Yesterday’s Warnings, Today’s Terrorists
(Sheldon prepared this piece in conjunction with his coauthor, John Stauber. The video for their most recent book, "The Best War Ever," is above. Please welcome them both back to FDL. — Pach)
The Bush administration may be squirming over the now-public conclusions of a recently-leaked National Intelligence Estimate. What "Trends in Global Terrorism" really shows, though, is that America’s 16 intelligence agencies are belatedly reaching a conclusion that should have been obvious years ago. The war in Iraq is breeding more terrorism, rather than less.
It is worth pointing out that some people – ourselves included – have been warning for years that this would happen. We predicted this outcome in our 2003 book, Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq. We finished writing it in May of that year, the same month that Bush giving his now-embarrassing "Mission Accomplished" speech aboard the U.S.S. Lincoln, at a time when opinion polls showed that a majority of Americans still supported the war. While others were cheering Bush’s seemingly awesome victory, we ended our book by warning that America was "fighting the war on terror against the wrong enemies, in the wrong places, with the wrong weapons" and by quoting the words of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak – a U.S. ally – who warned that the war in Iraq would spawn "100 bin Ladens."
We also quoted the analysis of Prince Moulay Hicham Ben Abdallah of Morocco – who considers himself a friend of the United States and who has campaigned for democratic reform in his own country and the Muslim world. "The vast majority of Muslims do not share the tactical or strategic vision, or the interpretation of Islam promoted by these new currents of jihad fundamentalism," Hicham said in a September 2002 talk at Princeton University. "Most Muslims want to live in peace and dignity alongside their neighbors of all faiths." He added, however,
Unfortunately, … it is hard to avoid the perception that the US is using the "war on terror" as an opportunity to embark on a kind of neo-imperialist project, and that some in the US would not be unhappy to engage in a "clash of civilizations" with the violent jihadists, as well as with anyone in the Muslim world who is not sufficiently submissive to their will. In the Muslim world, this only seems to corroborate the vision of the global jihadists, strengthening their appeal at the expense of more moderate – including moderate fundamentalist – voices.
Perhaps some American strategists now think it will be easy to roll over these "stirred-up" Muslims with military force alone. But without a sophisticated concurrent political, diplomatic and especially ideological strategy – one that distinguishes and isolates the new jihad movement from the Muslim world in general – any military offensive will only exacerbate the polarization between America and the Islamic world. It will lead to upheavals throughout the Muslim world, in which democratic constituencies will find it even more difficult to mobilize, and will increase the probability of prolonged bloody conflicts – whether on the scale of retail terrorism or of wars between states.
Those warnings, issued before the Bush administration recklessly invaded and occupied Iraq, are now finding fulfillment in the NIE’s now-declassified assessment that "New jihadist networks and cells, with anti-American agendas, are increasingly likely to emerge. The confluence of shared purpose and dispersed actors will make it harder to find and undermine jihadist groups. … We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives."
The Bush administration’s original rationale for war, of course, was that invading Iraq would calm the Middle East and thereby eliminate terrorists. Instead, the occupation of Iraq provided a staging-ground for what have now become daily terrorist attacks against U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians alike. Worse still, it has become a place where terrorists are developing skills and contacts that they will likely use to attack other targets in places such as Europe and the United States.
Remarkably, the Bush administration has attempted to offer these attacks as signs of progress in the war on terror. "We’re fighting them in Iraq so that we can defeat them abroad, so we don’t have to fight them here at home," declared Bush spokesman Scott McClellan – an argument that prompted some supporters of the war to begin describing Iraq as "carefully hung flypaper" where terrorists could be lured, trapped, and disposed of. Journalist Joshua Micah Marshall, however, offered a different metaphor, arguing that the "flypaper" theory should really be called the "dirty hospital" approach to fighting terror: "By creating a dirty hospital, we’re going to create a place where we can fight the germs on our terms." In reality, of course, creating a dirty hospital just provides a place where more germs can breed, and turning Iraq into a hotbed of terrorism has merely provided an opportunity for terrorists to meet, multiply, and practice their craft on live targets.
Consider, for example, the town of Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. During the propaganda runup to war with Iraq, supporters of the war claimed that Iraq was training terrorists at a military facility near the town of Salman Pak. Those claims were based on outright lies (which John and I dissect in our new book, The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the War in Iraq. A review of the evidence by the Senate Intelligence Committee of the United States has acknowledged that those reports were unfounded. Thanks to the war, however, Salman Pak has subsequently become a terrorist hotbed. By February 2005, the Washington Post‘s Anthony Shadid reported that "Salman Pak is on the eastern edge of a region Iraqis have dubbed the ‘triangle of death,’ parts of which are so dangerous that many Iraqis are reluctant to travel its roads. Checkpoints manned by insurgents have sprung up along some of the region’s highways as well as in such cities as Mahmudiyah and Latifiyah that have occasionally fallen under the sway of gunmen." Sectarian conflicts between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims turned the area into what Agence Press France called "Iraq’s new hotspot where a motley army of Wahhabists, Saddamists and criminals are imposing their bloody rule. … Insurgents carry out almost daily car bomb and suicide attacks against the country’s security forces." According to the head of Iraqi intelligence, Salman Pak had become "a guerrillas’ fiefdom." Later that year, U.S.-backed Shi’ite forces managed to take control of the town, using a combination of military force and interrogation techniques that included torture and beatings – further inflaming fear and resentment among the town’s majority Sunni population and creating conditions in which more terrorist "germs" are likely to breed.
This outcome is precisely what opponents of the war warned about from the start, including Coleen Rowley, the FBI whistleblower who was named Time magazine’s 2002 "Person of the Year" after she exposed errors within the agency that might have allowed the 9/11 terrorists to carry out their plan. In a subsequent open letter to FBI director Robert Mueller, Rowley warned in March 2003 that invading Iraq would, "in all likelihood, bring an exponential increase in the terrorist threat to the U.S., both at home and abroad." Lots of other people were making similar predictions back then, as even the conservative National Review admitted at the time (while also calling Rowley "a fool").
Statistical evidence providing the correctness of these warnings has been available for years, even prior to the recent National Intelligence Estimate. Each year since 1985, the U.S. Department of State has been required to publish an annual report, titled Patterns of Global Terrorism, which tracks countries and groups involved in international terrorism. The 2004 edition of Patterns of Global Terrorism tallied attacks for 2003 (the first year of the war in Iraq). "You will find in these pages clear evidence that we are prevailing in the fight," declared Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage at the news conference announcing its release. Speaking at the same news conference, J. Cofer Black, the State Department Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, said the report showed "a slight decrease" from the number of terrorist attacks that occurred the previous year. That would be good news, of course – if it were true. In fact, the report was riddled with what State Department officials would later admit were administrative errors. As a result of those errors, the report undercounted by more than half the number of people killed and wounded – 625 deaths instead of 307 as originally reported, and 3,646 people injured. After correcting the mistakes, it turns out that 2003 saw 175 significant terrorist attacks (defined as attacks in which lives are lost or there is injury and property damage of more than $10,000) – the largest number of significant terrorist attacks since 1982.
The following year, the numbers were even worse – significant terrorist attacks, nearly four times the amount of the previous year’s embarrassment, with 1,907 people killed and 9,300 wounded – roughly a tripling of the previous year’s casualty toll. Iraq alone saw 198 attacks that year – nearly the worldwide total for 2003 – but even if all of those attacks were omitted, the number of terrorist attacks in the rest of the world were still more than double the all-time record. (So much for the "flypaper" theory.) The numbers were so bad that the Bush administration decided not to publish Patterns of Global Terrorism at all in 2005. In its place, the State Department created a new report, Country Reports on Terrorism, which omitted the statistical information provided in the previous reports. In a State Department briefing, spokesman Richard Boucher said the numbers would be released someday, but "I don’t know when."
It should be noted, moreover, that the 651 terrorist attacks tallied for 2004 did not include attacks on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, or even attacks on Iraqi civilians by other Iraqis. The long-standing US definition of international terrorism, used by Patterns of Global Terrorism, defined it as violent acts against non-combatants, and it has to involve the territory or citizens of more than one country. (Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City would also not fit this definition of terrorism.) The National Counterterrorism Center, a government agency created by President Bush in 2004, has compiled a separate report that does include other incidents not previously classed as terrorism (although attacks on soldiers are still excluded). Using this more inclusive definition, the number of terrorist incidents in 2004 would be 3,192.
The National Counterterrorism Center’s new database on terrorism was announced publicly in July 2005. That same month, a series of coordinated bombings hit London’s subways and a bus during rush hour, killing 56 people and injuring 700 – the deadliest single act of terrorism in the United Kingdom since the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The terrorists, claiming affiliation with Al Qaeda, released a statement calling the attack "revenge against the British Zionist crusader government in retaliation for the massacres Britain is committing in Iraq and Afghanistan." It was the second act of Al Qaeda violence against a European nation providing military support to the war in Iraq. The previous attack, a series of coordinated bombings against commuter trains in Madrid, killed 192 people and wounded 2,050 and triggered the electoral defeat of Spain’s ruling party.
These events came as no surprise to Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit until his resignation shortly after Bush’s re-election in November 2004. Scheuer is the author of Through Our Enemies’ Eyes, a biography of Osama Bin Laden written in 2002. More recently, he is the author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, in which he bluntly criticizes the war on Iraq:
There is nothing bin Laden could have hoped for more than the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. The U.S. invasion of Iraq is Osama bin Laden’s gift from America, the one he has long and ardently desired, but never realistically expected. Think of it: Iraq is the second holiest land in Islam; a place where Islam had been long suppressed by Saddam; where the Sunni minority long dominated and brutalized the Shia majority; where order was kept only by the Baathist barbarity that prevented a long overdue civil war; and where, in the wake of Saddam’s fall, the regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia would intervene, at least clandestinely, to stop the creation of, respectively, a Sunni or Shia successor state. In short, Iraq without Saddam would obviously become what political scientists call a ‘failed state,’ a place bedeviled by its neighbors and – as in Afghanistan – a land where al Qaeda or al Qaeda-like organizations could thrive. Surely, thought bin Laden, the Americans would not want to create this kind of situation. It would be, if you will, like deliberately shooting yourself in the foot. …
In the end, something much like Christmas had come for bin Laden, and the gift he received from Washington will haunt, hurt, and hound Americans for years to come.
At a June 2005 Department of Defense briefing, not long after Vice President Dick Cheney declared that the insurgents in Iraq were "in their last throes," Lieutenant General James Conway noted that terrorist skills learned in Iraq were being transferred to Afghanistan, where it was "a little bit troubling" to see an increased use of improvised explosives devices (IEDs) due in part to "cross-pollination between the people in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Classified studies by the CIA and the State Department leaked to the press that same month. The studies showed that Iraq by then had become something it was not before the war began: "the prime training ground for foreign terrorists who could travel elsewhere across the globe and wreak havoc." In fact, reported the New York Times, one classified CIA assessment said "Iraq may prove to be an even more effective training ground for Islamic extremists than Afghanistan was in Al Qaeda’s early days, because it is serving as a real-world laboratory for urban combat. … [T]he urban nature of the war in Iraq was helping combatants learn how to carry out assassinations, kidnappings, car bombings and other kinds of attacks that were never a staple of the fighting in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet campaigns of the 1980’s."
The recent findings of the National Intelligence Estimate simply codify conclusions that responsible analysts and political leaders should have reached years ago. The lack of public debate about these realities up until now has needlessly prolonged the Bush administration’s failed military strategy, at a terrible price in lives lost and opportunities squandered.
Portions of this article are excerpted from the new book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the Mess in Iraq.