The CIA’s director John Brennan told Al Arabiya News Channel on Saturday in an exclusive interview that “there was no evidence” of a Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks after a 28-page congressional investigatory report claimed that there were proofs Saudi officials had supported al-Qaeda in the run-up to the attacks.
Below is the full transcript of the interview carried out by Al Arabiya Washington Bureau Chief Nadia Bilbassy-Charters.
Nadia: Thanks so much for this exclusive interview for Al Arabiya. I think it’s the first with the Arab media in the history of the CIA.
Brennan: That’s my understanding as well Nadia, and Ramadan Kareem.
Nadia: I’m going to start by asking you about the United States. Is America safer now from a 9/11 style or a Paris-style attack by al-Qaeda or by ISIS and are you confident it’s not going to happen here again?
Brennan: I’m confident that over the past 15 years, the United States government, the intelligence, security and law enforcement services have done I think a great job trying to protect this country so it is much more difficult for terrorist groups to carry out attacks here in the United States. That doesn’t mean we are impenetrable. That’s why our law enforcement, FBI, homeland security experts are continuing to be very, very vigilant but I believe this country has come a long way since 9/11.
John Brenner on the 9/11 report
Nadia: At this stage would you say that is it al-Qaeda or ISIS are more dangerous?
Brennan: Well, I think they’re both determined to carry out terrorist attacks and to kill innocent men, women and children. Daesh at this time is a very large organization in terms of its presence not just in Iraq and Syria but also in North Africa, South Asia and other areas. So it’s something we have to be very, very concerned about in terms of its growth and its lethality. Al-Qaeda still exists. There’s still al-Qaeda still in the Afghan-Pak region, Syria, as well as North Africa. So counterterrorism specialists need to keep their eyes open about the potential threats from all of these groups.
Nadia: Can you stop a lone wolf attack?
Brennan: The so-called lone wolf attack, the individuals who might be incited or encouraged to carry out attacks because of the propaganda and the rhetoric of these groups. This is very difficult to deal with. Countries around the world are having to be concerned about the potential for individuals or groups of individuals to act on their own without the direct contact with organized terrorists or groups to try to carry out these attacks. We see it in a number of places in Europe as well as the United States. San Bernardino was a good example of a terrorist attack that was incited by this rhetoric that is coming from the terrorist organizations so it’s something we have to be on our guard for. It’s difficult to identify individuals who might be tending in that direction so that is why we need to make sure our homeland security, counter-terrorism experts are working 24/7.
Nadia: How about the leaders of these organizations who inspire people all over the world? Zawahiri is still at large, Baghdadi as well. Why couldn’t you get them until now?
Brennan: Well, it’s very difficult, as you know, it took us many years to be able to track down Bin laden. We were able to finally do so and make sure that justice was served. Zawahiri as well as al-Baghdadi from Daesh are leading these organizations. They burrow themselves and they hide and they use other individuals to carry out their evil work. But they shouldn’t rest because justice is going to be served to them as well.
Nadia: There were some reports that actually Baghdadi was wounded on the Syrian border…
Brennan: There are frequent reports about his being wounded. I do think it’s just a matter of time before Baghdadi as well as the rest of Daesh’s leadership are brought to justice.
Nadia: How do you assess their influence now, I mean we hear from the White House and others that basically they’re losing territory. Do you think they still pose a serious threat?
Brennan: They certainly pose a serious threat. I do believe their momentum has been reversed inside of Iraq and Syria because of some very good work that Iraqi forces and coalition forces are carrying out airstrikes as well as ground efforts. So they have lost territory both in Iraq and Syria. They’re on the defensive there and they’re on the defensive in a number of other areas. They still maintain quite a bit of capability to carry out attacks in those theatres as well as beyond, so this is going to be a long, hard fight. But I’m confident that we are going to continue to destroy, dismantle their organizations so that they’re not able to kill innocent people in the name of Islam which they masquerade as Muslims. They are anything but Muslims.
Nadia: How do you assess their ability to develop WMDs, chemical, biological weapons, especially in Syria and Iraq?
Brennan: Well I think we’ve seen there have been efforts undertaken including some use of chemicals such as chlorine (inaudible) as they use in artillery shells so that they carry out those attacks on the battlefield. We’re watching that very carefully. We’re trying to make sure that we take efforts to prevent the broader, more widescale use. But it just shows that an organization like Daesh will use anything that they can to slaughter their enemies.
Nadia: As you know, the Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman will be visiting Washington and the United States in general. How would you describe the current cooperation between the United States and Saudi Arabia?
Brennan: We have excellent cooperation with Saudi Arabia. I have worked with my Saudi partners for many, many years. I served in Saudi Arabia for about 5 years and under the leadership of the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, who is also the minister of interior. Over the last 15 years, the Saudis have become among our best counterterrorism partners. And so with King Salman and the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Salman, we feel as though we have really strong partners in this fight against terrorism.
Nadia: There has been so much talk about these 28 pages of classified information in this report about 9/11. Do you see any evidence that links the Saudi government to supporting, financing, or being involved with the hijackers as claimed?
Brennan: These so called 28 pages that were part of the joint inquiry that was published in 2002. Just a year after 9/11, was a very preliminary review trying to pull together bits and pieces of information reporting who was responsible for 9/11. Subsequently, the 9/11 commission looked very thoroughly at these allegations of Saudi involvement, Saudi government involvement and their finding, their conclusion was that there was no evidence to indicate that the Saudi government as an institution or Saudi, senior Saudi officials individually had supported the 9/11 attacks. So these 28 pages I believe are going to come out and I think it’s good that they come out. People shouldn’t take them as evidence of Saudi complicity in the attacks. Indeed subsequently the assessments that have been done have shown it was very unfortunate that these attacks took place but this was the work of al-Qaeda, al-Zawahiri, and others of that ilk.
Nadia: I wanted to move to focus on ISIS in Syria. Do you believe that you can defeat ISIS in Syria without removing President Assad?
Brennan: Well, we believe that the violence perpetrated upon the Syrian people by President Assad has been part of the reason why there has been such growth of extremism and terrorism inside of Syria. We believe that Bashar al-Assad has no future in Syria’s future government because he has lost the right, the legitimacy to rule. And we believe that an important step toward Syria’s peaceful future is to have a new government that’s going to be much more representative of the Syrian people and to try to take care of the Syrian people from all different backgrounds and confessional backgrounds. So I am convinced that Bashar Assad needs to depart the scene, the political scene in order for Syria’s future to be brighter and for there to be peace in that country. So we are fighting Daesh inside of Syria as well as Iraq, but we are also supporting the free Syrian Army and their very important and legitimate fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Nadia: One of the criticisms [is] that you basically did not arm the Syrian opposition, military opposition that is fighting President Assad from day one. What can be done now, at this stage?
Brennan: Well I think the United States position is to continue to support the Free Syrian Army as well as the moderate opposition and it’s very, very important that the political track discussion that have taken place in Geneva need to continue to follow through on some earlier initiatives to try to make sure there is going to be a transitional government as well as a new government inside of Damascus. This is going not going to be won on the battlefield. I think what we’re trying to do is to make sure the moderate opposition continues to stay strong, puts the pressure on the regime. But the real future of Syria lies in the negotiations in terms of how the future of Syria is going to be shaped.
Nadia: I’m going to ask you about the negotiations but the negotiations but are you willing to arm them with manpads, stinger missiles, something heavy that will alter the balance of power?
Brennan: We have been concerned about the use of manpads…these shoulder fired missiles that go against planes. We don’t want them to fall into the hands of terrorist organizations because they can pose a very, very serious threat to commercial aircraft. So I think what we want to do is make sure that the Free Syrian Army stays strong. There are a number of backers of the Free Syrian Army from the region. The United States government position is going to continue to provide support to the legitimate, moderate opposition in Syria but again the emphasis is going to be on making sure the political track gains traction, that humanitarian relief is provided to the Syrian people who have suffered greatly as a result of this conflict. The humanitarian disaster that has fallen upon the Syrian people is really a modern day tragedy
Nadia: Going back to the negotiation. Not many people believe that the Geneva talks will succeed. I know you’re not a politician. But from your assessment, what is the end game in Syria? How does this war end if President Assad feels emboldened…he’s strong and you are only focusing on ISIS and many people say that the reason they are there is because Assad is in power.
Brennan: There needs to be consensus among the key parties to the conflict inside of Syria. To agree on some way forward that would involve some type of transition from the current government in Damascus to a future government that is going to represent the people of Syria whether they be Christians, Sunni, Shiite, Alawi, Druze. There needs to be an agreement about the way forward. Lebanon was able to find a way out of its conflict in terms of…
Nadia: Although that was not a good example…
Brennan: No, that’s where it is difficult in the Middle East in a number countries where you have a multi-confessional makeup and people from different backgrounds and religions who are living side by side. But unfortunately, I think a lot of the extremists and terrorists have fueled these animosities. I can remember years ago when I lived and worked in the Middle East. I would walk through villages whether in Syria or Egypt or other countries where you had Christians and Muslims, living side by side even Muslim and Jew. Unfortunately though, a lot of the extremists and terrorists have fueled these fires of suspicion and hatred. We need to get back to be able to live among each other in a very peaceful way, so our children and children’s children can grow up and enjoy life as opposed to knowing nothing but violence.
Nadia: Mr. Brennan, we were just talking about Syria. So there is a report that basically the CIA has given the president an option in 2012 of getting rid of President Assad and the White House did not sign [on] to it. Can we confirm this report?
Brennan: Back in 2012, there was a lot of discussion about how the US government should support the Syrian people and their very legitimate effort to make changes in the Syrian government. And so there were a lot of options discussed at the time. I’m not going to go into all of the details of specific options that were teed up. The thing that President Obama wanted to do was to make sure that we understood who the opposition were, making sure that we were going to provide support as appropriate to those individuals who were really dedicated to a peaceful Syria and one that is not going to fuel the fires of extremism and terrorism in the Middle East. Sometimes the solutions to these very complicated problems look easy from the outside. But they’re very, very complex, particularly Syria since you have so many individuals inside the country from different backgrounds and experiences, religious groups as well as a lot of external actors. It is one of the most complicated issues I’ve ever had to deal with in my national security career.
Nadia: There’s an impression in the Middle East that the United States, the Russians, the Iranians are cooperating somehow. They’re fighting in Syria with the regime and Hezbollah on one side basically, to get rid of ISIS. How do you explain that to our audience?
Brennan: There is an international effort to destroy Daesh because it poses a threat. There is collaboration among a number of different groups and governments. I have worked with my Russian counterparts on counterterrorism issues for a number of years and we’re trying to destroy Daesh inside of Syria as well as Iraq. We’re pushing the Russians to use their influence inside of Syria to encourage a transition away from the Bashar al-Assad regime. Quite frankly I’ve been quite disappointed that my Russian colleagues have not used their influence more effectively to bring this conflict to a close. They can exert greater pressure and influence inside Damascus. We don’t want the Syrian government to collapse. That’s’ the last thing we want to do. We want to make the institutions of governance remain strong. But Bashar al-Assad is somebody who has become a magnet for these extremists and terrorists to flock to Syria. There’s not going to be a future of Syria that will be safe and secure unless Bashar al-Assad leaves and Russia really holds the key and so I continue to implore my Russian colleagues to use their influence to accelerate the transition to a new leadership inside of Syria.
Nadia: How about the Iranian role, the other key role. Do you have any cooperation with them in terms of ISIS?
Brennan: I have no contact with the Iranians.
Brennan: Zero contact with them. I continue to be very concerned about Iran’s support for terrorist activities and terrorist groups, especially the Quds force and their activities inside Iraq, Syria, and other countries throughout the region. I think they have to demonstrate that they are going to be committed to the fight against terrorism as opposed to being a state sponsor of terrorism. I think we’re very pleased with what President Rouhani was able to do along with the supreme leader Khamenei, as far as agreeing to the nuclear deal, but Iran still has a long way to go before I’m going to be convinced that they are interested in countering and destroying terrorism.
Nadia: You know there’s so many intelligence agencies who operate in that area, Syria and Iraq in particular. The US, the Russians, the Iranians, the Israelis, the Turks, so many of them, just to name a few. How do you navigate this complex picture? Who is against whom? Who is aligned with whom?
Brennan: That’s a very question. There are internal players, groups as well as the governments as well as intelligence and security services. Again with the exception of Iran, I interact with all of my partners from the region. Arab services as well as the Turks, the Israelis and others. There’s a strong interest in working together to destroy these terrorist groups al-Qaeda, Dash and others. As good as CIA is, we need to have the partnership of these other countries. We work very closely with our Egyptian partners. I met with the leaders of these countries. The prime ministers and presidents. I’ve met a number of times with President Sisi who is determined to destroy Daesh and they have a real challenge inside of the Sinai as they’re working to destroy this group that is again bent on destruction. I work with my Sudanese counterparts. I’ve had recent meetings with the head of intelligence service there, Mohammed Atta. I’m very pleased with what I see in terms of the Sudanese efforts to work with us and to try to identify and uncover and then destroy these terrorist organizations. We share this common effort to protect our citizenry. The CIA will do everything it can not just to protect the American citizens both here in the homeland and abroad, but also to protect Arab men, women and children, Persian men, women and children across the globe and so what we are determined to do is to forge and strengthen these partnerships because these groups will stop at nothing to maim and to murder.
Nadia: So in terms of the close information sharing and I’m going to ask you again, there’s no sharing of information with the Iranians?
Brennan: I do not interact with my Iranian partners. If we have information that the Iranians are being targeted by a terrorist organization, we will share certain information, but we don’t have direct contacts with them.
Nadia: Do they do so the other way around? Do they share information with you if US targets are… (interrupted)
Brennan: I haven’t received information from the Iranians about threats to Americans and if they have that type of information, they know how to get it to us through diplomatic or other channels.
Nadia: Talking about Iranians, I want to move on to Qassem Soleimani, a person you know very well, he’s been conducting the war - as reports indicated - in Fallujah. The Hashd Al-Shaabi is the most potent fighting force there. Many believe this will fuel sectarian violence further and it will create a new Daesh with a different name. What’s your assessment of the Iranian role, particularly Qassem Soleimani in Iraq?
Brennan: Unfortunately Iraq has been wracked for many years by this sectarian conflict and hatred and very unfortunately, it has pitted Shiite and Sunni Muslims against one another. Unfortunately I think there have been a number of groups and individuals who have tried to fuel that sectarian conflict. We see that Abu Dua al-Baghdadi and [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] Daesh really have a very strong anti-Shiite dimension to it which is very, very unfortunate. We have to be able to destroy that organization and destroy that anti-Shiite dimension. Unfortunately, there are a number of individuals on the Shiite side of the equation also who have a very strong anti-Sunni engine to them as well. And Qassem Soleimani who has been taking a leading role for Iran and Quds force inside of Iraq and Syria and other areas I am not convinced at all he is trying to take those sectarian tensions down. If anything, I think he’s been trying to fuel them. It’s very unfortunate so the Quds force and elements of the Iranian government need to stop their support for these sectarian efforts on the part of Shiite groups. What we need to do is to make sure Iraqis…Shiite, and Sunnis and Christians alike, need to be able to work together to destroy terrorist organizations whether they are terrorists who claim to be Shiite or claim to be Sunni, they need to be destroyed because they are not Muslim they are not Islamic. They masquerade as Muslims and they are the work of the devil. They are evil and we need to work together across these sectarian groups.
Nadia: With all due respect sir, how do you enforce this message? I mean you can say they have to stop meddling, but they are there. What leverage does the CIA or the United States have over them?
Brennan: Well, we work with the various security and intelligence services. We work very closely with the services inside of Iraq. We do the same with the services throughout the region. What we need to do is to find the source of these terrorist attacks and it is individuals like Abu Dua and others and Zawahiri who again hide and they gain the benefits of plundering and pillaging and stealing from people. They are criminals. They are carrying out these murderous attacks and they are using others. Unfortunately some very good Muslims have been misled by their propaganda and individuals who believe they are carrying out the work of Allah. They are not and so what we need to do is to be able to convince people and to be able to explain that Islam is a religion of peace and these individuals, these terrorist groups really have really done a tremendous, tremendous disservice to the religion of Islam and again whether they’re Sunni or Shiite or any confessional background. We need to make sure we’re able to distinguish between what truly is an Islamic way of life or just criminal activity, murderous activity that needs to be destroyed.
Nadia: Do you think it will be easy to re-take Mosul from ISIS?
I think it’s going to be a tough fight. Mosul is a large city with over a million inhabitants. Daesh has been there for quite some time. They’ve been able to I think fortify the city. As I said the momentum, I know the momentum has shifted inside Iraq as well as inside Syria. And the noose is tightening around Daesh. We already see progress being made in different parts of Syria in the area of Manbej which is along the Turkish border. Raqqa liberated from Daesh’s grip… (interrupted)
Nadia: What does it take to liberate Raqqa?
Brennan: It takes a determined force that is going to be able to use the air as well as the ground as well as to rally the individuals, the tribes, the people who have been suppressed by Daesh to have them rise up against Daesh fighters and be supported the coalition forces. So I do see that in the coming months, there’s going to be continued progress. I’m hoping that Raqqa is going to be liberated soon, Mosul also there is… (interrupted)
Nadia: How soon? Before the president leaves office?
Brennan: As soon as possible. And we’d like it to happen tomorrow, but it is probably going to take weeks and months as we put in place the pieces. But I’m confident there is going to be good news in the coming months as we are able to free-up a number of areas in Syria and Iraq from Daesh’s grip.
Nadia: Can you fight al-Qaeda in Yemen without a central government being there?
Brennan: Well there is still a government – President Hadi that has relocated some of its components into Aden. The talks continue between the various parties, the Houthis as well as the Yemeni government in Kuwait and so hopefully those talks in Kuwait are going to bring some progress. It’s going to be tough. There are a number of warring factions inside Yemen as well. You have al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula that is fighting against the government as well as fighting against the Houthis, so we need to make sure we’re able to reconcile both the differences between the major warring parties so that we can use the collective efforts and collective capabilities to destroy the remnants of al-Qaeda that continue to exist in Yemen.
Nadia: Daesh in Libya. How dangerous is that threat? Are you able to contain it?
Brennan: It is dangerous. They’ve grown into several thousand strong. They’ve basically been able to control the coastal city of Sirte. What we see now is that they are also being pressured by various militia groups, and the armies that have been brought to bear against them. So some of the Misratta forces have been making progress. The Libyan national army also in the Benghazi area…these efforts take time. And it takes a lot of hard work, unfortunately, it takes a lot of spilled blood on the part of some very brave people who are trying to rid their country of the scourge of terrorism. In Libya, Syria, Iraq and other areas, also if you look in Africa, Nigeria and Mali, these are countries that also have been beset by Daesh and they have tried to gain traction by taking over some of the local terrorist organizations. The United States government, the CIA is doing what we can to build up the capability of these countries so that they can win the fight with our support. It’s going to take the local efforts.
Nadia: Soon the CIA will provide briefing to the candidates. Are you worried that Mr. Trump will be able to contain this information and not endanger national security?
Brennan: when president Obama directs us to provide briefings to the presidential candidates, we will do so and we will make sure that we’re able to give them what they need as candidates. The real briefings will take place once election day occurs and the president elect has been identified. That’s when the briefings and in-depth discussions take place about all the various problems that exist around the world and what the United States government and what the CIA in particular is doing to try and address these challenges. That’s where we’re going to focus on the president elect. We’ll be supporting the outgoing administration as well as the incoming administration at that time.
Nadia: In this climate of anti-Islam as you can see it - Islamophobia, banning Muslims from entering the United States - does this make your job harder of trying, in terms of national security and playing into the hands of extremists like al-Qaeda and Daesh?
Brennan: We stay focused on our mission and unfortunately the fires of extremism and terrorism are burning in a number of parts of the world and sometimes they’re fueled by different types of developments as well as comments and what we need to do in the CIA is to work with our partners in different parts of the world to be able to try to put out those flames of terrorism and we’re making progress in a number of areas and stay focused on that mission and I am just so please to be part of an organization that is dedicated to trying to rid the world of evil.
Nadia: Thank you very much for your time. Hopefully we will do this soon again.
Brennan: Thank you very much.