The Magazine

Dead or Alive?

From the November 1 / November 8, 2004 issue: Don't be so sure that the Iraq war has made al Qaeda stronger.

Nov 1, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 08 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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HAS IRAQ made America's fight against Islamic extremism more difficult? Has the war further radicalized the Muslim world, making it easier for Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda to find and train suicidal holy warriors? Al Qaeda may remain today, as the always-thoughtful Clinton administration counterterrorist officials Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon have written, "a dynamic ideological movement, part of a growing global insurgency [of Islamic extremism]." But does that mean that the war in Iraq, whether or not it was begun for sound and compelling reasons, has accelerated the creation of jihadists who live to kill us? The constant anonymous background discussions and leaks from active-duty and former soldiers, intelligence officers, and diplomats, which has produced a wide variety of newspaper and magazine articles casting the war as counterproductive, certainly suggest that many experts see the war as jet-fuel for bin Ladenism.

Senator John Kerry certainly believes that the war in Iraq has made us less safe by augmenting the numbers of Islam's killer-extremists. Echoing the sentiments, and often the language, of the former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, the senator sees us waging a war in Iraq that is "a profound diversion" from the war on terror and "the battle against our greatest enemy: Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network." According to the senator, "the president's failures in Iraq have made us weaker, not stronger, in the war on terrorism. That is the hard truth. The president refuses to acknowledge it. But terrorism experts around the world do." In Kerry's eyes, President Bush's ineptitude in Afghanistan and Iraq has allowed al Qaeda to spread, "with thousands of militants plotting and planning in 60 countries, forging new relationships with at least 20 extremist groups in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia."

Now, leaving aside whether the war in Iraq is a distraction from the war on terror, are Kerry, Clarke, and it appears many if not most of the journalists on the terrorism beat and their official sources correct in their now-reflexive assumption that the war in Iraq has spurred a new generation of Islamic extremists to attack the United States? Probably not. One has to say "probably" since the answer is empirical: 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.

Remarkably little field work in the stamping grounds and intellectual factories of Islamic militancy has been published since the invasion of Iraq. Just think back to Jeffrey Goldberg's illuminating pre-9/11 essay in the New York Times magazine on the Haqqania madrassa outside of Peshawar. The director of central intelligence George Tenet loved this piece--which ran under the headline "Inside Jihad U.: The Education of a Holy Warrior"--and he strongly recommended it, say CIA officers, to the staff at Langley. The Haqqania madrassa was the primary incubator for Afghanistan's Taliban elite.

Can anyone recall a comparable piece about Pakistan's militant madrassas since March 2003? Now, these institutions may be churning out a new, more virulent generation of Afghan-Pakistani holy warriors, but at this time, we just don't know. Information from Pakistani intelligence and the Pakistani press has been historically unreliable. Our knowledge of the official and unofficial madrassa system in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen is even more sparse. And in Western Europe, we are probably only a little better off.

Even in France, where there are multiple layers of potentially very intrusive and competent police and domestic intelligence, the knowledge of what is transpiring in the country's numerous semi-official mosques probably isn't comforting to the Interior Ministry. One of the principal reasons why interior ministers have for years pushed for the local education of French-born imams is that they fear the influence of imported militant clerics. They also know that once extremists enter the bloodstream of the French Muslim community, it's difficult to monitor, and very difficult to circumscribe, their influence. Despite the omnipresent police, France is a free society, and most mosques and Muslim religious associations are pretty tight-knit communities, often opaque to even the inquisitive efforts of the internal-security service, the DST.