A serial sceptic and career contrarian, author and former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer says the revolutions sweeping the Arab world play right into militants' hands.
How al Qa'eda hopes to take advantage of the aftermath in North Africa
In recent months, many observers have viewed the wave of protest sweeping the Middle East as indicative of an increasing drive toward democracy and as a repudiation of religious extremism. Not the former US intelligence analyst Michael Scheuer. He is convinced that al Qa'eda and other radical Islamist groups plan to fill the vacuums of power left behind.
"Get rid of the tyranny and take advantage of the aftermath," says Scheuer, referring to Egypt in particular. "I think that's what the Muslim Brotherhood is going to do, and that's what al Qa'eda will try to do. I think it's a situation that benefits them enormously."
Contrarian, Cassandra, or a bit of both, Scheuer seems most comfortable going against the grain. In recent weeks he has been promoting his new book, Osama bin Laden, which argues that Washington's misunderstanding of the al Qa'eda leader has the US fighting the wrong war, the wrong way. The Financial Times called it "a needed corrective to most of the airy generalisations about bin Laden and his followers".
The 59-year-old led the CIA's bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999, then advised his successor from September 2001 until the November 2004 publication of Imperial Hubris. Published anonymously, the book critiqued US counter-terrorism policies and became a bestseller. Found to be its author, Scheuer was thrust into the spotlight and relieved of his CIA duties.
He has since become an equal opportunity offender: denouncing neoconservative nation-building, the invasion of Iraq and the US-Israeli relationship; blaming the Clinton administration for repeated failures to neutralise bin Laden; and criticising fellow authors such as Steve Coll (Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens) and Lawrence Wright, (the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower) for inexpert analyses of Islamic societies.
Sitting in a Chicago hotel, bespectacled and grinning through his grey beard, Scheuer seemed more jolly uncle than monkish analyst. Then he turns to the war on terror. "We're clearly losing," he says. "And it's been through American and western obtuseness, primarily … It's almost like the Marx Brothers are in charge, but the Marx Brothers are smarter - they always win in the end."
For Scheuer, the bungling begins with bin Laden. Most observers believe the al Qa'eda leader and his second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri, are hiding in the badlands along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Yet continued search efforts have yielded minimal results.
Scheuer offers a litany of reasons. After 25 years in hiding, bin Laden has become an expert fugitive. It also helps that he is pious, generous, patient, deliberate - and highly successful. "There's no one in the last 50 years who has affected American life more negatively than Osama bin Laden," Scheuer adds.
Yet the CIA closed its bin Laden unit in 2005. This office had previously brought the agency's antiterrorism work under one roof, allowing an agent studying al Qa'eda in the Far East to regularly confer with a colleague looking at the Islamic Maghreb. "Now they're across the hall or in another building," Scheuer explains.
He also believes that inadequate troop numbers further undermine Western efforts to snuff out al Qa'eda. In a country bigger than France, the US's 100,000 soldiers "have to keep Karzai in power, help build a democracy, develop the economy, create a transportation and communications infrastructure from scratch, defeat the Taliban, eradicate heroin and go after Osama in their spare time".
Yet since September 11, al Qa'eda's platform has spread from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia and North Africa. Western forces have reportedly killed thousands of al Qa'eda militants over the years, but these casualties have been replaced by fresh, young fighters. According to Scheuer, insurgencies by their very definition are always pitted against a more powerful enemy. Thus, they place tremendous emphasis on succession.
"The next generation of al Qa'eda is likely to be a little bit more religiously extreme, certainly better educated, more savvy with the tools of modernity and perhaps a little bit more bloody-minded … And we're seeing increasing inroads among young Muslim males, especially in English speaking countries, of al Qa'eda's propaganda."
Scheuer blames two key areas of American foreign policy for continuing to inspire anti-western sentiment. "To say that Israel is a terrible burden and a costly ally for us in the Muslim world is not an opinion, it's a fact," he said.
Controversial in some circles, this view is nothing new for Scheuer. In an April 2009 episode of the Doha Debates, he blamed the Iraq War on "the American fifth column that supports Israel". His opponent, the lawyer and commentator Alan Dershowitz, called him a bigot.
He is also extremely sceptical about America's dependency on foreign oil imports, which he believes compromises the nation's relationship with Saudi Arabia.
"I don't think we can break the status quo of our policies in the Middle East until we do something about energy," adds Scheuer. However, he considers that Obama is unlikely to make that shift with elections looming next year. "In my old age I'm beginning to fear that the only thing that brings change in America is calamity."
His other fear is that this change of policy might come soon. The number of terror plots in the US has increased exponentially. Only last month the FBI arrested a Saudi citizen studying in Texas for plotting to bomb the home of George W Bush). "We're really going to be surprised how many Muslim men in the West turn to violence," says Scheuer.
As for the millions of Arabs turning to nonviolent protest, the received wisdom is that in barely two months they have offered dissatisfied Muslim youth a new path and successfully marginalised al Qa'eda. The leading terrorism analyst and Harvard professor Peter Bergen believes "al Qa'eda is irrelevant" to recent events on Arab streets. The French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu has said that, for al Qa'eda, "it's not just a defeat, it's a catastrophe."
Yet, Scheuer notes, elections and upheaval across the region have often led to a stronger presence for Islam. Islamists won Algeria's 1991 elections (only to be blocked from taking power by the military). Hamas and Hizbollah gained strength through elections in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, respectively, while Iraq's governing coalition also has Islamist leanings. And of course the 1979 revolution in Iran resulted in an unbending theocracy.
Scheuer sees Islamism again creeping across the region. Already in post-Ben Ali Tunisia, violence has returned to the streets and a political party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood has begun to regroup. Support for the Islamic Action Front, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, has increased considerably in recent weeks. In Yemen, where a bloody al Qa'eda affiliate has put down roots, the radical cleric and former bin Laden mentor Abdul Majid al Zindani called last week for the departure of the nation's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
And a recent Pew poll found 95 per cent of Egyptians believed Islam should play a large role in politics, while 85 per cent thought it had positive impact. Add to that, Scheuer contends, the Muslim Brotherhood's experience, deep roots and better organisation than any of the political parties forming in Mubarak's wake and the future appears to be set.
"Do you think 80 million Egyptians, mostly Muslim, in a time of violence, turmoil and chaos, are going to reach for an alien ideology like secular democracy?" asks Scheuer.