Ex-MI6 Chief Sir Richard Dearlove: ‘Al-Qaeda Ten Years After 9/11’ – Analysis


By Annemarie Ulbrich

Sir Richard Dearlove, Chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service between February 1999 and May 2004, describes 9/11 in London as a defining historical moment. The event changed our view of the world and led to a rethinking of national security as well a new definition of security and defence budgets.

US foreign policy was evaluated and changed as a result of 9/11. As the US thought itself to be immune against events of such magnitude, the psyche and politics of American society was changed. An event of such dimensions could not be handled only with the help of criminal law which explains those changes.

The roles of the involved parties are nevertheless far from clear. Sir Richard Dearlove who was the leader of the British Secret Service during 9/11 stressed that under the presidency of Barack Obama there has been more action against Al-Qaeda – for example in the North of Pakistan – than there was under President Bush, even though the public often perceives the situation differently. Distrust and hate against Al-Qaeda have increased – also among the moderate Islamic parties that argue for the democratic rights that Al-Qaeda rejects. Such developments can be recognized in the events of the Arab spring.

It can therefore be noticed that Al-Qaeda is losing ground in the Arabic World and the Middle East as a different narrative arises in those societies. Al-Qaeda faces difficulties with the implementation of their operations even though they have sometimes been successful – as the attacks in Madrid and London have proved. It thus becomes obvious that Al-Qaeda works on its periphery and faces an issue of credibility, says Dearlove.

The new characteristics of intelligence work are also evoked by Dearlove:

  • interdependent, different intelligence agencies are internationally and domestically cooperating
  • political cooperation between states takes place even though their views on topics such as the treatment of human rights might differ
  • this cooperation can be compared to a mosaic which is very complex in its structure
  • a lot of material concerning the topic is produced which might not always be relevant to the daily work of intelligence agencies
  • challenges are created by the establishment of non-organisations as well as by the ephemeral nature of resource acquisition

In any case, the possibility of another catastrophe has to be kept in mind at all times.

Al-Qaeda is grasping for political influence. Dearlove makes it clear that Al-Qaeda is not identical to the Taliban movement. The association between the two is merely a relationship of convenience. As Al-Qaeda has no political agenda, it is not possible to start negotiations. No political or territorial objectives can be identified but we are instead confronted with a list of beliefs, values and religious aspirations. This differentiates them from groups such as the IRA or the Basque movement which clearly have a political program and are therefore able to participate in negotiations.

Ten years after 9/11, Al-Qaeda still tries to make political impacts. The war in Iraq only accelerated the decline of Al-Qaeda as the group made mistakes and faced the union of Sunnite tribes which supported the US in the region. Dearlove adds that Pakistan seems to be the most probable target at the moment. As Al-Qaeda may try to stir up the relationship between India and Pakistan, this might cause a geopolitical destabilization. This situation also poses a very serious threat of nuclear war as a nuclear reaction can be set up very easily by Pakistan if the country faces attacks by its neighbour India.

The Arab Spring and the events currently taking place in Egypt, Libya and other countries are moments of hope, says Dearlove. Nevertheless, risks of radicalization do exist. Dearlove worries that the uprisings in the Middle East might only appear to be in tune with our views and values on the face of it. He particularly worries about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and wonders what their objects will be in the future.

For Somalia, Dearlove sees hope in the faraway future, as local political structures should and can develop there. Nevertheless, Al-Qaeda will cause problems there. Yemen on the other hand seems to be a bigger concern. There must be an attempt to create a stable government and Yemenites have to be supported in building up security in their own country.

Saudi Arabia only faces minor changes in social attitudes as well as minor law changes which mean that social change will only happen very slowly. In that time a radicalisation could take root within the conservative system but Dearlove adds that the region is too complex to predict its future development.

Although Sir Richard Dearlove states that it is difficult to make sense of the future, he names several potential future threats:

  • he marks the potential of Iran to destabilize the region
  • Pakistan is once again named as a fragile country
  • one has to wait and see what the future holds for the states in which the Arab Spring took place
  • failing authoritarian regimes as well as tribalism will be topics to deal with in the future

Nevertheless, counter-terrorism will only be one issue on the world’s political agenda. As Al-Qaeda loses ground, it will no longer be the centre of our attention.

Annemarie Ulbrich is currently enrolled at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany, where she is pursuing a Master of European Studies programme specialising in European Culture and Politics.

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