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Fighting Them Over There

Iraq is not a breeding ground for terrorists, it's a dumping ground.

12:00 AM, Sep 28, 2006 • By LEE SMITH
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Jerusalem
PRESS ACCOUNTS OF the classified National Intelligence Estimate have asserted that the war in Iraq has increased Islamic radicalism. President Bush has declassified the document so that people can see for themselves what it says, with the implication that the press has cherry-picked and distorted the report's conclusions for maximum effect, but the problem here is not just partisan politics. Some people really believe that the war in Iraq is driving recruitment among jihadists, and it seems that quite a few of those people work for U.S. intelligence services.

Obviously a war against radicals is going to make some people more radical--see, for instance, the region-wide reaction to Israel's war against Hezbollah. But, then again, a papal speech delivered in Germany also served Islamic radicals as a pretext for arson and murder, as well as incitement and sundry radical threats. As did the publication of Danish cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet as a terrorist, the destruction of a Koran at Guantanamo Bay, and the work of Theo van Gogh in Holland, among a host of other "insults to Islam." And yet Muslim radicals were engaging in arson and murder long before the war in Iraq. So what drives people to such violence?

After a certain point, people's willingness to be recruited for a cause does not depend on outrage or vengeance, but on whether or not they believe that cause is likely to succeed. Rational people do not generally volunteer for a suicide mission, nor a cause doomed to failure.

And there's the rub. Many of these fighters in Iraq have signed up precisely because they want the chance to kill themselves, along with US-led coalition troops, and/or sectarian rivals. Indeed, the suicide bombing--or in Islamic parlance, the "martyrdom operation"--is the signature act of Islamic radicals across the world, from Baghdad to Bali, and Morocco to Manhattan. By and large then, we are not talking about rational people, but suicidal-homicidal fanatics in search of a theatre where they can exercise their already radical impulses.

From this perspective, opening up a front in Iraq, far from American cities and civilians, where American soldiers can kill radical Muslims isn't such a bad idea. Moreover, driving such fanatics into a jihad-zone like Iraq is a time-tested survival strategy for many Arab regimes.

The better we understand this region the better off we will be, and in the last five years we have learned a fair amount about the Middle East. For instance, where we once imagined that Ramadan was something like Christmas or Yom Kippur and postponed campaigns against Muslim militants during this very holy month, we now know that jihadists see Ramadan as the best time of year to kill infidels. What do Middle Easterners think about Muslim fanatics? Basically, they assume that at any given time there are a great many Muslims seeking to engage in jihad, yet they view this less as a function of politics, external or internal, and more as a result of various Islamic tenets, like jihad.

Maybe Islam is not essentially fanatical, but Middle Eastern minorities, like Christians, Jews, and various syncretic sects, have had to assume that is the case to ensure their survival. I have quoted from a 1943 letter by Soleyman al-Asad, an Alawite notable and grandfather of the current Syrian president, in these pages once before and it is worthwhile to do so again.

The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change.

What's interesting is that it is not just Middle East minorities who fear the jihad mind-set, even Sunni leaders themselves recognize the significant potential for fanaticism in the region. The most obvious way to deal with the problem is to kill the radical actors, but the best way is to have someone else kill them lest the regime's Islamic authenticity come into question. And here is where jihad in foreign lands comes in really handy for Arab rulers: When you have troublemakers, send them abroad and let them be someone else's problem.

Often theses regimes have been able to export jihadist fervor to suit their own ends. For instance, in the 1950s and 1960s Nasser freed imprisoned Muslim Brothers and allowed them to go to Saudi Arabia where, he hoped, they would destabilize a rival Arab regime. And that was a subtle campaign compared to the open war Syria is currently waging against the United States and its allies, using both Shiite and Sunni jihadists in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.

The next best thing to using Muslim fanatics as a policy-making tool is just to get rid of them. Yes, Arab regimes also describe Iraq as a "breeding ground" for jihadist groups, but, unlike some of the authors of the NIE, there is reason to be skeptical of the sincerity of such statements. They may be worried that there will be blowback from the war in Iraq, but this is a gamble they have made in the past--in Afghanistan, Sudan, and Somalia, for instance. Arab rulers dispatch their fanatics to such places in the hope that they never return. Thus, Iraq is not a jihadist incubator, but rather a jihadist dumping ground.

The NIE argues that, "Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves and be perceived to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight." But the point is that jihadists should never leave Iraq--except to reap their heavenly reward. We should start to see Iraq the way Arab regimes see such jihad-zones, as a far away place for Muslim fanatics to go and die. But unlike those Arab regimes, we can't rely on someone else to do this dirty job for us.

Lee Smith, a Hudson Institute visiting fellow based in Beirut, is writing a book on Arab culture.