When the subject is the war on terrorism, Nada Bakos should know what she’s talking about. Ms. Bakos was a CIA agent who was assigned as a targeting officer in the agency’s counter-terrorism center during the Iraq War. Her principal target was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who orchestrated the most heinous of attacks against Sunni Muslims and allied forces after forming al Qaeda in Iraq following the U.S. invasion of that country. With intelligence analyzed by Bakos and her team, Zarqawi was located and killed in a targeted bombing in 2006.
Ms. Bakos is a civilian now, and she has become something of a national figure in speaking out about the war in Iraq, the U.S. response to 9/11, and the current state of America’s ongoing battle against Islamic-based terrorism. She addressed an attentive audience last week at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis). Much of what she said echoed views I have long held. But it’s one thing for an arm-chair observer like me to have views on U.S. policy and quite another for someone who has been on the ground in a significant field-level position to have them.
Here are a few of the thoughts she willingly shared with those in attendance last week:
Immediately after the 9/11 attacks and continuously thereafter, the decisions on how to respond were based entirely on the fear of another attack and the need to respond with a reprisal. She never felt her agency was being tasked with the kind of work that would have determined the causes of the attacks.
She feels strongly that any meaningful fight against the terrorism practiced by groups like al Qaeda needs to begin by understanding the reason for the attacks and how they will be carried out. In that regard she points to two primary factors: the lack of economic security and the dominant U.S. military presence in the region (dating back to the original Gulf War). Of the two, she leans to economic deprivation as the prime factor in the rise of radical thinking in Islamic nations. The more unemployment and impoverishment grip a community, she says, the greater the likelihood it will be fertile ground for radical ideology. She also regards a dominant U.S. military presence in the region as a cause of resentment (both before 9/11 and in its aftermath). She believes America’s national security is really about everyday life, meaning the everyday lives of the people in the region. If we avoid alienating communities, she says, and instead seek ways to provide economic stability for them, those communities are unlikely to hate us.
She regards the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a colossal blunder. She claims that the CIA knew Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had no part in the 9/11 attacks and so informed the administration repeatedly. Yet the administration continued to hound the agency for some basis for an invasion and initiated one despite the lack of any basis for one that could be tied to the war on terrorism that the administration declared after 9/11. The invasion was a major mistake, as it led to the creation by Zarqawi (who had until then been working in Afghanistan) of al Qaeda in Iraq. She says the invasion was poorly planned and lacked a cohesive purpose. And, of course, in its aftermath, it is still uncertain whether the country will not degrade into all-out civil war.
She strongly believes that the United States cannot shape an outcome for the wave of revolution that is sweeping the Middle East. America needs to understand its own limitations, she says, and that understanding must include awareness that injecting massive military might isn’t always a solution.
She asserts that there is no absolute protection that can be provided against terrorist attacks. She regards much of the “enhanced security” currently in place (e.g., air travel precautions) as window dressing that may give a sense of increased protection but doesn’t have any real impact. She says the best protection against terrorist attacks from inside the U.S. is to avoid ostracizing the Islamic community and that the best protection against terrorist attacks from outside the U.S. is stability (governmental and economic) in the region.
She does see ISIS as a threat to the region but believes it will ultimately defeat itself by becoming a pariah to the community it seeks to control. She thinks the U.S. decision to combat it militarily will be less successful, as it will tend to make ISIS the underdog and thus gain ISIS adherents from the local populations.
She asserts the Afghanistan war led to the evolution of al Qaeda from a single entity to a franchise with separate cells developing throughout the Middle East. She says this development has made the analysis of intelligence far more complex. She compares it to a fire hose, with volumes of potentially important information constantly coming in and little time to cipher it into a meaningful analysis before another batch seemingly supersedes it.
She regards the current intelligence community as being unwieldy. She says that even under the umbrella of the Homeland Security Department, there are too many agencies sifting through the same information with little ability to coordinate their analyses.
She emphasizes that drone warfare is tactical, not strategic. To use drones to kill suspected terrorists doesn’t address the underlying problem. It doesn’t represent a plan to eradicate the problem. It is just a way to eliminate a particular cog in the machine. And those cogs, invariably, are quickly replaced.
In answer to an audience question she said the Saudi influence on terrorism is significant. Although a supposed ally, the Saudi regime both spawns radical Islam and nurtures it ideologically. And much of the funding for the terrorists, she added, comes from Saudi sheiks.
And in response to another question she said that no one really knows if torture will work in any given case. It may provide helpful information; it may provide faulty information. The real question, she proposed, isn’t whether torture works but whether it should be used. She didn’t offer an answer.