How (Not?) to Fight Terrorism

Surprise, Surprise

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon:

Richard Falkenrath does not like our book The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right ("Grading the War on Terrorism," January/February 2006). He says it is "a disappointment" and "a polemic" filled with "sweeping assertions," riddled with "dubious claims," and tainted by "sloppy documentation." In parts, it is "superficial," "scattershot," and chock-a-block with "exaggerations, misinterpretations, and errors."

These charges do not surprise us. After all, The Next Attack sharply criticizes the Bush administration's conduct in the war on jihadist terrorism, and Falkenrath is a long-standing member -- albeit a junior one -- of the Bush inner circle. He worked on the administration's transition to power in 2000 and then in various positions dealing with weapons-proliferation issues and homeland security. According to an online biography, he was "one of the architects of the Department of Homeland Security and the principal author of the National Strategy for Homeland Security."

Since he left the government in 2004, Falkenrath has been a devoted defender of the administration and a reflexive critic of its detractors, including as a spokesman for the Bush campaign. Most recently, he criticized the final report of the bipartisan 9/11 Public Discourse Project (an organization created by the members of the 9/11 Commission) on the administration's counterterrorism and homeland security efforts. Falkenrath called the report, which gave the administration's performance mostly low to failing grades, "very superficial" and argued that its authors had "cheapened their own moral authority and reputation."

So it is hardly shocking that Falkenrath would loathe a book that reviewers for publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Economist have praised lavishly. Beneath the impasto of pejoratives, we cannot discern an argument in Falkenrath's review of our book. His article is reminiscent of the classic Monty Python skit about the man who goes to the argument store in search of debate but whose every claim is met with just flat contradiction. The Next Attack grapples with jihadist terrorism, a phenomenon deeply rooted in the social and political conditions of Muslims around the world and the debate over what it means to be Muslim. To our knowledge, Falkenrath has never published a word on terrorism per se, Islam, the politics and sociology of the Muslim world, or, for that matter, U.S. policy toward Muslim countries -- which may explain his fact-free fusillade.


The Next Attack grew out of our conviction that the Bush administration has failed to understand two central lessons of 9/11. First, there are terrorist groups today that operate independently of state support and pose as serious a strategic threat as rogue states. Second, because of radical Islamism's ideological nature, Washington's approach to Islamist terrorists must be different from its approach to rogue states. Of course, Islamist terrorists must be captured or killed and their networks disrupted. But to stop their movement's growth, their ideology must also be undermined.

The Bush administration has insisted on seeing jihadist terrorism as dependent on rogue states such as Iraq. "Terrorist organizations cannot be effective in sustaining themselves over long periods of time to do large-scale operations if they don't have support from states," former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith told The New Yorker in 2003, adding that this belief was "one of the principal strategic thoughts underlying our strategy in the war on terrorism." Armed with a few related contentions regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the United States invaded Iraq.

The Next Attack demonstrates how the war and the occupation have played, ideologically, tactically, and strategically, into the hands of the United States' enemies. The book documents how, for some Muslims, the invasion of Iraq confirmed Osama bin Laden's argument that the United States and its allies seek to occupy Muslim countries, steal their wealth, and destroy Islam. We describe in the book the emergence since 9/11 of a new generation of "self-starter" terrorists, among them Mohammed Bouyeri, who assassinated the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in November 2004, and the bombers who attacked Madrid's public transportation system in 2004 and London's in 2005. These terrorists have few or no connections to al Qaeda but are inspired by the group's ideology.

Falkenrath pooh-poohs our evaluation of this new phenomenon as "thoroughly mainstream ... [and already] purveyed by most outside experts as well as U.S. intelligence analysts and government officials, including President [George W.] Bush." Clearly, he has not understood the argument. We claim that most self-starters have been animated by the spread of jihadist ideology, which has been accelerated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. President Bush has gone to great lengths to deny these connections, and Falkenrath echoes him. Of our contention that Iraq is driving radicalization, Falkenrath says that it is "only a hypothesis: plausible but not proven."

Here he must mean "hypothesis" in the same sense that some conservatives refer to evolution as a mere "theory." There was nothing hypothetical about the Madrid bombers' fixation on Iraq. With glee, they watched videos of Spanish intelligence officers being murdered in Iraq and declared that Spain must pay for supporting the U.S. military campaign. Bouyeri slit the throat of his already dead victim in emulation of the decapitation videos from Iraq. The London bombers' obsession with the Iraq war has been amply documented by the press; prebombing assessments by the United Kingdom's Joint Terrorism Analysis Center had warned that "events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist-related activity in the UK."

The appearance of so many self-starters is just one of the consequences of the war in Iraq. Our book examines other results, such as the spread of Iraqi bomb-making technology to Saudi Arabia, the recrudescence of Islamism in Syria, the sudden eruption of Islamist violence in Kuwait and Qatar, and attacks on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Aqaba. In short, the Iraq war has not just revived a jihad that had lost momentum after the Taliban were toppled; it has also turbocharged it.

The U.S. intelligence community and its partners around the world are now justifiably worried about veterans of the insurgency in Iraq returning to their home countries to carry out attacks. In February 2005, CIA Director Porter Goss told a Senate panel that those "who survive will leave Iraq experienced and focused on acts of urban terrorism." Yet Falkenrath considers this scenario unlikely; in his view, "The publicly available evidence suggests that for now, at least, Iraq is more of a terrorist graveyard than a breeding ground: a bloody, terrible, but faraway free-fire zone to which surviving members of al Qaeda and its allies have traveled to fight the United States and its allies."

He is wrong, for multiple reasons. first, a careful reader of The Next Attack would have noted that the book cites studies by the Israeli terrorism expert Reuven Paz and the Saudi security analyst Nawaf Obaid demonstrating that the foreign fighters are overwhelmingly not "surviving members of al Qaeda and its allies," but rather young Muslims with no background in Islamist activism. No one, not even Falkenrath, can know how many of them are getting killed, much less claim that Iraq is turning into "a terrorist graveyard." Second, we argue that plenty of attention is being paid to foreign jihadists but not enough is being paid to the emergence of an Iraqi jihadist movement. That movement did not exist before the invasion, and its emergence is a worrisome development. (Just days after the book's publication, Iraqis bombed three hotels in Amman, Jordan.) The ranks of Ansar al-Sunna, the Islamic Army of Iraq, and al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers probably now include several thousand Iraqi terrorists.

The Next Attack explains why U.S. activity in Iraq has galvanized some Muslims. Several developments have come together to make this happen: the emergence of a new umma -- the transnational community of Muslims -- thanks to the Internet, the global crisis of Muslim clerical authority, and the worsening of the United States' image in the Muslim world. Our discussion of how decades of Islamization have bred greater religious (rather than ethnic or national) self-identification synthesizes new scholarship by researchers such as Olivier Roy, Gilles Kepel, and Farhad Khosrokhavar. To Falkenrath, however, "the evidence presented ... is flimsy." He accuses us of supplying only one poll to prove our case. In fact, we refer to other polls showing, for example, that 41 percent of Muslims under the age of 35 in the United Kingdom define themselves as solely Muslim rather than as both British and Muslim. In France, the number of Muslims who identify themselves as "believing and practicing" increased by 25 percent between 1994 and 2001.

Falkenrath derides our assessment that "America's image in the Muslim world has never been more battered" and that the jihadist worldview is making inroads. To reflect the latest findings, we cite, as Falkenrath notes, a poll by the Pew Research Center reporting a slight uptick in the United States' popularity. But the poll's text clearly indicates that these changes occurred in outlier countries: Lebanon, which has a large Christian population; Morocco, historically more pro-Western than most Muslim countries; and Jordan, where the United States' rating could hardly have gotten worse after the 2004 poll, which found that 98 percent of Jordanians disapproved of the United States. (Meanwhile, support for both bin Laden and suicide bombings has increased in Jordan.) Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, testified before Congress last November that public opinion about the United States in the Muslim world remains negative because of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and because "the ongoing conflict in Iraq continues to fuel anti-Americanism." "The war on terrorism is perceived negatively in the region," he said. "And the perception that the United States acts unilaterally in foreign policy is a big negative not only in the Mideast but around the world."

Falkenrath might also consider a 2004 report on strategic communication by a task force of the Pentagon's Defense Science Board, which gathers grim poll results from Zogby, CNN/Gallup, Pew, and U.S. government surveys. The study finds evidence of "widespread animosity toward the United States and its policies" and argues that "a year and a half after going to war in Iraq, Arab/Muslim anger has intensified." It notes that "data from Zogby International in July 2004, for example, show that the U.S. is viewed unfavorably by overwhelming majorities in Egypt (98 percent), Saudi Arabia (94 percent), Morocco (88 percent), and Jordan (78 percent)." In the fall of 2003, a superabundance of anecdotal and statistical evidence had led a congressionally mandated panel chaired by Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, to conclude that "hostility toward America has reached shocking levels."


Another important subject of our book is how Washington blundered so profoundly. Falkenrath dismisses our chapters on the topic as much the same as works by Richard Clarke, James Bamford, Larry Diamond, and James Fallows, among others. But, as most reviewers have found, The Next Attack breaks new ground. We show in greater depth that the Defense Department's premature decision to move key assets from Afghanistan to Iraq was evidence that the Bush administration underestimated the jihadist threat. Before our book, no one had reported that in early 2002 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld delayed the dispatch of Predator drones to Afghanistan for petty bureaucratic reasons. We know of no comparably detailed analysis of how the Pentagon's civilian leadership ignored both intelligence officials and Pentagon experts who questioned the existence of a relationship between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. If there is a more substantive account of how "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy," as the former British intelligence chief Sir Richard Dearlove has put it, we do not know of it.

We report that the office of the vice president and the office of the secretary of defense together functioned as a parallel government, unchecked by the National Security Council, in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. We provide new information about how these players sought to take the United States to war in the first half of 2002, botched the occupation by bypassing professional military planners, and even decided to dissolve the Iraqi army without consulting the NSC's Principals Committee. One of the lessons worth learning from the mess in Iraq is that the system, cumbersome as it is, can sometimes prevent the unimaginably stupid from occurring.

For Falkenrath, such concern is beside the point. "What is most needed now is not another rehashing of the administration's past actions," he writes, "but a serious and forward-looking discussion." The claim is breathtaking. How can one get anything right in the future without examining what has gone wrong in the past? Because Falkenrath would prefer not to confront such mistakes, he does not acknowledge their consequences.


If there is a theme to Falkenrath's review, it is that The Next Attack is unjustifiably negative about the war on terrorism. We confess to being deeply pessimistic about Washington's strategic position. Are we being unfair? The facts do not support Falkenrath's Panglossian outlook. We report that the government's domestic security efforts have been plagued by problems and remain insufficient. Falkenrath dismisses that claim, but without supporting data. According to everyone we interviewed, and according to the assessments of the FBI's own inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, the 9/11 Commission, and the Silberman-Robb commission (which investigated allegations that intelligence on WMD was mishandled), the FBI simply has not implemented the reforms required to cope with the threat of Islamist militancy. Such failures are the reason that last year the White House ordered the creation of a new national security division within the FBI that will report to the director of national intelligence. Falkenrath also claims that the National Counterterrorism Center "successfully integrates intelligence from and coordinates operations across multiple agencies." It may do so one day, but for now it is struggling over resources with the CIA and is hamstrung by the lack of a national security policy directive delineating the responsibilities of the agencies tasked with fighting the war on terrorism.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, The Washington Post and other news outlets confirmed our key findings about the Department of Homeland Security, as has the department's own inspector general. As one of five midlevel officials who holed up in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center in 2002, shuffling boxes in the new department's organizational chart, Falkenrath is understandably defensive. Designed in secret and presented as a fait accompli, the new behemoth was born, Falkenrath told Naval Postgraduate School researchers, according to an account quoted in The Washington Post, because he "bamboozled" the cabinet. The botched Katrina relief effort has since shown that although Falkenrath's method produced the quick and easy results the president wanted, the product was a failure. Considering the inadequate preparations for the war in Iraq and the administration's insufficient efforts to improve homeland security, "bamboozle" is a fitting term for the national security policy of Bush's first term.

Falkenrath is reckless in dismissing our treatment of U.S. law enforcement since 9/11. We revealed "a surprising ignorance and disdain," he argues, by writing that the six Yemeni Americans arrested in Lackawanna, New York, in September 2002 on charges of supporting terrorism probably accepted plea bargains out of fear that they would be handed over to the Defense Department as enemy combatants. The defendants, he claims, were never threatened with the possibility. Yet John Molloy, an attorney for Lackawanna defendant Mukhtar al-Bakri, told us in January 2006 that the Justice Department had signaled that a transfer to the Defense Department "was a possibility, and [that] it affected [the defendants'] choice." At first, "five of the six wanted to go to trial"; in the end, all agreed to the plea deal. (The U.S. Attorney's Office refused to comment beyond noting that the plea agreement included a promise that the defendants would not be delivered to the Defense Department.) So who is ignorant and disdainful?

Falkenrath is also Pollyannaish about the geopolitics of jihad. To counter our concerns about Washington's strategic situation, he consistently points to supposed tactical gains. "The Pakistani security services have demonstrated the ability and willingness to take down al Qaeda operatives in urban settings," he writes, overlooking the fact that the problem has never been the Pakistanis' ability to capture individual militants but rather the country's continuing slide into disarray and radicalism. Falkenrath writes of the November 2005 bombings in Amman, "Few foresaw that such an incident could rally Arab Muslims against radical militancy, as it has in Jordan." Apparently, he is unaware that the postattack demonstrations began with government rent-a-crowds. As the International Crisis Group has reported, "While Jordanians are likely to question the killing of nationals, many will continue to approve of [Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's] actions in Iraq ... and might even accept attacks at home aimed at government institutions, U.S. and Israeli targets, and Western civilians."

For Falkenrath, The Next Attack asks all the wrong questions. When he turns to what he considers the really important issues, he raises the topic of rhetoric: "Take, for example, the question of whether administration officials should continue to speak of a 'war on terror.' The phrase clearly does not play well with foreign audiences." But critics of the United States, whether in the Muslim world or in the non-Muslim world, are less concerned about rhetoric than conduct, and the towering example of that conduct is the war in Iraq. They care less about the U.S. government's use of martial terms to talk about fighting radical Islamism than they do about the fact that the United States has invaded a Muslim country, mangled the occupation, destabilized the region, and presided over turmoil that has killed at least 30,000 Iraqis. These concerns are the reason our book focuses so heavily on Iraq. If Falkenrath thinks that Washington's rhetoric on the war on terrorism is more important than the war's consequences, then the United States is even worse off than we realized.

DANIEL BENJAMIN is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. STEVEN SIMON is a Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. They are also the authors of The Age of Sacred Terror.

Falkenrath Replies:

The fundamental points of my review of The Next Attack are that its scholarship is poor, its information and analysis derivative of more subtle and original works, its assessments unbalanced, and its prescriptions weak. The authors' intemperate response reinforces these points.

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon have elected to respond to my critique principally by attacking my integrity and independence. I have no intention of joining the mudslinging and am not interested in dignifying their ad hominem assault. Their charges of bias against me personally are baseless, their derision, unworthy.

Benjamin and Simon's response to my review exemplifies the lack of civility and circumspection that increasingly afflicts American public life. Their reaction does a disservice to the need for a serious, fact-based, balanced, and depersonalized public debate about how best to deal with the continuing threat of Islamist militancy.

Two points of fact raised in Benjamin and Simon's response are, however, worth addressing as illustrations of their work. First, although it is true that some reviews of The Next Attack have been favorable, saying that it has been "praised lavishly" is going a bit far. The three other reviews mentioned by Benjamin and Simon had some not-so-lavish things to say. The New York Times reviewer wrote, "For Benjamin and Simon, 'getting it right' means all the obvious things. ... The magnitude of the problem is suggested by the fact that at this point two writers with as much experience as Benjamin and Simon don't really know what to do next." The Washington Post reviewer wrote, "While the book's tone is generally sober, The Next Attack sometimes gets carried away. ... A brief concluding chapter on the role of the administration's evangelical supporters in framing the war on terrorism feels underdeveloped and hastily written. Most egregiously, the authors approvingly cite a prescient 2002 op-ed piece that warned that invading Iraq could worsen jihadist violence, written by 'a former counterterrorism official' -- who happened to be one Daniel Benjamin." And The Economist wrote, "This is a policy book. There is scarcely a hint of history in it. It appears to have been written and published quickly."

Second, regarding the allegation that U.S. prosecutors threatened the so-called Lackawanna Six with an enemy-combatant designation, Benjamin and Simon once again show that they do not feel obliged to present the sort of evidence needed to substantiate such a factual claim. Designating a U.S. citizen in U.S. custody in the United States as an enemy combatant and transferring that person to the custody of the secretary of defense is a very serious matter. Under the Constitution, only the president has the authority to order such a transfer (he has not delegated it to any other U.S. officials with respect to individuals on U.S. territory). U.S. attorneys and assistant U.S. attorneys do not casually threaten defendants with exceptional presidential determinations, particularly when their case against the defendants is exceptionally strong (as it was with respect to the Lackawanna Six on the charges of material support brought against them) and when they have no idea if the president is even contemplating such an action.

Benjamin and Simon now explain that one of the defense lawyers told them that the Justice Department "had signaled" that designating these six individuals as enemy combatants was "a possibility." Of course it was a possibility, and of course it had been signaled: the president had already taken this step with respect to Jose Padilla (who has been accused of plotting to detonate a "dirty bomb" in the United States), and he asserted the authority to do so again. This rather obvious representation by a defense lawyer in no way supports the allegation that such a threat was in fact made by the prosecutors dealing with the Lackawanna Six. If any U.S. official made such a threat without clear presidential authorization, it was a grossly inappropriate act. But I am not aware of any evidence that the threat was ever made or even considered. And until Benjamin and Simon can produce the evidence, they should stop repeating the claim.

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