The FP Survey: Terrorism

What is the state of global terrorism today, nearly a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks? Foreign Policy asked the top terrorism experts in the field. Here's what they told us:

By Peter Bergen

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, FP asked top terrorism experts to take stock of the threat posed by al Qaeda and its allies. And while the majority of respondents believe that al Qaeda is no stronger today than it was a decade ago, they also worry that we are only slightly safer from terrorist attack than we were the day the Twin Towers fell.

The headline finding is surprising: Experts credit nine years of the war on terror with making U.S. soil only marginally more secure -- despite the fact that only 14 Americans have died in jihadist terrorist attacks in the United States since Sept 11. Why the disconnect? Respondents were likely quite cognizant of the numerous serious "near-miss" terrorist operations targeting the homeland, from the Christmas Day 2009 plot to bring down a passenger jet over Detroit to the botched Times Square car bomb attack in May 2010. These plans were devised by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Pakistani Taliban, respectively, and were a powerful reminder that the threat from terrorism is still real.

Read this Slide Show for the full survey results.

A strong majority also predicted that there will be another terror attack in the United States or Europe in the next year. Given that a botched terrorist attack took place in Stockholm, a plot was averted to mount a "Mumbai-style" attack in Copenhagen, and a dozen suspected terrorists were arrested in the United Kingdom -- all since the survey was completed -- the experts were, unfortunately, probably right about this. Still, 78 percent of respondents disagreed with the idea that al Qaeda is stronger today than it was on 9/11.

There is a great deal of bad news for Pakistan in the survey. Overwhelmingly, the experts selected Pakistan as the country that posed the greatest threat to the West today, and a majority also picked it as the country most likely to have its nukes end up in the hands of terrorists. Interestingly, only two experts named Iran as the West's greatest threat or as a nuke proliferator to terror groups. Does this signify the end of the neoconservative notion that state sponsors of terrorism like Iran are more dangerous than groups without state sponsorship such as al Qaeda?

There was widespread agreement that "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding are not effective, although there was something of an even split on whether closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay would improve U.S. security.

Some of the most interesting insights came in the experts' on-the-record responses. Roger Cressey, a National Security Council official under Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, characterized the CIA's drone program in Pakistan as "the most successful counterterrorism program since 9/11," while retired French counterterrorism prosecutor Jean Louis Brugière elegantly termed the drone strikes "efficient, but not sufficient."

The exponential increase in drone strikes during the Barack Obama administration is one reason why former George W. Bush White House official Richard Falkenrath can say with justification that the Obama administration is "rhetorically dissimilar but substantively almost indistinguishable" from the administration that launched the drone program when it come to its policies on terrorism.

Asked to name the world's most dangerous terrorist, counterinsurgency expert Andrew Exum wisely named not one of the obvious suspects like Osama bin Laden but "the terrorist whose actions precipitate a war between India and Pakistan." Indeed, a "Mumbai II" is one of the most predictable challenges that Obama can reasonably expect to confront in the next two years. And just this past week, Mumbai went on high alert for a possible terrorist attack. Bizarrely, former CIA director James Woolsey named Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the globe's most dangerous terrorist, a confirmation that, at least in some quarters, neoconservatism is not entirely dead.

Finally, a number of experts had similar views about the biggest mistake by the U.S. government since 9/11: Several cited invading Iraq -- and the resulting failure to get the job done in Afghanistan. Variations of this view were expressed by Cressey, Brugière, diplomatic heavyweight Thomas Pickering, and CIA veteran Bruce Riedel. If this is the first draft of a historical verdict on the war in Iraq, perhaps neoconservativism is, in fact, entering its terminal stage.

Participants (65): Zachary Abuza, John Arquilla, Henri Barkey, Mohamad Bazzi, Peter Bergen, Ilan Berman, Richard Betts, Stephen Biddle, Mia Bloom, Randy Borum, Christopher Boucek, Lianne Kennedy-Boudali, Jarret Brachman, William Braniff, Jean-Louis Bruguière, Daniel Byman, Vincent Cannistraro, Roger Cressey, Gilles Dorronsoro, Clark Ervin, John Esposito, Andrew Exum, Richard Falkenrath, C. Christine Fair, Douglas Farah, Jean-Pierre Filiu, Bernard Finel, Brian Fishman, James Forest, Benjamin Friedman, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Fawaz Gerges, Karen Greenberg, Imtiaz Gul, Shadi Hamid, Thomas Hegghammer, John Horgan, Jo Husbands, Michael Innes, Gregory Johnsen, Bruce Jones, Patrick Lang, Matthew Levitt, Scott Malcomson, Daniel Markey, Barry McManus, John Mueller, Shuja Nawaz, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Daniel Pipes, Magnus Ranstorp, Bruce Riedel, Paul Salem, Reid Sawyer, Steven Simon, Michael Singh, Jessica Stern, Praveen Swami, Camille Tawil, Joas Wagemakers, Andrew Wilder, Paul Wilkinson, R. James Woolsey, Juan Zarate.



Holbrooke: Astride the Khyber Pass

Why, when it comes to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, replacing Richard Holbrooke will be nearly impossible.

The job offer was suitably Holbrookean: I was standing in my kitchen in DuPont Circle about a year and half ago and the cell rang. On the other end an unmistakable voice boomed, "I'm calling from a plane flying from Riyadh to Washington. I want you to work for me. I land at Dulles in four hours. I need your answer by then." I mumbled something about needing to speak to my wife and my various bosses at CNN and the New America Foundation, and Ambassador Holbrooke quickly hung up. In the end the job offer never panned out, but I felt honored that Holbrooke had even considered it.

In a warren of rooms on the ground floor of the State Department over the past two years Holbrooke assembled a brilliant team from across the government to work on the knotty problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unusually, he also recruited outside experts to be part of this team. They included NYU professor Barnett "Barney" Rubin, arguably the world's leading expert on Afghanistan; Vali Nasr, a preeminent authority on the Shia and the author of an important study of the founder of Pakistani Islamism, Abul Alaa Maududi; and Alexander Evans, a British diplomat who is deeply steeped in the history and politics of Pakistan's troubled northwest, home to both the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Holbrooke didn't hire people because they agreed with him, but because he valued their expertise. A visit to Holbrooke's State Department office, lined with photos of his years in Vietnam and his many other postings, would often turn it into a freewheeling and argumentative discussion about what was going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan with anybody and everybody who walked through his door. These discussions would be constantly interrupted by calls from the White House or various foreign dignitaries or Holbrooke leaping up from his desk to consult classified maps of Taliban areas of control. It was enormous fun to be around him.

Holbrooke came to his job as the president's representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan having thought deeply about the region for many years before the job was offered to him. He had traveled to Afghanistan a number of times as a private citizen in the years he was working as an investment banker at Perseus and his conclusions about those trips would then turn up in his regular monthly columns for the Washington Post. In his capacity as chairman of the Asia Society, several months before Obama took office Holbrooke assembled a group of experts on Afghanistan and national security (including myself) to write a public report about what he knew would be the leading foreign policy challenge of the next administration. He tasked Barney Rubin to be the lead pen.

A key recommendation of the Asia Society report was to move the U.S. government away from the counterproductive poppy eradication policy it had pursued under George W. Bush in Afghanistan. The eradication approach created enemies, since the farmers who had their crops destroyed were generally the poorer ones who couldn't pay the bribes to have their fields left alone. Those farmers proved easy recruits to the Taliban cause. The U.S. government was, in short, deeply committed to an unsuccessful drug policy that helped its enemies. This had long been a theme of Holbrooke's and when he entered the government he halted U.S. support for eradication and emphasized instead that the measure of a successful counternarcotics policy was not hectares of poppy destroyed every year, but hectares of other crops planted.

Holbrooke also was instrumental in tripling the numbers of civilians working for the U.S. government in Afghanistan and helping to set up parallel Special Representatives to Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAPs) for many of the NATO countries contributing to the effort in Afghanistan. Holbrooke also shepherded the regular strategic dialogues in Washington between U.S. cabinet officials and their Pakistani counterparts, aiming to create a deeper and long-lasting strategic partnership with Pakistan that would assuage Pakistani concerns (somewhat justified) that Washington is a fair-weather friend. And he worked prodigiously to help the victims of the worst natural disaster in Pakistan's history, the floods of this past summer.

Replacing a man as sui generis as Richard Holbrooke will be impossible, but as Obama looks for his successor as his representative to the region there are few plausible candidates of sufficient stature who understand the complex issues and players in South Asia. Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan American diplomat who served as Bush's ambassador to Afghanistan is one, in particular because he has a good rapport with Karzai. Another is the current ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, who has served two tours in Afghanistan as a senior military officer including as the commanding general in 2006 and who has spent a total of four years living in Afghanistan, and finally there is Anne Patterson who recently stepped down as ambassador in Pakistan after a well-regarded three-year stint.

According to a senior U.S. official, there is no "Plan B floating around" as yet about who might be appointed to Holbrooke's position and for the moment Holbrooke's able deputy Frank Ruggiero, a diplomat with a great deal of experience on the ground in Kandahar, will be the acting SRAP.

Whoever is appointed to continue Holbrooke's legacy will face a daunting set of challenges: Getting Pakistan to give up its tolerance or support for the Haqqani Network, Lashkar e-Taiba and the Quetta shura; nudging top Afghan politicians to deliver more to their constituents and to keep their hands out of the till; reducing the amount of money sloshing around the U.S. contracting system that ends up in the coffers of insurgents and warlords, and setting the parameters for some kind of negotiations with "reconcilable" elements of the Taliban. Holbrooke was so much the man for those very tough jobs.

I first met Ambassador Holbrooke at his spacious and well-appointed apartment on Central Park West around seven years ago. It was an intimidating dinner party group that featured a bevy of billionaires including George Soros and colleagues from the New America Foundation: Noah Feldman, Jim Fallows, Michael Lind and Ted Halstead. Holbrooke and his wonderful wife, the author Kati Marton, could not have been more hospitable and more charming and what might have been a somewhat stilted evening turned into a discussion that lasted long into the night. Holbrooke quizzed all of us in great detail about our various fields of expertise and even referred to books we had written, making us all feel as if our work was important; he had a great gift for that.

I was in Kabul when the news of Richard's serious condition first started to circulate this past weekend. Everyone who knew him just could not believe that this force of nature was so incapacitated. When the news of his death was announced one of his many friends and colleagues in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul emailed to say simply: "We lost one of the greats." Indeed.