Kevin Hulbert is the Founder and President of XK Group, LLC. Prior to that, Mr. Hulbert held a variety of high-level jobs in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), becoming an expert on counterterrorism, counter proliferation, non-traditional operations, and covert action. He finished his career as Senior Advisor for Counterterrorism at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). As an accomplished senior leader in the Directorate of Operations at the CIA, he served around the world and worked with many foreign liaison partners, leading some of the most complex counterterrorism operations abroad. He holds an MBA degree from Georgetown University.
E. Tavares: Kevin, thank you for being with us today. It is difficult to discuss terrorism these days without talking about Islam, or better put, how it is being used for certain political purposes. This has become a hot topic in the West, even featuring in US immigration and presidential debates.
We recently watched a video clip from 1958 of Gamal Abdel Nasser, then President of Egypt, laughing with a large audience at the idea of forcing women to wear the hijab. In the decades that followed, this has become common practice in many Middle Eastern countries as stricter Muslim leaders rose to power. The once secular societies of Afghanistan and Iran have become just a footnote of history. In fact the more extreme versions of Islam now constitute its mainstream orthodox ideology.
We in the West believe that the march towards secularism and freedom is inevitable, and yet for the most part the Muslim world is going the other way. What do you make of this?
K. Hulbert: I think you are right, the march towards secularism and freedom is not inevitable. In fact, it’s problematic because we have a situation where every year the West becomes more secular, open, tolerant and liberal while many parts of the Muslim world, as you say, are going the other way. So it would seem that we might be moving towards a head-on collision of some sort.
As to what I make of it, in most Muslim countries the majority of people are tolerant. They want to live in a more inclusive society and have a more liberal religious doctrine. The problem is that Islam seems to have been hijacked by a vocal minority of people who are prepared to use violence to advance their very intolerant and conservative version of Islam.
ET: It appears that the spread of that version of Islam across the Middle East has two similar Islamist ideologies at the core: the Muslim Brotherhood out of Egypt and Wahhabism out of Saudi Arabia. They propose an Islamic version of society which in a sense is remarkably similar to fascism, regulating every aspect of people’s lives.
Over the last decade our Western leaders have given space for that movement to expand as a consequence of taking out the most prominent secular leaders who had been fighting against it in the Arab world. The US State Department even endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood when it rose to power in Egypt after the Arab Spring. The West’s close business and political ties with Saudi Arabia are well documented (even if some prominent Western politicians have recently started to question the Saudis’ support of terrorism in public).
Are we inadvertently helping to spread the most radical versions of Islam through our foreign interventions and policies? Do our leaders really understand what they are dealing with here?
KH: That’s the million dollar question. There’s a lot of shared credit for bad policies that created bad outcomes both in the Western world and in the Muslim world. And yes, Saudi Arabia is more responsible than anyone for the spread of Wahhabism over the last couple of decades. As you know, that doctrine is considered to be the most conservative form of Islam. While the majority of their followers want to live peacefully with their families, you have a minority that don’t necessarily believe in these things.
And so we have a conundrum in that while every conservative, Salafist, or Wahhabist is not a terrorist – and the vast majority aren’t – But, on the other hand, we have had a lot of terrorist acts committed by guys who are self-proclaimed Muslims who invoke religion to justify their actions. This presents us with some challenges, I think, in the West.
ET: Why then do we seem so keen to repeat the same mistakes in Syria? After seeing what happened in Iraq and Libya, it should be abundantly clear that the resulting power vacuum will likely be filled by radical Islamists, unless we are willing to put boots on the ground in large numbers. Instead, could we not use the war in Syria as an opportunity to shift policy towards a more constructive and sustainable strategy and dialogue across the Region?
KH: You raise a very good point because our policies seem to have taken out more secular regimes in places like Iraq and Libya, and then these places morphed into very intolerant, conservative regimes where the rule of law and a lot of other things went by the wayside.
One thing that many people don’t understand is that the conflict in Syria started as a very simple civil war. Many people were not content with the government of Bashar al Assad and the Alawites and emboldened by things they saw in the Arab Spring, rebelled against them, with the hope that they perhaps could change their own destiny. The Alawites after all only make up 10-15% of Syria’s population and yet they have ruled that country for decades.
But now that situation has deteriorated into about five different wars: You have the civil war that I just talked about, then you have the broader Shi’ite versus Sunni conflict, now you have Hezbollah drawn into the conflict via Iran, in the north you have the Kurds fighting the Islamic State and on top of all that you have Saudi Arabia which is very concerned about the expanding reach of Iran and so this has turned into a huge proxy war between Saudi-backed Sunni forces against Iranian-backed forces. In short, it’s a mess and there are not any easy solutions.
ET: We know people who died on 9/11. The headquarters of our employer at the time were obliterated. The US government put the blame on Al Qaeda and spent hundreds of billions of dollars chasing them out of Afghanistan and Iraq, with the loss of many brave soldiers and countless civilians.
So we were shocked to hear General Petraeus advocating this past summer that the US should be arming Al Qaeda to fight the Islamic State. As a former senior CIA operative, how did you react to that? Does this reveal a lack of strategic options on the ground in Syria? Or have we completely lost focus and objectivity in the war on terror?
KH: That’s a good, but complicated question. I am not intimately familiar with General Petraeus’ comments and the context in which they were made so I really don’t feel comfortable commenting on them.
But, I think his comments do possibly reflect a real lack of good options forcing us to choose between a bunch of less than perfect options. It also reflects the fact that the US has a big reluctance to again deploy any sort of a “boots on the ground” type of approach to these conflicts, where you have a really slippery type of enemy, radical Muslim extremism, and no clear idea of what might constitute success. We definitely do not want to be in the business of nation building again.
So, I think we are looking at different types of options and General Petraeus surfaced that one. He’s certainly no apologist for Al Qaeda and in fact there aren’t many people in the US who have done more than him in the fight against terrorists and extremism. He spent years of his life in harm’s way doing important work all over the Middle East.
Again, I don’t know the context when he made that statement, but there’s that old saying that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
ET: As a result of this radicalization, minorities across the Middle East are being persecuted, even annihilated in some regions. The president of the Europarliament recently stated that Christians are now the most persecuted group in the world. That is a stunning revelation. We are also seeing a new wave of anti-Semitism raging across Europe, largely as a result of Muslim immigration. What do you make of all of this?
KH: This goes back to what we discussed earlier, the spread of Salafism, Wahhabism, the Muslim Brotherhood and so forth. This has led to a loss of tolerance all across the Muslim world. But again this is a perversion of Islam because the vast majority of Muslims believe in tolerance and history is full of examples of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities living together in peace.
Islam has never condoned the killing of non-Muslims simply because they are not Muslim. Unfortunately you have some radicals that have perverted some verses of the Quran to justify their actions, but that is not right.
I think everybody has to do a better job in confronting this sort of thing. Muslim countries in particular probably need to do a better job in promoting inclusiveness and tolerance, because this isn’t a concept that lands well when it’s an ideal thrust upon them by the West or the US. They also need to do a better job internally because the level of sectarian violence within some countries has nothing to do with the West. When you look at the Sunni on Shia violence, as well as Sunni on Christian violence, it is staggering. So, yes, it’s a big issue.
ET: You talked about the Middle East by we are dealing with that radicalization in the West. How can we counter this? France has finally decided to close radical mosques – up to 160, a shocking number – but in the digital age there is an abundance of internet and TV alternatives to promote a radical message. What will happen in the decades ahead to the West, moderate Muslims and lovers of freedom if we fail here?
KH: You are right, this is a complicated issue because we in the West believe in freedom of religion and freedom of speech-- but we don’t believe in terrorism and someone’s right to incite violence. We will have to confront these issues.
Like I said, everybody is entitled to worship as they see fit. Most thinking people believe in freedom of religion. But, if a mosque, or madrassa or a website encourages a rejection of these ideals and is contrary to our laws and our constitutions then the West will have to stand up and defend themselves. And that’s a tricky balance because while we believe in free speech, that doesn’t mean you have the right to promote terrorism. Individual countries will have to draw that line as they see fit.
ET: Speaking of individual countries, the San Bernadino shooters seem to have been radicalized in the US or at least despite living seemingly normal American lives. Are you aware of any radical mosques being shut down by the US government in order to stop the promotion of their ideology? It seems to us that the government is very reluctant even to use the word “radical Islam”…
KH: I have not heard of any discussion of closing any mosques in the US. But, there are some efforts underway to address radicalization on line. For example, there was language introduced by Senator Feinstein in the 2016 Intelligence Authorization Act that would have required social media companies to report “any terrorist related activity on their sites”. That shockingly passed by an 8-0 vote – and I say “shockingly” because you don’t find many bipartisan things happening in the US Congress, so very little passes by a unanimous vote. But, then the proposed legislation got derailed when it came to a vote in the broader Congress because some social media companies and others spoke up to note that the language was very vague and the line was unclear as to what might constitute free speech and what might constitute terrorist activity. The sheer volume of social media postings also made people unsure of how to implement the proposed legislation and so, for now, the proposed legislation was withdrawn.
There is the recognition that we have a serious issue with radicalization on the internet and we need to do something to address it, but there is great debate on how to do it. In the future, we are going to have to do something to confront this radicalization head-on. We cannot afford to cede this social media space to the Islamic State.
ET: Let’s go back to the Middle East. With Russia getting deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, on top of the skirmishes already taking place in the Ukraine, can this signal the start not of a new Cold War but of a full blown World War III? In the nuclear age great powers cannot face each other directly, but terrorism and proxy conflicts could be with us for many years. It is hard to see how anyone can emerge victorious here, especially as innocent civilians become the primary targets. Do you think we are at the start of a global conflict?
KH: I don’t think that Syria will approach anything on the scale of a world war, even by proxy as you mentioned. That said, it is a conflict that will be with us for many years and it is probably going to get bigger. You may even see expanding theaters of conflict – whether that’s in Western Europe, the US, or parts of the Middle East. So it’s yes and no; it’s likely to become a bigger conflict, but not really something I’d characterize as on the scale of a world war.
Interestingly, right after 9/11, former Director of the CIA James Wolsey compared the fight against Al Qaeda to World War IV. He referred to the Cold War as World War III and suggested that the next one would be fought against three enemies: Iran, the fascists of Iraq and Syria and Islamic elements like Al Qaeda. I thought that his characterization was pretty solid in describing that conflict, although I differ on it being called a world war.
The short answer is that there will be a long twilight struggle and you can call it what you want, but it probably doesn’t rise to the level of engagement of World War II, for example.
ET: So a more prolonged but less intensive conflict…
KH: Exactly. There’s no silver bullet to this. You will not be able to eliminate terrorism by putting boots on the ground in Syria, or pacifying Afghanistan, or fixing Pakistan, or anything like that. It’s complicated.
ET: Last question. You worked for the CIA for many years. What would have happened if you had used your personal email to, say, share sensitive information…?
KH: Well, we had certain structures so that nobody could use personal emails to correspond with others in the Agency. So, that would have been impossible…
ET: … But if that had been found out, would you still have a job?
KH: Probably not…
ET: Thanks again for being with us today and sharing your valuable insights. All the best and Happy Holidays!
KH: Thank you, it was a pleasure.