About an hour after news of the despicable murder of Paul Johnson went over the wires yesterday, I spoke with a veteran intelligence official who's tracked terrorism and radical Islamism going back to the Afghan jihad in the 1980s. Next month, as "Anonymous," he'll publish a book titled Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror. There's a lot in the book to consider, disagree with and debate, and I'll be writing more about it shortly. First, here's some excerpts from our conversation about what the Johnson murder tells us about al-Qaeda strategy and Saudi counterterrorism efforts.
<$NoAd$>ANONYMOUS: I don't know if it tells us a lot about their worldwide strategy. It reinforces a lot about what we know about al-Qaeda. al-Qaeda is in many ways a reflection of Saudi society. Osama bin Laden is not an aberrant or deviant product of the Saudi educational system. He is its poster boy. He is the product of an educational system that has existed for more than half a century and turns out people who are of a mindset quite similar to bin Laden and his al-Qaeda people, though probably not as talented.
We saw al-Qaeda execute the operation of killing one American, kidnapping another, within two days. It reinforces the idea of nearly simultaneous attacks. They posted the information about Mr. Johnson, said what they wanted, said what they were going to do, and did it. Which perhaps is the most important trademark for al-Qaeda: they tell you what theyâre going to do and then they do it.
In terms of their goals in Saudi Arabia, which are not entirely reflective of their overall strategy, it's to demonstrate the inability of the al-Saud government to provide security for expatriates--and to rally their supporters within the kingdom, which are numerous. So I think the unfortunate, tragic murder of Mr. Johnson is just another step in their attempt to unravel Saudi control over the kingdom.
TPM: Over the last couple days, a lot of the commentary about the kidnapping has been that it's al-Qaedaâs intent to spare Saudi society and instead inflict pain on foreigners who work on the oil sector. It sounds, though, that youâre saying a more important aspiration of al-Qaeda is to provide a demonstration effect of what the power of its ideology and the steadfastness of its operatives can do for people inside Saudi Arabia.
ANONYMOUS: I think thatâs right. I think clearly al-Qaeda does not want to kill Muslims unnecessarily. Theyâre willing for Muslims to die in an attack on the United States or some other target, when the deaths are part and parcel of an act of war. But within Saudi Arabia I think they're kind of the society's Robin Hood. It's an oppressed society, the Saudi government is a tyranny, and I think they have a tremendous audience in Saudi Arabia. I remember reading in The National Interest in 2002 that a poll taken by the Saudi government showed 95 percent of Saudis between 18 and 40 supported Osama bin Laden. Domestic support is not an issue for bin Laden. He's always wanted to protect the oil industry in the sense of its infrastructure, its natural production of oil. He's found a way through this type of murder to affect the American economy, probably, without destroying the future potential of the energy industry in Saudi Arabia. It makes sense for all of those things he wants to do to follow this sort of practice.
TPM: â¦ What should we be asking the Saudis to do after the Johnson murder? How do you assess Saudi anti-terrorism efforts inside the country--have the bombings last May, as many have commented, proven to be a wake up call? How do you rate what the Saudis are doing, both in terms of discrete anti-terrorism efforts, in terms of cooperation with the United States, and in terms of combating terrorism [at] its root?
ANONYMOUS: I think the attacks in May brought the message home to the Saudis that they have a domestic problem. In the course of the last decade, it's clear that the Saudis paid lip service to anti-terrorism, but as long as it didn't happen in the kingdom, that was all they did. The Saudis walk a very fine line on this issue. What we identify as terrorism is identified as jihad, as a religious responsibility within the Salafist or the Wahhabi doctrine that dominates Saudi educational facilities and has forever since the founding of the Saudi state in the '30s. Their efforts to suppress al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-like people angers as many as it pleases. So their efforts are not and cannot be to eradicate the problem, because it will just aggravate a huge number of people in a very young populace that is very religious. There's a certain point at which they can't trust anti-terrorism efforts without risking a much wider anti-al Saud response.
TPM: Is this just a fatal and unavoidable contradiction of Saudi Arabia?
ANONYMOUS: It's a very difficult issue. It's hard for me, and there's other people far more expert on the kingdom, but I cannot see it reconciled in the near term. The Saudis had a breathing space in the '80s because they exported so much of their young men who were bin Laden-like to Afghanistan. For a decade they kept their unhappy young militants focused on fighting the Soviets. Now they have a problem, because those folks are home--although I would suspect that the Saudis and the Egyptians and the Tunisians and the Algerians and the rest of them are exporting some of their militants to Iraq, with the same idea that they can fight the jihad there and hopefully they wonât come back alive. But to answer your question, thereâs a fundamental danger to the existence of the Saudi regime if they press too hard on counterterrorism.
TPM: So what has that led to in terms of cooperation with the United States?
ANONYMOUS: From what I can tell, including what I see in the media, it's much better than it used to be, but I'm not sure what that means in terms of progress because we're faced by a community that is by and large sympathetic and familiar with the arguments bin Laden makes about the responsibilities of religion. I would say there has been improvement but I think the Saudis really are in a Catch-22 situation, and that will have a limiting effect on their cooperation not only with us but with any other country.
TPM: What should we be asking them to do?
ANONYMOUS: I think we're focused on what we want them to do. We want to control al-Qaeda within the kingdom. We want them to continue to produce oil. We want them to do any number of police-type, and intelligence-type cooperation, and I'm sure they'll be willing to do that. But what we [really] want them to do, as I wrote in the book, I don't think is going to happen: people argue that we should force them or pressure them to change their curriculum and their education system, and that is very unlikely to happen. The al-Sauds, when they came to power, made a deal with the Islamic establishment: the al-Sauds would take care of the economy and foreign policy, and the religious establishment would take care of education. I'm not sure they're terribly eager to adopt a curriculum of Islamic education as itâs proposed by the United States. â¦
It's a system that's not prone to reform at a pace that would satisfy us. A pace that would satisfy us would completely destabilize the country. We're going to watch them do as much as they can, and they'll do as much as they can that's consistent with the survival of the state.$NoAd$>
Or, in terms of cooperation with the U.S., perhaps less. As The Washington Post reports today, the intransigent interior minister, Prince Nayef, greeted the dispatch of 20 FBI officials to the kingdom by deriding U.S. counterterrorism proficiency to Le Figaro.
More to come soon from our conversation on the future of al-Qaeda, U.S. counterterrorism, and Imperial Hubris.