But the recent developments in Iraq and Canada have
obscured other new evidence that points toward a very different reality:
that the Islamic terror threat was never as severe as Bush made it out
to be after the 9/11 attacks and that it has been fading ever since.
While Bush has sought to frighten the American
people with apocalyptic visions of Islamic terrorists establishing an
empire that “spans from Spain to Indonesia,” the new intelligence data
actually reveals al-Qaeda as a largely dissipated force that now exists
more as an inspiration to violence than as an organized movement.
Indeed, since 9/11, with Osama bin-Laden on the run
and many other al-Qaeda leaders captured or killed, leading
theoreticians of Islamic terror have jettisoned the idea of a tightly
organized movement that could take territory or even mount coordinated
Instead, these strategists have been reduced to
encouraging scattered acts of crude violence by home-grown terror cells
that can manage to scrape together their own resources, make their own
plans and launch attacks far less sophisticated than those on 9/11.
While still capable of some horrific acts of
violence, like the Madrid train bombings in 2004 or the London subway
bombings in 2005, these self-motivated cells would seem to represent
more of a police challenge than a justification for putting the U.S.
government onto a perpetual war footing with a President exercising
total – or “plenary” – authority.
In fact, it could be argued that the excesses of
Bush’s “war on terror” – the invasion of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison
abuses, alleged torture at Guantanamo Bay and secret CIA prisons – have
become the central organizing tool and the chief motivating force for
the emerging shape of Islamic terrorism.
U.S. and other Western intelligence agencies have
been aware of this altered structure of the Islamic terror threat for
the past couple of years and have developed detailed knowledge since the
capture of terror theorist Mustafa Setmariam Nasar in October 2005.
Nasar “has turned out to be a prize catch, a man
who is not a bomb-maker or operational planner but one of the jihad
movement’s prime theorists for the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world,” the
Washington Post reported in a little-noted article in May 2006.
Nasar’s masterwork was a 1,600-page treatise
entitled “The Call for Global Islamic Resistance,” which has been
circulating on the Internet for about 18 months, the Post reported.
Nasar’s manifesto urged self-sustaining cells to engage in resistance
against the West with organizational links kept to an absolute minimum.
“The enemy is strong and powerful, we are weak and
poor, the war duration is going to be long and the best way to fight it
is in a revolutionary jihad way for the sake of Allah,” wrote Nasar, a
47-year-old Spanish-Syrian citizen who was captured in the city of
Quetta, Pakistan and has since been questioned by various Western
intelligence agencies. [Washington Post, May, 23, 2006]
While Nasar’s theories and other intelligence
discoveries suggest that Islamic terror will remain a sporadic problem
into the future, the information also puts that danger into perspective
and suggests that some calibration of the Western counterterrorism
strategies could be helpful in reducing the risk even more.
In contrast to the alarmist warnings from Bush
about the construction of a global terrorist empire, the current
strategy of the Islamic terrorists appears to be mostly defensive in
nature. The attacks in Spain and London, for instance, targeted nations
that were participating in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Spain has since withdrawn its troops, but Great
Britain remains engaged in the conflict and there have been no follow-up
attacks since the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings that were carried out
by four Muslim youths, mostly long-time residents from the industrial
region around Leeds.
The 17 Canadian Muslims, including five juveniles,
were arrested in early June 2006 on charges of plotting a series of
bombings in Ontario that also allegedly were motivated by anger over
Western military action in an Islamic nation. Canada has deployed 2,300
soldiers to the conflict in Afghanistan.
Other documents purportedly captured from
terrorists in Iraq further reinforce this image of a struggling movement
that is fueled by the fury felt by individual Muslims over the U.S.
invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
For instance, a captured 6,000-word letter
purportedly sent by al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman Zawahiri to
Zarqawi on July 9, 2005, revealed a weakened organization worried that a
U.S. withdrawal from Iraq might cause many of its foreign jihadists to
lay down their arms and go home.
According to the letter, as released by U.S.
intelligence, Zawahiri hoped that after U.S. forces left Iraq, al-Qaeda's
contingent could hold out in some Sunni enclaves and keep the jihadists
in line by promising the eventual creation of a “caliphate” in an area
along the Mediterranean Sea to Egypt, known as the Lavant.
But the “Zawahiri letter” recognized the weakness
of al-Qaeda’s position, especially if the U.S. military suddenly
withdrew. Not only might al-Qaeda find itself surrounded by hostile
forces, but many of the jihadists might be inclined to call it quits.
The “Zawahiri letter” floated the “idea” of an
Islamic caliphate “only to stress … that the mujahedeen must not have
their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and
then lay down their weapons, and silence the fighting zeal.”
In other words, assuming U.S. intelligence is
correct that the letter was written by Zawahiri, al-Qaeda saw promoting
the dream of an unlikely “caliphate” as a needed sales pitch to keep the
jihadists from returning to their everyday lives once the Americans
The letter also pictured al-Qaeda as a struggling
organization under financial and political duress, not a movement
plotting global domination. Al-Qaeda’s leaders were so short of funds
that they asked their embattled operatives in Iraq to send $100,000 to
relieve a cash squeeze, according to the letter.
Despite the Bush administration’s longstanding
efforts to make Zarqawi the terrifying poster boy of the Iraqi
insurgency, U.S. intelligence knew that Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda contingent of
foreign fighters represented only a small percentage of the armed
resistance to U.S. and allied forces in Iraq.
Most intelligence assessments put the size of this
foreign jihadist force at only a few thousand fighters, or around 5
percent of the overall Iraqi insurgency.
In 2005, a report by the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, a conservative Washington-based think tank, said
the number of foreign fighters was “well below 10 percent, and may well
be closer to 4 percent to 6 percent.” [See CSIS’s “Saudi
Militants in Iraq,” Sept. 19, 2005]
A former U.S. official with access to intelligence
on the Iraqi insurgency cited similar numbers in an interview with the
New York Times, estimating that 95 percent of the insurgents are Iraqis.
[NYT, Oct. 15, 2005]
Also, suggesting that the international threat from
Islamic terrorists was less severe than Bush let on was the historical
fact that Muslim nations succeeded, again and again, in suppressing
radical movements as long as Western powers stayed out of the way.
In an Oct. 6, 2005, speech, Bush inadvertently
underscored this point when he noted that “over the past few decades,
radicals have specifically targeted Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan
and Jordan for potential takeover.” Bush could have added Algeria to the
list of countries that faced a radical Islamic threat.
But the bottom line to all these cases was that the
radicals were defeated, explaining why so many of al-Qaeda’s leaders are
exiles. Osama bin-Laden is a Saudi; Zawahiri is an Egyptian; Zarqawi was
a Jordanian. In the late 1990s, bin-Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders
were even banished from the Sudan, forcing them to flee to remote
Bush, however, has offered his own chilling vision
of al-Qaeda’s global power.
In that Oct. 6, 2005, speech, Bush asserted that
Muslim extremists intended to use Iraq as a base to “establish a radical
Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia” and thus would
isolate and strategically defeat the United States.
The disparity between the intelligence data about
al-Qaeda’s weaknesses and Bush’s claims about the group’s extraordinary
prowess suggests that Bush is still exaggerating the threat posed by his
Islamic enemies, much as he hyped allegations of Iraqi weapons of mass
destruction to justify invading Iraq in March 2003.
Just as he roused American fears with images of
“mushroom clouds” from hypothetical Iraqi nuclear bombs, Bush now
appears to be presenting an off-the-charts worst-case scenario about the
threat from Islamic extremism.
In that same speech, Bush likened al-Qaeda leaders
to historic tyrants, such as Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, suggesting
that anyone opposed to the Iraq War was inviting slaughter on a massive
But there are few indications that al-Qaeda’s
leaders – believed to be holed up in the mountains along the
Pakistani-Afghan border – represent that level of threat.
Instead, Bush’s intent appears to be to use a
never-ending hyped-up threat of Islamic terrorism as the organizing
principle for a new authoritarian form of government in the United
States. By keeping Americans scared, he and his advisers believe they
can exert virtually unlimited power inside the United States without
Bush’s strategy also might have a circular quality
to it. As long as he cites the threat of Islamic terrorism, he can
maintain enough political support to keep U.S. troops in Iraq and
continue the operation of the Guantanamo Bay prison.
That, in turn, will keep young Muslims riled up and
thus increase the likelihood of sporadic violence in the months ahead.
That will further stoke the fears inside the United States and let Bush
consolidate his authoritarian powers even more.
So, the ultimate danger from al-Qaeda and any
home-grown spin-offs may not be from the violence that they can inflict
but from their status as the bogeymen who can scare the American people
into surrendering the democratic Republic envisioned by the Founders.