Throughout the 1990s, the U.S. foreign policy establishment confronted a simple but profound dilemma. Now that the Cold War dragon had been slain, to paraphrase former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey, which of the many snakes at America's feet deserved the most attention? Was it instability from failing states, the potential for a resurgent Russia, China's military modernization, or Islamist terrorism? In the absence of clear guidance, the national security bureaucracy did not systematically organize itself to counter one particular threat. Meanwhile, in the remote corners of the Muslim world and in the shabby suburbs of major Western cities, al Qaeda operatives displayed no such confusion. Slowly and steadily, they were building up their capabilities and cadres to expand their jihad against the West. These two parallel stories came together in tragedy on September 11, 2001. In an important new book, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, two former counterterrorism officials on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council (NSC) staff, vividly recount this history, describing how al Qaeda emerged and how America responded.


In its public rhetoric about terrorism before both American and international audiences, the Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before it, correctly distinguishes between violent extremists who profess to act in the name of Islam and the millions of peaceful, honorable Muslims around the world. The United States is not declaring war on Islam, U.S. leaders assure the world; it opposes only those deviants who abuse the religion in the name of their twisted messianic visions.

Benjamin and Simon usefully point out that the virtues of this public position notwithstanding, it should not be confused with the truth. Their book's most important and lasting contribution is its exploration of the relationship between al Qaeda's toxic message and the Muslim mainstream. They examine in considerable detail the gradual evolution of Islamist political thought, describing the timeless influence of Islamic thinkers such as the thirteenth-century theologian Taqi al Din ibn Taymiyya and the eighteenth-century preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab, whose ideas form the political and religious foundation of modern Saudi Arabia. What the authors find is disturbing. According to them, al Qaeda's belief system cannot be separated neatly from Islamic teachings, because it has -- selectively and perNICiously -- built on fundamental Islamic ideas and principles. This link applies to contemporary issues as well: al Qaeda's views on Islamic law, Israel, or Iraq would not differ significantly from the positions of moderate Islamists, even if they disagree on the use of violence to further their goals.

Benjamin and Simon have done their homework. They have pored over ancient texts and have a sophisticated sense of the full range of ideas presented by Islamic theologians, not just the bumper-sticker version grasped by the popular press and by so many semi-educated Islamists. Ibn Taymiyya, for instance, had advanced ideas about governance and statecraft but is known to al Qaeda's followers only for his thoughts on jihad. His justification of holy war against Muslim "apostates" helps explain al Qaeda's willingness to inflict casualties on Muslims. The authors also convincingly weave abstract theology together with the often difficult economic and political realities of life in the Middle East to explain why some simple but powerful ideas have shaped the minds and actions of many young Muslims.

Although they focus unsentimentally on what makes the radical Islamist terrorists tick, the authors do see them as real-life characters whose political ideas were shaped by their own lives and by the historical experience of their families, tribes, and nations. Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Ramzi Youssef (the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) are all treated in a remarkably three-dimensional way. Indeed, one senses a grudging respect for the tenacity and dedication of these mortal adversaries, a syndrome one sees also among former Cold Warriors.

Much has been said about the middle-class origins of most of the September 11 hijackers, rebutting the popular notion that poverty and humiliation can explain terrorism. Benjamin and Simon take the analysis further, providing poignant insight into the "half-baked" men of the Muslim world. They are not scheming against the West out of isolation and ignorance; they are instead motivated by failed or futile attempts to interact with the West. Some of bin Laden's followers had hoped to flourish in Western nations but failed to thrive there and were then susceptible to recruitment. Others came with a political agenda and lived a double life until mobilized by their al Qaeda masters. The authors show that exposure to the West was somehow a damaging experience. Some terrorists were religious by upbringing and felt compromised by the looser mores of the West, others tried to fit in but were rebuffed.

Muhammad Atta, the Egyptian-born ringleader of the September 11 attacks, was a telling case. He studied in Germany to avoid the fate of his unemployed and alienated compatriots back home, and he tried to bridge his two worlds by writing a thesis on the conflict between tradition and modernity in the Syrian city of Aleppo. To understand him, Benjamin and Simon indulge in a little amateur psychoanalysis: "At some point ... he had a brush with temptation; perhaps he felt he had succumbed. Whatever touched him, he identified with the West. It might have been as simple as a personal desire to be part of the West that caused him to feel contaminated. His repulsion was powerful, and he felt somehow humiliated."

After describing the history and motivations of al Qaeda, the first half of the book ends with a chapter titled "Fields of Jihad." It quickly reviews the status of Islamists across the Muslim world, assessing the power of jihadists in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian territories, Pakistan, and Central Asia, among others. But Benjamin and Simon end the section with a reminder that radical Islamists live in Western societies too, not only among immigrant Muslim communities but also as converts. The lesson is that we must think less about the Muslim world and more about radical Muslims in the world. Geography may matter less and less as this struggle continues.

Benjamin and Simon deserve praise not only for the powerful content of their study of terror, but also for how they went about it. For instance, they uncovered some of the links between early Islamic theology and al Qaeda by sifting through documents from the trials of defendants in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 East African embassy bombings. They demonstrate an original synthesis of academic research, textual analysis, and investigative reporting. For its thoroughness, graceful prose, and important insights, the first half of the book is impressive.


The latter half of The Age of Sacred Terror presents Benjamin and Simon's insider story of working on counterterrorism in the U.S. government. The account tells us a great deal, and those who served in other parts of the bureaucracy or even elsewhere on the NSC staff (as this reviewer did) would agree with much of it. Yet one cannot escape the sense that the second half of the book, written breathlessly after September 11, has a different tone and purpose, and therefore quality, than the first 200 pages.

Benjamin and Simon set out to show that a small group of officials "got it" and worked to galvanize the rest of the bureaucracy to focus on the rising threat from terrorism. Their story indirectly makes an effective argument for keeping some staffers on the same brief for years, rather than continuing the normally restless rotations that characterize upward mobility for many civil servants. Both Simon and his boss and mentor, Richard Clarke, worked the terror account for most of the 1990s and thus had a unique ability to connect the dots between the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the East African embassy bombings, and nonstop intelligence warnings through the late 1990s of further attacks to come. Terrorism analysts elsewhere -- whether in the CIA, the State Department, or law enforcement -- are often passing through from other assignments. Lacking the long experience with terrorism that characterized Clarke's unusual tenure at the NSC, others in government did not see the warning signs as clearly as he and his colleagues did.

But a lack of perspective is not the only challenge that Benjamin and Simon document. They describe the bureaucracy's frequent drift to other priorities, tensions between the FBI and the CIA, petty fights over funding new technologies such as the Predator drone, and the desire of State Department regionalists to focus on a more positive agenda, rather than simply terrorism, in dealing with Muslim states. All these tales ring true, and the authors correctly express exasperation at how hard it was to get their jobs done right.

Ultimately, however, theirs is a subjective account and will be matched by those of other players who will want to explain their side of the story, or disagree with this often sharp treatment of the FBI and the media in particular. Other institutions that do not fare well in the Benjamin-Simon rendition include the State Department, the CIA, and the military -- nearly every actor, that is, except for the embattled counterterrorist shop at the NSC.

To be fair, the authors do try to turn the searchlight on themselves as well. They profile Clarke with affection and respect, recognizing his "preternatural gift for spotting emerging issues" and his tenaciousness once on an issue. He was also a master of bureaucratic politics. But when they judge that he sometimes "needlessly alienated people who might have helped him," it reads as a bit of an understatement. I share their view that Clarke and his talented proteges were formidable bureaucratic players and exceedingly hard working and productive. But I am not as sure that the personality problems can be so easily dismissed; many government officials shied away from participating in Clarke's crisis-mode working groups, and others resented his dismissive attitude toward any bureaucratic effort that he was not leading. A more inclusive, consensus-building approach might have helped forge the interagency synergies that the authors found so elusive.

Benjamin and Simon also decry the impact that political scandals had on the last two years of the Clinton presidency and passionately denounce the media's obsession with Clinton's fall from grace. In their view, the press lost sight of the national interest and distracted the American public and government from core security concerns. The uproar over Clinton's decision to bomb the al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan after the East African embassy bombings was a case in point. Critics questioned whether the plant had a military purpose and accused Clinton of using foreign policy to distract attention from his domestic problems. For Benjamin and Simon, the target choice was completely defensible, even in hindsight. They make a strong case that Salah Idris, al Shifa's owner, had ties to al Qaeda and that his plant was involved in the production of suspicious chemicals. But they have trouble accepting that the president's credibility was not strong enough to withstand the intense press scrutiny that would naturally follow such a high-profile, high-risk operation. One can agree about the excesses of some parts of the media, but the "blame game" that the authors play is more than a bit lopsided.

A few other instances of myopia slip into this first-person account. For example, Benjamin and Simon recount with some drama the millennium weekend, describing multiple threat warnings and the immense stress of trying to monitor and prevent any terrorist attack against the United States at home or abroad. But many of their colleagues were holed up in special 24-hour command posts monitoring not terrorism but the year 2000 computer rollover. For these officials, the burning question was not whether radical Islamists would strike but whether the world's computer systems would crash and lead to global confusion. Although the authors are obviously right to emphasize the importance of terrorism, it is worth remembering that the U.S. government must contend with a whole range of national security concerns.


Benjamin and Simon's description of American counterterrorism efforts during the 1990s raises important questions about preventing future attacks. Can the big bureaucratic machine of government, with its intentional diffusion of power and multiple interests, work as one unit in fighting terrorism? Will officials in intelligence, law enforcement, and policymaking figure out how to overcome the competitive instincts and security concerns that interfere with effective information sharing? Will they find ways to gather more information more quickly about terrorists, without compromising America's fundamental civil liberties and freedoms?

Benjamin and Simon cannot answer all these questions, but they shed some useful light on what it is like on the inside, how well-informed and well-intentioned people sometimes focused on the wrong things, and how small failures of leadership can allow the bureaucracy to muddle along in its inertia. Their account makes one very wary of the real impact of the new Department of Homeland Security in rectifying the problems of the past. For every bureaucratic logjam it fixes, it will likely create new ones. The authors, moreover, would like to centralize authority in the White House, so that all departments and agencies are accountable to the president and his team. Yet decades of history suggest that the American system of governance always veers away from excessively accumulating power in any one institution. Should terrorism push the United States to revise its core belief in checks and balances?

The authors also urge us to wise up to how religion -- not just Islam -- poses a new threat to national security. The "age of sacred terror" refers to rising religiosity worldwide and the emergence of new cults. This phenomenon may be in part a response to the cultural homogenization that results from globalization. For all our connectedness, many people feel a deep need to demonstrate separateness. Religion and culture thus become ever more powerful markers of identity, especially for those who are not seeing the benefits of globalization. In a slightly awkward coda to the book, Benjamin and Simon quickly consider messianism and apocalyptic thinking in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and beyond. The chapter has greater value, however, in showing the authors' lack of prejudice against Muslims than in making the case that other religions' extremists pose a significant threat.

U.S. government officials face many constraints, formal and informal, in addressing religion as a threat. Norms of tolerance and multiculturalism discourage the analysis of religion and culture. European governments face similar challenges; indeed, some European countries lack census data on religious adherence, or even how many of their residents are Muslim, because the law prohibits even asking the question. This situation places a burden on law enforcement and national security officials who need to prepare for a wide range of potential threats. But the problem runs deeper than that. Many good civil servants, fearing political incorrectness, are uncomfortable openly assessing foreign cultures on the basis of religious or cultural beliefs. In the late 1990s, for instance, when the National Intelligence Council (NIC) embarked on its unclassified exploration of the "drivers" of international politics, culminating in the publication of Global Trends 2015, analysts debated whether religion should be identified as a principal driver. Some argued forcefully that neglecting it would be a shortcoming in the study. But in the end, the NIC shied away from focusing sharply on the issue out of concern that such analysis might be considered insensitive and unintentionally generate ill will toward the United States.

In the end, the best prescription for fighting terrorism or other unconventional threats comes down to leadership. The president and key national security officials must set a clear direction for security policy, remove bureaucratic impediments to cooperation and information sharing, and judge officials by their ability to contribute to the common mission of protecting citizens. Leaders of the dizzying constellation of national security agencies and departments must see themselves as part of a single, albeit complex team, and they must pass on that belief to their subordinates. Civil servants, diplomats, soldiers, and law enforcement officials must see themselves not only as serving their own distinct service or boss, but as good citizens too, helping their counterparts in other agencies. As America grapples with terrorism, Benjamin and Simon's powerful account makes a solid and sober contribution to how we should think about and respond to this profound new challenge.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Ellen Laipson is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Henry L. Stimson Center. She served as Vice Chair of the National Intelligence Council from 1997 to 2002 and as Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council staff from 1993 to 1995.
  • More By Ellen Laipson