As the conflict in Iraq has worsened, a majority of Americans has come to believe that the war was a mistake. There were no WMDs to seize. There was no operational relationship with al-Qaeda to disrupt. There was no cohesive, democratic Iraqi nation to reclaim.
In short, the war was a terrible mistake.
In desperation, Vice President Richard Cheney, deluded or deceitful, or both continues to claim that Saddam Hussein was in bed with Osama bin Laden. It’s a position rejected by the CIA, Pentagon, and even Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee. But the vice president obviously has trouble with the truth.
President George W. Bush has tried to tie Iraq more broadly to the fight against terrorism. He criticized Democrats for seeking an exit from Iraq, claiming: “The consequences of failure would be death and destruction in the Middle East and here in America. To protect our citizens at home, we must defeat the terrorists.”
Listening to the president warning of death and destruction flowing from failure in Iraq brings to mind the man who murders his parents and then throws himself on the court’s mercy as an orphan. President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq turned that nation into a cauldron of chaos and violence, fomented by a murderous mix of domestic insurgents and foreign terrorists. So now, the president argues, we must stay to suppress those same domestic insurgents and foreign terrorists.
There’s just one, minor problem with the president’s argument. It’s not true. Even America’s closest ally, Great Britain, has acknowledged the obvious. Helen Liddell, Britain’s ambassador to Australia and former cabinet member, recently opined: “We have never seen Iraq as part of the war on terror.” As she explained, “Certainly we are engaged in a war on the streets in Iraq against terrorism, but our raison d’etre for our involvement in Iraq has not been about terrorism.”
It is bad enough that a war now justified as fighting terrorism does not fight terrorism. But it is worse: Iraq is creating terrorism. The conflict is creating another grievance that makes more people hate America and encourages more people to take up arms against the U.S. Iraq also is providing a convenient terrorist battleground, putting tens of thousands of Americans in reach of jihadist thugs who otherwise would remain an ocean away from the U.S.
The American people apparently understand. A new Washington Post-NBC poll finds that 57 percent of Americans believe that “the war on terrorism can be a success without the United States winning the war in Iraq.” Indeed, to better fight terrorism we must leave Iraq.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration focused on al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters in Afghanistan. The administration achieved some important successes, working with allied states to disrupt the organization, kill or capture its members, and weaken its ability to mount transnational strikes. But then Washington turned its attention to Iraq.
Developing policies to thwart terrorism requires that we understand why terrorists target America. Too many Americans, starting with the president, apparently believe that bin Laden, et al., hate us because we are so wonderful free, prosperous, democratic, tolerant, benevolent, and all around nice guys. Some pundits, including Dinesh D’Souza, blame a darker side of America, its cultural licentiousness: Hollywood, pornography, gay marriage, and more. A few policymakers prefer to spout tautologies: President Bill Clinton argued that “Americans are targets of terrorism in part … because we stand united against terrorism.”
Others ascribe to Islamic jihadists an ideology akin to that of Soviet communists. For instance, contends Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security: “Today’s extreme Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda do not merely seek political revolution in their own countries. They aspire to dominate all countries. Their goal is a totalitarian, theocratic empire to be achieved by waging perpetual war on soldiers and civilians alike. That includes the use of weapons of mass destruction.”
If this motley collection of arguments were true, Islamic jihadists should be targeting the entire world, and not just America and its military allies. Why, however, if the goal is world domination, have there been no car bombings in Beijing? The only terrorist attacks on Russia stem from the conflict in Chechnya. Violent Islamists in India are concerned about the Hindu nation’s rule in majority-Muslim Kashmir, not eradicating Hinduism.
Nor do al-Qaeda or its allied local groups appear much interested in hitting Europeans because they are roughly as free as Americans and even more licentious. Notes historian Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: “I don’t see anyone flying planes into Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower.” No truck bombs have gone off in Amsterdam. Indeed, in one of his videotapes, Osama Bin Laden scoffed: “Contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom … why don’t we strike Sweden?”
Notes Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute, “The major difference between the United States and other wealthy democratic nations is that it is an interventionist superpower,” routinely acting well beyond its own borders. Recent attacks in Europe reinforce this point: the Madrid and London bombings responded to decisions by Spain and Great Britain to join the U.S. in Iraq.
While some Islamists might hate everyone, and pine for universal Muslim rule, jihadist terrorists have focused their transnational attacks on America and its allies. And they have done so in pursuit of specific geopolitical objectives. The evidence is overwhelming that they attack Americans because they believe Americans are at war with them. To state the obvious in no way justifies their activities or any other form of terrorism. But it is important to understand why terrorists act as they do.
The 9/11 attacks shocked Americans, but were not the first terrorist strikes in history. To the contrary, terrorism is a common tactic used to advance political ends. Nation states, even democracies, long have targeted civilian populations the British imposed a starvation blockade against Germany in World War I, while the allies bombed and burned German and Japanese cities in World War II. In these cases, the supposed good guys readily employed murderous tactics to advance their larger political purpose of compelling their enemies to submit.
Non-state actors often turn to terrorism on a smaller scale because they lack the tools normally employed by nation states particularly militaries and police forces. Left-wing anarchists used bombings and assassinations to destabilize Czarist Russia. A few similar attacks were made in America.
Terror became common throughout the 20th century: South America’s Montoneros and Túpac Amaru, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang, India’s Sikhs, Italy’s Red Brigades, Ireland’s Irish Republican Army, Turkey’s Kurdish PKK, and Spain’s Basque ETA. Algerian revolutionaries employed terrorism against the governing French and their local allies. So did Nicaragua’s Sandinistas and Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro. A variety of Palestinian groups have killed, kidnapped, and bombed Israelis and those allied with Israel, most notably Americans.
So when Islamists attack the U.S., and its citizens located outside of the U.S., it is fair to assume that they do so for a reason evil but comprehensible. And that reason is political.
It isn’t a complicated issue. In 1997 the Defense Science Board Summer Task Force on DoD Responses to Transnational Threats concluded: “America’s position in the world invites attack simply because of its presence. Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States.”
What anti-American terrorists most often say is simple: “They hate the United States for what it does,” argues Ivan Eland. They are responding to what they view as constant U.S. attacks on Muslims. Writes James Bamford, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, “believed that the United States and Israel had been waging war against Muslims for decades.” Al-Qaeda’s leaders, as well as their followers and imitators around world, do not much worry that Americans are ignoring the dictates of Islam, attending Christian churches, voting in elections, looking at dirty pictures, or failing to pray five times daily. Rather, the core complaint is that the U.S. government is intervening overseas, directly or indirectly attacking Muslims.
Michael Scheuer, former CIA analyst and author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, points to America’s earlier military presence in Saudi Arabia, largely unconditional support for Israel as it occupies lands containing millions of Palestinians, the earlier blockade and sanctions against Iraq, backing for other governments which suppress Muslims, and support for a variety of corrupt, undemocratic Arab governments.
General polling finds strong support, even admiration, for American values and strong desire for American products among Muslims. In contrast, there is uniform dislike for U.S. government policies. A recent Zogby International and University of Maryland poll found that just 11 percent of Arabs polled complained of American values, compared to 75 percent who most criticized American policies. Indeed, several of the 9/11 attackers seemed notably hedonistic.
Robert A. Pape of the University of Chicago has studied more than 300 terrorist incidents since 1980 and found that they were uniformly directed against foreign occupation. Whether Marxist or Islamic or Sikh or secular, all such attacks reflected “a nationalistic response” to outside intervention. That seems no less the case when it comes to Islamic strikes against the U.S. After 9/11 a Saudi poll found that 95 percent of educated Saudi men shared Osama bin Laden’s professed goal of ridding their country of U.S. military forces.
Some hawks dismiss the evidence. For instance, Victor Davis Hanson argues that “the unpopular war in Iraq did not create radical Islamists and their madrassas throughout the Middle East that today brainwash young radicals.” Rather, he wrote, “All that radicalism had been going on for decades as we saw during the quarter-century of terrorism that led up to 9/11.”
But that radicalism and the resulting terrorism occurred because the U.S. has appeared to many Muslims, and especially jihadists, to have been attacking Islam for a quarter century and more. Obviously, it is not always possible to discern the reason for a particular attack. Yet many of the most celebrated strikes against American forces reflect resistance to U.S. “occupation,” whether invited by the local government or not.
For instance, the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon occurred in the midst of America’s intervention on behalf of the minority Christian government in a civil war, one in which U.S. ships bombarded Muslim villages. In the mid-1980s Libya apparently undertook several terrorist plots around the world in response to the 1986 U.S. air strike which had targeted Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi. Retired Foreign Service officer Curtis F. Jones points to reports that the Lockerbie bombing was instigated by Iran (though subcontracted to Libya) in response to the U.S. military shoot-down of a civilian Iranian airliner in the Persian Gulf in 1986.
The alleged plot in 1993 against former President George H.W. Bush, who was visiting Kuwait, was retaliation for taking the U.S. into war against Iraq two years before. The 1996 truck bombing of the Khobar Towers, a military apartment in Saudi Arabia, was directed against U.S. soldiers occupying Saudi soil. The 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen hit a military vessel sent on a high profile trip intended, in the words of U.S. officials, to shape the local political environment. President Bill Clinton spoke of “promoting peace and security in the Middle East,” by which he meant supporting dictatorial but pro-American regimes in the region.
Other attacks respond to overall U.S. policies. Consider sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, widely blamed (though not without controversy over the exact number), for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children. When asked about so many innocent victims, then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright said on 60 Minutes: “we think the price is worth it.” This amazing statement was widely circulated in the Muslim world.
Ramzi Yousef, who organized the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and the local conspirators who carried out the attack, pointed to U.S. policies in the Mideast as his reason. They had planned an ambitious bombing campaign to follow the WTC: the UN headquarters, main federal office building in New York City, George Washington Bridge, and Holland and Lincoln tunnels. Yousef later hoped to down a dozen airliners and kill thousands of passengers.
Bin Laden typically mentions U.S. support for Israel and the Saudi monarchy. In his October 29, 2004 video he declared:
“The events that affected my soul in a direct way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon. And the American Sixth Fleet helped them do that … And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy the towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted, and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.”
Bin Laden is evil, not irrational. His policy is based on some of the same practical considerations that motivate American officials: retaliation and deterrence.
Unfortunately, the invasion and occupation of Iraq have made the problem worse, much worse. Daniel Benjamin of the Brookings Institution testified before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year that “the invasion of Iraq, gave the jihadists an unmistakable boost. Terrorism is about advancing a narrative and persuading a targeted audience to believe it. Although leading figures in the American administration have often spoken of the terrorists’ ideology of hatred, U.S. actions have too often lent inadvertent confirmation to the terrorists’ narrative.” In particular, “in the context of the culture of grievance that exists in much of the Muslim world, the extremists’ narrative has had a profound resonance. Through their violence, the jihadists have also created a drama of the faith that disaffected Muslims around the world can watch on television and the Internet.”
London’s Royal Institute for International Affairs, or Chatham House, reached a similar conclusion: “There is no doubt that the situation over Iraq has imposed particular difficulties for the UK, and for the wider coalition against terrorism. It gave a boost to the al-Qaeda network’s propaganda, recruitment and fundraising, caused a major split in the coalition, provided an ideal targeting and training area for al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.”
Islamists make similar points. Lebanese Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah charged that “the method the American administration has used in the war against terror may have complicated the situation even more.” He accused Washington of attempting to assassinate him in 1985 (he escaped, but some 80 people died in the bombing), and pointed to prior support for undemocratic Arab regimes, adding: “the occupation of Iraq has increased acts of terrorism against the U.S. and everyone going along with it, including the Iraqis themselves.”
Indeed, though al-Qaeda has been damaged, the organization is recovering. Indeed, reports the Financial Times: “Al-Qaeda is reaching out from its base in Pakistan to turn militant Islamist groups in the Middle East and Africa into franchises charged with intensifying attacks on western targets, according to European officials and terrorism specialists. The development could see radical groups use al-Qaeda expertise to switch their attention from local targets to western interests in their countries and abroad.”
Al-Qaeda is drawing particular strength from new, local groups that have sprung up in the aftermath of the Iraq war. For instance, Ayman al-Zawahiri last year talked of a merger between al-Qaeda and an Algerian Salafist Group known as Call and Combat apparently responsible for two recent bombings in that nation. A similar alliance might be in the offing with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, heretofore most known for seeking to overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi.
But our problem runs far beyond al-Qaeda. Daniel Benjamin argues that the Iraq war has spawned three new terrorist clusters. “The first group is comprised of self-starters, also often called ‘home-grown terrorists’.” These are the local killers in Madrid and London, Bali and Jakarta. Benjamin adds, “These are individuals who may have very little connection to al-Qaeda or other preexisting groups, but they have been won over by the ideas of Osama bin Laden and his followers.”
Iraq appears to have been one of the factors motivating these terrorists. Even a few individuals carrying out a few successful attacks have done great harm. Moreover, writes Benjamin: “We should also not make the mistake of believing that terrorists who begin as self-starters will not find the connections, training and resources they seek. It is now widely accepted that the July 7, 2005 Tube bombings in London were carried out with guidance and support from jihadists in Pakistan, including possibly al-Qaeda members, who the operatives may have met during visits.”
The second category Benjamin points to are foreign fighters, most of whom were radicalized by the Iraq conflict. Separate studies by Saudi Nawaf Obeid and Israeli Reuven Paz reached the same conclusion: most of these imported terrorists were not previously active in jihadist circles. They are new recruits, drawn by the war. But they might not stop with Iraq. These terrorists, worries Benjamin, “could become the vanguard of a new generation of jihadists, much as the veterans of the fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s were the founding generation of al-Qaeda.”
Perhaps most fearsome is the emergence of Benjamin’s third group, Iraqi jihadists. Iraqis have largely taken over al-Qaeda in Iraq. Worries Benjamin: “According to some reputable sources, there could be more than 15,000 in their ranks. The chaos in Iraq has allowed for extensive training and development in various terrorist tactics and urban warfare, including increasingly proficient use of improvised explosive devices.” The Iraqi jihadists assert as much. Said Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, head of an Iraqi-based, al-Qaeda-linked organization, earlier this month, “From the military point of view, one of the [enemy] devils was right in saying that if Afghanistan was a school of terror, then Iraq is a university of terrorism.”
This school’s foreign graduates have begun to bleed out around the world, particularly Europe and the Mideast. Equally bad is the diffusion of terrorist knowledge. Writes Benjamin: “the proliferation of such tactics thanks to traveling fighters and information-sharing via the Internet has made it likely that the style of urban warfare tactics will likely be exported to distant regions.” Iraq is providing “a real-time, authentic ‘jihad’ experience which is grooming a new generation of committed fighters,” he concludes.
We already might have glimpsed the future: “metastasis,” as Benjamin puts it. More than a score of failed plots in Europe, the arrest of apparent conspirators in Australia, varying threats in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Moreover, argues Benjamin, “The implications in the Middle East/Persian Gulf region of so much jihadist activity in Iraq are ominous,” with attacks and threats spreading to Arab countries once free of terrorism.
Terrorism is likely to be long with us. But we shouldn’t exaggerate the danger: terrorism is ugly, but does not pose the sort of existential threat of, say, a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Indeed, John Mueller of Ohio State figures that an average 80-year-old has about a one out of 80,000 chance of being killed in a terrorist incident, roughly the same as dying in an asteroid strike.
Nevertheless, the cost of another large-scale attack would be high, especially on the American psyche. People would likely accept increased government interference with their liberties, even if such steps were unlikely to make Americans any safer. Thankfully non-state actors cannot easily develop weapons of mass destruction, but the very possibility of them doing so is frightening. Ivan Eland warns that “All empires have experienced blowback, but modern transportation, communications, and weaponry including possibly nuclear, biological, chemical or radiological devices could make it catastrophic.”
Difficult though it is to protect an open society with tens of thousands of possible terrorist targets, we must attempt to do so. The U.S. must kill and capture, and work with allied states to kill and capture, those who would kill Americans. Doing so requires improved intelligence, more intense international cooperation, better law enforcement, and continued special operations.
However, as Daniel Benjamin argues with almost sublime understatement, “the instrument of military force is a highly problematic one for fighting terror, especially fighting an ideologically-driven movement like the jihadists’,” since it simultaneously “too often glamorizes the terrorists” and alienates “exactly those individuals in a given community who do not want to radicalize.” The war in Afghanistan, though necessary, has been problematic. The war in Iraq has been catastrophic.
The difficulty in defending the U.S. from terrorism even in the best of circumstances further highlights the case for reducing the number of people who want to do Americans ill. The president claims that we are not “facing a set of grievances that can be soothed or addressed.” In the short term that might be true for those already committed to the jihadist cause. But even so, bringing troops home from Iraq would take them out of harm’s way.
Moreover, over the longer term and for the majority of Muslims, grievances could be addressed when possible and, more important, not created in the first place. What the U.S. government has done does not justify terrorism and the killing of innocents, but what the U.S. government has done has helped motivate people to become terrorists and to kill innocents.
Previous changes in foreign policy have reduced terrorism: most obviously, withdrawing U.S. forces from Lebanon ended attacks on U.S. forces in Lebanon. Future changes would have a similar impact. Notes Ivan Eland: “If the U.S. government adopted a policy of military restraint overseas, in the long term the number of devastating, and potentially catastrophic, terrorist attacks against the United States … could be reduced significantly.”
Doing so would have ancillary benefits. Whatever the arguments for promiscuous intervention during the Cold War the world was seen as a zero sum game, in which an American “loss” translated into a Soviet “win” there is little argument for a similar attempt to micromanage affairs in distant, complicated, violent, and dysfunctional states. A less meddlesome foreign policy would be less expensive and dangerous.
Moreover, reducing popular hostility to America would encourage other states to do more, and more publicly, to aid U.S. efforts to curb terrorism. Both Saudi Arabia and Indonesia were energized by terrorist attacks in their own nations. But U.S. policy remains highly unpopular in those and other countries, which thereby limits what governments are willing to do for Washington.
If I believed in conspiracies, I would assume that George W. Bush was a jihadist plant, someone converted long ago to fundamentalist Islam and turned into a “sleeper” agent to be activated at the moment calculated to do America the most harm. That moment came obviously with Bush’s election. His needless and heedless war in Iraq has done much to generate terrorism: created a living recruiting poster, spawned a variety of new terrorists, provided a national training ground, and placed tens of thousands of Americans within easy reach of ruthless killers. Osama bin Laden couldn’t ask for much more.
But I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so I assume that a toxic mix of arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence is what caused the Bush administration to unintentionally give the terrorists so much help. Any policy of continued occupation in Iraq guarantees more terrorists and more terrorism around the world. If Americans want to defeat terrorism, America must withdraw from Iraq. Until the U.S. does so, the problem of terrorism will continue to worsen.