'Can't Defeat Them Unless We Understand Them'

How can countries be best informed of potential terror threats? Is al Qaeda becoming more decentralized? ABC News Consultant and former National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism Richard Clarke responds to a selection of your questions in this online Q+A.

Marcus in Austin, Texas asks: Do you believe that terrorism and suicide bombings, while perhaps not occurring in great number, will be a way of life for this generation?

Answer: Our hope has to be that we make it very difficult for terrorists to do these kinds of attacks in places like the U.S. and Western Europe, but we will have to understand that sometimes one of these guys will get through even the best defenses. We must shoot for zero incidents, but recognize Mark, that for many years there will be some attacks until this jihadism burns out.

Katie in Arizona writes: Good day, Mr. Clarke. As a recent college graduate, I have noticed many concerns regarding safety within the university and college systems. Some of these institutions house tens of thousands of students in close proximity, as well as containing numerous modes of on-campus transit. What do you think is the danger regarding universities and colleges? Are steps being taken to protect this rapidly growing population? What can those institutions do to better protect their students from terrorism?

Answer: Universities must, by nature, be open. Thankfully, Katie, they have not been targets of terrorism here or elsewhere. Many universities have, however, been plagued by crime and have increased the use of smart cards for building access, closed-circuit TV for monitoring, and larger numbers of professional police. The key on campus as elsewhere is for everyone to be the eyes and ears ... and report suspicious activity and dangerous vulnerabilities ... while respecting civil liberties and peoples' right to dissent and to be different.

Lucio in Houston asks: Do you think federal money for terrorism preparedness must be targeted toward cities, such as New York and Washington D.C., that are at a greater risk of attack than say Des Moines [Iowa]? If so, (even though you aren't a politician) what will it take for this to happen?

Answer: It would take political courage, Lucio, and that is something in short supply in the U.S. Senate, which just voted to continue the pork barrel approach to security funding ... over the objections of Homeland Security Secretary [Michael] Chertoff.

Shawn in Chesapeake, Va., asks: What kind of measures are our military bases taking to assure their protection from terrorist attacks and the safety of the communities around them? Living here in Chesapeake, Va., I am in close proximity to the Little Creek Naval Base, Norfolk Amphibious Base and the Oceana Air Force Base.

Answer: DOD has spent a great deal of money over several years on Force Protection enhancements at bases. They have the ability quickly to modulate their security posture based on threat information, using both military personnel and contractor security guards. Most bases will not create a security threat for their communities, Shawn, although obviously an attack on certain bases could release toxic materials into the neighborhood. In those cases, the bases should have worked out a joint response plan with local governments.

Pam in Massachusetts asks: How can we ever 'defeat' the terrorists if we do not understand them, their agenda, their motivation in all its complexities and address all of the above with a multifaceted strategy? What do you think motivates them? Do they have an agenda that can be addressed through a political process?

Answer: Pam, you are right that we can't defeat them unless we understand them. The "them" is not, however, monolithic. Some hardcore jihadists want to punish the West for various perceived slights going back centuries. Others want to form a new Caliphate, or theocracy. In many cases, they have regional specific concerns. In general, we need to capture or kill the hardcore and reduce political support for the hardcore by appealing to the Islamic world generally on ideological grounds and to the populations in regions by specific approaches. See "Defeating the Jihadists" at www.tcf.org for more on my thoughts about how we do this.

Noel in Vermont asks: There was recent talk about a large number of 'sleeper cells' in the U.S. and yet not too long ago we were told differently. It seems to me that these things get leaked whenever the administration is in trouble i.e. Rove or as the Patriot Act comes for a re-vote. Should we even believe the administration when "timing" seems to be a ploy for diversion?

Answer: Sleeper cells are by definition groups that we do not know about. Therefore, when people say that they know such groups exist here or do not exist here ... be dubious, Noel. It is interesting to note that the administration's warnings about pending attacks in the U.S. were numerous last year, but seemed to have become less frequent after the election. Draw your own conclusion.

Lola in Texas writes: Dear Mr. Clarke, Thank you for participating in this Q&A. It's wonderful to be able to ask you questions. My question is this: I view the CIA as our front-line soldiers against the war on terror. As a former Bush administration official, do you find that Bush's assertions that he's doing "everything" to combat terrorism hypocritical when a top official in his administration can admit to burning a CIA operative without immediate condemnation from the president?

Thank you,

Answer: I assume you are referring to the Joe Wilson-Karl Rove Affair. While some things are beginning to be clear, we still do not yet know the full story. Stay tuned, Lola.

Lorenzo in Maryland asks: Why is it that those Muslims that are peace loving and do not believe in violence don't speak out on national TV in America and in other countries to denounce Islamic extremists? It seems to me that the Muslim community is too quiet and needs to speak out to try to get through to those that could be swayed into becoming a terrorist. Do you think this should be a larger aspect of U.S. efforts to combat terrorism?

Answer: The leaders of the Islamic community in the U.K. did speak out recently against terrorism, as have Imams and other religious leaders elsewhere, but we certainly should press for more, Lorenzo. Many such leaders do have to contend with followers who also want equal condemnation for what they see as injustices in Palestine, Iraq, Kashmir and elsewhere ... but they must make clear that nothing justifies killing innocent people.

CWS in Philadelphia asks: Do you think al Qaeda has suitcase nuclear weapons already in the U.S.?

Answer: No. Nuclear weapons are very well-guarded by the nations that have them. Nuclear weapons (as opposed to radiological dispersal devices) are also extremely difficult to make.

Cincybabe e-mails: Mr. Clarke, I have enormous respect for you, and sincerely appreciate all your efforts to keep our country safe. If you had been able to make one change before you left the Bush administration, what would that be? Thanks in advance.

Answer: One change? That's hard. I guess it would have been to make the National Security Service out of parts of the FBI: a new agency within an agency, not a police unit but an intelligence group, not something focused on prosecutions but on deterrence. President Bush last month agreed to do that sometime in the near future, but it will take a long time to get it running.

Scott in Fort Collins, Colo., writes: Thank you Sir, for your service to our country. You are indeed a patriot.

During your time as counterterrorism czar under the last 4 administrations, it has been said numerous terrorist plans have been discovered by our intelligence agencies. Without going into specifics, could you give us an approximate number of plots which have been foiled? Thank you.

Answer: Its difficult to give a number, Scott, because in some cases we were never sure if the attack was "for real" or just talk. Some of the more well-known attacks we foiled were the New York City "Landmarks Case" in 1993 in which al Qaeda intended to blow up the tunnels and some buildings in New York, repeated attempts on U.S. embassies abroad, the New York subway case in 1997, the "Millennium Case" in which attacks were planned in Yemen, California and Jordan.

Ernest in California writes: Is it possible our country is so overwhelmed with internal politics, hatred and defiance, that this condition blinds us to more pressing matters of national security? And international security?

Answer: Well, Ernest, it does seem sometimes that many politicians in Washington spend a great deal of time on issues that seem more motivated by partisan concerns than by an objective concern for national security. These security issues should be at the top of our agenda, they should be subject to objective analysis and open dialogue, and should not be used by political parties for advantage.

STF in Rochester, N.Y., writes: Are there steps afoot to insure that state governors and their main state police officers are briefed similarly to the Daily Threat Matrix (or Grid) President Bush looks at? Don't you think it would be a wise step to involve the pertinent state top officials in these daily briefings so that Americans can travel safely on the Interstate system knowing up-to-date info is shared by the federal government with the States along I-80, or 40 or 5, etc. etc. ?

Answer: In every region of the country here are Joint Terrorism Task Forces in which state and city police have access to classified information from the FBI and CIA. The Daily Threat Matrix contains all sorts of other material, including things going on overseas. Distributing intelligence information on a "need-to-know basis" is a difficult balancing act. Who needs to know what? It is, however, getting better and the FBI is telling more to state and local authorities.

Zach in Rochester, N.Y., writes: Mr. Clarke, In your January piece for the Atlantic, you practically predicted that by late June/early July of 2005, we would see al Qaeda suicide bombers strike the West once again. The investigation so far of the London bombings seems to be pointing back to al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan, with an Egyptian bomb maker similar to a Ramzi Yousef or Karim el Mejjati supplying a genuine sleeper cell with deadly explosives.

In recent months we have seen some extraordinary activity from al Qaeda itself. The Taliban's insurgency has increased its sophistication to include deadlier roadside bombs and a seemingly coordinated suicide bombing campaign. Only a couple weeks before the attacks in London, a video message from Ayman al Zawahiri appeared. In your view, is al Qaeda's next major attack just around the corner?

Answer: The London attack does seem to have connections to the inner al Qaeda in Pakistan, not just to the larger jihadi movement that we often call al Qaeda. I had thought, Zach, that the central al Qaeda was largely out of business, but it seems otherwise. I still believe central al Qaeda is relatively limited in its capabilities (the London attack was relatively small) and that the threat now is from other jihadi groups. Regrettably, I think the larger jihadi movement will continue attacks for many years to come.

Mel in Georgia writes: What ways do we have of cutting terrorists' supply of cash and following their money trail to identify their funding sources?

Answer: There has been a great deal of progress on the money front. Two good studies are available at the cfr.org Web site. The bottom line, Mel, seems to be that while we have made it difficult for terrorists to use the international banking system, there are many other ways in which to move money.

Gina in Jacksonville, Fla., asks: Shouldn't we do as the British do and post signs in all of our subway/train stations advising travelers exactly what to do if they see an unattended bag: i.e., ask around whose it is, notify station personnel, call 999 (emergency)? The British authorities expect those calls and the population is prepared to notice and eliminate this danger. In an age of limited budgets, signage would be a low-cost, effective way to make the public aware of their responsibility.

Answer: Absolutely right, Gina, and some of that is being done in the DC Metro, the T in Boston, the MTA in New York and other mass transit systems. These systems are making announcements over PA systems on trains and on platforms. Of course, we want to get such bombers well before they get to a train station, but we also need a last line of defense. Riders can be that last line.

Mark in Colorado asks: What is the likelihood that terrorists will use "simple" bio attacks, like spreading e. Coli, Salmonella, etc., on foods (grocery stores, restaurants, distributors) in large cities? Seems like a modest group of dedicated terrorists could do this. If they got into the supply chain, illness could pop up all over the country, almost randomly and could be truly terrifying.

Answer: There are many ways terrorists could make our life difficult. Our society is open and many of our systems are fragile, built on an assumption of security. We need to reduce our vulnerabilities while simultaneously increasing intelligence efforts to identity those who would take advantage of the vulnerabilities. How do we distribute resources among these tasks, Mark? We get a bigger payoff from intelligence programs and they should get funded more generously than the defensive measures. Nonetheless, there are steps that would deter or prevent terrorists from attacking some of our critical infrastructure. At the height of the Cold War, President Reagan greatly increased national security spending. At the height of the war on terrorism, we have not yet engaged in a similar effort to address homeland security.