked Article 5. My own personal view is that NATO is long overdue for redesign in terms of international security. The trouble is that’s what we have got. Of course in the current political and international climate redesigning or rebuilding NATO comes under the heading ‘to difficult’. So we are stuck with what we have got but it is an outdated vehicle for cooperation, but it is better than nothing.
I also want to add that the SIS and the then government did not have a cosy relationship with Gaddafi. It was a pragmatic one. Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers. It was a political decision having very significantly disarmed Libya for the government to cooperate with the Libyans on Islamist terrorism. With enquiries pending I should not say more than that. I rather resent the suggestion that the relationship with Gaddafi was cosy. It certainly was not cosy. It was uncomfortable, difficult and pragmatic. It had phenomenal success in disarming Libya. Libya having purchased from A.Q Khan in Pakistan had the infrastructure to start a nuclear weapons programme. The whole relationship was one of serious calculation about where the overall balance of our national interests stood.
Going back to my main theme, al-Qaeda faces an issue of credibility. Some more practical observations will bring me more to events in the Middle-east. I believe al-Qaeda made a tactical and strategic error in trying to fight the U.S military which it did with substantial number of foreign fighters. The War in Iraq accelerated the decline of al-Qaeda. It caused the Sunni tribal chiefs into their own awakening to come and support the Americans at the time of the surge. It saw a vision of taking on the U.S military and in effect once the U.S military got its act together it came out of that confrontation very badly. I’m of the view that al-Qaeda didn’t come of well in Iraq, it distracted them. It would have been far better concentrating on doing things like 9/11, which they didn’t at that time.
We also must be very careful when we talk about al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda is not the Pashtun Taliban. Its relationship with the Taliban has always been a relationship of convenience and they have agendas which in the medium term do not really match. It’s an alliance of convenience which in my view Afghan negotiations would expose. If al-Qaeda has one objective in Afghanistan it should be to keep the Taliban away from the negotiation table.
I also think – and I disagree with various statements that have been made- that al-Qaeda was arguably a largely unprovoked attack on our value system. It was entirely rejectionist and to that extent in my view it has no realistic political agendas. It’s not an organisation with which it is possible to negotiate. It’s always possible to negotiate if you wish with terrorist organisations that have clear political and territorial objectives. Negotiation is a two way process. You can negotiate with Basques and Armenians. I actually favour negotiating our way out of terrorism. I am strongly supportive of that view. The IRA Ireland is a classic example of moving from terrorism to a political solution. If an organisation like al-Qaeda can morph into something else then it might be possible.
Confronting al-Qaeda was a confrontation of beliefs and values. It was the right thing to do, despite the risks, to go out on the front foot and meet that threat militantly. There have been consequences such as radicalisation amongst young male Muslims, in particular between the ages of those in there late teens to mid-thirties but that is a phenomenon despite the problems that it has caused, which has proved controllable.
Al-Qaeda ten years on is still trying hard to make a political impact, of the size of the impact, it made ten years ago. I think its best chance of doing that at the moment probably remains in Pakistan and in stirring up enmity between Pakistan and India because of the fragility of that geo-political problem. The fragility of Pakistan: the lack of political progress, gives al-Qaeda an area where they can cause massive geo-political destabilisation, where they can set India and Pakistan at greater odds. Tactically and strategically this is where al-Qaeda should be devoting there attention. It gives them the possibility of a second wind. Of course the other big danger of the Indo-Pak situation is that it is the one place in the world where there is a very significant threat of nuclear war, which is not a sort of distant possibility. Pakistan has a policy of a first nuclear response to an Indian attack if Lahore is overrun which it probably would be within 72 hours. So you still have a potentially very dangerous situation.
I was surprised that Osama bin Laden was in Abbottabad. However, once you thought about it, I wasn’t sitting there pondering ‘where’s bin Laden’, I had retired a long time ago. I had no idea where he was. My own private observation on the fact that he was in Abbottabad is that he must have the blessing of one or two senior Pakistani military to be able to sit in a garrison town for the length of time that he did. I am not saying it was generally known that he was there but I find it very difficult knowing what I know about Pakistan, which is a fair amount. I think he must have had some sort of protector or protection. That is my own reading. That is quite a good place to sit if you don’t want to be bombed or hit with a predator. It gives you a certain amount of protection. Obviously it doesn’t give you protection from a Navy Seal team, if they can get there in the hours of darkness.
Al-Qaeda may well still have some very nasty surprises in store but it is interesting to look and register how Zawaheri responded to the phenomenon of the Arab Spring and the Arab Awakening. It took al-Qaeda a long time to make any statement. When that statement came it condemned the aspirations to democracy on the one hand and rejected the secular character of the Arab Spring on the other. That does not seem to me to be the sort of message which is going to have the potency on the Arab street in the light of what is happening. We have a different narrative which is proving powerful in its own right. Events in Libya, Egypt and Syria, should give us some cause for hope.
However, in areas of revolutionary political change there is always danger that well organised non-representative groups and I mean by that groups that don’t have democratic credentials can hijack political developments. I am concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and what there ultimate objectives and character may be. I have said some pretty tough things on the record about the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. I don’t dissociate myself from those statements, I stick by them. I think in Libya you see evidence of a group that is relatively well organised and in a situation of a political meltdown that is trying to grab a significant part of the political opportunities. It could go wrong. I personally think in Libya it probably won’t go wrong because of the nature of Libyan society. I think there is enough political diversity for Islamists to play a role; I hope it is a constructive role but hopefully not necessarily to be the determinant political group.
I am more concerned about the Yemen but that’s for specific geographical characteristics and the characteristics of the tribal structures. If both Yemen and Somalia are to have a chance of dealing with the al-Qaeda phenomenon locally they have to create local political structures which are durable and local political security organisations which may have some degree of effectiveness. In Somalia there is still a distant hope. I think the phenomenon of al-Qaeda in that part of the world will cause problems but I am unsure whether they will have a broader strategic impact. This kidnapping in northern Kenya has been tragic. It is an example of the mischief that al-Qaeda can get up to in that part of the world. I think Yemen is a much more serious concern. We have to try to create a stable Government if that’s not an impossibility and do what we were doing which was helping the Yemenis to build up there own security capabilities so that the problem is at least contained regionally or within the country and that it doesn’t break out into the wider environment. I am concerned about what could or might happen in Yemen if it continues to fall apart politically because it is relatively anarchic as a country. It’s very fertile ground for a movement like al-Qaeda to settle down and find a new protective environment.
Looking more broadly at the Middle-east we really are confronted now by a complex juxtaposition of different forces. We have a changing scenario of absolutist governments being challenged by indigenous self propelled uprisings which seem -at least in there face- to be close to our own political and social values. Let me recount at this point an anecdote which illustrates the complexity of what I am talking about. I travelled extensively after 9/11 in part with the Prime Minister and also in representing the interest of my service. On a visit to Saudi Arabia not long after the event I was literally harangued by one of the very senior members of the Saudi Royal Family, who said ‘9/11 is a pin prick for the West you will get over it. It does not threaten your fundamental identity but it does threaten us. Ultimately we are the targets of these people’. To my surprise what subsequently happened was that the Saudi’s were relatively successful in suppressing there own radical insurrection internally, not that they necessarily addressed the causes. I think now you see evidence of the Saudi’s themselves are deeply worried about what is happening across the Middle-east. If there is fertile ground left for al-Qaeda in the Middle-east, it may well be, in a country like Saudi Arabia.
It must be added that in Saudi Arabia there has been some progress to some degree of political change, particularly at the local level. There have been local elections, you have had more interest in women’s rights, in women’s education, and you have had minor changes in the legal situation and in social attitudes. I don’t see Saudi Arabia making this huge leap to democracy. I think the Saudi’s, in terms of my continuing contact with one or two Saudi’s, are reasonably confident they can manage there country and that they have a programme of significant social change but I think its going to be extremely slow. In the mean time there is a danger that in this Conservative Wahabbi dominated environment active radicalism can take place and in fact has done so in certain groups. It’s a tenuous and difficult issue. I am not going to speculate on the future of Saudi Arabia, it’s too complex, it’s too difficult. They are or have been important allies but relations with them have been very difficult. If we were not on the record I could tell you about some of my experiences in Saudi Arabia. They are a very difficult regime to deal with. A number of British businessmen were locked up supposedly for trafficking in alcohol. I mean these were clearly pumped up charges because they were actually the victims of Islamist extremists and the Saudi response was to completely interoperate it in a different way and arrest the wrong people. That was all sorted out but it was a nightmare.
We have now various strands conflicting with one another and I think it is difficult to make sense of the future. Liberal modernity, religious fundamentalism, tribalism, powerful sectarian divisions and failing authoritarian regimes are some of these strands and against this background counter-terrorism is becoming one issue amongst several. We may be past its high point; it’s no longer going to going to be the dominant political determinant, particularly for the West in this area. I see the return of politics to the Middle-east after a long period of stasis. Obviously this will affect how intelligence services are viewing the area and viewing the problems. What’s interesting to me is that violent political Islam has not actually been the catalyst for change and crisis in quite the way I expected it to become in the period after 9/11. I would stick my neck out and say that despite the dangers and the risks and the fact there will be further incidents, some of them no doubt serious; al-Qaeda is no longer the focus and I doubt that it will ever be again quite at the centre of our attentions. I think we are moving on.