February 15th, 2016

Chertoff on fighting extremism: “We have to focus on behavior, not on ethnic or religious background…”

Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen joined Fareed Zakaria GPS Sunday to discuss elevated national security threat levels and forces driving terrorism inside the United States.  Both experts also commented on recent comments on Muslims and immigration on the campaign trail and Congressional commentary from America’s national security leadership this week about imminent threats of terror attacks on the homeland.

The full transcript of this joint interview follows the jump.

MANDATORY CREDIT for reference and usage: “CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS”





FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, CNN GPS: A series of hearings on Capitol Hill this week were frightening not for their partisanship, but for their substance — about the threats the United States is confronted with today. The Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress that there are currently more terrorist safe havens in the world than at any time in history. Clapper called ISIS the number one terror threat.

Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, went further, saying in 2016, ISIS will probably attempt direct attacks on the United States and more attacks on Europe. So what should we take from all of this and what is to be done?

Joining me now in Washington is Michael Chertoff, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security and now the executive chairman of The Chertoff Group, a security firm. He is also an adviser to Jeb Bush.

And here with me in New York is Peter Bergen, a CNN national security analyst and the author of “The United States of Jihad,” which was my book of the week last week.

Michael, tell us what you made of that — of those hearings, because one of the things I worry about is that intelligence agencies these days seem to view it as part of their job to make sure nobody can ever tell them that they missed something.

So they have tended to paint pretty gloomy pictures, because nobody notices that the bad stuff doesn’t happen. But God forbid, there should be one attack and it turned out you didn’t, you know, you didn’t predict there was going to be an attack.

Is there some of that going on or is this really worrying?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Well, I think there’s always been a little bit of an inclination on the part of intelligence agencies to be comprehensive and to make sure they don’t get accused of missing something.

But that being said, I think what James Clapper said and what General Stewart said was actually pretty much what I would have expected. The reality is if you look around the world, radical violent jihadism has metastasized. It’s now not just in South Asia and in the Middle East, but it’s in North Africa, it’s in East Africa, and we now see evidence of it in Europe, as well.

So I think in the main, there was no surprise. And I think the gloomy prognosis is one that’s warranted by the facts.

ZAKARIA: Peter, why is it happening? Why are we seeing this metastasization?

You know, after al Qaeda was, as you very — wrote very eloquently and smartly several years ago that al Qaeda was on, you know, on its deathbed. And then suddenly ISIS was able to come in and spread this fast.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I think it goes back to Hobbes. I mean, the only worse thing than a dictator is anarchy, it turns out, and we’ve run sort of various forms of this political science experiment in Libya — where we overthrow the terrible Gadhafi; now we have a civil war and anarchy, into which ISIS has inserted itself.

The Egyptians have chosen a dictator who’s worse than Mubarak, which is Sisi, in terms of his human rights record, because they’re concerned about, you know, the chaos that kind of came out of the Arab Spring. So now we’re five years out from the Arab Spring; it turned into the Arab Winter. No end in sight.

And I wa — I, like many others, including yourself, was very optimistic, because al Qaeda didn’t play a role in this. They were absent. And suddenly, but they — these and other kinds of groups allied to them have taken advantage of these circumstances.

ZAKARIA: Peter, the other thing James Clapper has talked about was the homegrown threat. And you have written this terrific book.

Tell us, you know, one — the question, I think, on everyone’s mind, is, how does this happen? How does a seemingly normal couple in San Bernardino get radicalized, become foot soldiers in the ISIS war?

BERGEN: Some of the people I profile were tremendously excited, American citizens joining al Qaeda in Yemen or joining ISIS and seeing themselves as part of an Islamic utopian experiment.

And we’ve seen that through revolutionary movements throughout history — they tend to attract, you know, idealistic people, even if there are crimes involved…

ZAKARIA: Mostly, young men, right? And…

BERGEN: Mostly young men.

ZAKARIA: — mostly alienated young men in some way.

BERGEN: Yes, they’re alienated. But, you know, the interesting thing is, you know, lots of people have di — personal disappointments or are alienated, object to American foreign policy.  Why do some people…


BERGEN: — kill innocent civilians? It’s an interesting question. And there’s no easy answer. There is no — there is a profile of these people. I mean, the San Bernardino couple, for instance, fits very closely to the profile of most American jihadists.

They were married. They had kids. They were average age, you know, late ’20s. They were middle class. He had a good job. You know, these are not the dispossessed, and that’s been true wherever — you know, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germ — in Germany in the ’70s was a group of bourgeois terrorists and, you know, the anarchists in late 19th century Russia. So it’s not the first time that we’re seeing the same sort of profile.

And if you look at the Western foreign fighters, whether it was Jihadi John joining ISIS, these are not people who are, you know, terribly impoverished…

ZAKARIA: Right. It takes a certain level of education or literacy to become a — to become radicalized, because it’s an ideology of violence.

BERGEN: Right.

ZAKARIA: Right? It’s not something that somebody who is an illiterate peasant is going to adopt.

BERGEN: Absolutely — absolutely.

ZAKARIA: Michael, what to do about this? What to do about this homegrown threat? You must have thought a lot about this when you were at Homeland Security.

CHERTOFF: Well, of course what’s happened now, in the last few years, is the rise of social media. And I think you’re beginning to see now some of the companies that are platforms for social media being a little bit more energetic in shutting down some of the Twitter feeds and similar types of communications that are used to recruit.

But we also need to have a strategy to enlist local communities in counter-radicalization. And that means religious leaders, it means family members, it means community groups, who have to begin to push back against this narrative and also, frankly, to identify people who are in the early stages of becoming violent or radicalized so that they can have an intervention before they go all the way.

ZAKARIA: There are several Republican candidates, not Jeb Bush, who argue that we should be putting certain special conditions on Muslims, whether in screening immigrants, whether, you know, tracking them, eavesdropping or, you know, spying on mosques.

What do you think of all — that whole set of strategies?

CHERTOFF: You know, a lot of this is based on kind of the foolish idea that you can identify who’s a Muslim or that the people who become radicalized all come from an Islamic background. And, in fact, we’ve seen historically, over the years, that often you have Christians who become radicalized rather quickly and then become enlistees in violent jihad.

So I think we have to focus on behavior, not on ethnic or religious background.

Obviously, whenever we admit people into the United States, we have to be careful in vetting them. And I think there are processes in place now that have been enhanced that give us more information about who comes in.

But to generalize grossly based on religion is a huge mistake. And I can tell you, I remember swearing in, as American citizens, in Iraq members of our armed forces who were Muslim, who actually came from the area, and they were willing to put their lives on the line to protect America. And we shouldn’t be alienating those people.

ZAKARIA: Michael Chertoff, Peter Bergen, pleasure to have you both on.