Shabtai Shavit: 'Life in America is not going to be the same as it used to be before Sept. 11'
Newsweek Web Exclusive
updated 10/17/2001 11:14:32 AM ET 2001-10-17T15:14:32

Shabtai Shavit has spent almost 40 years studying terrorists and their tactics. After joining Israel’s Mossad in 1964 and serving in various posts both at home and abroad, he became director of the intelligence agency between 1989 and 1996. Now the chairman of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, he has just completed a visit to the United States to talk about his organization’s work. One of his key messages: that Americans should expect to sacrifice some of their civil liberties in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

SHAVIT SPOKE to NEWSWEEK’s Arlene Getz about his views on anthrax, assassination and how U.S. residents must adapt to the threats against them. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The Syrian-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in Jerusalem. How harshly is the Israeli government likely to retaliate, and how will that affect Arab support of the U.S. coalition against the Taliban?

Shabtai Shavit: It is too early for me to say. I have been out of Israel for the last two weeks, and I need time to assess the situation.

What about the anthrax attacks in the United States. Who do you think is responsible?

The timing of the first anthrax case is too coincidental. Also, the place where it appeared for the first time [in Boca Raton, Florida] is in the vicinity of the place where some of the terrorists stayed for quite some time, so based on these two points, my feeling is that there might be some kind of connection between the bombing of the [World Trade Center] and the anthrax cases.

Are you surprised that the group may have the capability to use anthrax in this way?

I’m not surprised, because they [can] acquire this kind of stuff relatively easily at various places in the world.

U.S. government officials have emphasized that they have no proof linking the letters to Osama bin Laden’s network. Is it possible that the anthrax could have been acquired by a lone operator, someone not connected to the group at all.

Yes, it is.

The Sept. 11 attacks are seen as a catastrophic intelligence failure. Could it be argued that the operation was so well planned it would have been almost impossible for the agencies to uncover it?

Judging by the result, it was of course [an intelligence] failure. To the best of my knowledge, it was the failure of the international intelligence community, not just the American intelligence community. Yet when it comes to the American intelligence community ... here in the United States there was a feeling that they were far away from the daily threat ... There was some kind of complacency. In such an environment, for a terrorist, it’s much easier to operate.

The fact that the weapons that were used in this operation were airplanes [also] made the invasion much easier for the perpetrators. They didn’t have to carry weapons with them [during] the whole long period of preparation, and that’s why the execution of the operation was much easier to carry out than perhaps one with conventional weapons.

How difficult is it for intelligence agents to penetrate networks like Al Qaeda?

It is hard. One of the main characteristics of those extremist organizations in the Middle East is [that] their recruiting method is based on their personal knowledge of people, family connections and tribal connections, so to penetrate is a real tough job.

Pakistan is now working more closely with the United States. Will their intelligence be the key to tracking down Osama bin Laden?

I do not and cannot refer to the capabilities of the Pakistani intelligence ... But [if] the Taliban is toppled in Afghanistan, it’s going to be easier for the Americans and their allies to cope.

Condoleezza Rice has suggested to American television networks that they should avoid broadcasting unedited messages from bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders in case they contain coded messages to their followers. Is this likely?

It is possible. [That method] has been used since World War II, using the media to send messages to operatives at various places all over the world.

Last week the FBI issued an unspecified warning to the American public to prepare for additional terror attacks in the coming days. What’s your view on issuing such broad warnings that people can do little about?

This is a tactic that intelligence services are using. In a situation where the information you have in hand indicates that something is being [prepared], but you cannot put your finger on the exact target or the exact timing, an early warning serves two purposes. One is to transmit to the terrorists: “Listen guys, we know that you are up to something and we are prepared to meet you.” That [can] have some kind of deterrence effect on the terrorists. [It also] puts your own people on a higher level of alert. But you have to use this means very economically, because on the one hand you cannot keep the whole nation uptight for a very long period, and on the other hand you cannot lose credibility.

You’ve just been traveling in the United States. What do you think of the security measures that you’ve seen in place so far?

I am not in a position to audit your system. For instance I’ve been using trains for the last week and the truth is that I have not spotted any additional new measures as compared to before Sept. 11 ... [But] I was near to the Capitol [last week] and I saw many more security people around the Capitol building than during my previous visits.

What advice would you give to Americans who ask you how to cope with living with the kind of uncertainty that Israelis have lived with for years?

That’s a good question. It has to do with how you convince your people and how you educate them to an entirely new situation [in] the United States. It may sound dramatic, but life in America is not going to be the same as it used to be before Sept. 11. In order to be able to go on living, you have to be aware of the fact that you are going to have to give up some of your formal liberties, and you have to be ready to give up some of your pleasantries and conveniences.

Any ideas about what kind of attacks could come next?

I wouldn’t like to give you a list of potential targets because it’s going to be a very long one.

Some lawyers have suggested that an international tribunal should be formed to try Osama bin Laden.

I personally wouldn’t give him the chance to brought to trial. This guy should be eliminated.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was forced to apologize for suggesting that the Bush administration’s attempts to build an antiterror coalition could appease Arab nation at the expense of Israel. How widespread is that concern among ordinary Israelis?

My personal view [is that] for President Bush to build up his coalition with the more moderate Arab and Muslim countries around the world, I realize that there is a price tag that each one of them has put in to join. One of the conditions is Israel, the Palestinians, and the conflict in the Middle East. OK, we can live without being upfront of the coalition. Relations between Israel and the U.S. have been going for many, many years—military relationships, intelligence relationships and so on. But the price that the American government is ready to pay for the Arab countries to join the coalition will be limited. If it becomes too high a price, we cannot afford to accept it. When the American administration pressed us to meet with [Palestinian leader Yasir] Arafat, and Arafat, instead of decreasing the level of violence for the negotiations to go smoothly, increased the level of violence, we just couldn’t take it. And [that was] where Sharon came out with his famous statement.

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