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Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Empirical Hubris: How “Anonymous” Disguises the Real Threat to the West and Damages the CIA

Filed under: Radical Islam, The Middle East, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 4, No. 4    September 13, 2004

  • The book, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, by “Anonymous,” aims to spark a dramatic re-evaluation of American policy in the Middle East. Indeed, if one did not know of the author’s expertise level, the facts and motivations behind the book’s release, and the sources for its thesis, one might seriously entertain his central claim: that Islamists are at war with the West over its policies, not its culture or values. On this basis, “Anonymous” seeks a reduction of U.S. support for Israel while slandering lobbying efforts on Israel’s behalf.

  • The context in which the book was published raises questions about the CIA in the wake of the post-September 11 criticism of American intelligence. Rarely does a government agency permit one of its officials to publicly attack the government he serves. The CIA, in particular, tends to strictly censor its own officers. Yet somehow the agency allowed Imperial Hubris to be released even while its author, Michael Scheuer, remains a paid CIA official – just as the intelligence service was under attack, for reasons that Scheuer’s book coincidentally challenges.

  • Scheuer’s claims are refuted largely by the same evidence he cites, as well as by the events of the pre-2001 period that he mostly ignores. Scheuer carefully drew sources only from a narrow time period that distorts his account. Even that evidence, however, challenges Scheuer’s thesis about why militant Islamists attack the West.

  • As Scheuer points out at the start of the book, he did not spend much time traveling in the world of Islam, but instead served as an “analyst” of the radical Islamist mindset at headquarters, in a role that resembles that of an academic scholar. The more qualified experts Scheuer consults – including Daniel Pipes and especially Bernard Lewis – actually argue against the “policy-based” view of radical Islamism that he uses them to construct.

  • Scheuer’s thesis about “why they hate us” shatters under a simple consideration of sources, some of which he cites, and events over the past decade. Indeed, U.S. policy in the 1990s defended Muslims in Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, while pressing for Israeli withdrawals, through the Oslo process, for the sake of the Palestinians. And yet, al-Qaeda grew. Recently, Islamists slaughtered Nepalese workers in Iraq. They were not killed because of Nepalese policy (which opposes the U.S. on Iraq), but precisely because of who they were – non-Muslim Hindus.


Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, by the “anonymous” CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, continues to dominate the American book market. It has electrified readers with fiery charges against the Bush Administration, dazzled them with counter-intuitive, black-is-white revelations, and coaxed them with the steady reassurance that this is an insider’s expose of a heretofore mysterious enemy. It is rare that an individual still in an official capacity has reached the New York Times bestseller list by attacking the government that he serves. Adding to the book’s intrigue is Scheuer’s “Anonymous” title – suggesting a secret agent so moved by his troubling insights that he had to share them somehow – though in fact the CIA, in an unusual move, reviewed the book and allowed it to be released even though Scheuer remains a paid CIA analyst whose identity was likely to emerge.

If one did not know of the author’s expertise level, the facts and motivations behind the book’s release, and the sources for its thesis, one might seriously entertain his central claim: that Islamists are at war with the West over its policies, not its culture or values. That, in turn, would suggest that the West can somehow end the threat posed to it by genocidal terrorism – not by the aggressive policies of George W. Bush – but by ceasing its Middle East policies, whether in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Israel.

If, on the other hand, readers investigate Scheuer’s claims – even re-reading the book a bit more critically and closely – they would discover some revealing facts about Hubris: that its claims are refuted largely by the same evidence Scheuer cites, as well as by the events of the pre-2001 period that he mostly ignores; that Scheuer carefully drew sources only from a narrow time period that distorts his account; that his reading of radical Islam comes not from behind-the-scenes field study but from behind-the-desk analysis of texts and broadcasts; and finally, that the more qualified experts he consults – including Daniel Pipes and especially Bernard Lewis – actually argue against the “policy-based” view of radical Islamism that he uses them to construct.

More disturbingly, Scheuer’s own words betray deep biases, which may explain his selective use of the available evidence: most worrying are his shrill mantras about “Jews” out to conquer the entire Middle East and repeated references to American Jews whom he imagines must be spying for Israel. He also reflects a bizarre admiration for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a relativistic neutrality on the blood-lusting nature of al-Qaeda’s terrorism, and its implications for his thesis. All the foregoing is discernable from the text itself, as will be shown below.

In addition, Scheuer’s thesis about “why they hate us” shatters under a simple consideration of sources, some of which he cites, and events over the past decade. A most recent example was the Islamist slaughter of Nepalese workers in Iraq (where Nepal, a Hindu kingdom, has no troops, though it does remain a country whose official stance on Islam has drawn the ire of radical Islamist militants). In other words, Scheuer’s claim is simply wrong.

Yet accurate reporting may not be the central purpose of Hubris, at least not when considered in light of the larger context in which the book was published. That context raises a question: How and why did a government agency allow an official to publish a wholesale attack on the policies the agency is meant to defend? The CIA normally strictly censors its own officers, but somehow allowed this book to be released even while Scheuer – decidedly not “anonymous” despite a pro-forma agreement to the nom de guerre – remains a paid CIA official.

Moreover, the CIA held the book in review just long enough to be released in the wake of the 9/11 Commission Report.1 The Commission sharply criticized the CIA’s al-Qaeda intelligence, of which Scheuer was in charge during the pivotal Clinton years.2 That gave the publication a fortuitous timeliness: against the widespread criticism of American intelligence came Imperial Hubris, with the claim that the problem was not America’s spies but its policies, which Scheuer and his colleagues could not control, and for which they ought not to be blamed.

If the book succeeds at convincing people of its claims, it will not only deflect critical attention from America’s failed intelligence corps, but will raise the level of scrutiny and even dissension now directed at the Bush Administration, perhaps aiding in its replacement. That would serve the additional aim of certain camps within the CIA that have become alienated from U.S. policies in the Middle East, particularly those supported by conservative Pentagon officers like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.


The Evidence

Scheuer begins with a confession: for all his years in the CIA, his reasons for rethinking “why they hate us,” he says, “can be found in the public library and on the Internet” (p. xi). The evidence he cites consists mostly of publicized statements attributed to Bin Laden, gleaned from Internet sources, published interviews, and the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) which transcribes radio broadcasts. For example, Bin Laden is quoted as warning: “America will not be able to leave this ordeal unless it leaves the Arabian Peninsula, and stops its involvement in Palestine and in all the Islamic world” (p. 153). And, “Whether America escalates or de-escalates the conflict, we will reply to it in kind” (p. 17). These statements seem to address particular policies, and suggest that those policies directly account for Bin Laden’s wrath and, by extension, the radical Islamist hostility towards the West.

However, all but two of the Bin Laden statements cited in the book (23 altogether) were issued, if at all, after September 11, 2001, during a time when Bin Laden adopted a more universal Islamist and Arabist agenda, apparently to attract more followers and protectors. Earlier, his statements were more directly ideological, and less involved in particular conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. “Fighting against the kufar in every part of the world is absolutely essential,” Bin Laden stated in 1996.3

Moreover, Scheuer cites even some post-2001 statements that contradict his own “policy-based” thesis, albeit in a different and unrelated part of his book. Note that Scheuer has a second theme: criticizing the “arrogant” belief that American democracy can work in the Arab and Islamic world. To challenge that claim, however, Scheuer changes tack, now citing evidence that radical Islamist terrorists actually do hate the West for its values, not just for its involvement in the Middle East: “You are the nation,” Bin Laden says in remarks directed at the United States, “rather than ruling by the law of Allah, [that] chose to implement your own inferior rules and regulations, thus following your own vain whims and desire. You run a society contrary to the nature of mankind by separating religion from your politics” (p. 2).

Bin Laden also offered this “message to the American people”: “Peace be upon those who follow the right path. I urge you to seek the joy of life and the afterlife and to rid yourself of your dry, miserable, and spiritless materialistic existence. I urge you to become Muslims, for Islam calls for the principle of “there is no God but Allah….We call you to Islam; the last religion that has replaced all previous religions…the religion of Jihad in the way of Allah so that Allah’s Word and religion are made Supreme” (p. 154).

Here Bin Laden reflects the popular Wahhabi and Salafi Islamist view of the West as a beacon of materialistic secularism that threatens the supremacy of Allah, echoing the words of Saudi Arabia’s preeminent Wahhabi cleric Sheikh Abdullah Bin Baz, a mentor of Bin Laden’s own patriarchal influence, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam. The Koran, says Bin Baz, proves “with absolute clarity that there is a religious requirement to despise the infidel Jews and Christians and the other mushrikun [polytheists] until they believe in Allah alone.”4

Scheuer nevertheless insists that if Bin Laden really despised America for such vices as secularism and democracy, then he would wage war against all societies that are non-Muslim and democratic. That suggestion, however, ignores the view – which Scheuer confirms elsewhere – that the United States uniquely symbolizes and promotes the secular democracy that so many have embraced and that Bin Laden opposes. Bin Laden himself appears to harbor such a view of the U.S. Even in the statements Scheuer uses, Bin Laden repeatedly equates the U.S. with evil, faithlessness, and “infidelity,” a translation of the Arabic term “kufar,” which in this context refers to Christians or Jews (without regard to their policies) and other monotheists who reject Allah.


Scheuer’s Expertise

If the statements cited in Hubris tend to refute its premise, readers might nevertheless take “Anonymous” at his word because of his CIA credentials, with their suggestions of operating covertly in the very lair of the enemy he proposes to explain. Such qualifications may not impress all readers: it was, after all, the CIA and particularly Scheuer’s own segment of it that most famously misunderstood and failed to predict the threat posed by al-Qaeda and similar groups.5 Yet Scheuer, in any event, demystifies his CIA work at the start of the book. He pointed out that he did not spend much time traveling in the world of Islam, but instead served as an “analyst” of the radical Islamist mindset at headquarters, in a role that resembles that of an academic scholar (pp. ix-x, 4). In this, Scheuer concedes he is not the final word, and his book draws on the work of many more scholarly experts, especially in the sections explaining the mindset of radical Islamist violence (pp. 1-19, 103-161).

In that section and throughout the book, no scholar is cited more than Bernard Lewis, the eminent Princeton historian, including what Scheuer describes as Lewis’s “excellent book” (p. 130), The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. In that book, however, Lewis directly addresses the central claim of Hubris: “What we confront now is not just a complaint about one or another American policy but rather a rejection and condemnation, at once angry and contemptuous, of all that America is seen to represent in the Muslim World.”6 Other experts whom Scheuer cites, like Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, believe as Lewis, that radical Islamists are targeting American society as much as any policy.7


Hating the West

Once Scheuer, despite his CIA title, is introduced as a would-be scholar of Islam trying to decipher the same texts and statements “found in the public library and on the Internet,” there is less reason to favor his minority interpretation over those of others, including the scholars on whom he relies.

In fact, if one looks beyond Scheuer’s limited source material – relying heavily on a select set of post-2001 Bin Laden quotes – to the ideological roots of Bin Laden and other Islamist terrorists, the September 1993 World Trade Center bombing, as well as to recent events, the thesis of Hubris becomes far less plausible.

Bin Laden, after all, did not spring up in the recent years that frame Scheuer’s analysis. Scheuer does claim that Bin Laden represents a worldwide Islamic insurgency rooted at the very heart of mainstream Islam (p. 4). But Bin Laden’s own history – strikingly absent in Hubris – reflects his origins in a particular Saudi-based ideological movement. Bin Laden’s mentor, Abdullah Azzam, and Azzam’s own mentor, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Baz of Saudi Arabia, had been nurturing an entire movement built on the centuries-old principles of Wahhabi Islam, a radical Saudi offshoot of Islam that opposes not only the West but Shi’ites and other Muslims deemed heretical. An influential Wahhabi colleague of Bin Baz, Sheikh Salman al-Auda, wrote: “The West, and above all the United States, and Western culture, in general, are undergoing a historical process that is deterministic. This process leads to its total collapse, sooner or later.”8 It is a Muslim’s duty, added al-Auda, to “accelerate the collapse.”

Another Wahhabi book released in Saudi Arabia, The Foundations of the Legality of the Destruction That Befell America, describes the U.S. as “the source of evil, moral corruption, oppression, despotism, and aggression,” which “spreads abomination and corruption in the world,” “is the biggest source of heretical movies,” “has more sex channels and wine and cigarette companies than any other country,” “wages war against Allah’s religion…and strives to impose its heresy and values out of arrogance and a desire to dominate.”9

Throughout its centuries-long history, Wahhabi Islam has preached the destruction of towers and buildings that symbolize heresy, a practice reflected most recently in Taliban Afghanistan. This might explain the statements of El Said Nosair, who was, among other things, involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Nosair called for attacking the “enemies of Islam” by “destroying the structure of their civilized pillars such as the touristic infrastructure…and their high world buildings which they are proud of and their statues…and the buildings in which their leaders gather.”10

Nosair’s mentor, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the spiritual patriarch of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the 1993 bombings, stated more directly: “Hit hard and kill the enemies of God in every spot to rid it of the descendants of apes and fed at the tables of Zionism, Communism, and imperialism….There is no truce in Jihad against the enemies of Allah.”11


Western Policies Did Not Fuel Radical Islam

Contrary to Scheuer’s thesis, the movement of radical Islam that united these views had intensified throughout the 1990s, even when Western policies were far less opposed to their interests and had at times supported Islamic groups against non-Islamic enemies. Despite American support for the anti-Soviet Afghan insurgency, the revolution’s spiritual leaders announced after the war that they were shifting their focus to the remaining enemies, including the United States and India.12 During the mid-1990s, when American policy aimed to save Muslim Somalia from starvation, to protect the Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo from the Christian Serbs, and attempted to impose concessions on Israel with the Oslo peace process, radical anti-West Islamism remain unmoved and unresponsive, continuing to grow and intensify its anti-West hostility.13

The repeated attacks during the past decade, even massacres, perpetrated against Shi’ites by Muslim militants, reflect not a single Shi’ite “policy,” but rather a recurrent Wahhabi policy of attacking those who challenge the supremacy of its own “pure” version of Islam. Between 1996 and 1998, Bin Laden himself sent forces to help the Taliban massacre the Hazaras, a Persian-speaking Shi’ite group in Afghanistan. A leader of one of these campaigns explained the Taliban-Bin Laden motivation: “The Hazaras are not Muslims and now we have to kill Hazaras. You either accept to be Muslims or leave Afghanistan.”14

This is not to suggest that U.S. policies have nothing to do with the reasons for the Islamist insurgency against the West. American military presence in Saudi Arabia, for example, has been a repeated gripe of Bin Laden.15 However, such policies are far from the sole reason for the hatred, nor would they have become so irksome to Bin Laden and his supporters were it not for their religiously-inspired views of the West.



A central theme in Scheuer’s book is that Islamists hate the United States, and the West by extension, because of U.S. support for Israel. Scheuer cites a litany of Bin Laden statements attacking “Zion” and “the Zionists.” Yet the statements he uses to support this claim portray only Bin Laden’s post-September 11, 2001, incarnation. It was only after the attacks that Bin Laden whole-heartedly adopted the Palestinian cause. This point has been raised by Palestinians, in particular. According to Palestinian Minister Saeb Erekat, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority resented Bin Laden’s sudden embrace of their cause. “Arafat stood up on the record and told Bin Laden, ‘Don’t use your injustices for our just cause,'” Erekat said in a 2003 interview.16


Anti-Semitic Characterizations of the Jewish People

Scheuer’s claims about support for Israel are tainted by his own distorted view of the Jewish state, which veers from the hysterical (pp. 14, 227) to the comically ignorant (pp. 4, 135), and therefore raises serious questions about his authority to write on the Middle East generally. Scheuer is the first prominent critic of Israel to assert (pp. 4, 135, 227) that the State of Israel itself set up the infamous refugee camps outside its borders and deliberately forced Palestinians into squalid camp conditions. (Other critics, by contrast, acknowledge that the UN created the camps; they blame Israel for the flight of the refugees, not the camps in which they ended up.) He also argues that Muslims have good reason to fear that Israel plans to extend “Jewish rule…from the Nile to the Euphrates” (pp. 13-14), when in fact this has never been an aim of even the most radically right wing in Israel. He discusses Muslim opposition to Israel’s “fifty-plus-year occupation of Palestine,” suggesting even pre-1967 Israel was an occupation in its entirety, or that he does not know the geographic contours of Israel in relation to “Palestine” (p. 135).

Far more worrying is an apparent bias on Scheuer’s part, reflected in such descriptions as, “the Jews’ goal of creating a ‘Greater Israel’ from the Nile to the Euphrates” (p. 13), or sarcastic praise for, among others, “the wealthy Jewish-American organizations who lobby an always amenable Congress” (p. 227). He makes repeated references to Israel’s “citizen-spies,” a euphemism for American Jews who, he alleges, spy on the U.S. for Israel. This charge, though provocative and inflammatory, is leveled with no support – no evidence to suggest that Israel has ever deployed or recruited spies among American Jews since the Pollard affair over 17 years ago.

A different sort of personal leaning emerges with respect to Bin Laden: a perversely positive one. Criticizing the “denigrators of Bin Laden’s character” (p. 107), Scheuer argues that Bin Laden is far from the “vile and despicable excuse for a man” that Western journalists, like Mona Charen, vilify (p. 106). Rather, Scheuer argues that, like Abraham Lincoln, Bin Laden “believes in the existence of a moral universe in which men could know right from wrong and act accordingly,” adding that “Muslims love, respect, and support him because he speaks of and defends that reality” (p. 126). Bin Laden, Scheuer says, is a “great man” (p. 103) – insisting he does not mean “great” in a morally positive way – who has demonstrated “admirable character traits, eloquence and focused, limited war aims” along with an enduring love that places him “one with the common people” (p. 114, 124).

Moreover, Scheuer argues that the view of Bin Laden’s terrorism as evil is relative. To Muslims, Scheuer argues, “Bin Laden is waging a defensive Jihad against the United States.” Scheuer adds: “What the West sees as a tragic brutality practiced by despairing or deviant individuals is perceived in much of the Muslim world as a heroic act of self-sacrifice (p. 135). The particular brutality of Bin Laden’s murders – their calculated aim to cause as much death, suffering, and anguish as possible to civilians – goes unrecognized by Scheuer. Yet other observers would trace the sadistic bloodlust of Bin Ladenist terrorism precisely to the Wahhabi ideology that opposes Westerners for who they are, as much as what they do: Christians have increasingly been characterized as polytheists (mushrikun) whom Wahhabi clerics say deserve no special protection for civilians, women, or children.17 Their use of genocidal terrorism is inexorably linked to the reasons that Islamists hate the West.


The CIA and the Release of Hubris

Michael Scheuer remains in the CIA. This raises the question: Does the CIA have any objection to one of its analysts publicly attacking the American administration that the CIA ostensibly serves? What about the slandering of American Jews? Doesn’t any implied sanction of this book’s contents reflect poorly on the CIA itself? The CIA’s decision to allow the book’s release, even with the author’s employer known, is unprecedented.

Yet the Boston Phoenix pointed out that, in another way, the book serves the interests of the CIA in a number of ways, particularly in its criticism of the FBI (pp. 185-195).18 More important, the Phoenix reported that in the intelligence community, “the rough consensus is that a not-long-for-his-job George Tenet indicated to the [Review Board] that the book’s publication should be allowed, as it might blunt or contextualize some of the scathing criticism likely to assail the agency in forthcoming 9/11 Commission and Senate Select Intelligence Committee reports – and also might aid the cause of intelligence reform. According to several intelligence-community sources, the manuscript was in limbo at least three months past the Review Board’s 30-day deadline earlier this year.” That helped time the book’s release to coincide with the 9/11 Commission Report.

Yet the book’s unusual vetting by the CIA is unnecessary to refute its central claims. Scheuer’s own supporting evidence, along with the recent statements and acts of Islamist militants, go far enough in showing that radical Islam in fact opposes Western societies and interests precisely, as Scheuer puts it, “for who we are,” as much as for any policies the West has pursued.

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1. Jason Vest, “The Secret History of Anonymous,” Boston Phoenix (July 2-8, 2004);
2. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), p. 384.
3. Dore Gold, Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (New York: Regnery, 2003) (expanded paperback edition), p. 172.
4. Ibid., p. 11.
5. Supra note 2; also Reed Irvine and Cliff Kincaid, “Inexcusable CIA Failure,” in Accuracy in Media (AIM) (September 27, 2001); See also John Diamon, “Panel to Probe CIA Failure to Predict Extent of Insurgency,” USA Today (June 9, 2004).
6. Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (New York: Modern Library, 2003), p. 76.
7. See, for example, Daniel Pipes, “Naming the Enemy,” New York Sun (August 17, 2004);
8. Jonathan D. Halevi, “Al-Qaeda’s Intellectual Legacy: New Radical Thinking Justifying the Genocide of the Infidels,” Jerusalem Viewpoints #508 (December 1, 2003), and Gold, Hatred’s Kingdom, citing
9. Halevi, citing Abd al-Aziz al-Jarbou’, Al-Ta’asil li-Mashrou’iyah Ma Hasals Li-Amrica Min Tadmir, November 2001, p. 19-22 (“The Eighth Foundation” chapter).
10. Christopher Dickey, “Wrath of Islam,” Newsweek (March 15, 1993), pp. 13-14.
11. Ibid.
12. Yoni Fighel, “Sheikh Abdullah Azzam: Bin Laden’s Spiritual Mentor,” International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Israel (September 27, 2001);
13. See, for example, Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).
14. Gold, Hatred’s Kingdom, p. 133.
15. Dore Gold, “Israel is Not the Issue,” Jerusalem Viewpoints #463 (October 1, 2001). See also Lewis, supra note 6.
16. Saeb Erekat, interview with the author for documentary film “Blood and Tears,” Executive Producer Isidore Rosmarin, January 13, 2003.
17. Rohan Gunaratna, Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 22, cited in Gold, Hatred’s Kingdom.
18. Vest, “Secret History.”

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Jeffrey S. Helmreich is the author of numerous articles on Israel for American newspapers and journals. His previous Jerusalem Issue Brief was “Diplomatic and Legal Aspects of the Settlement Issue” (January 2003). His Jerusalem Viewpoints include: “Beyond Political Terrorism: The New Challenge of Transcendent Terror” (November 2001); “Journalistic License: Professional Standards in the Print Media’s Coverage of Israel” (August 2001); and “The Israel Swing Factor: How the American Jewish Vote Influences U.S. Elections” (January 2001).