Al Qaeda’s Small Victories Add Up
It is all very well to talk about a global war on terrorism. To win it, however, you have to fight it Ã¢€” on every front. We know that by the time of the 9/11 attacks, some 70,000 to 100,000 young men had been through some form of Islamist training camp, and that Al Qaeda had affiliates or some kind of tie to movements in more than 60 countries. In the years that have followed, the United States defeated the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but failed to capture many of the leaders or secure the country, and has not completed the nation-building that could bring true victory. The dispersal of terrorists has destabilized western Pakistan, and the resulting political struggle has strengthened Islamists in the rest of the country and created a new regional threat.
Yet instead of wrapping up that fight, Washington invaded Iraq. While getting rid of Saddam Hussein was wonderful for the Iraqi people, there is still no evidence that Iraq was ever a center of terrorism or had strong ties to Islamist extremists. As in Afghanistan, we failed to secure the country after our military success and have been far to slow to create a meaningful plan for nation-building. There is daily, violent evidence that the American invasion has bred a mix of Iraqi Islamists and foreign volunteers that is a growing threat.
The International Institute of Strategic Studies in London has estimates that Al Qaeda and its affiliates now have a strength of 18,000 men, many joining the movement as a result of the Afghan and Iraq conflicts. Some American intelligence experts on Iraq feel that the number of insurgents may still be growing faster than Coalition Provision Authority’s military operations can reduce them.
It is simply not true that there is no evidence that Saddam was sponsoring terrorists. Indeed, Iraq was one of five states listed as official state sponsors of terrorism on the initial State Department “Patterns of Global Terrorism” list published in 1979. That was during the Carter Administration. Iraq remained on the list every year from then until our ouster of Saddam. That’s 25 straight years. Two Reagan terms. Bush 41. Two Clinton terms. And another Bush.
It’s also unclear to me why it is that more nation-building in Afghanistan “could bring true victory” whereas doing it in Iraq, a far more significant and populous state, is a diversion from the greater war effort.
It may well be that there has been a short-term spike in al Qaeda membership as the West has finally decided to join the war that the Islamists have been waging for a quarter century. The fight is on; it’s not surprising that this has spurred volunteers. The enemy, however, is not fighting us because it’s angry at what we’re doing now but rather waging a counter-crusade–against the Western infidels, the Jews, and the apostate regimes within their own faith. Certainly, we could have done some things better. But let’s not pretend that the Islamists will love us if only we’d play nice.
Update: Score one for our side:
The Saudi government yesterday outlined plans to dismantle all international charity organizations operating in the kingdom and place their holdings under a new commission in what officials said is an effort to stop the flow of funds to terrorist groups.
Frances Townsend, White House deputy national security adviser for terrorism, who has been working closely with the Saudi government to crack down on terrorism funding, told reporters in a conference call yesterday: “The Saudis have been frankly very aggressive about this. They have committed to financial transparency and auditing.”
While this is still a half measure, it’s a good sign that the Saudis finally recognize that they are, indeed, more hated by al Qaeda than the US and can’t survive by appeasing them. If the Saudis are doing this, other Arab regimes can’t be far behind.
Unlike traditional terrorist groups, those motivated by religious extremism do not seriously weigh the political consequences of their actions, since killing their enemies is an end, not a means. As a result, they often seriously miscalculate. Al Qaeda has done so by their recent attacks against Muslim governments. As Stephen Green notes, the Saudis may finally be on our side in this thing.