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Al-Qaeda conflict described as World War IV

Paolo Black / ABC The World Today | September 12 2006

ELEANOR HALL: A former CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) director and chief adviser to New York's Terrorism Preparedness Taskforce has described the conflict against al-Qaeda as the "fourth world war", and he predicts it will go on for decades.

James Woolsey was director of the CIA under President Clinton and was an arms control negotiator under presidents Reagan and Bush Senior.

He's critical of US administrations from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton for failing to tackle Islamic terrorism more robustly.

James Woolsey has been speaking to Paolo Black.

JAMES WOOLSEY: I think that war will go on for decades, like the Cold War, hopefully just a few decades instead of many decades.

But I don't think it's just a war on terrorism, I think it's a war on Islamist fanaticism or fascism, if you prefer, and it won't really be over until the future of the Middle East is clearly tending in one direction or another, either toward chaos and dictatorship, or in the direction that we hope Afghanistan and Iraq can move, toward decent societies, the beginnings of rule of law and some degree of democracy.

PAOLO BLACK: Interviewed on Fox news this last July 17, you said "I think we ought to execute some air strikes against Syria, against the instruments of power of that state, against the airport, which is the place where weapons shuttle through from Iran to Hezbollah and Hamas. I think both Syria and Iran think we're cowards".

JAMES WOOLSEY: I think they think we're cowards because in '79 we tied yellow ribbons around the trees when they took our hostages. In '82, '83, when our embassy and marine barracks were blown up in Beirut we left. It goes on, and in the rest of the '90s we didn't respond to a number of the al-Qaeda attacks.

It was not until after 9/11 that we did anything, and I think that they got the impression, just as bin Laden has explicitly stated, Americans won't fight, you can keep doing anything you want to them.

And I think that Syria has been a major offender in its support for Hezbollah, in its efforts to undermine decent, largely democratic government in Lebanon, and I think it would've been a good idea to have stopped the Syrians from pumping weapons through their country to Hezbollah.

PAOLO BLACK: The Path to 9/11, the ABC semi-documentary series, which began on Australian television last night, blames Clinton, the former secretary of state Madeline Albright and other senior aides for not adequately pursuing bin Laden, leaving him free to plan the attacks. What are your thoughts on that?

JAMES WOOLSEY: I think, going all the way back to the Carter era, and including during the Reagan and first Bush era, the United States altogether regarded Islamist terrorism as almost exclusively a law enforcement problem, and some of those failures to go after bin Laden in the late '90s were because the Justice Department or the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations) would say well, we don't have enough evidence to get him extradited if we capture him and so-forth.

They looked on it as an individual-by-individual law enforcement problem and that's not really what it is or was. It's far more like a war, but an ideologically motivated one, and we have been the focus of it, at least in part, since 1979, when our hostages were seized in Tehran, our embassy personnel by Khomeini's new regime. And we had a lot of terrorist attacks in the '80s and '90s, and we continued to treat it as a law enforcement problem. But it wasn't just the Clinton administration. I think that continued from really Carter through early Bush.

PAOLO BLACK: Your perceptions five years on, are we safer or less safe?

JAMES WOOLSEY: It depends on whether you assume that by just sitting here we would have not been hit again. I think that because of the history I described we were looked at as paper tigers by the Islamists, both from the Shi'ite side, like Ahmadinejad, and from the Sunni side, like bin Laden and the Wahhabi.

And so I think there was no real option for us, except to begin this long effort to try to bring a different form of government in society to the Middle East, a huge and long-term undertaking, but I don't think we had any choice.

You can speculate that if we'd just sat here that al-Qaeda would've left us alone for a while, but I think it would've only been for a while.

ELEANOR HALL: And that's James Woolsey the director of the CIA under President Clinton. He was speaking there to NewsRadio's Paolo Black.


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