Phil Mudd is a counterterrorism heavyweight, one of the first CIA operatives in Afghanistan in 2001, and now he’s at the FBI’s National Security Division. "I want to give you a picture of Al Qaeda-central from a kind of insider’s perspective," he says. Awesomes!

"They moved east, and they do one thing for a living," he says, "…plotting against the United States…and they continue to train Westerners to come back." He’s in shirtsleeves, standing in front of the podium with one hand on his hip. "They are embedding" in the tribal areas "in ways we wouldn’t have anticipated." They’re intermarrying with the tribes: "If we don’t solve that problem, we will get hit again."

On the ideological evolution of Al Qaeda: "This was a group that was meant to spark a revolution, a revolution to a caliphate." He argues the "operational threat has maintained" with the safe haven in Pakistan, but the "ideological threat has declined." There’s no support for the Caliphate. "They’re killing too many innocents." Mudd says he didn’t anticipate that. He’s a thin man, with close-cropped grey hair and wire-rimmed glasses, and he’s tremendously intense, practically shouting into the microphone.

He’s not so concerned about the prospect of homegrown terrorists. Instead, he’s seeing "self-recruited people" from the west are showing up at the safe-havens. This is kind of news! "It’s somewhere between a homegrown and an Al Qaeda central," Mudd says. "I worry about these people" when they "come home." There’s a behind-the-scenes dialogue between American, European and Middle Eastern security services "about parallel threats" from people "inspired by the movement and the ideology but have never touched Al Qaeda." These guys are "more prone to deradicalization… operationally, I would argue, they’re less capable" than those connected to Al Qaeda. But there’s a vulnerabilty for counterterrorists, since there’s no central communications. "They’re not cells," Mudd says, "they’re clusters… people who don’t know what they’re gonna do when they get into it."

He talks about the importance of Al Qaeda as a "revolutionary" organization. But their revolution "is not gonna happen." So we should focus on operational issues with Al Qaeda, because ideologically, "they’re killing themselves." In this country, "it’s not a problem of jihadists, it’s a problem of misguided kids who thinks they’re jihadists."

Most importantly, Mudd says, Al Qaeda is acting astrategically — "attacking out of revenge. That’s not strategy, that’s tactics." But we have "a long way to go" to "beat misguideds." Interestingly that may be more expensive precisely because it’s so diffuse. "We’ve got a long way to go, but have hope. Thank you." Wow.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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