TCS Daily

Is Iraq Paving the Way for More Terror?

By Gregory Scoblete - February 24, 2005 12:00 AM

CIA Director Porter Goss' recent Senate testimony will most likely solidify what has already congealed into the conventional wisdom on the Iraq war: that rather than blunting the spread of Islamic radicalism, the war and occupation is actually fueling it and paving the way for a terror-laden future.

Radical Islamists, Goss said, were

        "exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists... These 
        jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced and focused on acts of 
        urban terrorism. They represent a potential pool of contacts to build 
        transnational terrorist cells, groups and networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan 
        and other countries."

As Goss describes it, while not "the cause" for extremism, Iraq is now "a cause for extremists." It may sound like a distinction without a difference, but it's not. The former is the formulation many thoughtful Iraq war critics would make. It suggests, not unreasonably, that Iraq has ushered in a new renaissance in radical recruitment, a "gift to bin Laden" in the words of Michael Scheuer (former head of the bin Laden unit at the CIA and author of Imperial Hubris), swelling the ranks of holy warriors well beyond what would have joined the radical Islamic movement had the war not been launched. This argument presumes, in some sense, to read the mind of young radicals. It suggests that were it not for Iraq, these fighters would not be lured by the siren song of jihad and would never have constituted a threat to the West.

But Goss' formulation leaves open another alternative, that Iraq has merely attracted existing extremists or those predisposed to violence. Rather than spawn a new wave, those flocking to Iraq could just as easily have migrated to other radical causes.

So which is it? It's a question that is, at present, unanswered, and possibly unanswerable.


To argue that the Iraq war has created more terrorists assumes that you're operating from baseline number of terrorist from which to chart growth. We have no such accounting.

Estimates of al Qaeda's strength have and continue to vary wildly. One CIA estimate put the number at 120,000. Other government sources argue that the number is far smaller, at "several thousand." If we can't agree on a baseline, how can we convincingly argue radical Islam's present strength and whether the Iraq war has caused it to blossom? Consider that even in the theatre of war, with the U.S. in control of nearly all of the Iraq, we are unable to pin down with any degree of confidence the number of Iraqi insurgents we're battling. Now extrapolate this problem globally. Any resort to hard figures simply crumbles to dust.

As Defense Secretary Rumsfeld noted in a now famous October 16, 2003 memo, we lack the "metrics" to gage success against our terrorist adversaries. The enemy is not a massed column of tanks or a fleet of warships that can be easily counted by spy planes, satellites or unmanned drones, but an idea that takes hold of individual minds and directs them to suicidal destruction. How can we accurately measure the fortunes of this idea, radical Islam?

Former CIA officer and now fellow at the American Enterprise Institute Reuel Marc Gerecht observed in the Weekly Standard several months ago that "not enough time has passed since March 2003 for scholars, journalists, and writers to travel among Islamic militants to get an accurate idea of what is actually happening in mosques and religious schools in the greater Middle East and Europe -- the two primary breeding grounds for the jihadism of 9/11."

In other words, any information on the growth of radical Islam spurred by the Iraq war will be anecdotal and observational. We have no rock-solid benchmarks, only perceptions and educated guesses. So what of them?

Cause, Effect

Prior to the second Iraq war there was no shortage of causes to rally jihadists. The rebellion in Chechnya; the conflicts in Bosnia, Kashmir, Israel-Palestine; the as then ongoing battle between the Taliban and Northern Alliance, U.S. military installations in Saudi Arabia, Iraq under sanctions; all grist for al Qaeda's propaganda mill throughout the 1990s. Is the second Iraq war, and occupation, such a potent force, such a singular event, that it is galvanizing others who would not have joined in these fights at some point in their life?

Perhaps. Perhaps so many U.S. targets so readily accessible has in fact lured many who would otherwise have stayed home. Perhaps the image of the U.S. occupying (yet another) another Arab country was for many young Muslims the final straw that tipped their psyches toward bin Ladenism. But to know definitively, and state categorically, that Iraq has created more terrorists where none existed is to claim to read minds. It claims to know that those young self-detonators in Iraq would never have been lured by the suicidal siren song of jihad at any future point in their lives. How can anyone make such a statement with any degree of confidence?

This is ultimately an argument about root causes. Those who argue that Iraq has spurred heretofore unimagined levels of Muslim hostility and a resultant surge in radical recruitment are essentially arguing that radical Islam is primarily a political force. Rather than an apocalyptic vision, it is rather a set of legitimate grievances, lashing out only because it feels provoked and besieged. This runs counter to the theory that radical Islam is primarily a religious/ideological force demanding perpetual war against the infidel, regardless of specific U.S. policies. This debate has not been settled.[1]

Nevertheless, the argument of Iraq as terror incubator has taken hold. If it's true, Iraq war defenders will need to answer for why a war meant to roll back terrorism has had the opposite effect.

Here's one: the up-tick in jihadist violence is the short-term price to pay for laying the groundwork for radical Islam's long-term demise. This assumes that the root cause of Islamic terrorism is political and ideological and that by opening up a space in the former, moderate Muslims can forcefully discredit the latter.

In this reading, a long term rollback of terrorism consists of building and fortifying democratic institutions in Iraq and actively (but quietly) encouraging reforms elsewhere in the "Greater Middle East," opening up a political space heretofore filled solely by radical Islamic movements. This defense argues that images of Iraqis voting, shaping a constitution, and publicly debating the core issues of politics and society will overwhelm the images of Abu Ghraib, collateral damage and beheadings. The former, I'd suggest, is more powerful, to more people, than the later.

There will always be a core group of religiously motivated zealots who cannot be deterred no matter how many ballots Muslims cast. These are the radical Islamists, like bin Laden and al Zarqawi, whose program is sacramental, not political. As such, they are utterly unappeasable and no substantial shift in U.S. policy would assuage their fury. But that group swims in a larger sea of Muslim ambivalence, if not outright hostility, toward the West in general and the U.S. policy in particular.

The Iraq war was a gamble. It gambled that any spike in short-term hostility among the "larger sea" of Muslim sympathies would be mitigated by long term success. It was a gamble that if the forces of modernization and liberalization took root in the Muslim Middle East, then the search for scapegoats and the sense of conspiracy would cede to more practical concerns of self governance and enterprise. It would then isolate the holy warriors and leave them at the mercy of their more moderate co-religionists.

This is not a post-hoc rationalization, especially when considered in light of the history of the Cold War. Communism's fortunes rose and fell throughout the later half of the 20th century, but the overall trajectory was decline and collapse brought about in part by the active resistance of Western democracies. In other words, neither force -- Islamism or our war on it -- are static, at times one may surge while the other falters.

Risk, Reward

The Iraq war, and subsequent determination to ensure that the country emerges as a modernizing, liberalizing polity was, and remains, an enormous roll of the dice. It is one I believe was worth taking, but we shouldn't minimize the medium-term risks that in two to five years, veterans of the Iraq jihad will disperse as they did after the Soviets fled Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and make mischief elsewhere. That risk is real, and the political fallout will be acute. But it must also be noted that the risks of a massive terror attack would hang over us whether we went to war with Iraq or not. Remember the chronology: September 11, 2001, March 8, 2003.

We have no reason to blame future mass casualty attacks on the Iraq war alone, or even at all. But we have reason to hope the Iraq war could mark the beginning of the end of radical Islam.

[1] Many in the intelligence community, typified by Michael Scheuer, argue that radical Islam is primarily a political reaction to perceived injustices in U.S. policy vis-à-vis Arabs. Others, such as former NSC officials Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, argue that radical Islam has deeper roots in religion and ideology.



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