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Director of Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin

Former White House Director of Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin has co-authored the book The Age of Sacred Terror with Steven Simon, the former Senior Director of Counterterrorism. Benjamin and Simon began writing the book more than a year before Sept. 11, 2001. As director and co-director at the National Security Council, they saw the rise of al Qaeda. In the book, they warn about the new generation of terrorists and set out to understand the enemy. Additionally, the authors wish to explain how we let our defenses down and what to expect in the future. Benjamin is now senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Prior to entering the administration, he was a journalist.


Other segments from the episode on October 9, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 9, 2002: Interview with Jonathan Landay; Interview with Daniel Benjamin.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Jonathan Landay discusses the Bush administration's
so-called rush to war with Iraq and potential consequences

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Yesterday a letter was released from the CIA warning that a US attack against
Iraq could make it more likely that Saddam Hussein would adapt terrorist
methods, such as the use of chemical or biological weapons. This letter is in
sync with private doubts about the Bush administration's rush to war,
expressed by some military officers, intelligence professionals and diplomats.
Those reservations are reported in an article yesterday, co-written by my
guest, Jonathan Landay. He's the national security correspondent for the
Knight Ridder newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami
Herald and the Detroit Free Press.

Landay's article is based on interviews with dissenting officials who work in
a number of different agencies. They did not want their names used out of
fear of retribution.

Before we talk about their reservations, let's start with a summary of a
letter from the CIA which was addressed to the chair of the Senate
Intelligence Committee, Bob Graham.

Mr. JONATHAN LANDAY (National Security Correspondent): Essentially the
letter from the CIA, which was written by the deputy director, John
McLaughlin, but on behalf of the director, George Tenet, says that the CIA
believes that, for now, Baghdad is drawing a line short of conducting
terrorist attacks against the United States without conventional chemical or
biological weapons. In essence, what this letter says is there's no immediate
threat in the CIA's judgment that Saddam Hussein is going to use chemical or
biological weapons against the United States. However, a very interesting
part of the letter talks about how, if the United States prepares for an
attack against Iraq, and should Saddam Hussein conclude that this attack is
going to be forthcoming, he might no longer be deterred from using such
weapons against the United States and could even decide at that point to turn
biological, chemical weapons over to terrorists.

GROSS: So the assumption there is that the CIA doesn't think he's already
turned any of those weapons over to Islamic terrorists.

Mr. LANDAY: Exactly. And, in fact, even before the CIA letter came out, I
heard from somebody by e-mail yesterday saying exactly that; someone who's in
the academic community but maintains very close connections with people in
both the intelligence community...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. LANDAY: ...and the Department of Defense. And he was saying to me that
this is a scenario that people are extremely concerned about, the fact that
there may not be a threat right now, but if Saddam finds himself cornered,
with nothing left to lose, then it would be in his interests to provide these
weapons to terrorists for use in revenge attacks against the United States.

GROSS: Now the letter also says that al-Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq
who could help them acquire weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq has
provided members of al-Qaeda with training in the areas of poison gases and
bomb-making. So how much of a connection is that between al-Qaeda and Saddam

Mr. LANDAY: Well, it's very hard to judge, given the fact that a lot of this
is classified. And the administration has been unwilling to go very far in
describing the sources of this information. However, in a recent story that
we have written, we have reported that this information, according to our
sources, is coming from Abu Zubaydah, who was a senior al-Qaeda operative
arrested in Pakistan earlier this year. The thing is that some intelligence
analysts are questioning the veracity of Mr. Zubaydah's disclosures because,
as they note, it would be in al-Qaeda's interest for the United States to
believe that there was a connection because that would feed the drive towards
a war; that would be a major recruiting tool for al-Qaeda, given the fact that
it would, in the minds of many Muslims, confirm their view that the United
States' policy is one of being anti-Muslim.

GROSS: Let's look at this information in the context of the article that you
wrote yesterday saying that a lot of people in the military, intelligence and
diplomatic communities have a lot of reservations about the Bush
administration's double-time march toward war and that the Bush administration
has been exaggerating evidence of the threat that Saddam Hussein poses,
including distorting his links to the al-Qaeda network. In what way did your
sources tell you they think the Bush administration has been distorting
evidence of the links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda?

Mr. LANDAY: Well, to begin with, people we talked to agreed that there may
or have been senior al-Qaeda operatives in Baghdad, but they also point out
that there are more senior al-Qaeda operatives in places like Riyadh, Karachi,
Paris, London, even the United States and that that, in and of itself, does
not prove a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda in terms of a plot to
stage anti-American terrorist attacks. So that is one of the first things
that people have pointed out to us.

Secondly, it is our understanding from sources that some of the evidence that
has been used to make this charge that senior al-Qaeda have been in Baghdad is
telephone monitoring of calls made by a senior al-Qaeda official from Baghdad,
but to members of his family and friends, and that there is no evidence from
that call of any kind of link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in terms of
terrorist operations.

GROSS: Now your sources have told you anonymously that they think the Bush
administration is filtering information from the intelligence and military
community, that the Bush administration's basically only using information
that backs up its case in preparing for war. Can you give us an example or
two of that?

Mr. LANDAY: Yeah. I think, first of all, that the CIA letter tends to
substantiate what we were being told, in that the CIA director says, in other
words, that they do not see this imminent threat from Saddam Hussein that the
administration publicly has been talking about. But beyond that there are
other things that have been brought to our attention. For instance, another
public disclosure last week in another CIA report talked about Iraq's attempts
to import thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes, and this report points
out that, while the majority of analysts in the intelligence community believe
these tubes were destined for Iraq's nuclear weapons program, others within
that same community disagree and say that these tubes are, in fact, destined
for conventional weapons. The tubes have an anodized exterior, which makes
them very smooth and, in the opinion of some analysts, extremely useful for
making ground-to-ground rockets, not for making high-speed centrifuges that
are used in the production of enriched uranium.

Now, despite the fact that there is this dispute going on within the analyst
community, President Bush has twice--first before the United Nations and then
earlier this week in his televised speech to the nation--said categorically
that these tubes are destined for use in Iraq's nuclear program. And so
obviously--I mean, it's the president's right to decide which view within the
intelligence community he's going to adopt. The fact is that he made this
categorical statement despite the fact that there is, in fact, this dispute
going on as to what the purpose of these tubes is or was.

GROSS: This is just speculation, but do you have any idea why the CIA decided
to make public the information that they did yesterday?

Mr. LANDAY: Yeah. Again, it's conjecture, but it seems to me that the CIA's
charter or its purpose is to provide a balanced, even-handed analysis of
intelligence to what they refer to as consumers--those are officials within
the United States government, the policy-making branches of the United States
government, who use that intelligence to try to make informed decisions on
policy. And if you think about it, the fact that the CIA has gone public with
some of this stuff seems, at least in my mind and in the minds of other people
that I've talked to, to indicate that the CIA believes that this stuff needs
to be out there because perhaps there hasn't been even-handed use and
dissemination of intelligence and they want to make sure that there is.

GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Landay, national security correspondent for
Knight Ridder Newspapers. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Landay, national security correspondent for
Knight Ridder Newspapers. He co-wrote an article published yesterday
reporting that many military officers, intelligence professionals and
diplomats have serious reservations about the Bush administration's rush
toward war.

Now intelligence professionals within the administration who are critical of
the administration's position on Iraq also told you that they think the Bush
administration is downplaying the potential repercussions of a new war in the
Gulf. What are some of their concerns?

Mr. LANDAY: Well, senior diplomats are extremely concerned about the impact
that a US invasion of Iraq would have on stability in the region around Iraq.
For instance, one concern is the impact on Iran. Now Iran is in the midst of
a power struggle between hard-line elements and reformists. The fear is that
a US invasion would be used by the hard-liners as an excuse to accelerate
their crackdown on the reformists in Iran. Don't forget now that if there's a
US invasion of Iraq, there would then be US troops on two of Iran's borders,
Afghanistan and Iraq; that not only would the hard-liners use this so-called
threat of the United States to accelerate their crackdown on reformers, but
could use it to accelerate Iran's own weapons of mass destruction programs.
So that's one of the major concerns.

Another concern, a really serious concern, is the impact an invasion of Iraq
would have on the situation between India and Pakistan. Indian officials in
recent days have been talking about, in favorable terms, the Bush
administration's new pre-emptive prevention strategy and why not--if it's good
enough for the United States, why wouldn't it be good enough for India in its
dispute with Pakistan over the Kashmir region? The bases of Islamic militants
who are fighting in the Indian side of Kashmir are located in Pakistan and
there have been--and Indian officials could use a pre-emptive prevention
strategy to hit at those bases while the United States was engaged in Iraq.
Such an incident could be the spark to a war that has been threatening to
break out between India and Pakistan for nearly a year now.

The president of Pakistan, General Pervaiz Musharraf, has threatened
repeatedly that if India was to do such a thing as hit at the militant bases
in Pakistan, he would strike back and he has said that Pakistan's
counterattack would not be confined to the Kashmir region. And so you have
the potential of a new war between India and Pakistan, both of which are armed
with nuclear weapons.

GROSS: Now something else you've been hearing from the military intelligence
and diplomatic communities, and that is that the Bush administration is
squelching dissenting views. What are some of the specific claims that have
been made?

Mr. LANDAY: Well, essentially what we're hearing is not so much that there
are dissenting claims but that there's no evidence really that has been
forthcoming that shows that the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs are
any more advanced or any more threatening than they were before, at the end of
the Gulf War. The Iraqis have been involved in trying to develop nuclear
weapons since the 1980s and their major problem was coming up with the fuel
for a nuclear weapon--either making it themselves or finding it somewhere
else. Well, there's no indications that they have been any more successful in
that endeavor than they have been over the past decade. They had come very
close to developing many of the systems that drive a nuclear weapon, both the
conventional explosives, and actually had a weapon design--two weapons designs
but, again, were unable to make or find the fissile material that's necessary
to drive a weapon. That still seems to be the case. Even the president
admits that when he says that if they were able to find fissile material, it
would take them only a year to make a bomb.

The fact is, though, that in the most recent CIA report, the CIA states that
but the CIA also states that if they can't get fissile material, it's unlikely
that they would be able to build a bomb before the end of this decade--the
last half of this decade. And, therefore, there's a note there that's a lot
less urgent than what we're hearing from many administration officials.

GROSS: Intelligence analysts told you that they think they're under pressure
to produce reports that support the White House's arguments.

Mr. LANDAY: We're hearing that not only from intelligence types but also from
military and diplomatic officials, that there is a great deal of pressure to
produce intelligence analyses that support the administration's agenda. I
can't give you specific--we did not come up with any specific examples of
this, but this is something that we're hearing from quite a few sources.

GROSS: Now I'm wondering if the people who are telling you this anonymously
found you--whether they were so anxious to let the public know about this that
they found you, or whether you've been calling out and asking them?

Mr. LANDAY: In fact, it began with some unsolicited contacts from within the
intelligence and military communities. And that's what convinced us to go out
and try and see how widespread this feeling was. We can't quantify how
widespread it is and, you know, there was no statistical data. You know, we
didn't do a public opinion survey within the government. Nevertheless, the
fact is that we heard consistently from everybody we've heard--and I've heard
since the piece appeared from several other people--that this is, indeed, the

GROSS: What message do you think these people with dissenting views would
like to give the American public?

Mr. LANDAY: I think the message is that there needs to be a wider spectrum
of data presented, that--and you hear this also. It's not just from these
people. I mean, you listen to some of the lawmakers coming out of their
classified briefings on the Hill about all of this, and they're saying exactly
the same things: that they haven't heard anything new, that they haven't
heard anything that indicates that there's an imminent threat and that they're
far more concerned about the impact of a US invasion on regional stability as
well as, you know, they want to know what about the day after and the day
after that? What happens to Iraq under an American occupation?

GROSS: Tom Ricks from The Washington Post said on our show a couple of
months ago that he had found that the military was particularly cautious about
going to war against Iraq, 'cause they were afraid of what the consequences
might be. Did you find that your sources in the military are concerned about
what their people, what their men and women will face if we go to war now with

Mr. LANDAY: Oh, absolutely. I think that's definitely part of what some of
the misgivings are, that, you know, there are some fairly scary scenarios out
there. However, I don't think that there's anybody we've talked to who would
say that the United States military couldn't prevail in an invasion of Iraq.
I think what the greatest concerns are are, as I said, the day after, and the
impact that such an invasion would have, not only on regional stability but on
the prosecution of the war on terrorism. There's a great deal of apprehension
about that, and not about overstretch but, for instance, about the possibility
that countries that are opposed to an American invasion of Iraq could tighten
the caps on intelligence sharing, intelligence that's crucial to the US
efforts to track down al-Qaeda.

The other concern, a very big concern, is the fact that an Iraq invasion could
be one of the best recruiting tools that al-Qaeda has had in a long time,
particularly if there are high civilian casualties and large-scale destruction
as a result of urban fighting. That is especially worrisome to people that
we've talked to.

GROSS: So the people in the intelligence, military and diplomatic communities
who are expressing their skepticism about the evidence that the Bush
administration is using in support of war with Iraq, are these skeptics
saying, therefore, we should not go to war with Iraq or, therefore, we
shouldn't go as quickly?

Mr. LANDAY: I think that's the case. I think they think--they believe there
needs to be far more consideration given to what's going on and consideration
of the widest possible spectrum of potential outcome, rather than what they
believe is this attitude of, you know, `We can do this and, you know, we don't
want to hear any bad news.'

GROSS: Well, Jonathan Landay, thank you very much.

Mr. LANDAY: My pleasure.

GROSS: Jonathan Landay is national security correspondent for the Knight
Ridder Newspapers. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, the war against terrorism as seen by an outsider. We'll
talk with Daniel Benjamin, director of counterterrorism for the National
Security Council during the Clinton administration. He's co-authored a new
book called "The Age of Sacred Terror."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Daniel Benjamin discusses terrorist groups, the
ideology behind them and the United States' war on terror

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Daniel Benjamin was helping to mobilize the fight against terrorism
before most Americans realized the magnitude of the terrorist threat.
Benjamin was the National Security Council's director of counterterrorism from
1998 to '99 under President Clinton. From 1994 to '97, he was President
Clinton's special assistant and foreign policy speechwriter. Before entering
the administration, he was The Wall Street Journal's Berlin bureau chief and a
foreign correspondent for Time. Benjamin is the co-author of the new book
"The Age of Sacred Terror." It's both a history of Islamist terror and a
behind-the-scenes account of counterterrorist actions during the Clinton

I asked Benjamin if he was convinced by President Bush's speech last week
making the case that we need to go to war if Saddam Hussein doesn't quickly

Mr. DANIEL BENJAMIN (Author, "The Age of Sacred Terror"): I'm not sure the
president's presentation made any difference to my thinking, although I think
it was the most effective speech he's given yet on the issue. I'm in the same
place that I was before, which is to say that I think that we are likely to
have to go to war with Saddam Hussein at some point in the future. I'm not
fully confident yet that the administration has understood the distinction
between jihadist terrorists like Osama bin Laden and his followers and a state
sponsor of terror like Saddam Hussein. And...

GROSS: What are some of the important distinctions you think need to be made?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, Saddam Hussein is not an entirely rational person and
certainly not a predictable one. But certain facts are going to govern his
calculations. And chief among them is that he wants to hold on to his
country. And he knows that doing some things will make that absolutely
impossible, one of them being giving a weapon of mass destruction to a
terrorist group.

By contrast, we know that Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda, what's left of it, or
its successor group--and I'm sure there will be one--would not hesitate to use
such a weapon against the United States and would probably use it almost as
fast as it could get it and design a conspiracy.

GROSS: Well...

Mr. BENJAMIN: And I think that these are two very different phenomena.

GROSS: Daniel Benjamin, you were the director of counterterrorism for the
National Security Council under the Clinton administration from 1998 to '99.
What was the wake-up call for the Clinton administration about terrorism?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, I think the wake-up call or the watershed for us was the
bombing of the embassies in East Africa. There had been an awful lot of
concern for a number of years about the rising threat of Islamist terror. But
the bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam had a catalytic effect because they
showed that these terrorists were prepared to kill in a way that previous
terrorists had not.

Now the actual number of dead in the two bombings was roughly the same with
such attacks as the bombing of the Beirut barracks, the bombing of Pan Am 103.
But what was particularly noteworthy was that the terrorists were prepared to
kill an awful lot of Africans, including many, many African Muslims, to kill a
few Americans. And that was unusual. And also that they were prepared to
have so many potential sympathizers injured, grievously wounded. I think
there were something like 5,000 people wounded in the two bombings.

And this was a real departure from what we had seen before because
traditionally terrorists have sought to create a sense of theater, a theater
of fear. And they wanted to have a few casualties and an awful lot of
attention. And here it was clear that the violence itself was the goal. And
that was really, for us, the wake-up call.

I should add that it was a case of the alarm going off twice. Just weeks
before, we had received intelligence that al-Qaeda was seeking to procure
chemical weapons in Sudan. And so once the bombings were carried out in East
Africa and we had a sense of what kind of violence they were prepared to carry
out and we had this information about the chemical weapons as well, we
realized that this was not a group that we could count on to calibrate its
violence as terrorist organizations had in the past.

GROSS: Not long after the embassy bombings in Africa, the United States
bombed a plant in Khartoum, in Sudan, that it said was making chemical
weapons. What was the thinking behind that attack?

Mr. BENJAMIN: As I mentioned, we had this information that bin Laden was
working with the National Islamic Front government of Sudan to procure
chemical weapons. And the feeling was that anyone who was prepared to do what
al-Qaeda had done in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam would not hesitate to go one
step further and, in fact, break an almost unbroken taboo--Aum Shinrikyo had
used a chemical weapon in Tokyo a few years earlier. But by and large we
believe that that taboo still held, but now it was clear that there was
someone who was prepared to kill on the grand scale and was prepared to use
taboo weapons to do so.

And as a result, it seemed like not only a wise but the minimal responsible
thing to do to attack the plant in Khartoum--now I should just qualify what
you said by noting that the intelligence did not demonstrate that chemical
weapons were being made there, but rather that the place was in some way
associated with chemical weapons. The precursor to the nerve gas VX was found
right by this chemical plant. And in retrospect, that leaves us uncertain as
to whether or not it was being made there or transshipped there or stored
there before it was actually weaponized. But the fact that we had fairly
conclusive indications that there was chemical weapons activity and that
al-Qaeda was involved--we know that bin Laden had invested in this
effort--made it seem like--made it clear that it was really the right thing to

GROSS: When the Clinton administration ordered the bombing in Sudan, thinking
that there was some involvement there with chemical weapons, President Clinton
was accused by his critics of wagging the dog because the bombing was three
days after his testimony before the grand jury about Monica Lewinsky. And his
critics were saying, `Well, sure, he's bombing. It's just a way of
distracting from this horrible sex scandal that he's involved with.' You were
working for the National Security Council in counterterrorism at the time.
What was your reaction when you were hearing all these `wag the dog'

Mr. BENJAMIN: Everyone was clear before the missiles were launched, before
the cruise missiles were launched that there would be some of this, that there
would be some argument of wag the dog. And, in fact, Secretary of Defense
Cohen brought it up in the Principals Committee Meeting where they decided to
approve the attack. And the president himself knew that he would encounter
some criticism. Nonetheless, you know, this is a group of people, and the
president in particular, who were charged with national security and they felt
that this was their responsibility. They had to take the flak, really for the
good of the country.

I think we were all stunned by how far it went. The lack of belief that the
administration might be telling the truth, that the intelligence community
might have actually gotten it right, that the soil sample that was collected
at the Al-Shifa plant might actually show the presence of this precursor was
really remarkable to me and many of my colleagues. And I guess we all felt it
was just a low point for trusting government, for people thinking about, you
know, the threats we face. There's no question that impeachment had become
the vortex in American life and everything else was swept into it.

GROSS: During this impeachment era when you were working on counterterrorism
and some of the counterterrorism aspects were accused of being wag the dog,
who were you more frustrated with, the president for having gotten himself
into the predicament that made these accusations even possible or the people
who were going after him? Were you more frustrated with them for not kind of
being able to distinguish his personal problems from the real problems of
international terrorism?

Mr. BENJAMIN: I think everyone who was working in the White House at that
time was deeply disappointed by the president's behavior and by the situation
that we were in where we were working extremely hard to carry out what we
thought were good policies and we were undermined by the distraction. At the
same time, you know, I was working for that president. I didn't resign
because I continued to think that the policies were right, and I continued to
think that his enemies were more wrong than he was. And, in fact, they--I
felt the president could be faulted for giving his enemies an opening, but I
think that they deserve a lot of criticism for taking the country away from
serious issues and for not having any sense of balance, not having any sense
of the proper proportion for these different issues.

GROSS: My guest is David Benjamin, author of the new book "The Age of Sacred
Terror." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Daniel Benjamin, author of the new book "The Age of Sacred
Terror." We're talking about anti-terrorism efforts during the Clinton
administration. Benjamin was the National Security Council's director of
counterterrorism from 1998 to '99, during the Clinton administration.

You cite several instances where pettiness or infighting or a misguided
approach to saving money stood in the way of really dealing a blow to
terrorists. Give us one of the examples that you feel is particularly

Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, this was a period in which I think a group of us in the
White House and a group of people in CIA and a sprinkling of people in other
agencies recognized that there was a new kind of threat. But we were faced by
two problems. One was that when you have a major change in the nature of your
security environment, when you have a major change in the nature of the
threat, people are invested in not seeing what's new. The bureaucracy doesn't
like to change. That's just the nature of large organizations. And what's
more is the permanent government is not so eager to get pushed around by the
elected government, the government that changes every four years. And so we
saw, you know, any number of cases where the message really hadn't gotten out.

We saw at the State Department, for example, after the embassy bombings, the
White House literally ordered them to dispatch medicines and vaccines and
biochem suits--you know, the very bulky suits that you would wear in an
unconventional attack--and other equipment for washing down people and
equipment that had been contaminated, and they just refused to do it. We
tried this again and again and they kept changing the office director, the
interlocutor in the State Department who's supposed to deal with it. And
finally after a year of banging our heads on this, we just gave up. You know,
we couldn't move the department.

The department was also reluctant to take a lot of the money that was being
offered to it by the White House, by OMB to build new and safer embassies.
And when OMB, which exists to deny funding to agencies, put hundreds of
millions of dollars in the State Department's budget proposal, it got looted
for programmatic purposes so that, you know, we could have any number of
different kinds of activities going on in different embassies. And it took a
big showdown at the White House to get that money restored to the budget.

GROSS: After being so involved with counterterrorism, what's it like for you
to now watch from the sidelines as we seem to be approaching war with Iraq,
and as we're kind of worried about what the next terrorist attack is going to

Mr. BENJAMIN: My biggest concern is that this paradigm shift, as we call it,
this change in the nature of terrorism really hasn't been absorbed by the
country, and quite possibly also some of its leaders, because this is really
an enduring phenomenon and just profoundly dangerous. When people feel that
their killing is divinely sanctioned, it's divinely justified and that they
don't much care about the immediate reaction, whether they themselves are
going to die in a suicide attack, then you're dealing with an undeterrable
threat. And I don't think people have fully recognized how deeply rooted that
is in a region and how much that phenomenon is strengthening in a part of the
world which really stretches from Algeria to Indonesia.

And I feel that our foreign policy priorities haven't taken that into account
yet. I think if we had, we'd be working very hard to try and change the
conditions in those countries that breed this ideology and also to recognize
that what goes on in those countries is as dangerous as what goes on between

GROSS: Now in your book, you write that you have evidence that Hamas, an
Islamic fundamentalist group that has attacked Israel, is working now with
al-Qaeda. What evidence is there that you could discuss?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, there have been several cases of individuals--and we know
this because they've been arrested--having contact with both organizations and
carrying on, you know, conspiratorial activities. One of them was Richard
Reid, the shoe bomber, who was really dispatched by al-Qaeda to go and
establish contacts with Hamas. And he was doing surveillance work in Israel
sometime before he was caught on that plane trying to ignite the bomb in his
shoe. There was another one named, I believe, Okal, who was picked up, I
think, in Turkey.

This is an extremely worrisome situation because Hamas shares a lot of the
ideas of al-Qaeda, if you look at their charter and if you look at their
long-term ideology of being part of a new caliphate that embraces all of the
Islamic community. But their behavior has been more calibrated. It's been
more old-style terrorism. And if Hamas were indeed to turn into an
al-Qaeda-like group, then the situation in the Middle East could become much

GROSS: Well, you also say that Hamas may target the United States in the
future. What motivation will they have for doing that?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Jihadist terrorists believe that the United States and Israel
are the far enemy, that there is a war being waged against all of Islam.
Sometimes they differ as to who's pulling the strings, but usually these days,
the United States gets the lion's share of the guilt. And the great
innovation of bin Laden and al-Qaeda was that they decided that instead of
going after the near enemy, instead of attacking the secular rulers in the
Islamic world and trying to bring about a revolution at the national level,
they went to the international level. And the idea was that if you could
convince the United States to withdraw its support for these regimes, then
they would have no way of defending themselves.

That's really one of the key things about al-Qaeda. And al-Qaeda believes
that to do that, to change America's mind, to force it to withdraw, it
requires an enormous amount of violence. So it's entirely possible that if
Hamas becomes frustrated with its fight at the national level, it too could
leap to the international level and fight in the same way as al-Qaeda and
attack Americans.

GROSS: What do you think the odds of that happening are?

Mr. BENJAMIN: It's very difficult to say. So much depends on what else
happens in the territories and with Israel. If, in fact, a new generation of
leaders does come to the fore very soon in the Palestinian Authority, then
it's entirely possible that they would see the need to go after Hamas in a
really vigorous way. The Palestinian Authority has always had the ability to
shut down Hamas in the past. That ability may be somewhat eroded now, but a
lot will really depend on what the PA looks like in the months ahead.

GROSS: My guest is Daniel Benjamin, author of the new book "The Age of Sacred
Terror." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Daniel Benjamin, author of the new book "The Age of Sacred
Terror." He was the National Security Council's director of counterterrorism
from 1998 to '99 during the Clinton administration.

Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, there's something essentially goofy-looking
about him, and he didn't do a very effective job, thank God, of setting his
bomb off, the bomb in his shoe. And, you know, you write in your book that
the foiled plot to bomb New York landmarks--that some of the people behind
that seemed pretty inept. And the impression I get is that you think the FBI
found it a little easier than they should have to dismiss terrorist threats
because they thought of a lot of these guys as being goofy and inept.

Mr. BENJAMIN: That was certainly true in the early '90s. I think the two key
facts that persuaded the FBI that it didn't have too much to worry about were
the fact that the man who rented the van, the Ryder van, that was used to blow
up the bomb underneath the World Trade Center the first time around, went back
to the rental agency and tried to get his deposit back--tried, in fact, three
or four times. So this convinced the bureau, I think, that they were dealing
with some morons. The next case, the day of terror in which the commuter
tunnels and 26 Federal Plaza, which is the FBI headquarters, and the UN were
to be targeted was a conspiracy that only progressed because there was an FBI
informant in the group who was telling them how to build bombs and do basic
terrorist activities. So there again, I think they felt like they'd wrapped
up a bunch of incompetents.

Richard Reid doesn't inspire a lot of awe as a terrorist operative. That's
certainly true. But I think that it's a mistake to think of him in the same
category, because what's interesting about Richard Reid is that he converted
to Islam and became a believer in this very, very radical version of Islam,
and he represents in that sense a vanguard. I think that we're going to have
an increasingly difficult time finding out exactly who the terrorists are
because they will come from the ranks of non-Middle Eastern, Europeans or
Americans. And, you know, that's a phenomenon that should deeply concern us
and we will have a hard time defending against.

GROSS: You are skeptical that there are any real ties between Saddam Hussein
and al-Qaeda. Do you think as we threaten to go to war with Iraq and as we
put the pressure on Saddam Hussein and as he sees his life as a tyrant drawing
to a close that he may feel desperate enough to take a chance and partner with
al-Qaeda, even though he knows they might turn against him, but what's he got
to lose?

Mr. BENJAMIN: There is a paradox. Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda aren't natural
allies. But in a situation in which his regime is threatened, then all bets
are off, and then he might be prepared to do something that otherwise he never
would have imagined.

GROSS: Now that we've made the threat to go to war, even though you're
skeptical that we need to do it now, do you think we have to do it?--because
we've kind of, like, stirred up the wasps' nest. So unless we follow through,
are we more vulnerable than we were because Saddam Hussein would feel so
threatened and desperate?

Mr. BENJAMIN: I don't think we're there quite yet, and I think there's still
room to build the international support that will make it an effort that will
be viewed as more legitimate by the international community. I don't think
that we're in a position yet where our credibility is at stake. As I said, I
don't think we're going to get out of this one easily. I think we probably
are going to have to confront him militarily sooner rather than later. But I
just hope that we get the time line right and that those who are prepared to
wreak real havoc, real catastrophic destruction are not in a position to do
so when we go to war.

GROSS: Daniel Benjamin, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Oh, it's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Daniel Benjamin is co-author of the new book "The Age of Sacred
Terror." He's the former director of counterterrorism for the National
Security Council.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

John Lennon was born 62 years ago today. We'll close with one of his

(Soundbite of John Lennon song)

Mr. JOHN LENNON & Mr. ELTON JOHN: (Singing in unison) Whatever gets you
through the night, it's all right, it's all right. It's your money or your
life. It's all right. It's all right. Don't need a sword to cut through
flowers. Oh, no. Oh, no. Whatever gets you through your life. It's all
right. It's all right. Do it wrong or do it right, it's all right, it's all
right. Don't need a watch to waste your time. Oh, no. Oh, no.

Hold me, darlin'. Come on, listen to me. I won't do you no harm. Trust me,
darlin'. Come on, listen to me. Come on, listen to me. Come on, listen,

Whatever gets you to the light, it's all right, it's all right. Out the blue
or out of sight, it's all right, it's all right. Don't need a gun to blow
your mind. Oh, no. Oh, no.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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