Published on Saturday, June 19, 2004 by the Guardian/UK
Bush Told He is Playing into Bin Laden's Hands
Al-Qaida may 'reward' American president with strike aimed at keeping him in office, senior intelligence man says
by Julian Borger in Washington
A senior US intelligence official is about to publish a bitter condemnation of America's counter-terrorism policy, arguing that the west is losing the war against al-Qaida and that an "avaricious, premeditated, unprovoked" war in Iraq has played into Osama bin Laden's hands.
Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, due out next month, dismisses two of the most frequent boasts of the Bush administration: that Bin Laden and al-Qaida are "on the run" and that the Iraq invasion has made America safer.
In an interview with the Guardian the official, who writes as "Anonymous", described al-Qaida as a much more proficient and focused organization than it was in 2001, and predicted that it would "inevitably" acquire weapons of mass destruction and try to use them.
He said Bin Laden was probably "comfortable" commanding his organization from the mountainous tribal lands along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Pakistani army claimed a big success in the "war against terror" yesterday with the killing of a tribal leader, Nek Mohammed, who was one of al-Qaida's protectors in Waziristan.
But Anonymous, who has been centrally involved in the hunt for Bin Laden, said: "Nek Mohammed is one guy in one small area. We sometimes forget how big the tribal areas are." He believes President Pervez Musharraf cannot advance much further into the tribal areas without endangering his rule by provoking a Pashtun revolt. "He walks a very fine line," he said yesterday.
Imperial Hubris is the latest in a relentless stream of books attacking the administration in election year. Most of the earlier ones, however, were written by embittered former officials. This one is unprecedented in being the work of a serving official with nearly 20 years experience in counter-terrorism who is still part of the intelligence establishment.
The fact that he has been allowed to publish, albeit anonymously and without naming which agency he works for, may reflect the increasing frustration of senior intelligence officials at the course the administration has taken.
Peter Bergen, the author of two books on Bin Laden and al-Qaida, said: "His views represent an amped-up version of what is emerging as a consensus among intelligence counter-terrorist professionals."
Anonymous does not try to veil his contempt for the Bush White House and its policies. His book describes the Iraq invasion as "an avaricious, premeditated, unprovoked war against a foe who posed no immediate threat but whose defeat did offer economic advantage.
"Our choice of timing, moreover, shows an abject, even wilful failure to recognize the ideological power, lethality and growth potential of the threat personified by Bin Laden, as well as the impetus that threat has been given by the US-led invasion and occupation of Muslim Iraq."
In his view, the US missed its biggest chance to capture the al-Qaida leader at Tora Bora in the Afghan mountains in December 2001. Instead of sending large numbers of his own troops, General Tommy Franks relied on surrogates who proved to be unreliable.
"For my money, the game was over at Tora Bora," Anonymous said.
Yesterday President Bush repeated his assertion that Bin Laden was cornered and that there was "no hole or cave deep enough to hide from American justice".
Anonymous said: "I think we overestimate significantly the stress [Bin Laden's] under. Our media and sometimes our policymakers suggest he's hiding from rock to rock and hill to hill and cave to cave. My own hunch is that he's fairly comfortable where he is."
The death and arrest of experienced operatives might have set back Bin Laden's plans to some degree but when it came to his long-term capacity to threaten the US, he said, "I don't think we've laid a glove on him".
"What I think we're seeing in al-Qaida is a change of generation," he said."The people who are leading al-Qaida now seem a lot more professional group.
"They are more bureaucratic, more management competent, certainly more literate. Certainly, this generation is more computer literate, more comfortable with the tools of modernity. I also think they're much less prone to being the Errol Flynns of al-Qaida. They're just much more careful across the board in the way they operate."
As for weapons of mass destruction, he thinks that if al-Qaida does not have them already, it will inevitably acquire them.
The most likely source of a nuclear device would be the former Soviet Union, he believes. Dirty bombs, chemical and biological weapons, could be home-made by al-Qaida's own experts, many of them trained in the US and Britain.
Anonymous, who published an analysis of al-Qaida last year called Through Our Enemies' Eyes, thinks it quite possible that another devastating strike against the US could come during the election campaign, not with the intention of changing the administration, as was the case in the Madrid bombing, but of keeping the same one in place.
"I'm very sure they can't have a better administration for them than the one they have now," he said.
"One way to keep the Republicans in power is to mount an attack that would rally the country around the president."
The White House has yet to comment publicly on Imperial Hubris, which is due to be published on July 4, but intelligence experts say it may try to portray him as a professionally embittered maverick.
The tone of Imperial Hubris is certainly angry and urgent, and the stridency of his warnings about al-Qaida led him to be moved from a highly sensitive job in the late 90s.
But Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of operations at the CIA counter-terrorism center, said he had been vindicated by events. "He is very well respected, and looked on as a serious student of the subject."
Anonymous believes Mr Bush is taking the US in exactly the direction Bin Laden wants, towards all-out confrontation with Islam under the banner of spreading democracy.
He said: "It's going to take 10,000-15,000 dead Americans before we say to ourselves: 'What is going on'?"
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004