Gen. John Abizaid: Fortunately, Al Qaedaís ideology has not gone mainstream yet
Thomas Cromwell

There is no one on earth today for whom the decisive conflict of our era, which pitches Islamic extremists against America and Western values, is more immediate that General John Abizaid. The commander of Central Command, based in Tampa and Doha, Qatar, is overall responsible for US and allied military forces fighting Al Qaeda terrorists and their allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, other Middle East hotspots, the Horn of Africa and Central Asia.

In an exclusive interview with, Gen. Abizaid discusses the nature of the enemy and the enemyís ideology, how terrorism in the Middle East has evolved from politically-motivated Palestinians supported by Soviet client states in the area, to a global network of cells carrying out attacks against innocent civilians in the name of Islam, supported by ideological movements based on a twisted form of the faith.  

An American of Lebanese descent, Gen. Abizaid went to Jordan in the late 70s to hone his Arabic skills and prepare for a military career that has led him to command all allied forces in the region. In this interview he notes that unlike Nazism and Communism, which posed the greatest global threats in recent history, the Al Qaeda terrorists have not yet secured a nation of their own. He stresses that it is up to the international community to make sure that they are not allowed to become mainstream and have their own nation.

Gen. Abizaid also points out that while Al Qaeda and related groups clothe their ideology in Islamic symbols and rhetoric, theirs is not a credible faith, and what they offer is not what most other Muslims desire.

Summing up his view of the Middle East, he says: ďPeace and stability in the region can be achieved by defeating Al Qaeda and their associated movements, by containing revolutionary Iranian ambitions of domination and a desire to build nuclear weapons, and ultimately by coming up with a workable process to come to a lasting settlement of the Arab-Israeli problem.Ē

Following are his words on the key issues raised in the interview:

The nature of asymmetrical warfare today
The United States has such overpowering military capability in the conventional arenas of land power, air power and naval power, in what I would call the accepted war-fighting realms, that many nations that feel there might be a reason to compete with us militarily that instead of trying to get involved in an arms race with the United States, they would invest in what I call a niche capability to take advantage of perceived weaknesses.

The best example of this that you can really find today is in the way the Iranians talk about how they might fight a campaign against the United States: where they would deploy their forces in the depth of their country, use hit and run tactics, what I would call guerrilla warfare, where they would use their naval capability, which is not insignificant but again canít stand toe-to-toe with the United States Navy, but nevertheless can do things like impede the flow of oil through the straits of Hormuz, for example, use its navy almost in a hit-and-run type of capability.

And perhaps the most interesting and problematic part of it is the use of terrorist or proxy militias to do their bidding globally or in designated locations where they strike against our interests that a relatively unguarded and arenít subject to a lot of military protection.

Another way that nations have sought to think about asymmetric warfare, interestingly enough, is trying to acquiring one or two nuclear weapons, and having a policy of being willing to use them. You see this with the Koreans. And while it is a terrible strategy, it is one that will make your adversaries think about it. And so their missile delivery, their nuclear weapons program, even though they havenít made it work yet, certainly gives them a way to approach us differently.

And so asymmetric war in summary is the use of military capabilities that achieve near match or a capability of producing casualties or extending the length of a conflict over time, but donít attempt to keep pace with you, like the Soviet Union and the United States tended to keep pace with one another because it is just too far for any country to travel these days. Our technological edge, our quality edge of our force, etc., etc., are bridges that are just too long to cross.

The ideological factor in the war on terror
I donít think the ideology of the enemy is part of their asymmetric strategy. I think their ideology is what binds their movements together, that makes it dangerous not only for the United States but for the moderate people in the region. An extremist ideology, for example as represented by Al Qaeda and its associated movements, is an ideology that seeks to expel the United States military power from the region, seeks to undermine the legitimate nations in the region and, eventually, seeks to gain territory for itself in order to achieve what they view as an Islamic caliphate under their brand of extremism that would dominate the region.

And so the ideology while certainly not mainstream is very ruthless, is network-centric, it exists in the virtual world of global communications, the Internet space, the virtual world, etc. It seeks to attain weapons of mass destruction, itís absolutely ruthless, itís global, itís borderless, and itís incredibly intimidating to the moderates in the region.

And so, as I look at the ideological factor of the enemy, I think we are actually at a fortunate time in history, where the ideology hasnít gone mainstream yet, it hasnít intimidated its way into the mainstream. The Nazis intimidated their way into mainstream German politics in the late 1920s and early 30s; Bolshevism intimidated its way into the day-to-day politics of Russia in the early nineteen hundreds. And, if left unchecked, I think the ideology of Al Qaeda would seek to intimidate its way into the mainstream of the Muslim world, in particular the Sunni Muslim world. Fortunately, the vast majority of the people in the region donít want that ideology to represent them. There are numerous states in the region that are actively resisting it, and we, in conjunction with our allies, actively resist it.

Comparing this to previous American wars with ideologically-driven enemies  
I think right now we are at a very early stage of the problem. In many ways, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the aircraft brought down over Pennsylvania, were attacks that happened at the earliest stage of the conflict. So I believe we are in a position to shape the environment, to help the moderates defeat the ideology. And notice I donít say for the United States to defeat it. It takes, really, a combination of international cooperation, inter-agency cooperation within the US Government, and cooperation with the good people in the region. I donít sense that the ideology represented by Bin Laden can go mainstream as long as the international community is linked together to prevent that from happening.

And so, in our region, while Afghanistan and Iraq are manifestations of where the ideology can confront us directly, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are manifestations of where it confronts those nations directly and the United States indirectly. I donít think we should underestimate their reach or their power, but we shouldnít overestimate it either.

Given good, steady pressure against their ideology, I believe that over time they will be marginalized. In many ways a lot of the things they do marginalize themselves: killing large numbers of innocent civilians for no good reason; failing to articulate a vision for the future that means anything to anybody. And then if you go back and look at how they did when they ruled someone, such as the Taliban-dominated state of Afghanistan, its pretty clear to me that when you have soccer stadiums that are used for executions, you ban music, you donít let women participate in public life whatsoever, and you have a very, very extreme interpretation of sharia law, its not the sort of thing that appeals to people, any more than the Khmer Rouge appealed to Cambodians. 

That doesnít mean they canít ruthlessly take over somewhere where institutions arenít strong enough to resist. The whole point of the fight today is to increase the capacity of nations, and increase their resiliency against this sort of threat.

The rise of ĎIslamic terrorismí on the heels of Arab nationalist terrorism
I am not sure I am the right person to answer that, but clearly there is a historical component to how these people view their ideology. There is obviously part of the ideology that was cemented and hardened in the struggle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, there is part of it that came about as a sense of frustration with the inadequacy of what I would call Arab nationalism to deliver on aspirations of people in the Arab world, so out of frustration some people turned towards legitimate forms of political Islam, and other people turned towards terrorism. I think ultimately we will find out that terrorism, just like it was bankrupt in the Arab nationalist movement, will be bankrupt in this movement as well.  

How best to respond to an enemy inspired by the religion of over a billion people
[The conflict with America and the West] might be religiously driven in the minds of its perpetrators, but in the minds of almost all the Muslims I know, their methods, techniques and interpretations of the world are not well accepted at all. And, as a matter of fact, most of the people that I know would say that Bin Laden is far from the religion. He cloaks his ideology in the symbols of religion, but reverting to suicide bombing, which is certainly not condoned by the religion, conducting attacks on innocent civilians, which is certainly not condoned by the religion, all of these problems canít be escaped by the leaders of Al Qaeda.

So ultimately I come back to the point that these techniques are bankrupt, because they are not religious, they donít provide any vision for the future, they donít improve anybodyís life, they are just violent and angry, and take innocent life indiscriminately. So I have a hard time seeing how the ideology can be successful. On the other hand, there is a certain resiliency to the ideology because it is clever enough to exploit the virtual world, the world of global communications, the world of the Internet. It has managed to get itself linked in the virtual world in a way that it canít get linked in the physical world. It recruits, trains and acquires donations in the virtual world, it organizes and shares lessons.

And in todayís technological world you have to worry about a group like [Al Qaeda], that has access to an awful lot of money, being able to acquire or develop a mass casualty-producing weapon, whether itís biological, chemical or radiological. I think we all have to understand that this group of people will use it against us if they obtain it. They have already said that, and I believe it. In many respects their use of airliners to produce mass casualties is a pretty good reflection of that. I expect that if they had the opportunity to have a chemical weapon that could cause an awful lot of casualties, they would use it.

The best way to understand this enemy in my view is to read their websites. It is pretty well advertised what they intend to do, how they intend to do it, and I think we should hold them at their word. Our job is to prevent them from attaining weapons of mass destruction, to contest their physical and virtual battle-space, to destroy their cellular structure, and prevent any geographical area from becoming a safe haven where they can have the time and ability to get organized so that they can do more 9/11s in other places.

When we look at their global reach since 9/11, we need to keep reminding ourselves where theyíve hit. Theyíve hit in London, theyíve hit in Madrid, theyíve hit in Bali, theyíve hit in Cairo. I could go on and on and on naming 20 or 30 other places. They do have global reach. They have a clear will about themselves. But, again, I believe we are at this fortunate point in history where they are not mainstream, where they will not go mainstream, and if I were to characterize what we are trying to do we are trying to increase capacity in the region, to help nations in the region help themselves against this threat. I donít believe over time that large numbers of US forces in the middle of the Middle East or Central Asia are necessarily conducive to the longer-term campaign.

The role of the military in fighting an ideological war
I think the military is about 20 percent of the solution. The other 80 percent is diplomatic, economic, informational and political. In many respects, what the military does is gain time so that other solutions can be brought to bear on the problem. Letís face it, every war will be solved by political means. It is very clear to me that while military force, unfortunately, against this enemy is necessary to be used, that over time, as people become more and more resilient, they will be able to deal with it better and better. There are some underlying economic, demographic, political problems in the region that require a lot of work, and I think those are readily apparent to observers of the region.  

Dealing with captured combatants of a brutal enemy
The issue of dealing with any armed enemy is always difficult. You have to be able to take captives, and you have to be able to either turn them over to their host nations for legal disposition, or you have to have a system within your own nation that allows them to achieve some sort of legal disposition. The debate that you currently see ongoing in the administration makes it clear that we are trying to come to grips with that. It is a very difficult thing to come to grips with, but it is essential. In the military, our parameters are pretty clearly defined.

When the Iraq situation will be pacified
I think we have to go through this period of the new government, which is barely five months old, gaining experience, building its institutions, cementing the loyalty of its armed forces and security services, increasing its economic capacity. I think it is a long-term project. It is our intention to hand over more and more of the security burden to increasingly capable Iraqi forces, over time. This is the key difficulty: nobody knows when those forces are ready. It is not just a matter of the security forces maturing, but also requires that governance issues mature as well. As those two mature, weíll do less and less. The president has made it pretty clear that we are trying to work ourselves out of a job in Iraq, and that is what we are trying to do. But it will take time.

The China factor
Whatís clear to me is that Chinese economic activity is higher in the Middle East than at any time I have been associated with the Middle East [some three decades]. Chinese diplomatic activity is extremely high. Itís of interest of course that Chinese security forces will move into UNIFIL. The rise of China as a major power is unmistakable.

Achieving lasting peace and prosperity in the region
Peace and stability in the region can be achieved by defeating Al Qaeda and their associated movements, by containing revolutionary Iranian ambitions of domination and a desire to build nuclear weapons, and ultimately by coming up with a workable process to come to a lasting settlement of the Arab-Israeli problem. If all of those three things can be managed over time, the region will move towards peace, stability and prosperity.

Biography of John Abizaid

General Abizaid assumed duties as the Commander, U.S. Central Command on July 7, 2003.

General Abizaid was commissioned a second lieutenant of Infantry upon graduation from the United States Military Academy in June 1973. He started his career with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he served as a rifle and scout platoon leader. He commanded companies in the 2nd and 1st Ranger Battalions, leading a Ranger Rifle Company during the invasion of Grenada.

General Abizaid commanded the 3rd Battalion, 325th Airborne Battalion combat Team in Vicenza, Italy, during the Gulf crisis and deployed with the battalion to Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. His brigade command was the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. He served as the Assistant Division Commander, 1st Armored Division, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Following that tour, he served as the 66th Commandant at West Point. Later, he commanded 1st Infantry Division, the ďBig Red One,Ē in Wurzburg which provided our first ground forces into Kosovo. He served as the Deputy Commander (Forward), Combined Forces Command, US Central Command during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.

Staff assignments include a tour with the United Nations as operations officer for Observer Group Lebanon and a tour in the Office of the Chief of the Staff, U.S. Army. European staff tours include assignments in both the Southern European Task Force and Headquarters, U.S. Army Europe. General Abizaid also served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Director of Strategic Plans and Policy (J5) on the Joint Staff and Director of the Joint Staff.

General Abizaidís military education includes Infantry Officer Basic and Advanced courses, Armed Forces Staff College, and a U.S. Army War College Senior Fellowship at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. In his civilian studies, he earned a Master of Arts degree in Area Studies at Harvard University, and was an Olmsted Scholar at the University of Jordan in Amman, Jordan.

His decorations include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with five Oak Leaf Clusters and the Bronze Star. He earned the Combat Infantrymanís Badge, Master Parachutist Badge with Gold Star, Ranger Tab and the Expert Infantrymanís Badge.