Dr. Walid Phares on the terror arrests around the world recently, and quantifying how many jihadis we’re dealing with.
HH: This hour, I’m starting with one of the preeminent experts on jihad in the world. Walid Phares is my guest. He is with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He has a brand new book out called The War of Ideas: Jihadism Against Democracy. Mr. Phares, welcome back to the program, good to have you.
WP: Thank you for having me on your great show.
HH: Now I have not yet read the new book, but I got an e-mail from a very close friend of mine who said I must, and I will, and we’ll spend an hour on it. But I thought I’d talk to you today because of the arrests in Austria, Germany, Denmark, and the bomb that did not go off in Ankara in the last week. What is going on in the jihadist movement right now?
WP: It is much wider than that. Let me begin here at home in the United States. We’ve seen the arrests of those who became the cell, the Fort Dix six. But more important, the two Tampa jihadists who were caught on the East Coast, and then were moved to Western Europe, where there have been many arrests, including the famous one in Germany, and then of course the last string now starting from Scandinavia down to Turkey. And put next to that the videotape of Osama bin Laden. The bottom line, Hugh, is that basically, they want to score a victory, because their state of affairs is not that good. I have detected on their chat rooms, in the chat rooms and websites, that they have a lot of questions, including after the videotape was aired by Osama bin Laden. Many jihadists are asking what have we done in Afghanistan? We’re not back to Kabul? In Waziristan, we’re under pressure by the Pakistani Army, we lost in Somalia, we lost even in tiny Lebanon. And in the Sunni triangle, the tribes are rising against us. We’ve got to read it from a wide perspective. The al Qaeda is instructing all their networks, either directly or indirectly, in Europe, the West and in America, to strike. Get them a victory.
HH: And so do you believe this to be a time of great peril across the West and in the United States?
WP: Yes it is, because when the jihadists, radical jihadists are cornered, remember the Nazis when they were on the defeat side, what did they do? They sent all their terrible weapons, V-1, V-2’s, and everything they got under their hands. Now you’re going to have a comparable situation whereby because they’re not scoring on that side, because of the surge, also because of many other issues, they would want to have a strike in the West. And look how many videos they have issued. I mean, they may have been waiting for three or four victories or strikes in the West to accompany them with videos. We are at the fourth video now, and yet they haven’t been able to do it, so it’s frustrating for them, it’s dangerous for us.
HH: Dr. Phares, I’m sure you’re acquainted with Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, and I assume the war of ideas the same way. I have been rereading it because of where we are and what’s going on, and there’s a period of time when Osama bin Laden retreats to Afghanistan, consciously modeling himself on the travels of the prophet, away having been routed in his initial victories, to a time of introspection. Can he hold onto that, and can he maintain the myth that he’s reenacting the prophet’s journeys for this long against this many defeats?
WP: Since day one, Osama bin Laden felt, projected, told his followers that basically, he is only copying the acts and the facts and the deeds and the statements of the prophet to attract the highest number of devout Salafists. Now the problem with bin Laden is that his health is not that good. That’s different from where Mohammed was, Prophet Mohammed was as his example, wrongly taken from history. But nevertheless, he is now trying to appear as much as he can, and actually, on Al Jazeera, the analysts have said that the new bin Laden, the one who is very calm, and he is addressing the nation to umar, almost as a caliph. He’s trying to project that to his own followers.
HH: And is it succeeding?
WP: It will always succeed with his followers. That’s the difference. Now you have those who are diehards with him. The minute they see him, they’re very happy. But with whom I call now the realist jihadists, those who are younger, who go online, who are still anti-West but want some scores, these are the ones who are raising all the questions I’ve been talking about. So with those, he’s not that much succeeding unless he delivers victories and strikes.
HH: Now I doubt there are many people who have spent as much time as you have, Dr. Phares, in studying the jihadist movement. Can you give us a guess, your best estimate, of how many jihadis there are who believe in violence, and are willing to sacrifice themselves in the cause?
WP: Let me call them, that’s a new word, I’m breaking it right now, the pre-jihadists, meaning those who have been recruited and indoctrinated to the ideology, to Islamic fundamentalism, if you want, or jihadism. I’m afraid to say they are in the millions, the pool. Those who have crossed the line to become jihadi activists, meaning terrorists in our legal language, meaning those who are ready to either sacrifice themselves or engage in confrontation, we’re talking about in the hundreds of thousands. Those who have linked up with al Qaeda, you know, go from circle to circle, probably somewhere around 30,000 around the world.
HH: And how many at each level do you believe to be in the United States? Let’s start with the 30,000 hard core members or affiliates of al Qaeda.
WP: Let me begin from across the Atlantic. The British are monitoring, that’s the British government numbers which are the lesser numbers, obviously. 1,500 in the UK who could become suicide bombers. In the United States, no government has yet dared advancing any numbers, experts, and among them, would dare to say that at least, we’re talking about 3,000 of those who are jihadi, ready to action. How many potential suicide bombers? Every single time we catch a cell, the two or three members are suicide bombers. So at least in the hundreds.
HH: All right, and then of the number who are jihadi activists in the United States?
WP: Well, jihadi activists, you’re talking at least, I mean, these are rough numbers based on different types of estimates, somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000.
HH: And in terms of pre-jihadi recruits, people who are indoctrinated in the Salafist extreme ideology?
WP: Well, every time there is an attempt at research to see who many people believe in that trend, any time there is an attempt for polling, then you have the Wahhabi activists and all sort of lobbies that say oh, this is discrimination, and they’re trying to pick who is thinking in that way, so it’s very difficult. But you’ve got to double or triple the original number I gave, about 30,000, probably.
HH: All right. And now, so we’ve got 30,000 problem cases down to a hardcore number of hundreds who could be suicide bombers. Of those two men who were arrested in the South, any doubt in your mind that they were terrorists?
WP: No, no. I mean, explosives, and linked to Sami al-Arian, without having an organic link. And you know, all I ask in the media from the government is tell us what kind of literature they had on them, because if they have explosives and jihadi literature, I mean, you don’t need a political scientist for that. It’s easy. But the government this time did not release the kind of literature they had. I don’t know why.
HH: Now what is the explanation for the way the government has treated the Fort Dix six, it’s vanished from the headlines, these two arrested in the South. Why so circumspect? Are they afraid of copycats?
WP: There is this, there is also something that is beyond our realm. Who is advising government on how to treat it? Who in the Homeland Security, national security, and other type of circles that deal with that, is telling…not just whom, but what are they telling the government to do? Not to treat it as a jihadist movement, not to treat it as a terrorist movement, but as only individual criminals? For what reasons, we don’t know. We really don’t know.
HH: Has anyone engaged in this conversation with you? The Homeland Security cabinet secretary, Chertoff, or anyone?
WP: Not the secretary himself, but I have testified many times to DHS, to the FBI, to Congress, even DOD, and there are a lot of discussions back and forth, a lot of intelligent people out there. But again, when it reaches the level of lobby groups that can reach out to Congress, or reach out to the administration and say hey, we cannot discuss those issues, this is theology, this is not terrorism. And you know, my school tells me no. This is ideology, and we need to discuss it. We need to inform the American citizen of what’s going on. This is where the real debate begins.
HH: Now I’m really baiting the hook for the longer conversation after I’ve absorbed your new book, The War Of Ideas. But is it possible to turn the Salafist edge back on itself? Is it possible to win that war of ideas? Or just do we have to wait and watch it run its very destructive and horrible course?
WP: No, absolutely, we can begin the war or ideas. At this…we have not. And then we can, with time, turn the tide and win it. But we have not even began the real steps such as discussing it openly in Congress, have the right legislation for it, and have huge funding that is going in all directions, but not in the right directions, that is to fund the NGO’s, women’s movements, students movements, and all the intellectuals who in the Arab and Muslim world, including in the Diaspora, are completely anti-Salafist, pro-democracy. We have not begun to talk to them.
HH: Dr. Phares, are we breeding terrorists by fighting the war in Iraq?
WP: Basically, the terrorists, the jihadist becomes terrorist regardless of us doing anything. It’s an ideological process, and by the fact that we are responding, basically what we are doing is mobilizing the American public to realize that there is a threat, and give us the resources, and then mobilizing those who are against the jihadists to join the ranks. I’ve been asked many times about the growth of al Qaeda, is it growing or not. Yes, it’s growing, but it’s growing because of the billions of dollars that regimes in the region, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and circles in those regimes have been funding and creating the madrassas. The jihadists are the result of the madrassas, with the United States or without United States. They were producing those jihadists even when we were supporting the Mujahedin in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. It’s only them who decided after 1990 to turn their weapons against the other remaining infidel power.
HH: Dr. Walid Phares, I will get The War Of Ideas quickly. We will have you back and spend an hour or two talking about this very important subject. Thanks for a short notice interview today after the arrests in Austria.
End of interview.