In an attempt to reverse plummeting approval ratings, the Bush administration is mounting an unprecedented, sustained campaign of disinformation on the terrorist threat confronting the United States. Even the mainstream media has noted how the White House has attempted falsely to tie al-Qaeda to the war in Iraq, with President Bush increasing the number of references to the group in speeches made during the month of July. On July 10, al-Qaeda was referred to 30 times in a Cleveland speech on the Iraq war. By July 25, the president referred to al-Qaeda no less than 95 times in a speech made before a group of airmen in Charleston, S.C.
The frantic attempts to fearmonger by linking the failed venture in Iraq to the other failed venture dubbed the "global war on terror" is pathetic, even by the standards of an administration that cannot tell right from wrong and that cannot, apparently, differentiate one terrorist group from another. One of the most troublesome aspects of the Bush agenda is the conflation of a whole basket of groups with the terrorism menace even if they pose no actual danger to the U.S. Buying into the Bush rhetoric, even to a small degree, makes it impossible to classify and confront the genuine terrorists that actually threaten the United States. It makes a confused and unfocused America weaker rather than stronger.
There should be no confusion about what constitutes the terrorist threat against the United States. There is only one terrorist group that is genuinely willing and able to attack the U.S., and that is al-Qaeda in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda in Pakistan has attacked the United States, has both the desire and capability to do so again, and has stated its intention to stage new attacks on a number of occasions. And the danger of even al-Qaeda in Pakistan should be put in some kind of perspective. The group is weaker than it was in 2001, having lost many of its leaders and funding mechanisms. It has decentralized and is largely dependent on unreliable local resources: witness the bungled planning and execution that went into the recent attempted attacks in Britain. There is no evidence whatsoever that al-Qaeda has anything like a weapon of mass destruction that could cause massive damage or fatalities, and there is no intelligence that suggests that al-Qaeda has any group or organization currently in place in the U.S. that might be capable of carrying out a major terrorist attack. Recent arrests of terrorism suspects in the United States suggest that while there are a number of disgruntled individuals who have made the transition into terrorism supporters, most of the groups have been infiltrated FBI informants and there would appear to be little danger that any of their frequently far-fetched plans might evolve into actual terrorist attacks.
Bush’s increasingly strident rhetoric is supported by the unclassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of July 17 on the terrorist threat to the homeland. The NIE is a curious document, on one hand a frank admission of failure but in other ways surely one of the most dishonest and politically motivated documents to be seen since the Iraq estimate of October 2002. It is a sign, if one were needed, that the new chiefs of the intelligence community are willing to play politics, adopting the admittedly low standards for professional integrity established by former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet. The document concedes that al-Qaeda has reconstituted itself in three out of four core areas an admission that nearly six years of global counter-terrorism warfare at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars has been a failure but it then goes on to grossly over-hype the significance of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq and place Hezbollah into the terrorism threat matrix in a bid to further blacken "axis of evil" state Iran.
Al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq and North Africa do not threaten the United States. Such groups use the al-Qaeda trademark, but they are financed, organized, and recruited locally. They are operationally independent. Hezbollah and Hamas likewise do not threaten the United States and almost certainly have little to no capability to carry out an operation on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. The NIE’s assertion that al-Qaeda in Iraq has stated its intention to attack the U.S. is reportedly based solely on a speech made by the group’s leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, in which he threatened to "bomb the White House." Hezbollah and Hamas have no intention or ability to attack the U.S. They do indeed threaten Israel, though some in the White House and Congress appear to have some difficulty in separating the legitimate security concerns of Tel Aviv from American interests.
The White House argument that al-Qaeda in Iraq is controlled by al-Qaeda in Pakistan and will be directed to stage attacks against the United States is false and is not even supported by the NIE, which merely stated that the parent organization al-Qaeda might well try to use the Iraq affiliate as a resource for recruitment and fundraising. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is small, amounting to 5 percent or less of the broader insurgency and having only 1,000 to 2,000 activists. Most of its attacks have been directed against the Iraqi government and, most particularly, Shi’ite religious institutions, like the Samara mosque attack in February 2006 that almost produced open sectarian war. Most of the known leadership consists of foreign jihadists, but intelligence on the group is poor, and the makeup of the rank-and-file is not clear and might be mostly Iraqi. The group does not have a completely comfortable relationship with al-Qaeda in Pakistan, which has criticized it more than once for its killing of civilians. There is no indication whatsoever that the group is controlled from Pakistan or that it has any capability of carrying out operations outside of Iraq and its immediate neighborhood.
The real terrorism threat that persists in Pakistan’s ungovernable tribal areas should be the focus of American efforts. Al-Qaeda could have been destroyed in late 2001 through early 2002, but the opportunity was wasted through the sheer incompetence of policymakers in Washington. Now, after six years of dithering, there are problems in developing any strategy for rooting out al-Qaeda that might be successful without destabilizing all of central Asia. The comments of the White House Homeland Security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend on July 22 were particularly maladroit, suggesting that it might be necessary to take military action against Pakistan to solve the al-Qaeda problem. Her comments suggest that she is unaware that the U.S. lacks the kind of tactical intelligence that would make such a strike effective. Nor were her comments coordinated with the Pentagon or the State Department, both of which have been taking pains to reassure Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf that Washington will do nothing that will lead to his overthrow. Both Musharraf and some of the better-informed voices in the administration know that a U.S. invasion of the tribal areas would lead to an immediate change in government in Islamabad. The new government would almost certainly have to incorporate religious extremists and would be unlikely to continue to cooperate with the United States. Ironically, Pakistan is also under pressure from some of its American allies. It has been increasingly criticized by the U.S. Congress in spite of the fact that its security services have arrested and killed more al-Qaeda than the rest of the world’s intelligence services combined. The U.S. would have no effective program against al-Qaeda without Pakistani assistance.