After the abject failure of the Iraq War became undeniable, court intellectuals strained to concoct alternative rationales for the War that would recast it as a success, or at least a work-in-progress.
Of these, the favorite of blogger-pundit Andrew Sullivan (who has since vociferously recanted his support for the Iraq War) was “Operation Flytrap,” which he picked up from a Bush Administration insider in 2003. Through the Iraq War, the US would win the War on Terror by using its troops as bait to draw Islamic extremists into Iraq, where they would be trapped like flies on flypaper: gathered, contained, and neatly disposed of.
Even as late as 2007, the neocons were still clinging to this self-serving analogy and narrative. In that year, Iraq War architect David Wurmser told The Telegraph:
“While Iraq became more violent, it also became in some ways the international bug-zapper of terrorists. It was the light that attracted all the terrorists of the world. And that became the battleground, and this is a decisive battle. I think the battle is turning in our favour now, and this is a defeat that it will take the al-Qaeda world a long time to recover from.”
Setting aside its moral obscenity, this post hoc purpose has been a complete failure. This was gruesomely confirmed a little over a week ago, when, in a single day (Friday, June 26) major terrorist attacks occurred on three continents. Moreover, all three attacks occurred in countries not yet afflicted with war: Kuwait (27 dead in the bombing of a Shiite mosque), Tunisia (39 dead in a gun attack on a tourist resort), and France (one workplace beheading).
Also on that day, ISIS attacked the Kurdish city of Kobani, leaving almost 200 civilians dead. This served as a grisly reminder that the movement long ago surpassed mere terrorism and insurgency, graduating to military operations and territorial conquest.
Yet another 200 were killed on Wednesday in a massive assault by an ISIS affiliate in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. ISIS affiliates have even been giving less extremist Islamist groups a run for their money: contending with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hamas in Palestine. Further ISIS affiliate attacks have occurred recently in Libya and Saudi Arabia.
What happened to Sullivan’s flypaper and Wurmser’s bug-zapper? How is it that after “Operation Flytrap,” the world is suffering from a far worse terrorist infestation than before?
Before the US invasion of Iraq under the Bush administration, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a minor league terrorist with zero ties to either Saddam or Osama. He had refused to join Osama’s global jihad, Saddam had a death warrant out for him, and most Sunnis would have regarded him with scorn and disgust. In 2002, the military begged the Bush administration to let them take him out, but they were refused. Zarqawi was the war mongers’ chosen phony embodiment of an Osama/Saddam link, and they needed him alive for the time being to help them harness the post-9/11 hysteria for their war.
After the 2003 invasion, the US government completed its recasting of Zarqawi as a major threat and a big name, using the hunt for him as justification for such brutal operations as the Second Battle of Fallujah. Soon, Zarqawi was elevated to a lofty position in the Sunni insurgency against the Western invaders and their Shiite quislings. No longer pinned down by Saddam’s security forces, Zarqawi was free to accelerate the sectarian civil war that the US invasion had started with a string of terrorist bombings targeting Shiites. His outfit then grew into “Al Qaeda in Iraq” (AQI), Zarqawi only swearing allegiance to Osama a whole year into the Iraq War.
During the 2006 “Anbar Awakening,” the Sunni tribes turned on AQI and helped decimate it. The subsequent 2007 US “Surge” in Iraq thrust AQI Islamists into close prison quarters with secular former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. Later, AQI’s new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would capitalize on the connections made there by heavily recruiting ex-Baathists. The military and bureaucratic expertise thus gained, combined with the religious fervor of the Islamists, made AQI into an even more formidable fighting force as it moved into Syria in 2011.
Up until then, the “Islamo-Fascist” alliance between Osama’s theocratic Al Qaeda and Saddam’s secular Baathists was nothing but a fantasy conjured up by Douglas Feith’s and David Wurmser’s Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group to lie America into the Iraq War. Saddam was an avid hunter, not a friend, of jihadists. The mythical joint threat ended up making itself real through the war it helped engender. By both “Flypaperizing” and “de-Baathifying” Iraq, the US thrust the Islamists and secular “fascists” into close proximity and gave them a common mortal enemy, thus welding them together into the real “Islamo-Fascist” alliance that would become ISIS.
In Syria, AQI joined and quickly came to lead the Sunni insurgency against the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad (another avid hunter of jihadists), and greatly benefited from the generous military support for the rebels offered by the US (under the Obama administration) and its regional allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
Much of this support was in the form of a heavy flow of weapons shipped from Benghazi, Libya after the secular regime of Muammar Gaddafi (a third avid hunter of jihadists) was overthrown thanks to US support for yet another rebellion led by veterans of Zarqawi’s jihad in Iraq.
AQI then split into two groups: the Syrian al-Nusra Front, which retained its allegiance to Al Qaeda, and ISIS, which split from the Al Qaeda leadership, although it continued to embrace the legacy of Osama bin Laden.
After both groups swelled in battle experience, recruits, territory, and American equipment in Syria, ISIS re-entered Iraq in 2014. Persecution (death squads, ethnic cleansing, etc) and political marginalization by the US-backed, Shiite-dominated Iraqi government drove the Sunni tribes back into the arms of the returning conquerors. And conquer they did: overrunning north-western Iraq all the way up to the gates of Baghdad, and capturing tons of American gear all along the way. The Obama administration responded by declaring war on ISIS.
Thanks to such exploits, and the prestige-lifting American response to them, ISIS now no longer even needs the direct person-to-person contacts made in insurgencies and conquests to propagate itself. After all, extremism is an idea, and ideas can spread by mere example and leap thousands of miles at a time.
Thus, throughout the Muslim world, we now see self-appointed “franchises” popping up, hoisting the black flag, swearing allegiance to either ISIS or Al Qaeda, and usually committing some murderous atrocity to mark their debut, often with zero coordination with the central group.
Bush’s Iraq War turned Zarqawi’s petty criminal outfit into a major guerrilla force. Obama’s Syria and Libya wars then turned it into a conquering state army. And now Obama’s ISIS war has made it an international movement.
The US has aided this international dissemination, not only by abetting the spectacular rise of ISIS and al-Nusra in Iraq and Syria, but in more direct ways too.
For example, the jihadist outpouring that Obama and Hillary Clinton released in Libya has flooded throughout North Africa: into Tunisia, Mali, and even Nigeria.
In Yemen, the Obama administration’s civilian-slaughtering drone war, authoritarian counter-revolution against Yemen’s Arab Spring, and support for Saudi Arabia’s ruthless war and blockade on the country, have led to the rise of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
And the US-approved and Saudi-funded counter-revolution against Egypt’s Arab Spring has led to the brutal persecution of moderate Islamists and the restoration of Egypt’s collaboration with Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians. These results in turn have contributed to the rise of extremist Islamists (the ISIS affiliate mentioned above) in the Sinai Peninsula.
Before the War on Terror, there was only a handful of Islamic terrorists, on the run and hiding out in a few isolated enclaves. After the War on Terror, their numbers, their span, and their resources have mushroomed. They are now taxing and conscripting subjects, fielding armies, and conquering large swaths of territory.
The complete failure of “Operation Flytrap” should not have been surprising. The notion that you can “trap” and destroy an idea by luring its adherents to one place and killing them with imperial military force was ludicrous to begin with, especially since imperial military force is what led to the “blowback” of ideological radicalization in the first place.
Extremist groups are extremophiles; they feed on the extremity of war. It arms them. It feeds them with recruits seeking indiscriminate vengeance for imperial atrocities. It thrusts them into leadership by creating a scenario in which violent fanaticism is a key asset. And it provides them the acquiescence of panicked subjects urgently seeking protection from a besieging, assaulting, occupying, or persecuting foe.
The US has supplied in abundance what extremist groups need the most: an oppressive enemy to fight (US invaders and US-backed regimes), weapons to fight with (military aid to extremist-led insurgencies), and chaotic milieus to fight in (a war-torn, cauldronized Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia). That is why they are multiplying so quickly and widely.
The American war machine has barreled throughout the Muslim world, running over country after country, leaving each one as so much roadkill. And rotting corpses are not flytraps, but breeding grounds for infestation. Far from being pest control, fully and endlessly prosecuting the War on Terror would eventually afflict us with a “plague of flies” of Biblical proportions.
Furthermore, asymmetrical wars generally do not end up being flytraps for guerrillas, but quagmires for empires. If anyone is being lured into a fatal trap, it is us.
Thank you for reading. I work at the Mises Institute where I run the Mises Academy, an e-learning program for Austrian economics and libertarian political philosophy. I am a columnist for Antiwar.com and my essays have appeared at Mises.org, LewRockwell.com, The Ron Paul Institute, and David Stockman’s Contra Corner. I have given lectures and conducted interviews for the Mises Institute and appeared on The Scott Horton Show and The Tom Woods Show. You can find all of my essays, lectures, and interviews at DanSanchez.me, you can follow me via Twitter, Facebook, TinyLetter, and Medium, and you can email me at dan-at-mises.org.