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TIME: How serious is the threat?
LEE: This battle is going to be won and lost in the Middle East. The problem in Iraq is very grave. If the jihadists win there, I'm in trouble here. [Their attitude will be]: We've beaten the Russians in Afghanistan, we've beaten the Americans and the coalition in Iraq. There's nothing we cannot do. We can fix Southeast Asia too. There will be such a surge of confidence for all jihadists. The U.S. must be seen—if not to have prevailed or to have created a democratic Iraq—to at least to have denied the jihadists a victory. Because otherwise the consequences for America and for the world are horrendous.
TIME: The 2002 plot to blow up seven embassies in Singapore using truck bombs—our sense is that you were taken completely by surprise.
LEE: Of course. How could we, in this most cosmopolitan and open of cities, where 15% Muslim Malays are completely mixed up with Chinese, Indians, Eurasians and others, go to English-language schools, do similar jobs, live in similar homes, produce 30-plus would-be jihadists?
TIME: You had no idea?
LEE: No idea at all. It was a stroke of good fortune. Our intelligence had under surveillance a few religious types [in Singapore]. One of them left for Karachi and went on to Afghanistan, soon after the country was bombed by the Americans [in late 2001]. He was captured by the [anti-Taliban] Northern Alliance. He was of Pakistani descent. So we found that this wasn't just a religious study group. If that fella had not gone off to Karachi to fight with the Taliban, we would have been hit with seven truck bombs. The nitrates were sitting [across the causeway] in [the Malaysian state of] Johore.
At the same time that this Pakistani, born and bred in Singapore and English-speaking, was caught by the Northern Alliance, another Pakistani born and bred in Bradford, U.K., was caught in Iraq and sent to Guantánamo Bay. I watched his father on the BBC, and thought to myself: two Pakistani families left Pakistan, one for Bradford, the other for Singapore, produced children, brought up in two totally different environments, quite distant from the Islam of Pakistan, and yet they both end up fighting in Afghanistan. This Islamist pull is more powerful than that of communism. The communists never fully trusted one another across racial boundaries. The Vietnamese communists never trusted the Chinese communists and so on. But with the Islamists there is total trust: You are a warrior for Islam, so am I: We swear to fight together.
TIME: Both the rise of China and the rise of radical Islam require very sustained, long-term engagement by the U.S. Are you confident that Americans have the ability and the patience for the long-term view, the long-term engagement?
LEE: In the past the U.S. had the option of opting out, as in Vietnam. Now Americans know they are vulnerable; 9/11 brought this home dramatically. American embassies and American businesses are being attacked worldwide. Opting out is not an option. To make the long-term burden sustainable you need a broad alliance, to spread the load, to reduce excessive burdens on yourself. You need others to agree on the basic causes and solutions. It's not poverty, it's not deprivation, it's something more fundamental, a resurgence of Arab and Islamic pride, and a belief that their time has come. The objective must be to reassure and persuade moderate Muslims, the rationalists and modernizers, which I believe the majority are, that they are not going to lose, that they have the weight, the resources of the world behind them. They must have the courage to go into the mosques and madrasahs and switch off the radicals.