‘We’re on a Bridge to the Unknown’

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Photo by Zirra Banu
Photo by Zirra Banu

Former CIA Director John McLaughlin Talks Islamic State, China, and the Future of Geopolitical Challenges


WASHINGTON — John McLaughlin served as acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency from July to September 2004. Previously, he was the agency’s deputy director from October 2000. During his thirty year career at the CIA, he held various leadership roles, including deputy director for Intelligence, vice chairman for Estimates, acting chairman of the National Intelligence Council, and in 2000, he founded the Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis, an institution dedicated to teaching the history, mission and essential skills of the analytic profession to new CIA employees. During his time as deputy director his focus shifted more to operations and clandestine intelligence collection. He has briefed four of our last five Presidents. Today, he is Distinguished Practitioner-in-Residence at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies of Johns Hopkins SAIS, where he teaches a course on American Intelligence. McLaughlin sat down with The SAIS Observer to discuss Islamic State, China, and the future of geopolitical challenges.

The Islamic State’s (IS) sweeping advance and military success across large swaths of Syria and Iraq this year has caught the international community by surprise. Today, the United States is leading a diverse coalition of Western and Arab states for military action to destroy IS. The spotlight now is understandably on the symptoms (how to stymie IS’ growth right now), but how would you explain the rise of such an extremist group?

I think you’ve got to pull the camera way back. We’re focused on the territory they have gained. But there have been processes underway for a number of years that have been the foundation for the rise of ISIS.

I wrote a paper in June of last year, which was in another form published in March of this year in the American Interest. In there I called it “Are We Losing The War On Terror?”  I tried to document trends that were underway. And the trends that I picked out were our withdrawal from Iraq, and our coming drawdown from Afghanistan. Terrorists, if they wish, have a freer field of maneuver without the massive, granular U.S. presence that had been there for years. Which means that we can’t keep the close-in observation of these groups that we could when we were all over those two countries. They now have a lot more capability to move around, integrate with the populace and find places to plot and plan, and so forth.

The second big trend is the changing nature of governance in this part of the world. A fruit seller ignites himself in Tunisia in late 2010, and the Arab Spring starts in 2011. We have a period of confusion and chaos in the government of many of the key states in the regime, from South Asia stretching down through the Levant and across of North Africa.  We can applaud the yearning for change and democracy, but in the process a lot of the security institutions were weakened and much space became essentially ungoverned opening up new opportunities for terrorists.

The third trend is that terrorist groups are learning organizations. They have been trying – they learned a lot from their mistakes because we made great progress against them in the post 9/11 period. And they realized, among other things, that they needed to control territory. And in order to control it for any length of time, they needed to think about governing it, even if they were imposing sharia law and brutally dealing with the populace.

And the fourth trend is Syria itself. It arises in the midst of this as the most violent of the Arab Spring transformations. To a large degree, I think, the hesitation of the international community to get involved in Syria, for reasons that might have been defensible at the time, allowed the extremists to develop and take hold there – well supported by external funders, and in some cases, like Jabhat Al-Nusra, actually connected to al Qaeda. ISIS is not.  All of these factors allowed them to gain the momentum and the initiative.

Those are the large strategic precursors. Now, along comes the al-Maliki government in Iraq, which, under al-Maliki, a Shia who had sought asylum in Iran during much of the Saddam period, adopts policies, which are not very inclusive in terms of the Sunni and Kurdish populations in Iraq. Which then alienates, in particular, the Sunnis. The simple fact that he stopped paying tribes in Anbar – who during the time of the surge in 2007-2008 had been employed effectively as opponents of al Qaeda in Iraq – and they helped chase the extremists out and stabilize the situation in Iraq. The fact that he pulled support away from them and that he began removing prominent Sunnis from office and investigating them for corruption and so forth – essentially persecuting Sunnis – all of that coincided with an ISIS push into Iraq. Particularly into the Sunni areas, where they found less resistance than if there had been a strong, inclusive government in Iraq.

These were the broad, strategic trends, stretching from South Asia down to the Levant and across North Africa, that created conditions that extremists like ISIS were able to exploit, particularly when the Sunnis, were feeling excluded from the Iraqi government.

That’s just my theory of the case. You might ask Bruce Hoffman over at Georgetown, or Peter Bergen at CNN, or other SAIS professors and you might get a totally different answer. But that’s how I see it.

Do you see the new Iraqi government acting in a more inclusive way such that they will reduce the incentives for individuals to join IS?

As I understand it, they have made a good start. Al-Maliki is out. They have a new prime minister. To my knowledge, they have not yet come to final decisions on the most important ministerial portfolios. And if a Sunni does not get one of two key ministries – Interior or Defense – and if the Kurds do not get the full measure of autonomy they are seeking, this could still fall apart.

Short answer: they are moving in the right direction. The language is more inclusive, but they have not gotten down to the hard bargaining that will determine their success or not. And the importance of that is that this is the fragile foundation on which the coalition is built. This is the basis for our action. This is the price that the United States demanded of Iraq, in order to contribute military action as we have now. If this falls apart and Iraq does not have a strong government, then ISIS has a much freer hand in that territory than if there is a strong inclusive Iraqi government supported by a military that has revived and rejuvenated and [is] opposing IS.

In some of your previous writings, you quoted the proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This of course refers to Iran and the role of Syria as well. Should U.S. cooperation with the Iranian and Syrian governments be limited to informing them of planned activities, or should it extend beyond that? Is there even potential for joint operations against IS?

This is very controversial. My view, and I’ve said this in a BBC interview [is that] with Syria – no, we don’t seek their cooperation. What you do with Syria – what I assume we’ve done – is inform them that we’ll carry out operations on their territory for a period of time. And, they then have to make their own decisions about what this means for them. Does that mean they want to use their air defenses against us or not? If they do, then I’m sure the United States would retaliate. You don’t seek their cooperation. I assume that the United States still has the goal of seeing a transitional government that removes Assad from power. But we are at the moment where these things must be dealt with serially, not simultaneously. Deal with ISIS first, then, when you can, turn to Syria.

On Iran, it is a little more complicated. Inevitably, Iran is going to have a role here as a major Shia power in the region, seeking to defend a country that’s partly Shia from terrorists who are mostly Sunni. So the reality is they are going to have a role. Probably, rather than seeking some overt agreement with them, we simply should know that they’re going to have a role and try to factor that into our planning. And [after a 19-second pause], perhaps hold quiet, behind the scenes talks with them on what we both have as an objective – understanding that we’re not trading their cooperation in this realm for concessions in another realm.

We still have serious issues with Iran on their nuclear program and on their use of terrorism as an instrument of state power. Remember, a couple of years ago, they tried to assassinate the Saudi ambassador here in Washington. But sometimes cooperation on one issue can be a wedge that opens up a broader field of cooperation over time. So you don’t trade here, but if you might find some basis for acknowledging their contribution, as we did after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan when the Iranians actually came to the conference in Bonn that helped to define a new structure for Afghanistan and did it with some moderation and responsibility.

Of course people who disagree will immediately say, ‘Yeah, but then they also helped opponents of the United States manufacture IEDs in Iraq that killed American soldiers.’ In this part of the world, consistency is not a daily feature of life. Most people who survive in that part of the world have learned to deal with issues in compartments. That’s not something that Americans are generally comfortable with, but we probably need to get more comfortable with it if we’re going to navigate in the current chaos that is the Middle East. Think about it. This is going to be years long. We’ve never had to hold together a coalition that included this many Middle East countries for years before. We held one together during the first Gulf War for a short period of time. The actual period of action there was just a couple of weeks. Now we’re talking about an effort that’s going to take years. And we’ve got to hold this coalition together. That’s really going to be tough.

Before entering academia, you ran the U.S. intelligence service at CIA. If you were to put those lenses back on, can you paint us a picture of what is happening to inform U.S. policymakers? Or what our intelligence personnel might be doing? What challenges does the U.S. face in trying to penetrate ISIL and learn about their operations and intentions?

Well, I’m a little limited in what I can say about that. We can be sure that collecting intelligence on ISIS will be one of the two or three top priorities for American intelligence. The kinds of things that they are going to have to focus on are the structure and leadership of this movement: who are they, where are they? They’re going to have to do some creative thinking about what happens, what can we anticipate as an air campaign goes forward.

When you attack terrorists, typically you don’t immediately destroy them. You change them. They adapt to your circumstances. We have probably just attacked our easiest air targets. Now the air campaign will get harder. They will disperse. They will integrate with the population. That will change their physical configuration. It will become harder and harder to identify valid targets for an air campaign. Intelligence will have to be involved in that. It will have to make policymakers understand how is this structure, composition, location of this movement changing under military pressure? How’s their configuration, strategy – and their targets – changing?

A major objective of intelligence will be to gauge the nature of the threat they present to the United States directly and physically, either to our installations overseas, to individuals overseas, and to people here in the United States homeland. So the effort has to span our domestic agencies, like the FBI, to have a good focus on the homeland — Homeland Security, organizations like Customs and Border Patrol within Homeland Security, [and] our major metropolitan police departments [including] NYC, Washington, Los Angeles Chicago. They have to span our domestic sources of information. [They] must blend with our foreign collection effort, which would be carried out by the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

In other words, human intelligence, communications, and photographic intelligence – all of this would have to be integrated. Then you’ve got to integrate that with information that domestic agencies can pick up on the home front about our borders and radicalized individuals in the United States, which the CIA cannot touch – the CIA and NSA – we’re not permitted to do that. Although recall the great controversy over NSA’s metadata program. I think at a time like this, the value of that program comes into bolder relief, because clearly, we’re at a moment when if there is, as we hear, some intention on the part of ISIS or this new group, Khorasan, to attack in the United States, you want to have a microscopic view to what people are doing here.

So there’s a broad range of things, and you’ll be briefing the president every day, at a very detailed level – briefing the whole national security team, if you are in intelligence at this time. Every meeting in the White House Situation Room on this matter will start off with an intelligence update that will cover the things I’ve just walked through. In other words, how’s their configuration changing under pressure? What are their targets? How much have we hurt them? What’s going to happen next?

History shows that many Western governments, including the United States, have deemed violent groups challenging the status quo as ‘terrorist’ organizations — Hezbollah in Lebanon, the African National Congress in Africa, the IRA in Ireland, the FLN in Algeria. And yet, many such groups are now ‘legitimate’ actors running political parties, sharing power, and leading governments. Do you think ISIL has such a future?

I think they would not mirror any of those organizations in their composition and propaganda and so forth. But I think they were trying to evolve in that direction. In other words, when their leader al-Baghdadi stands up in a mosque in Mosel and preaches a sermon, and invites doctors and engineers and other professionals in the Muslim world to come be part of the caliphate, and when some areas have engaged in provision of civic services – trash collection to maintenance of electrical power plants and so forth – they were starting to go in that direction. But when you combine that with their tendency to also impose a really harsh Sharia law — the populace, and then the beheadings – I think the brutality of what they’ve done, I think starts to cut against their ambition to ultimately have political legitimacy in the territory they control.

I mean groups like Hezbollah, of course, have engaged in terrorism, but they also provide legitimate social services to upwards of a quarter million of the inhabitants of Lebanon. And they are a legitimate parliamentary party, so they have sort of two heads. It’s hard to see these guys [ISIL] doing that because they are so far to the extreme in the Islamic movement that sharing power with someone is simply not in their DNA. If you talk to Professor Mary Habeck here, I think she would say that the idea of sharing power and democracy is blasphemous to them.

Again they [also] defy any of the models that we can look to. They’re not like al Qaeda in the sense that al Qaeda never succeeded in gaining much territory, and never projected a very well-constructed vision of the future. These guys [IS] have territory, and they have a narrative they can project, which they’re projecting very successfully, however hideous it may be to us They are also not like Hezbollah in the sense that Hezbollah was externally supported, primarily by Iran, and to some degree, was sort of a surrogate, a proxy, for Iran. These guys are no one’s proxy.

They’re not connected to al Qaeda central in any meaningful way. If anything, they are gathering adherents. The fact that a number of groups around the world are declaring solidarity with them and the fact that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — which is probably the most accomplished and threatening of the al Qaeda affiliates — has expressed a certain degree of support for them… if anything, the influence is flowing to them, they are not dependent on someone for help. So they defy the stereotypes, but they have elements of those other groups you mentioned in their desire to govern. Whether they can bring it off is doubtful I think.

Does IS really have global pretensions? Is it truly a global threat? Or is it more of a regional menace to the U.S., and the West, and to other countries?

I don’t think we know. One of my themes about terrorism [is that] even when we know a lot, we have to be humble because there is always something important that we don’t know. And in their case, I would say at the moment, their priority has to be on consolidating the territory they have gained in the region, but the incentive for them to go abroad with operations is very high.

They are clearly trying to seize global leadership. They are trying to be the new superpower in the terrorist world, and seize global leadership of that movement. They know that one of the ways to do this is to outshine or best al Qaeda on the sort of things al Qaeda has done well in the past. And what they have done well is attacks in western capitals – here, Madrid, London. So I think the incentive for them to go global is very high. And they have now — if they can escape the pressure that we are putting them under – they have the money and the access to do that.

They have everything that al Qaeda wanted to amass to do that. I mean the 9/11 operation cost about $400,000 according to the 9/11 commission. And these guys have got that many times over. But more importantly, they have potentially the access. You asked earlier about what you would do in intelligence now. One of the things you would be doing is trying to figure out: ‘Who are these foreign fighters?’ ‘Where do they come from?’ ‘What passports do they have?’ ‘How well can we document their identities?’ Can we organize other intelligence services in other countries to be vigilant about the flow back and forth between their citizens who are perhaps aspiring to go, and people from their countries who are already there [and] who want to go somewhere. Can they track those people in any way?

Some people are attracted to their ideology. Is there anything that the United States or the West can do to change this appeal or to develop a counter-narrative?

Again I am humble on that. I don’t think we can understand. I can say things, but I don’t know that we really understand what attracts people. To defeat a terrorist movement, you have to do at least three things. You’ve got to destroy their leadership, you’ve got to deny them safe haven, and you’ve got to change the conditions that give rise to the phenomenon.

We work hard at destroying leadership and denying safe haven. That’s what we’re doing now. But changing the conditions that give rise to this phenomenon is another matter. First, you have to figure out ‘what are those conditions?’ Well the classic answer is the lack of opportunity in that part of the world where populations are growing at the fastest rate anywhere in the world. You look at population growth over the next two decades, and demographers say only three percent of that growth is going to occur in the developed world. So it’s going to occur in places like Africa, the Middle East, and so forth. With governments that can’t provide the services that a growing population demands in terms of economic development, jobs, and so forth.. those are the conditions that create a lot of unemployed young people, mostly young men on the streets, who are ripe for recruitment and exploitation by extremists.

Until those conditions begin to ameliorate, there is dry tinder here for extremism. Now that is sort of a liberal view. I mean there are a lot of people who say ‘no these are just evil people.’ Well, they are evil, but I think they get evil somehow. They are not born evil.

So what’s China role in confronting IS? China is the largest recipient of Iraqi oil exports. The Chinese government is concerned about the continued flow of oil from the Middle East. Chinese hackers reportedly broke into D.C. think tanks in an effort to obtain information about American plans vis-à-vis IS. Will the Chinese be asked to share a burden more commensurate with the benefit they are receiving from Western and Sunni military support? What pressure can the U.S. put on China to contribute more?

That’s an interesting question. Actually, I’ve been asked to write a paper by CSIS on the question of ‘What are great power strategies toward the Middle East?’ And by that, they mean China, Russia, the United States, and Europe, and I haven’t begun to do that yet.

I’m not a China expert, but I do pay attention to China. And you might hear something different from Dr. Lampton [of SAIS] or someone else. But my perspective is that the Chinese are hard to draw into this issue. [There] are many dimensions to this [issue]. You have to ask yourself, if you are China right now, and you are watching what’s going on, and you’re watching what we’re doing, you’re probably saying to yourself: ‘Ok, the United States is not going to have a lot of time and energy and attention for the Asia rebalancing, or the Asia pivot. They are going to be tied down over here, so number one, we like that.’

Now that doesn’t mean they are going to somehow stimulate this or anything. But number two, my sense for China in the Middle East, without having done the research yet, is that their interest is primarily energy security. I’ve yet to see the Chinese show much interest in helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. I think they take a kind of mercantilist approach to the Middle East. The formula I learned about China is energy security equals economic growth equals political stability. As long as that equation is not interrupted, I think they’re going to be ok. And again, I don’t know the data on whether it has affected their access to oil and other energy yet. I doubt that it has.

But I just don’t see them getting mixed up in a counterterrorist movement in the Middle East, among other reasons, because the sorts of things we are doing are anathema to them. The whole idea of an alliance of states coming into another state and doing what we’re doing is something that China typically opposes. No interference in internal affairs, and if you’re going to do that at all, you’ve got to do that through the UN. We have talked to the UN about this, but I’m not aware yet of a UN resolution that authorizes what we are doing.

Even in our own country, there is controversy already about on what legal ground [President Obama] is standing because he is using basically the authorization for the use of military force, which was passed in 2001, which gave the president, any president, authority to attack al Qaeda and its affiliates. And some lawyers are saying, ‘These guys are not al Qaeda. These guys are not an affiliate.’ If anything, they are saying they are in charge, not al Qaeda.

I read in the Post this morning that the administration spokesmen are saying the way around this is that this group actually is the follow-on group to al Qaeda in Iraq, which it is, which was in fact was an al Qaeda affiliate. So just because they have decided at this point to say that they are not part of al Qaeda doesn’t mean they don’t fall under the heading of people we can oppose legally under that authorization. But that argument will take place here in the United States. That’s not the China issue, but China would probably be among those agreeing with critics saying that we are not on a solid legal basis here.

The initial military phase of the anti-ISIL campaign is likely to be swift and decisive, as was the American-led campaign against al-Qaeda in 2001 in Afghanistan. During the 2001 campaign, however, most top al Qaeda figures fled into Pakistan, limiting the campaign’s effectiveness. Where will ISIL fighters flee? How will the configuration change?

We are responding to that configuration now. In other words, prior to the strikes that have occurred in the last two days, their safe haven, if you will, was in Syria. Syria was their Pakistan, in a way. And now we’ve gotten to it. So where do they go next? They don’t really have a place to go. They can’t go into Turkey. They can’t seek safe haven in a place like Jordan or Saudi Arabia. They can go to those places, but they won’t be going there for safe haven. If they go there at all, they will be going in an offensive capability.

The way they are going to change their configuration, the way they will hide now, is not by going to another physical space. I think they will hide by integrating more closely with the population the way Hamas does in Gaza, for example, [and] by disbursing their equipment. This is going to be hard for them though, because they [are] unlike other terrorist groups that we’ve dealt with. I mean there are three of four things that distinguish them.

And one of them is that they do have territory. So as Dr. Keaney [of SAIS] pointed out when we were discussing the air campaign [is that] once they have territory, they have to govern it. They have to do something in that territory if they want to hold it, and therefore that inevitably exposes them to a degree. So they have a tougher job than al Qaeda did in Afghanistan because they really weren’t governing anything. They just had to hide. Later, they had to seek hiding places in the mountains and caves along the Afghan-Pakistani border. These guys have a tougher job in that they actually hold sway over territory, and they have big equipment. So I don’t think they really have a place to run to. I don’t see them running into Iran. I don’t see them hiding out in Turkey. The larger danger I would worry about is not them hiding out in these places, but pushing across the Jordanian border, or pushing across the Saudi border. It’s only a couple hundred miles to Mecca. The Saudis would of course respond very forcefully. For now, I think we are going to see some diminution of activity because they are under pressure. And if we keep the pressure on them, they will, I think, get back up off the mat eventually. But it’s going to take a little while.

The hard part of this terrorist group is they are unlike any previous group that we’ve dealt with. So I’m conscious all the time that I, and people like myself who have worked on terrorism over time, are prisoners of preconceptions about how terrorists operate. These people are different. They have territory. They have millions of dollars. They have much more money than any terrorist group we’ve ever dealt with. They have equipment that we have never seen in the hands of a terrorist group. And they have access we have never seen in this measure in a terrorist group by virtue of having so many Western passport holders, including some number of Americans, among them.

You asked about what I would do if I was back in the intelligence field. I would be saying [that] we have to question all of our assumptions about terrorism here because this is a very different group. It’s partly conventional, partly insurgent, and partly a government. We’re going to be surprised in the course of this effort. So I would be pushing people to think, ‘What can surprise us here?’ Just the fact of having money may give them ways of protecting themselves that we’re not thinking of because we tend to think in classic terms of ‘you run and hide in a piece of territory.’ They may have some other way to do it that we’re not thinking of.

On how events might play out in the near future?

The Clausewitz quote I used is “everything in war is simple, but the simplest things in war are very difficult.” It’s sounding simple right now. Air strikes, get the Iraqi government set up, cut off their funding, humanitarian aide continues, 475 new American soldiers there – kind of looks good on a slide.

But if this is going to go on for years, as it might, all of that is going to change. It’s just going to change. What if something really bad happens? What if they get into Baghdad? Something will go wrong in the war, and that will set off tremors in the coalition. [On] the whole issue of boots on the ground, we have to find a better way to deal with that rather than just repeating as a mantra “No American boots on the ground” because there will be boots on the group. There are boots on the ground now. And eventually what will happen here is we will run out of air targets, and the momentum will shift to a ground campaign, and the pressure to include American advisors going forward with indigenous forces will be very great.

And if you get to that point – no one is going to get back to the level of deployment we had in Iraq over the last ten years – that’s not in the cards. But I can easily imagine a couple of combat brigades in reserve status, equipped with armor and air support if we get to the point of putting advisors forward with indigenous forces, because it just will want force protection, among other things. So the ground complexion of this campaign will change, if it really lasts for years. This is what the Italians call a bridge to the unknown. We are on a bridge to the unknown here.

If we were to zoom out from this conflict happening in the Middle East, let’s look 10, 15, 20, 50 years out. What top three geopolitical challenges should we be thinking about (should we be worrying about) in the international system from a U.S. perspective?

Well there is sort of the obvious list, and then there are things that are underlying forces. The obvious list includes things like China. We need to keep a riveting focus on China, not because it’s an enemy, but because we just can’t know at this time what China will be in twenty-five years from now. Hopefully it will be a partner or a counterpart, but we don’t know that. As you must know, there is a lot of controversy about where are they going with military modernization? There is sort of a school solution, but then there are outliers who interpret it differently.

We need to keep an eye on Russia. It may be in some way a declining power, but it will always be a power at some level. It is a power that has a very distinct political culture, point of view, influence, [and] a military, as it has demonstrated in Ukraine that is now somewhat restructured and more mobile and more capable than the sort of hollowed out Soviet military that existed at the end of the Cold War.

We need to think about things like climate change, resource stress, everything from energy to water. Try to figure out what are the sort of things that cause instability and chaos in societies, and that takes you to things like population growth, urbanization, a lot of trends that we have to keep our eye on in order to understand how is the global geopolitical environment changing. Alliance structure [or] management of our alliances will become more important, because we are in a more multipolar world, and that is not a world we are accustomed to.  We have never really had to operate in a world like that. We were kind of isolationists after World War I. World War II was a big coalition among major powers. The Cold War was bipolar. When the Cold War ended, we were left as the only standing superpower.

So the idea of operating in a world where you have a number of countries coming on the scene with substantial power, China, the BRICS as a whole, at a time when U.S. influence is still preeminent but less, we need to think about how we manage alliances and partnerships in that world. Maybe if I put it a little differently: How does America lead in a world where is has to do much of its leading in partnerships and coalitions? So those kinds of things.

One final question. In a November 2005 issue of the Observer, we ran a story entitled “A Good Magician (Almost) Never Tells.” When can SAIS students expect to see your next show?

(Laughter) There will be a little magic that will occur in the midst of [the first Defense Against the Dark Arts event on 9/29]. On the International Staff Ride, there will be something. And very occasionally magic bursts out in my class.

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