Politics & Policy

Afghanistan on Steroids

Thinking with the enemy to avoid The Next Wave of attacks.

 

‘KSM understands us better than we understand him,” Catherine Herridge observes in her new book, The Next Wave: On the Hunt for Al Qaeda’s American Recruits.

 

“He knows that whatever he says will be reported around the world,” she continues. “A military source says KSM devours every story, every Web posting, every TV clip about him. Without question, he is al-Qaeda’s media whore.”

 

Painting the portrait of a courtroom in Guantanamo Bay in June 2008, Herridge recalls:

 

And then things get really crazy. For some unknown reason, a court security officer who is making decisions way above his pay grade thinks it’s a good idea for KSM to review Janet’s sketch. It’s the one where he dominates the picture.

 

Turns out, KSM hates the sketch. He says the nose is all wrong. It’s too big or too ethnic or too something. It has to be fixed. KSM orders the sailors to get Janet his FBI mug shot. Apparently, he prefers this picture because he looks composed. His clothes are pressed.

 

So the sketch was fixed under Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s direction.

 

This, among other things, leads Catherine Herridge to ask: “Who’s in control?” Is it “[us] or the terrorists?”

 

Fifteen yards away from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is where The Next Wave begins, and, throughout her new book, the Fox News terrorism reporter is on the frontlines of preventing The Next Wave — both as a reporter and as the wife of an Air Force major and West Point graduate who was deployed to Kandahar for nine months.

Herridge’s book is a work of journalism — a memoir, a study in what works and lessons unlearned. It’s an American story, a vocational story, told through the eyes of a mother and wife, who loves her family and her country.

Herridge talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about The Next Wave.

 

 

 

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Your book is terrifying. Was that the intention?

 

CATHERINE HERRIDGE: I think some readers find The Next Wave terrifying because the facts have a power all their own. They can’t believe Americans who are old enough to remember 9/11 have turned their backs on their own country. I don’t find it terrifying because I live this reporting every day.

 

 

LOPEZ: Watching the KSM trial, you recall muttering under your breath “Who’s in control — us or the terrorists?” Is that a real question?

 

 

HERRIDGE: I witnessed our government bend over backwards to make sure the self-described architect of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, liked his courtroom sketch. These men, who killed nearly 3,000 people, are still messing with us and, in some cases, we let them.

 

 

LOPEZ: What’s your most convincing evidence that “al-Qaeda’s American recruits are already here”?

 

HERRIDGE: We first began reporting on Americans who joined al-Qaeda overseas in 2007. It is not a new issue to our Fox investigative team. Justice Department documents show a case of homegrown terrorism with ties to an international group every two to three weeks since January 2009. Unfortunately, the numbers are there.

 

 

LOPEZ: How are al-Qaeda’s followers “just like us”?

 

HERRIDGE: They are born here, raised here, or educated here. In 2006, al-Qaeda leadership made a decision to pursue Western recruits. Our law-enforcement and intelligence community was focused on young Muslim men from the Middle East as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. American citizens with clean backgrounds became the new gold standard.

 

Years ago, I was given a piece of advice from a former weapons inspector in Iraq that still rings true today. He said, “Terrorism is like water. It takes the path of least resistance. You move one way and it moves another. It is a thinking enemy.”

 

 

LOPEZ: Why do you care so much about Anwar al-Awlaki and what he may or may not be getting away with?

 

HERRIDGE: Anwar al-Awlaki is the leader of al-Qaeda 2.0. The New Mexico–born cleric is a digital jihadist who uses our technology against us to spread his message of hate. He is the Facebook friend from hell.

 

Most Americans don’t realize that al-Awlaki, the first American on the CIA’s kill-or-capture list, was held in federal custody in October 2002 until an FBI agent ordered his release even though there was an active warrant for his arrest.

 

Awlaki developed an online e-mail relationship with the accused shooter at Fort Hood, Maj. Nidal Hasan, and many others. Think how history would be different for the Fort Hood families if Awlaki had been prosecuted in 2002?

 

Despite calls from Capitol Hill, the FBI has refused to explain how the cleric slipped through the bureau’s grasp. I believe it could be the biggest law-enforcement failure since 9/11.

 

 

LOPEZ: It’s not just terrorism Anwar al-Awlaki’s been involved in (as if that wouldn’t be more than enough). Prostitution and loitering around a school — why hasn’t the U.S. government held him responsible at least for his criminal past?

 

 

HERRIDGE: You can get a mug shot for any celebrity, like Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan, but it is virtually impossible to get a mug shot for Awlaki, whose group in Yemen wants to murder Americans. When he lived in the U.S. before 9/11, the cleric was picked up at least three times for soliciting prostitutes in Washington, D.C., and San Diego. One of the San Diego cases was not far from Awlaki’s mosque.

In The Next Wave, our investigative team questions why the U.S. government doesn’t use Awlaki’s shady past and the mug shots to discredit him to his followers. I think most people will find the explanation lacking.

 

 

 

LOPEZ: Do we not pay attention at our peril?

 

HERRIDGE: At the end of June, the White House counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, announced that the homegrown threat was now priority number one. It made big headlines, but at Fox we have been following the evolution of al-Qaeda 2.0, and its new American recruits, since 2007.

 

 

 

LOPEZ: Who should answer for how we’ve handled al-Awlaki?

 

HERRIDGE: I believe the FBI and the Justice Department have not come clean about the decision to release him from federal custody in 2002. Bureau and Justice Department officials have resisted calls from Congressman Frank Wolf and others to fully explain what happened.

 

There are only three options: The Bureau was trying to develop Awlaki as an intelligence asset; the Bureau was tracking Awlaki for intelligence; or the Bureau believed, in October 2002, that Awlaki was already a friendly contact.

 

The FBI’s job and that of the U.S. intelligence community is to cultivate intelligence assets. It’s dicey work with questionable characters and sometimes things go wrong. No one can be blamed for trying. But it is wrong to sweep the facts under the rug.

 

In The Next Wave, I show the Awlaki incident in 2002 was likely withheld from the 9/11 Commission and from Congress.

 

I get the impression that some on Capitol Hill are more concerned about who will get the blame and less concerned about getting answers for the American people. I hope my impression is wrong. The American people deserve answers so that we don’t repeat the same mistake, with profound consequences.

 

 

 

LOPEZ: What’s al-Awlaki’s future? What should it be?

 

HERRIDGE: Everyone in the intelligence community and federal law enforcement tells me Awlaki does not have a bright future. I believe this is code for a drone strike.

 

In Awlaki’s case, the U.S. government is acting as judge, jury, and executioner for an American citizen. Yet Attorney General Eric Holder wanted to bring the five 9/11 suspects, all foreign nationals, to a federal court in the southern district of New York and give them the same rights as American citizens and the presumption of innocence.

 

I may not be the only one who finds the Obama administration’s policy hard to square.

 

 

LOPEZ: Does the heart of al-Qaeda lie in Yemen today?

 

HERRIDGE: I believe Yemen may become the next Afghanistan — but on steroids.

 

LOPEZ: What have the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations — uniformly, perhaps — done wrong here?

 

HERRIDGE: Anwar al-Awlaki slipped away under the Bush administration. Now the cleric is a thorn in the side of the Obama administration. The al-Awlaki problem spans both administrations.

 

In Great Britain, where they have been living with homegrown terrorism longer, they have decided not to draw the line with religion. Instead, they’ve drawn the line and said “the terrorists are one side and everyone else is on the other.” Al-Qaeda wants us to use religion as a wedge. I believe we have to avoid it.

 

 

LOPEZ: Why is Guantanamo Bay still open? Fine with me but candidate Obama certainly made a big deal out of closing it back in the day.

 

HERRIDGE: Guantanamo Bay is still open because the Obama administration didn’t do its homework before the president announced he would close the detention camps by January 2010. More than half of the detainees are from Yemen and they cannot be sent home because of the security situation in their country. Until you solve the Yemeni problem, you cannot solve the so-called Guantanamo problem.

 

 

LOPEZ: What do you mean when you say “KSM understands us better than we understand him”?

 

HERRIDGE: KSM knows how the system works. When reporters are in court he plays to them because he understands that everything he does and says will be played out for millions.

 

A former Guantanamo commander told me that KSM wants his life to be laid out for future generations and the only fitting end, from KSM’s perspective, is death and martyrdom.

 

 

 

LOPEZ: Why did it take the Obama administration nine weeks to publicly acknowledge the Fort Hood massacre as an act of terrorism?

 

HERRIDGE: You would have to ask them. But the confirmation only came in a background conference call for reporters that ended rather abruptly once the statement was made. I asked the question.

 

 

LOPEZ: How impactful was Osama bin Laden’s demise? Or is it too soon to know?

 

HERRIDGE: Based on my conversations, the U.S. intelligence and military community is looking at three things: Were plots in the pipeline before bin Laden’s death? Will al-Qaeda in Yemen step up to fill the void with a major attack? Or will “homegrown” recruits use bin Laden’s death as justification to launch attacks to coincide with 9/11?

 

For al-Qaeda, bin Laden’s death is major. No one knows for sure what it means because we have never been here before.

 

 

LOPEZ: You observe, “People without vices, especially in the intelligence world, make me nervous.” Why is that?

 

HERRIDGE: Intelligence is hard and serious work. Any sane person doing intelligence needs a crutch or a way to let off steam. Most have a raucous sense of humor and great people skills. Like reporters, they are natural intelligence collectors.

 

 

LOPEZ: “You don’t see evil often, but when you do there is no mistaking it,” you write in reaction to a Gitmo courtroom scene. Is it this Yemeni Walid bin Attash evil? Or is it even more than that?

 

HERRIDGE: The yellow-foolscap airplane glided silently, gently across the Guantanamo courtroom, and inside that plane, one of the 9/11 suspects, bin Attash, had written the flight numbers or the tail numbers for the 9/11 jets.

 

Nearly a decade after the attacks, the 9/11 suspects are still mocking the United States and their victims. In The Next Wave, I write that every government official who makes decisions about these men and their future should sit in the Guantanamo courtroom.

 

 

LOPEZ: Why did you choose to make your book an open book — on your Blackberry, your notebooks, the newsroom, your family?

 

HERRIDGE: The Next Wave is an action adventure. I’ve heard “edge-of-your-seat reading” from a lot of folks already. I’m humbled by the feedback.

 

My goal was to take the reader along for the ride — to go behind the scenes of our Fox investigation. The reader sits in court with me at Guantanamo Bay and Fort Hood. The reader travels with me to San Diego and Virginia and sits in on major interviews at the CIA and National Counterterrorism Center. We connect the dots together.

 

I didn’t write this book to impress my friends inside the Beltway, I wrote The Next Wave so that people can educate themselves about the next chapter in the war against radical Islam. And have some fun in the process.

 

 

LOPEZ: Did your husband’s deployment to Kandahar change the way you did your job?

 

HERRIDGE: No. Being in a military family has changed things for me. I am not sitting on the sidelines reporting national-security issues, my family is feeling the impact. For me, the reporting is personal and I believe that passion comes through in The Next Wave.

 

 

LOPEZ: How did your son, Peter, and his liver disease change the way you do your job? How is he doing?

 

HERRIDGE: Thanks for asking about Peter. He is five years old and a little pistol. In many ways, I have Peter to thank for the book.

 

When he was a baby, I did what any parent would do. I donated part of my liver for a life-saving transplant. When you have to face the prospect of your own child dying, you are changed in ways that are hard to imagine.

 

I am not afraid of anyone or anything anymore. There is a new fearless to my reporting. That fearless allowed me to take on this subject. I have Peter to thank.

 

 

LOPEZ: When did you know you wanted to be an investigative reporter and what did you do to get there?

 

HERRIDGE: It sounds corny, but it just happened. My early training at ABC News London, as a radio reporter, taught me to go beyond the talking points. I learned from some of the finest journalists of their generation who had reported from Vietnam, and from Beirut after the Marine-barracks bombing.

 

They taught me that enterprise reporting and original content would always have a place at the networks.

 

 

LOPEZ: What’s the worst part of your job? The most frustrating and discouraging?

 

HERRIDGE: When people criticize Fox for not doing news. Our Fox investigative team has broken major stories about the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Other networks have cited Fox’s reporting, including on the cleric’s lunch at the Pentagon after 9/11. Enough said.

 

 

LOPEZ: What’s the best part of your job? The most encouraging part?

 

HERRIDGE: I was doing a radio talk show and the host said The Next Wave should be mandatory reading for every journalism student. That is a real measure of success!

 

 

LOPEZ: Is there anywhere on television where you could be a reporter who talks openly about the perils of the “PC police” and reveals herself to be unabashedly pro-military?

HERRIDGE:  It doesn’t matter where you work; we all understand that our brave men and women serve the nation every day. The same is true for our law-enforcement and intelligence professionals. The book is dedicated to those who serve. I just happen to be married to one.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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