Alexander's Column

Know thy enemy

Mark Alexander · Dec. 15, 2006

In a sit-down interview with Congressional Quarterly earlier this week, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the five-term Texas Democrat and incoming chair of the House Intelligence Committee, flunked a pretty simple quiz.

When asked whether al-Qa'ida was Sunni or Shi'ite, Reyes answered, “They are probably both.” He then compounded his ignorance: “You’re talking about predominantly? Predominantly – probably Shi'ite.”

Wrong. Very wrong. In fact, al-Qa'ida’s raison d'etre is the purification of Sunni Islam, which Osama bin Laden considers tainted by the Saudi royal family’s personal corruption and alliance with the United States. Shi'ite Muslims, on the other hand, are heretics deserving of death for their perversion of the “one true religion.”

Then Reyes, who also sits on the House Armed Service Committee, was asked the same question with regard to Hizballah.

“Hizballah. Uh, Hizballah…” Laughing nervously and shifting in his seat, Reyes evaded. “Why do you ask me these questions at five o'clock? Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?”

In the end, Reyes confessed that he didn’t know the answer, despite the fact that Hizballah has existed as a terrorist arm of Iran for more than two decades, from the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 of our servicemen, to the political assassinations, the attacks on Israel and the attempts to bring Lebanon under Hizballah control today. It’s equally worth noting that Hizballah, which means “Party of God,” is now helping train Iraqi Shi'ites to kill Iraqi Sunnis in that country’s internecine conflict.

“Know thy enemy” is perhaps the oldest maxim of warfare, yet Rep. Reyes’ ignorance appears to be the rule rather than the exception.

Last summer, the same sort of question was posed by CQ to Republicans Terry Everett and Jo Ann Davis. Rep. Everett, a seven-term Congressman from Alabama, is outgoing vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence. Rep. Davis, of Virginia, is outgoing head of the House intelligence subcommittee that oversees the CIA’s recruitment of Muslims to infiltrate Islamist organizations and its analysis of the information these agents provide.

“Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shi'ite?” CQ’s national security editor, Jeff Stein, asked Everett. “One’s in one location, another’s in another location,” Everett asserted. “No, to be honest with you, I don’t know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something.” After Stein briefly explained the differences, Rep. Everett replied, “Now that you’ve explained it to me, what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but that whole area.”

You don’t say.

Davis didn’t fare any better when asked the same question. “Do I?” she replied. “You know, I should. It’s a difference in their fundamental religious beliefs. The Sunni are more radical than the Shi'a. Or vice versa. But I think it’s the Sunnis who’re more radical than the Shi'a.”

“And what is al-Qa'ida,” Stein asked? “Al-Qa'ida is the one that’s most radical, so I think they’re Sunni,” Davis decided. “I may be wrong, but I think that’s right.” Davis then summarized the importance of knowing the difference: “al-Qa'ida’s whole reason for being is based on their beliefs, and you’ve got to understand, and to know your enemy.”

Some might say that congressmen have oversight responsibilities, and that they’re not the ones directly responsible for counterterrorism efforts; that it’s the officials engaged in security and intelligence that know better. Yet, when asked, a number of high-ranking counterterrorism officials had no idea what the 1,400-year-old schism in Islam that defines the battle lines in Iraq and across the Middle East is all about.

Willie Hulon, chief of the FBI’s national security arm, was all but clueless. “The basics goes [sic] back to their beliefs and who they were following.” Asked which one Iran and Hizballah are, Hulon took his chances: “Sunni.” Wrong. Al-Qa'ida? “Sunni.” Right. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Then there was the interview with Dale Watson, until recently the FBI’s head of counterterrorism. The interviewer asked, “Do you know who Osama bin Laden’s spiritual leader was?” “Can’t recall.” “Do you know the differences in the religion between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims?” “Not technically, no.”

It gets worse. Last year another top FBI counterterrorism official, John Lewis, was asked, “Was there any relationship between the first World Trade Center bombing and the 9/11 attacks?”

“I’m aware of no immediate relationship, other than it all emanates, you know, out of the Middle East, al-Qa'ida linkage, I believe,” Lewis contrived. “Not something I’ve studied recently that I’m conversant with.” (Like the others, he didn’t know the difference between a Sunni and a Shi'ite, either.)

Gary Bald, the FBI’s most recent counterterrorism and counterintelligence chief (the sixth since 9/11), waved off the question entirely. “You don’t need subject matter expertise,” Bald scoffed. “The subject matter expertise is helpful, but it isn’t a prerequisite. It is certainly not what I look for in selecting an official for a position in the counterterrorism [program].”

This, of course, begs the following question: Does knowing the basic differences between the two major branches of Islam really constitute “subject matter expertise”?

Apparently it does in the FBI, where five years after 9/11, only 33 of the Bureau’s 12,000 agents have even minimal knowledge of Arabic, and until recently new agents received only two hours in Arab-culture training. Nor is the FBI alone. Courtesy of the State Department, only six people at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad are fluent in Arabic. The CIA has struggled to recruit and retain analysts and operatives with these skills. Rare, too, is the Army unit that can communicate directly with the Iraqis they encounter, or assess captured enemy documents on the spot. From top to bottom, knowledge of Islam and the Middle East is all but absent.

Yet this knowledge matters – immensely. Only this week, Saudi Arabia announced its intention to support Iraqi Sunnis should the U.S. withdraw its troops. Iran and Hizballah are, already, supporting Iraqi Shi'ites. Meanwhile, Iraq’s Shi'ite-dominated army announced a plan to begin taking over security responsibilities from U.S. forces in Baghdad, in essence making the country’s Shi'ite-Sunni conflict its own. In Afghanistan, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Taliban-allied Hezb-e-Islami guerillas, defiantly proclaimed Republican election losses as a victory for the mujahedeen – proving he definitely knows more about us than we know about him.

Further, Iranian elections for city councils and the Assembly of Experts are slated for today, and the outcome could significantly affect President Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad’s hold on power. Also, as Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons, this week the Saudis and their Sunni neighbors all but announced their intent to follow suit, cooperating in matters of nuclear-energy development. If that’s not enough, the FBI warns that a “medical emergency” experienced by imprisoned al-Qa'ida spiritual leader Omar Abdel-Rahman, the infamous “Blind Sheikh” who inspired the first World Trade Center attack, could prompt al-Qa'ida retaliation against the U.S.

And that’s just the news this week, all undergirded by the Sunni-Shi'ite cleavage. With the likes of Iran and al-Qa'ida fueling violence in the region, and our troops’ lives on the line, maybe – just maybe – these are enemies worth getting to know.