The leading Democratic presidential contenders have voiced a new conventional wisdom in recent weeks: The war in Iraq has little or nothing to do with defeating al Qaeda. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have embraced this view, as has the New York Times. It is dangerously wrong. At the very time it is being propounded, al Qaeda continues to fight fiercely to expel U.S. forces from Iraq in pursuit of its long-announced objective of establishing a safe haven there. It is contradicted by U.S. intelligence and by the repeated pronouncements of al Qaeda's top leaders going back years.
Oblivious to these facts, the Democrats insist: "This is not our fight." So wrote Hillary Clinton and her Senate colleague Robert Byrd in a July 10 op-ed. "Iraq is at war with itself and American troops are caught in the middle."
Campaigning recently in Iowa, Barack Obama agreed: "We cannot win a war against the terrorists if we're on the wrong battlefield." Pointing to al Qaeda's resurgence along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Obama called for troops to be redeployed from Iraq. He promised that when he becomes president, "Nobody will work harder to go after those terrorists who will do the American people harm. But that requires a commander in chief who understands our troops need to be on the right battlefield, not the wrong battlefield."
And in the same spirit, the New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt scolded the Bush administration under the headline "Seeing Al Qaeda Around Every Corner."
This narrative is politically convenient for anti-Iraq war Democrats and like-minded members of the press: Public support for the war and the president has plummeted; most now believe the United States should not have gone into Iraq in the first place; and the Democratic base wants American troops withdrawn as soon as possible. What the new conventional wisdom isn't is consistent with the actual struggle we are in.
Just last week, the summary of a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) representing the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community was released. It states that the organization "Al Qaeda in Iraq" is the terror network's "most visible and capable affiliate." Al Qaeda's leadership still desires to strike the U.S. homeland and "will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)" to do so. "In addition," the intelligence estimate notes, al Qaeda relies on Al Qaeda in Iraq to "energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks."
These judgments are obviously inconsistent with Obama's belief that America is fighting on the "wrong battlefield." But the judgments of the intelligence community have been wrong before--witness the October 2002 NIE on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. So we should be wary of taking this latest pronouncement at face value.
The NIE's conclusions are, however, supported by a source that cannot be ignored: al Qaeda's two principal leaders. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri have repeatedly called Iraq the "front line" in their war against Western civilization. Indeed, a review of their statements--readily accessible in translation in the anthologies edited by Bruce Lawrence (Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden) and Laura Mans field (His Own Words: Translations and Analysis of the Writings of Dr. Ayman Al Zawahiri) and from other public sources--confirms that they have made Iraq their fight.
Consider what bin Laden said about the importance of the war in Iraq in December 2004:
I now address my speech to the whole of the Islamic nation: Listen and understand. The issue is big and the misfortune is momentous. The most important and serious issue today for the whole world is this Third World War, which the Crusader-Zionist coalition began against the Islamic nation. It is raging in the land of the two rivers. The world's millstone and pillar is in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate.
The whole world is watching this war and the two adversaries; the Islamic nation, on the one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other. It is either victory and glory or misery and humiliation. The nation today has a very rare opportunity to come out of the subservience and enslavement to the West and to smash the chains with which the Crusaders have fettered it.
Likewise, here is how Ayman al Zawahiri described the war in Iraq in a letter to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, then al Qaeda's chief terrorist in Iraq, in 2005:
I want to be the first to congratulate you for what God has blessed you with in terms of fighting battle in the heart of the Islamic world, which was formerly the field for major battles in Islam's history, and what is now the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era.
According to Clinton and Obama, "this is not our fight." According to bin Laden and Zawahiri, the war in Iraq is the "most important and serious issue today for the whole world" and "the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era."
Plainly, there is a disconnect. The comments by al Qaeda's leaders quoted here are typical. Al Qaeda has repeatedly told us that it has drawn a line in the sands of Iraq. Some in America simply choose not to listen.
Indeed, nearly six years after the September 11 attacks, the fog of war has descended. Our view of the enemy has become clouded by partisan politics. But our blindness hasn't stopped al Qaeda's leadership from reconstituting itself along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan and in Iran. The organization still desires to strike the American homeland and continues to execute attacks in Europe. (The recent attacks in Glasgow and London, for example, had numerous ties to foreign plotters.) And hotspots around the world continue to flare up.
Let us be clear, then: Iraq is the central front in this global war. Al Qaeda has made it so. For that reason it is worth revisiting why Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri have invested so heavily in Iraq.
As al Qaeda's leaders see it, the U.S. intervention in Iraq was not intended merely to overthrow Saddam's regime and replace it with an elected government. It was further proof that the "Crusaders and Zionists" were conspiring against the Muslim people. In February 2003, bin Laden viewed the "war on terror" and the coming invasion of Iraq through this conspiratorial lens:
The Bush-Blair axis claims that it wants to annihilate terrorism, but it is no longer a secret--even to the masses--that it really wants to annihilate Islam. . . . Nor can there be any doubt that the current preparation for an attack on Iraq is anything other than the latest in a continuous series of aggressions on the countries of the region.
Bin Laden warned that the conspirators intended to dominate the region and establish a "Greater Israel":
One of the most important objectives of this new Crusader campaign, after dividing up the region, is to prepare it for the establishment of what is called the state of Greater Israel, which would incorporate large parts of Iraq and Egypt within its borders, as well as Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, the whole of Palestine, and a large part of Saudi Arabia. Do you know what harm and suffering Greater Israel will bring down upon the region?
Few sober-minded observers would agree with bin Laden's characterization. Nonetheless, bin Laden attacked Middle Eastern regimes for not resisting the conspiracy: "And what have the governments of the region done to resist this hostile strategic goal?" he asked. "Nothing."
Criticism of the region's rulers, notably Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, is an integral part of al Qaeda's recruitment propaganda. Bin Laden and Zawahiri continually tell Muslims that their rulers have been feckless in the face of the "Crusader-Zionist" conspiracy. Therefore, their only alternative is to join al Qaeda's jihad, which is the vanguard of the new Muslim resistance. The U.S. invasion of Iraq was simply the latest proof that the regimes of the Middle East refuse to defend Muslim soil.
Bin Laden explained that turning a blind eye to the American-led removal of Saddam was simply unacceptable:
It is true that Saddam is a thief and an apostate, but the solution is not to be found in moving the government of Iraq from a local thief to a foreign one. Helping the infidel to take the land of Muslims and control them is one of the ten acts contradictory to Islam.
As this statement shows, bin Laden considered Saddam Hussein an "apostate" and an "infidel." He said so many times. It is widely believed in the West that this ideological difference precluded any form of cooperation between al Qaeda and Saddam. As THE WEEKLY STANDARD has documented repeatedly, however, that judgment is flawed. In fact, as the war approached in February 2003, bin Laden explained the necessity of joining forces with Saddam. However distasteful, Saddam was still preferable to the "Crusaders":
It is well known that fighting under pagan banners is not allowed, and that the Muslim's belief and banner must be clear when fighting for God. As the Prophet said: "Only he whose aim in fighting is to keep God's word supreme fights in God's cause." There is no harm in such circumstances if the Muslims' interests coincide with those of the socialists in fighting the Crusaders, despite our firm conviction that they are infidels. The time of these socialist rulers is long past. The socialists are infidels, wherever they may be, whether in Baghdad or Aden. The current fighting and the fighting that will take place in the coming days can be very much compared to the Muslims' previous battles. There is nothing wrong with a convergence of interests here.
There was a clear convergence of interests in the Iraqi insurgency against the coalition. Neither Saddam nor bin Laden planned the Iraqi insurgency in every detail. However, extensive evidence found in Iraqi intelligence documents recovered by the coalition and the testimony of al Qaeda operatives confirms that Saddam welcomed al Qaeda terrorists and other jihadists to Iraqi soil in the weeks and months prior to the war.
For example, Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, explains in My Year in Iraq that a Mukhabarat (Iraqi intelligence) document he had seen "showed that Saddam had made plans for an insurgency." Bremer elaborates: "And the insurgency had forces to draw on from among several thousand hardened Baathists in two northern Republican Guard divisions that had joined forces with foreign jihadis." Iraqi intelligence documents similar to the one Bremer describes were released online by the U.S. government last year. One, from the top military command, contains the order to "utilize Arab suicide bombers" against the Americans. It also orders Saddam's agents to provide these terrorists with munitions, religious instruction, shelter, and training at the outset of the war. Instead of fighting a purely conventional war, Saddam clearly intended to confront American forces with an insurgency made up of foreign and homegrown terrorists, notably suicide bombers.
In February 2003, bin Laden predicted that such an insurgency would arise in Iraq:
We also underline the importance of dragging the enemy forces into a protracted, exhausting, close combat, making the most of camouflaged defense positions in plains, farms, hills, and cities. What the enemy fears most is urban and street warfare, in which heavy and costly human losses can be expected. Further, we emphasize the importance of martyrdom operations, which have inflicted unprecedented harm on America and Israel, thanks to God Almighty.
Some now try to downplay al Qaeda's role in the Iraqi insurgency. But it is clear that al Qaeda--sometimes with the aid of Saddam's former Baathists--has executed the most spectacular and devastating attacks in Iraq. Al Qaeda's attack on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003, and its destruction of the golden dome of the al-Askari Mosque on February 22, 2006, rocked Iraqi society. The latter attack plunged Iraq into horrific sectarian violence, which led many commentators to claim that Iraq was in the midst of a civil war.
From al Qaeda's perspective, these attacks are not intended only to sow chaos and wreak havoc. Al Qaeda has long-term territorial aspirations in Iraq. The forced retreat of American and Western forces is just the first stage in its plan for the post-Saddam era.
Since the last caliph was dethroned by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey in 1924, Islamist ideologues have repeatedly lamented the loss of the Muslim empire. The caliphate--whose seat was Baghdad for 500 years--had little real political power by the time the Ottoman Empire fell. But influential Islamists like Sayyid Qutb--whose brother may have taught Osama bin Laden and whose work is cited throughout al Qaeda's various proclamations--made the reestablishment of a common Islamic government and the imposition of their strict version of sharia law, rooted in the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad's sayings, a central tenet of their radical vision. Al Qaeda's leaders often hark back to a time when all Muslim peoples were united in a single empire centered in the Middle East, stretching as far as Spain in the west and Afghanistan in the east.
Ayman al Zawahiri explained the importance of rebuilding the caliphate in his 2001 screed A Knight Under the Prophet's Banner:
Armies achieve victory only when the infantry takes hold of land. Likewise, the mujahid Islamic movement will not triumph against the world coalition unless it possesses a fundamentalist base in the heart of the Islamic world. All the means and plans that we have reviewed for mobilizing the nation will remain up in the air without a tangible gain or benefit unless they lead to the establishment of the state of caliphate in the heart of the Islamic world.
At the time, Zawahiri noted that "the establishment of a Muslim state in the heart of the Islamic world is not an easy goal or an objective that is close at hand." Nonetheless, "it constitutes the hope of the Muslim nation to reinstate its fallen caliphate and regain its lost glory." That hope now lives in Iraq.
In 2005, U.S. forces intercepted a letter from Zawahiri to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the affiliate of bin Laden's terror empire also known as "Al Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers" and "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia." (Zarqawi was killed in an airstrike in 2006.) Zawahiri noted that he had studied the issue carefully and at one time believed "the center [of the reborn caliphate] would be in the Levant and Egypt." However, Zarqawi's "efforts and sacrifices" in Iraq were "a large step directly towards" the goal of reestablishing the caliphate.
Zawahiri offered a program of action for Zarqawi, with several "incremental goals" to be achieved in four stages:
The first stage: Expel the Americans from Iraq. The second stage: Establish an Islamic authority or emirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a caliphate--over as much territory as you can to spread its power in Iraq, i.e., in Sunni areas, is in order to fill the void stemming from the departure of the Americans, immediately upon their exit and before un-Islamic forces attempt to fill this void, whether those whom the Americans will leave behind them, or those among the un-Islamic forces who will try to jump at taking power. . . . The third stage: Extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq. The fourth stage: It may coincide with what came before: the clash with Israel, because Israel was established only to challenge any new Islamic entity.
Al Qaeda's desire to establish an Islamic state in Iraq, based on Allah's divine sharia, was an important reason why bin Laden and Zawahiri denounced the Iraqi elections and the adoption of Iraq's new constitution: These ensured that, for a time at least, Iraq would remain free of the sharia legal system that al Qaeda and its allies implemented in Sudan and Afghanistan when they controlled those lands. As Iraq's democracy was beginning to take shape in late 2003, bin Laden scolded anyone who thought that free elections were the answer:
Voices have been raised in Iraq--as previously in Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and others--calling for a peaceful democratic solution in cooperation with apostate governments, or with the Jewish and Crusader invaders, instead of fighting for God. We should therefore make note, briefly, of the danger of this wrong-headed, errant idea which contravenes God's law and stands in the way of fighting for Him.
Similarly, Zawahiri has denounced America's attempt to promote the establishment of freer governments in the Middle East. He scolded Hamas for entering the "political process" in the Palestinian-controlled territories. And he warned:
My Muslim brothers in Palestine, Iraq and everywhere: We must be cautious of the American game called the "political process." This game is based on 4 deceiving things: The first one is giving up Sharia as a rule of law.
Instead of joining the "political process," al Qaeda has proceeded to set up an "Islamic State of Iraq." In so doing, it has sown discord within the insurgency in places like Anbar, where some of al Qaeda's former allies have turned against it. This led Zawahiri, in a message released earlier this month, to extol the virtues of al Qaeda's new government, saying that even though it had "shortcomings" or was "something less than perfection," it was still better than working with the new Iraqi government.
Al Qaeda believes in jihad to the end. Bin Laden and Zawahiri have repeatedly implored their fighters in Iraq to be patient. They are confident of victory. "The mujahedeen fighters in Iraq turned America's plan upside down," Zawahiri said in September 2004. "The defeat of America in Iraq and Afghanistan has become just a matter of time, with God's help."
Al Qaeda's rhetoric is peppered with references to America's "weakness." Bin Laden and Zawahiri cite past occasions when America was struck by terrorists and simply retreated--Lebanon in 1983, Somalia in 1993. Just as al Qaeda claims its mujahedeen alone forced the Soviet Union to retreat from Afghanistan, so it claims they will force America to retreat from the Middle East.
Bin Laden explained this long before the Iraq war:
We believe that America is much weaker than Russia, and we have learned from our brothers who fought in the jihad in Somalia of the incredible weakness and cowardice of the American soldier. Not even eighty of them had been killed and they fled in total darkness in the middle of the night, unable to see a thing.
In addition to slandering America's bravest, al Qaeda spokesmen have repeatedly questioned the resolve of America's leaders. They mock the idea of timetables for withdrawal and the belief that U.S.-trained Iraqi forces will be able to fight off the mujahedeen once America leaves. According to al Qaeda, America should withdraw from Iraq immediately in order to save lives. According to Zawahiri, Iraq is the new Vietnam:
The truth that Bush, Rice and Rumsfeld hide from you is that there is no way to escape Iraq, except by withdrawing immediately, and that any delay in making this decision means nothing but more dead and more wounded.
But if you don't leave [Iraq] today, you will most certainly leave tomorrow, but you will leave after tens of thousands die, and many more are crippled and wounded.
And all of the same lies they said about Vietnam, they repeat today about Iraq. Did they not say that they would train the Vietnamese to manage their own affairs, and that they were there defending freedom in Vietnam?
Al Qaeda's leaders are eager to claim victory in Iraq. And should American forces withdraw, leaving Al Qaeda in Iraq a viable entity, we most certainly will hear victory speeches like the one Zawahiri prematurely delivered in early January 2006. Just over a month before, in a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy on November 30, President Bush had trumpeted the progress made in training Iraqi forces. He had explained the U.S. strategy for Iraq by saying, "And as the Iraqi security forces stand up, coalition forces can stand down." The very hint that American forces would leave Iraq any time soon led Zawahiri to taunt:
I congratulate everyone for the victory in Iraq. You remember, my dear Muslim brethren, what I told you more than a year ago, that the U.S. troops will pull out of Iraq. It was only a matter of time.
Here they are now and in the blessing of God begging to pull out, seeking negotiations with the mujahedeen. And here is Bush who was forced to announce at the end of last November that he will be pulling his troops out of Iraq.
He uses the pretext that the Iraqi forces reached a high level of preparedness. But he doesn't have a timetable for the pullout.
If all of his troops--air force, army--are begging for a way to get out of Iraq, will the liars, traitors and infidels succeed in what the world superpower failed to achieve in Iraq?
You have set the timetable for the withdrawal a long time ago and Bush, you have to admit that you were defeated in Iraq, you are being defeated in Afghanistan, and you will be defeated in Palestine, God willing.
It may already be too late to save Iraq. It is possible that the current surge strategy will fail. And the war raging in Iraq--let us be clear--is certainly not "all al Qaeda, all the time," as some critics now accuse the Bush administration of believing. But the idea that the Iraq war has nothing to do with al Qaeda is demonstrably false.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri's own words tell us that the American project in Iraq jeopardizes everything their group stands for: These two top leaders of al Qaeda have promised the people of the Middle East that al Qaeda will protect Muslim soil from the "Crusader-Zionist" invaders, even if the region's rulers will not, and even if doing so meant cooperating with the "apostate" Saddam.
Zawahiri believes that Iraq is al Qaeda's best opportunity for establishing a true Islamist state in the heart of the Middle East. Democracy does not belong in the region, the two men say, and only an Islamic government based on sharia law is acceptable in Iraq. The mujahedeen will drive the Americans out of Iraq using the same tactics they used to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. America's leaders and soldiers are weak, al Qaeda says. They are looking for a way to run from the fight in Iraq, and they will do so, bin Laden exults, while the "whole world is watching."
The whole world, that is, except the leading Democratic candidates for president.
Thomas Joscelyn is a terrorism researcher and economist living in New York.