INTERVIEW WITH TERRORISM EXPERT BRUCE HOFFMAN
"Al-Qaida is More Dangerous Than it Was on 9/11"
Some people think Bin Laden’s network has been devastated by the war on terrorism, but Bruce Hoffman disagrees: The RAND Corporation expert talks to SPIEGEL ONLINE about al-Qaida’s structure since September 11, Hezbollah’s ambitions in Lebanon, and the chances of American success in Iraq.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Hoffman, five years have passed since 9/11. US officials claim that two-thirds of the al-Qaida leadership have either been captured or killed. Yet you are saying that al-Qaida is on the march. What leads you to that conclusion?
Hoffman: Whatever the percentage of the leadership killed or captured, that was the leadership that existed on 9/11. I find that a tremendous success. I don’t want to minimize it. But it is also a dangerously anachronistic view because al-Qaida has been capable of filling that void in five years. The constant succession of "Number Threes" — people in the post of operations chief, from Mohamed Atef to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to Hambali to Hamza al-Rabi, for instance — proves that. Al-Qaida has a much deeper bench than we thought. They have shown themselves to be more formidable and perhaps more determined than we imagined.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Yet we haven’t seen another 9/11, only attacks on a smaller scale. Has the threat deminished?
Hoffman: You must look at terror as a constant phenomenon. It changes continuously. Even before 9/11 al-Qaida was not a monolithic organisation. Certainly today it is not the same as it was on 9/11. It doesn’t have a state within a state anymore, as it had in Afghanistan. It doesn’t have a network of training camps and operational bases and a very solid command-and-control nexus. But now a lot of those training capabilities have migrated from physical space to virtual space, because the terrorists are using the Internet much more. Possession of Afghanistan should not be equated with being capable of a 9/11-type attack. Much of the 9/11 attacks were not planned in Afghanistan but in Germany, Spain and the US as well. I think that al-Qaida still exercises command-and-control. The attacks on the London Underground in July 2005 show that. And there are indications that the recently unmasked London airliner plot from this summer will, too. Al-Qaida is still alive and kicking and, as the airliner plot may yet show, still thinking in the same grandiose, ambitious terms as before 9/11.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But are Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri still the ones ordering attacks?
Hoffman: That’s unclear. But there surely is some command structure that functions out of Waziristan. The pattern of the bombings in London in July 2005 for example was almost identical with older plans by al-Qaida. It was carried out by a cell of British Muslim terrorists enlisted by al-Qaida and directed or assisted by al-Qaida cells in Pakistan just as a foiled plan the previous year to attack targets in the US was. In the wishful thinking mode that we are in, we chose not to believe al-Qaida was behind the London attack, and instead believe it was a case of "homegrown terrorism." But that is a myth. The London bombers were no self-radicalized, self-selected individuals acting spontaneously. The ring leader had visited jihadi camps in Pakistan on at least two occasions, and we believe he met with al-Qaida leaders there. By the same token, it wouldn’t suprise me if the foiled airliner plot this summer could also be traced back to the al-Qaida leadership. It was also straight out of their textbook and not something self-radicalized, self-selected terrorists could easily devise, organize and coordinate on their own.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: At the same time you write about several new al-Qaidas that exist today…
Hoffman: Yes, because new structures have emerged. It is not an "either/or"-phenomenon: There are both new cells inspired by al-Qaida and actual al-Qaida terrorists active today. That is why I think al-Qaida is more dangerous than it was on 9/11. Because you have now a vast sea of self-radicalized Muslims in many places in the Muslim world that aren’t necessarily connected with al-Qaida but willing to act. So you still have an al-Qaida organization that is operating on its own but is also seeking to tap into that pool of unhappiness and disaffection.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: There have been rumors recently about Osama bin Laden being dead or seriously ill. What consequences would his death have?
Hoffman: Bin Laden may be even more powerful dead than alive — by inspiring people to follow his example of martyrdom. But also alive he is a very influential person, even if he is cut off from communication with his followers. Killing or capturing him straight after 9/11 would have had more impact. The fact that the biggest manhunt in history hasn’t led to his arrest until now has already greatly enhanced his standing.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your book "Inside Terrorism" you cite Bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri as saying that al-Qaida has the US where they wanted it: if it leaves Iraq, it would be bad, if it stays in Iraq, it wouldn’t be any better. Is he right?
Hoffman: Unfortunately I think al-Zawahiri’s analysis is probably among the most astute and insightful. I think what he underestimates though is the capacity of the United States to have a positive impact in Iraq or indeed produce the staying power to see through what it has begun. Al-Zawahiri sees Iraq as a flat line that will continue to get worse and descend into total anarchy. Iraq is not a lost cause. We have to realize though that countering complex insurgencies has generally taken at least a decade. So it is still early days, even three years into the conflict there. Therefore, the accuracy of al-Zawahiri’s predicition will have to stand the test of time.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: A couple of months ago, the US had to admit that Iraq has become a breeding ground for terrorism.
Hoffman: One of our problems is that we don’t take seriously what jihadis say. Even before the invasion, Saif al-Adel, the then military chief of al-Qaida, openly incited foreign fighters to come fight there. Why we didn’t believe an insurgency would occur still baffles me. The battle cry had already been sounded. Now we even have Iraqi jihadis, something that formerly didn’t exist. In this situation it doesn’t matter anymore if invading Iraq was right or not. Now the highest priority must be to succeed in Iraq. But that is going to take time. We have to adjust and adapt to our highly innovative and determined adversaries.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The UNIFIL peacekeeping force is concentrating in Lebanon to secure a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah. You have studied Hezbollah for a long time. Can you picture Hezbollah changing into a political party? Or will it stay a terrorist threat?
Hoffman: This also is not an "either/or"-question. Hezbollah, on the one hand, has become a major regional political force. But at the same time I don’t see them giving up their military potential, since they style themselves a resistance force protecting Lebanon. Hezbollah can thus take tremendous satisfaction in having acquitted itself well against the Israelis this summer and having gained as much as they can for now: international attention, an improved standing with Shiites and even Sunnis across the Muslim world. They are likely to see the time right now as best used to consolidate these gains. The ceasefire will therefore perhaps hold for the time being — at least as long as it is in Hezbollah’s interest.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: For the first time Germany is sending soldiers to the Middle East. The navy is supposed to make sure no arms are being smuggled to Hezbollah via the Mediterranean. Is that a purely symbolic mission?
Hoffman: No. One only has to think back to 2002 when the the ship "Karine A" left Iran and was seized by Israeli navy vessels and commandos in the Red Sea. There were thousands of tons of arms on board being shipped from Iran to the Middle East. This flow continues. More importantly, though, since the divide between domestic and international terrorism can no longer be distinguished, it is essential for all those nations who are able to do so to help to stabilize the situation. In this sense the involvement of the German navy is a significant contribution.
The interview was conducted by Yassin Musharbash in Berlin