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Overselling Terror

By Robert Parry
June 9, 2006

The killing of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq and the arrest of 17 suspects in an alleged terror plot in Canada have buoyed George W. Bush’s political prospects by refocusing America’s attention again on the terror threat, much as the orange color-coded warnings did from 2002 until Election 2004.

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 attacks.

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.

Captured Theorist

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.

Zawahiri’s Letter

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 departed Iraq.

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.

Zarqawi’s Army

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 Afghanistan.

Hitler/Stalin

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 scale.

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 significant opposition.

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.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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