Brian Michael Jenkins

Brian Michael Jenkins, a published authority on terrorism and current senior advisor to the President at the Rand Corporation.

Excerpts from an interview with Patt Morrison for the LA Times.

You've been studying terrorism for decades -- and it's morphed.
Now we argue over terminology: Is it a war?

Right after 9/11, I said that we did have to think of this in terms of war. This was an extraordinary attack and the business-as-usual response was not going to be adequate. I also thought that the term "war" was appropriate in that it was going to require a national effort to mobilize the resources and the political will. I had one further reason for arguing that it be war: my own experience in Vietnam. If we were going to send young men and women into battle, we had better [show] national support.
[So] it didn't disturb me to call it a war until [it] became a much more ambitious undertaking. I was in Washington about a year after 9/11 listening to a State Department official saying "We're going to take down Hezbollah, Hamas; we're going to take them all down," and I thought, whoa, we're signing on to decades of effort here. I think it became conflated with concerns about weapons of mass destruction; it became a framework for the invasion of Iraq, which in my view had very little to do with the campaign against Al Qaeda. But the idea that we were going to battle with an irregular foe worldwide was not inappropriate.

What part of the rhetoric would you tone down now?

Television in my view has become a sort of reality show with manufactured drama. It is 24/7 and the capacity sometimes exceeds news to report, or at least easy news to report.
I would like to see Americans -- not tolerate, because terrorism is not to be tolerated -- but be somewhat more phlegmatic. Americans are not good at being phlegmatic. We're highly excitable, and the media feed that and politicians leap to the microphones and pound the podium.
There is a more fundamental problem. Today, there are fewer wars and fewer people dying in those wars. [In] the 20th century, wars killed anywhere between 60 and 100 million people. But by the 1990s, worldwide war-related deaths had dropped to around a half-million a year -- still a terrible slaughter, but better than it was. It's enormous progress. Despite this good news, Americans seem more fearful today than ever before.
The Christmas Day bomber was tragedy averted, but as a consequence, we're deploying a thousand body scanners, [costing] hundreds of millions of dollars. If we do this every time there's an attempt, we are going to do exactly what our terrorist foes want us to do: bankrupt ourselves in pursuit of a national obsession with security and completely unrealistic expectations.
Fear has become completely detached from the reality of risk. This protracted campaign of terror, even as it is not succeeding in terms of attacks, has profoundly changed this country. It's worrisome.

And now cargo bombs.

It's not as if intelligence analysts like myself were slapping our foreheads saying, "Who'd have thought?" In a technologically interdependent society, an open society, the vulnerabilities are virtually infinite.Each time we put in security measures, that's more friction in our system, and you [can] really hamper our economy. Of course we're going to subject [foreign visitors] to somewhat greater scrutiny, but [now] foreign businessmen are loath to come. It has become difficult for technically qualified people our industry needs to get into the United States. We pay a price. It's not just the cost of the bollard in front of the building.
This is not an argument against security; it's an argument against the unrealistic expectation of the absolute banishment of all risk.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in an interview on this page told me that security has to be right 100% of the time but terrorists only once.

She's absolutely right. If we look at what has been foiled [and] intercepted as a result of intelligence services and law enforcement worldwide, the record is stunning. People don't realize the daily battle that goes on to analyze the tsunami of information. In many cases, issuing an alert itself sometimes has a disruptive effect on the plot.
[There is] a tendency to point fingers, so every time there is even a near miss, somebody has failed, heads must roll, something must be done. Then we reorganize our intelligence for the umpteenth time, and that is counterproductive.
The tension is between the public perception and unrealistic political demands for absolute prevention, and the reality that what we do is manage risk.
At airports, passenger loads are going up, the security procedures are increasing, the number of screeners [is] not, and there is an impact not only on morale but on performance. You do have to say at some point, what is the right balance? One has to be very careful and not do things simply to be seen doing things.
Even now, the most contact many Americans have with national security is at airports.
Terrorists remain obsessed with commercial aviation. The first terrorist hijacking was in 1968; the first terrorist sabotage of an aircraft was in 1970; and 40 years later, they're still coming at airplanes. The biggest change in security has been the passengers' attitudes. Yes, we put in armored cockpit doors, we have air marshals, but the most important element now is that any would-be hijacker would face a planeload of desperate passengers who would take measures to save themselves.

Since 9/11 it's seemed like anyone who writes a paper on terrorism is a terrorism expert.

I always tried to avoid the word "expert"; I never knew what the hell it meant. What makes you an expert today is one appearance on television. Television news will call and if that "expert" isn't available, they go on to the next person, and keep doing so until they find [someone], and that person will be the expert. I don't want to be dismissive. [In] this avalanche of books and articles produced since 9/11, there's unquestionably some fantastic, serious scholarship.

In Muslim countries there's a belief that the cargo bombs story was a fabrication to discredit Islam. The same thing goes for 9/11. How widespread is that reaction?

It is extraordinarily widespread, and it is a problem. We're dealing with countries that do not have a tradition of a free or independent press, and [do have] an inclination to disbelieve anything in the news. [There's] an appetite for conspiracy theories.
You have a little bit of the same thing going on in this country, where you can have people's beliefs determined by their underlying ideological beliefs. Look [at] the persistence of the birthers, or the belief that the president is a secret Muslim. You say, that's astounding, that flies in the face of evidence. What is happening is that people's beliefs are so strongly held, they are producing their own "facts."

How important is it to find Bin Laden?

I think it is important. First, there's the matter of justice. He is still a principal responsible for 9/11 and other terrorist acts. We would never abandon an effort to apprehend an individual responsible for a crime of that magnitude. Second, he does have importance within the organization, as ideological leader. I'm not suggesting with the capture or death of Bin Laden, the global terrorist enterprise he inspired ends. But I do consider him still an important figure who needs to be brought to justice.

Are there more Yemens out there?

It's interesting how Al Qaeda has managed to survive and operate where it's attached itself to a local movement. Out of all the Al Qaeda affiliates, the ones that cause greatest concern are in Iraq, where they are a principal part of the insurgency, Yemen, and in North Africa. They are organizationally parasitical. On their own, they can't get their roots into the ground, but they can get their roots into some of these local movements, especially where the local government is already fragile.

Does torture have any place in this country's fight against terrorism?

I don't think torture belongs in the American arsenal. I think torture is illegal, is immoral, but I would go further and argue that it doesn't work.
These silly scenarios [in which] the terrorist knows where the bomb is that's about to go off in 30 minutes -- that's not reality. Further, you have to judge what you get in information versus the strategic loss that you take when it is revealed, as it will be inevitably, that a country is employing torture.
In Madrid, [I chaired] a working group on intelligence at the time of the revelations of the abuses in Iraq. I was being pummeled by men who are not squeamish, not hand-wringing compassionate folks, [who said] it was worse than immoral -- it was stupid. The information really had very little value, and yet the loss that we took strategically to our reputation is tremendous. This is like going to Las Vegas and throwing down a million dollars to win a nickel.
Finally, you take into account that [using torture] changes the nature of our own society, and that is a tremendous cost.
[As for legal justifications], I would find a legal brief more compelling if I knew the lawyer had witnessed an actual waterboarding -- more so, had the author been waterboarded. Let's waterboard a panel of lawyers and see where they come out.