No Comment, Six Questions — April 30, 2010, 11:04 am

“I Challenge Marc Thiessen”: Six Questions for Malcolm Nance

An Arabic-speaking counterterrorism expert and a combat veteran with twenty-eight years of operational experience in the Middle East, Malcolm Nance has now published a sweeping new strategic proposal for engaging Al Qaeda. I put six questions to him about his book and the continuing debate about waterboarding propelled by former Vice President Cheney and his staffers.

1. Peter Bergen, among others, has made the case that the tide has turned in the battle against Al Qaeda. He says the organization misplayed its hand with radical tactics that cost the lives of large numbers of Muslim civilians. Is he too optimistic?

malcolm_nance_02

I believe Peter Bergen is a little too optimistic but generally on mark. Yes, Al Qaeda has suffered massive losses in Iraq and some significant degradation worldwide. In Iraq their one-time sponsors, the ex-Baathist insurgents, found them in the end to be ideologically dangerous and turned on them. Initially, the Iraqi insurgents loved the effect that the Al Qaeda suicide operations had on the Americans. Once the Sunni insurgents realized that Bin Laden’s reinterpretation of Islam would undermine the existing Iraqi tribal structures, and that Al Qaeda would engage in the mass murder of Muslims, they turned against Al Qaeda and helped us gain the upper hand. Militarily, Al Qaeda is boxed into Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen–but their cult-like ideology could infect the youth of the Muslim world. The risk remains that they will achieve a generational success by transforming Islam. That would make our recent military campaigns into pyrrhic victories.

2. You suggest that the key to defeating Al Qaeda lies in “counter-ideological warfare.” What do you mean by this?

Bin Laden’s dream, which will likely survive his death, is not just to radicalize Islam but to transform it into a global virus that destroys the tradition of tolerance and puts in its place perpetual jihad and suicide martyrdom. His ideology feeds off hatred of the West. He wants to harness Muslim popular anger at Western missteps to root out the tradition of tolerance in Islam. If he has to massacre innocent Muslims to do that, he won’t hesitate to do so.

Al Qaeda’s ideology has little to do with traditional Islam. Some call it al-Qaedaism; I call it Bin Ladenism. This fanatical ideology, not a command-and-control structure of a traditional sort, is the organization’s center of gravity. It must therefore be fought with the tools of counter-ideological warfare. That means that we recognize, attack, and neutralize their central belief system using all political, diplomatic, intelligence, military, and economic tools. The starting point is therefore to drive a wedge between Al Qaeda and Islam. The Muslim world needs to understand that Al Qaeda’s ideology has nothing to do with the pillars of Islam. When Al Qaeda is isolated and recognized as a radical cult, it will lose the ability to generate new recruits.

3. You dedicated your book to Mohammad Salman Hamadani. Who is he and why did you choose to honor him this way?

“Sal” was an American of Pakistani descent who went missing on 9/11. There was an investigation and speculation that he was involved in the plot. In fact, he was a New York City police cadet and paramedic who had raced to the scene and who died trying to save lives. Several months later his body was found at the WTC site. He is the truest face of both American and Islamic heroism.

4. You say that the United States needs to target Al Qaeda with a public-diplomacy campaign that you call circuit breaker. Explain your proposal and why you think Bush-era public diplomacy fell short.

The entire eight-year effort under Bush targeted Americans, not the world or Al Qaeda supporters. Bin Laden benefitted immensely from massive policy errors such as the invasion of Iraq. circuit breaker is designed to reverse these losses and break Al Qaeda’s global base of support. Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, noted that losing the Muslim world’s support would utterly destroy Al Qaeda. This strategy, which would cost only a fraction of the hundreds of billions spent on military operations, would attack Al Qaeda in the realm of public opinion in the Islamic world and would reposition America and Americans as partners rather than an opponents.

5. You previously served as a master instructor in the SERE program, in which pilots were prepared, among other things, to endure waterboarding. The SERE training program, we later learned, was reverse engineered to produce “enhanced interrogation techniques” for the CIA. Recently a White House speechwriter named Marc Thiessen has played a vocal role in the campaign that the Cheneys have launched to justify the use of waterboarding. He insists that it absolutely is not torture, and he insists that it’s different from the technique used by the Khmer Rouge. Does Thiessen know what he’s talking about?

end-al-qaeda-malcolm-nance-audio-cover-art

I spent twenty years in intelligence and four years in the SERE program waterboarding people before I ever opened my mouth on the subject. Marc Thiessen is a fool of the highest magnitude if he thinks he knows anything about waterboarding. His claims are based not on first-hand experience but on a classified briefing from people with an agenda of justifying what was done. That makes Thiessen into a court stenographer for war criminals rather than a person with any real claim of expertise. As for his claim about the relationship between Pol Pot–era waterboarding and what we have done derived from the SERE program, he’s wrong. Before I arrived at SERE, I went to S21 prison in Cambodia. Right next to the Wall of Skulls sits the exact waterboard platform that the SERE program copied for our own use in the training program. Remember, our goal was to prepare pilots for the techniques they might face if they fell into the hands of our enemies. I was waterboarded on arrival at SERE, and then as a senior staffer, I performed the technique or supervised it through hundreds of evolutions.

Thiessen’s central purpose is apparently to glorify the most extreme practices used by the CIA in the Bush era and to argue that each of these practices, including waterboarding, is vitally necessary to our national security–even though no president used them before, and it seems that President Bush himself halted many of these practices over Cheney’s objection. We have prosecuted and convicted men for using these techniques in the past, and we were right to do so.

This suggests to me that, while he may cite Thomas Aquinas, Thiessen has no sense of honor and no moral compass. I give him credit for his loyalty to the Cheneys, but he’s blind to their errors in judgment. The use of waterboarding and other torture techniques was a powerful recruitment tool for Al Qaeda; it spawned thousands of would-be suicide bombers. Thiessen claims that we gained “intelligence” by using these torture techniques. But this shows that he knows nothing about the intelligence process or how our enemy grows and sustains itself.

Thousands of American POWs died and suffered resisting torture practices that we have always called the tools of the enemy. The SERE program was designed to help them grapple with this inhumanity and retain their dignity in the face of it. Now Thiessen and his boss want us to embrace the tactics we used in that program–taken from the Russians, the Communist Chinese, the North Koreans, the North Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge–as our own. He claims that these techniques are unpleasant but have no long-term physical or mental impact. Really? I challenge him to put up or shut up. I offer to put him through just one hour of the CIA enhanced interrogation techniques that were authorized in the Bush Administration’s OLC memos–including the CIA-approved variant of waterboarding. If at the end he still believes this is not torture, I’ll respect his viewpoint. But not until then. By the way, I can assure you that, within that hour, I’ll secure Thiessen’s written admission that waterboarding is torture and that his book is a pack of falsehoods. He’ll give me any statement I want in order to end the torture.

6. Barack Obama grew up in part in the Muslim world and has an unusually deep understanding of Muslim culture and tradition. Does this provide any special opening in the war against Al Qaeda?

There is great opportunity to use the goodwill surrounding Obama, and particularly the fact that he was raised in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, to creating a new era in American-Islamic relations. At the heart of my circuit breaker proposal is an effort to reframe America and Americans. Al Qaeda portrays us as Muslim-hating militarists. We need to be seen as a strategic partner in an effort to fend off a foe which is as much a challenge to Islam as it is to the West. Many leaders of the Muslim community desperately want this rapprochement. Our initial efforts against Al Qaeda were sound militarily but very clumsy on the field of public opinion. They have led to military successes, but those victories will be short-lived if we cannot win the struggle with Al Qaeda for hearts and minds.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2017

Document of Barbarism

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Destroyer of Worlds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Crossing Guards

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I am Here Only for Working”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dear Rose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Year of The Frog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Destroyer of Worlds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February 1947, Harper’s Magazine published Henry L. Stimson’s “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” As secretary of war, Stimson had served as the chief military adviser to President Truman, and recommended the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terms of his unrepentant apologia, an excerpt of which appears on page 35, are now familiar to us: the risk of a dud made a demonstration too risky; the human cost of a land invasion would be too high; nothing short of the bomb’s awesome lethality would compel Japan to surrender. The bomb was the only option. Seventy years later, we find his reasoning unconvincing. Entirely aside from the destruction of the blasts themselves, the decision thrust the world irrevocably into a high-stakes arms race — in which, as Stimson took care to warn, the technology would proliferate, evolve, and quite possibly lead to the end of modern civilization. The first half of that forecast has long since come to pass, and the second feels as plausible as ever. Increasingly, the atmosphere seems to reflect the anxious days of the Cold War, albeit with more juvenile insults and more colorful threats. Terms once consigned to the history books — “madman theory,” “brinkmanship” — have returned to the news cycle with frightening regularity. In the pages that follow, seven writers and experts survey the current nuclear landscape. Our hope is to call attention to the bomb’s ever-present menace and point our way toward a world in which it finally ceases to exist.

Illustration by Darrel Rees. Source photographs: Kim Jong-un © ITAR-TASS Photo Agency/Alamy Stock Photo; Donald Trump © Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Newscom
Article
Crossing Guards·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ambassador Bridge arcs over the Detroit River, connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, the southernmost city in Canada. Driving in from the Canadian side, where I grew up, is like viewing a panorama of the Motor City’s rise and fall, visible on either side of the bridge’s turquoise steel stanchions. On the right are the tubular glass towers of the Renaissance Center, headquarters of General Motors, and Michigan Central Station, the rail terminal that closed in 1988. On the left is a rusted industrial corridor — fuel tanks, docks, abandoned warehouses. I have taken this route all my life, but one morning this spring, I crossed for the first time in a truck.

Illustration by Richard Mia
Article
“I am Here Only for Working”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

But the exercise of labor is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. . . . He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labor as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.

— Karl Marx

Photograph from the United Arab Emirates by the author. This page: Ruwais Mall
Article
The Year of The Frog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To look at him, Sweet Macho was a beautiful horse, lean and strong with muscles that twitched beneath his shining black coat. A former racehorse, he carried himself with ceremony, prancing the field behind our house as though it were the winner’s circle. When he approached us that day at the edge of the yard, his eyes shone with what might’ve looked like intelligence but was actually a form of insanity. Not that there was any telling our mother’s boyfriend this — he fancied himself a cowboy.

“Horse 1,” by Nine Francois. Courtesy the artist and AgavePrint, Austin, Texas
Article
Dead Ball Situation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, by Simon Critchley. Penguin Books. 224 pages. $20.

Begin, as Wallace Stevens didn’t quite say, with the idea of it. I so like the idea of Simon Critchley, whose books offer philosophical takes on a variety of subjects: Stevens, David Bowie, suicide, humor, and now football — or soccer, as the US edition has it. (As a matter of principle I shall refer to this sport throughout as football.) “All of us are mysteriously affected by our names,” decides one of Milan Kundera’s characters in Immortality, and I like Critchley because his name would seem to have put him at a vocational disadvantage compared with Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, or even, in the Anglophone world, A. J. Ayer or Richard Rorty. (How different philosophy might look today if someone called Nobby Stiles had been appointed as the Wykeham Professor of Logic.)

Tostão, No. 9, and Pelé, No. 10, celebrate Carlos Alberto’s final goal for Brazil in the World Cup final against Italy on June 21, 1970, Mexico City © Heidtmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Factor by which single Americans who use emoji are more likely than other single Americans to be sexually active:

1.85

Brontosaurus was restored as a genus, and cannibalism was reported in tyrannosaurine dinosaurs.

Moore said he did not “generally” date teenage girls, and it was reported that in the 1970s Moore had been banned from his local mall and YMCA for bothering teenage girls.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today