The declassified judgments from the National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism caused a stir in the political world this week, but for most—we would guess almost all—scholars of jihadist terrorism, they are largely uncontroversial. The war in Iraq, the lack of reform in the Muslim world and anger at its endemic corruption and injustice, the pervasiveness of anti-Western sentiment—all these have long been identified as major drivers of radical Islamist terror.
What’s striking, instead, is that anyone could still disagree with this assessment of the role of Iraq, as President Bush and commentators such as Robert Kagan [More Leaks, Please, op-ed, Sept. 26] have done. It’s a shame that more of the document wasn’t released, because none of the evidence or argumentation to support the claim that Iraq has added fuel to the jihadist fire was included. And there’s no good reason most or all of it shouldn’t be released.
In fact, though, you don’t need an NIE to demonstrate the most controversial judgment—that the war in Iraq has worsened the terrorist threat. The official coordinated evaluation by Britain’s domestic security and foreign intelligence services noted that the conflict in Iraq has exacerbated the threat from international terrorism and will continue to have an impact in the long term. This conclusion is echoed by interior ministries, law enforcement agencies and intelligence services in every part of the world.
Since the United States invaded Iraq, there has been a significant increase in the number of people committed to the jihadist cause. There is, of course, no turnstile counting those hopping aboard the jihadist train, as the NIE excerpt concedes. Demands for an unattainable precision on this aren’t realistic.
Although jihadist activity is burgeoning around the world, many of the new recruits can be grouped into three categories. The first are the homegrown terrorists who may have little connection to al-Qaeda or other existing groups but who have been won over by the ideas of Osama bin Laden and his followers. Self-starters have appeared not only in Madrid, Leeds and London but also in Canada, the Maghreb, the Middle East and Pakistan.
Some question whether these people have really been spurred by Iraq. Just as President Bush urges that we take the terrorists at their word about their wish to create a new caliphate, we take them at their word about their motivation: Iraq has been crucial. The Madrid bombers were explicit about their desire to punish Spain for its support of the United States in Iraq; friends and neighbors recounted that those who bombed the London subway system were obsessed with Iraq. And time and again, investigators have found that these new recruits hoarded Internet videos packed with scenes of violence from Iraq—part of a narrative of heroic defiance that is deeply compelling to some young Muslims.
The two other categories of recruits are centered in Iraq itself. One consists of the foreign fighters, who, it turns out, are not the remnants of al-Qaeda that the administration believed would flock to their doom in Iraq. According to both Saudi and Israeli scholars who have studied the biographies of foreign fighters killed in Iraq, very few had prior experience of Islamic radicalism. They were drawn by their perception that the indignity of Iraqi occupation had to be fought.
The final category is Iraqi jihadists. There were virtually none in Iraq before the invasion. Now Sunni insurgent organizations espousing jihadism are dominated by Iraqis, who number in the thousands. As the NIE judgments suggest, those groups, which have already carried out bombings in Jordan, are likely to look for more targets outside Iraq.
The terrorists are increasing not only in numbers but also in lethality. As leaked government reports and expert analyses have observed, jihadists have been able to improve their bombmaking and urban warfare skills in Iraq in a way they could not in Afghanistan. A Marine intelligence report indicated last month that they have also acquired a sanctuary in Anbar province that the United States is probably incapable of destroying.
Defenders of the war in Iraq, such as Vice President Cheney, contend that since the United States has not been hit since Sept. 11, the threat cannot be growing. In fact, the terrorists understand that for now it is easier to kill Americans in Iraq than in America, and at this they have succeeded. After the Heathrow plot to destroy U.S.–bound commercial jets and the disclosure of a homegrown cell next-door in Canada,suggesting that the danger is subsiding bespeaks obliviousness or denial.
Then there is the claim that Iraq has not had a catalytic effect because the terrorists were already after us, an argument the president repeated Tuesday. We weren’t in Iraq when we got attacked on September the 11th. . . . We weren’t in Iraq when they first attacked the World Trade Center in 1993.
No doubt the United States would have had a serious struggle against radical Islam after Sept. 11 under any circumstances. But the occupation of Iraq, by appearing to confirm bin Laden’s arguments about America’s antipathy toward the Muslim world, has had an incendiary effect and made matters dramatically worse.
The invasion of Iraq was the wrong answer to the terrorist challenge, for which we will pay a high price for years to come. The continued need to defend that move by the administration and its partisans is preventing the nation from crafting the necessary strategy to meet the terrorist challenge and make Americans safer. The evidence is at hand.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.