May 12, 2005

Is The "Flypaper" Working?

Everyone's heard some version of the argument that the war in Iraq is fueling a global jihad and making the United States, in the long run, less safe. Why, my own magazine ran a cover story on this subject last summer. To some extent, though, this argument always seemed slightly unconvincing to me. Thousands of Muslims around the world were no doubt radicalized by the U.S. invasion, yes, but ultimately that only matters so much. A pissed-off Salafist in Jordan, say, is still at some point going to need to stop surfing his angry jihad websites and go find someone who can teach him to blow lots of stuff up.

Now that sort of training has always been, when it comes right down to it, incredibly hard to find, and it's doubly hard to find now that al-Qaeda no longer has its vast Afghanistan training bases. So in the end a lot of people who are pissed-off about the invasion of Iraq simply aren't going to become terrorists. Or they'll become incompetent terrorists, like the 2003 Casablanca bombers, who ended up doing more harm to their cause than good by accidentally killing a bunch of fellow Muslims.

But there's one glaring exception—namely, the mujahideen now duking it out with American troops in Iraq. These fighters really do have the ability to kick the global terrorism movement back into high gear. Terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann explains the process:
As thousands of budding, would-be terrorists are drawn to the conflict in Iraq like flies, the Sunni Triangle has become an virtual engine driving religious terrorism and a breeding ground for the next 9/11. In previous decades, Al-Qaida has relied on Muslim brushfire wars in places like Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya as its very lifeblood to recruit and train an army of skilled social misfits. While many of these men are quickly "martyred" in local combat operations (as has undoubtedly occurred frequently in Iraq), the survivors develop advanced combat experience in an urban environment. They learn in detail the arts of sabotage, assassinations, suicide bombings, and downing commercial aircraft with missiles.

Eventually, the local conflict comes to an inexorable end, and the majority of the foreign mujahideen are forced to exfiltrate the area and return to their countries of origin… But rather than becoming demilitarized, these battle-hardened fighters inevitably continue to carry on their terrorist activities at home, albeit in a new environment.
That's bad. But it's worth noting, if only to be contrary, two reasons why it might not be quite as bad as all that. For one, sheer numbers: there simply aren't that many foreign fighters in Iraq nowadays. Iraqi Sunnis still comprise both the bulk and the brains of the insurgency, and they probably won't ever leave Iraq to go wreak havoc in New York or Los Angeles. Most of them won't, at any rate. Meanwhile, estimates of foreign fighters in Iraq usually top out at around 2,000. That's a lot, but it pales beside the estimated 100,000 foot soldiers who passed through al-Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan.

And even those vast and undisturbed Afghan camps only churned out a very small number of "hardcore" competent fighters, and an even smaller number of competent planners and masterminds. After the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003, note, al-Qaeda's planning operations were essentially put on hold. That's telling. I'm not saying the entire organization hinged on one guy—surely not—but it shows that even after years and years of sifting through recruits and finding the best and brightest jihadis, it was never that easy to find people who could carry out highly sophisticated planning operations. (Read the Stratfor book—America's Secret War—to get a sense for just how mind-boggingly complicated the 9/11 attacks were to plan and carry out. It's the only remotely worthwhile chapter in the book, but it's good.) Will the Iraqi foreign fighters, once they disperse, produce terrorists and planners of this caliber? Well, maybe. After all, Zarqawi and some of the other insurgents are becoming shockingly sophisticated in their attacks. But maybe not. Many of these fighters will die, many will be captured, and it seems unlikely that the remnants will be anywhere near as skilled and well-funded as al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was in the late '90s.

The other reason for optimism—mind you, optimism literally ripped from the jaws of a bitter, bloody travesty—is that the United States is also training its own "next generation" of counterterrorism specialists in Iraq, something we really didn't have before, not to this extent. That could help tip the scales against whatever global terrorist movement emerges from Iraq. Now that doesn't mean the war was "worth it," not in the slightest, but there's at least decent reason to think it may not produce the vicious backlash everyone is expecting. Sadly, though, I'm not at all certain about this.
-- Brad Plumer 3:31 AM || ||