New Strategy for Terror

Michael Gordon writes in today’s NYT,

There was a cold and calculating logic behind the Madrid bombings, one that we are likely to see again in the coming months. The terrorists have turned the Bush doctrine on its head.

After the attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush declared that any nation that harbored terrorists would be considered just as culpable as the terrorists themselves. Putting that doctrine into action, the United States toppled the Taliban rulers in Afghanistan, who had given shelter to Al Qaeda members.

Now, the militants have developed their own cruel variant. Their plan is to attack any allies or international institutions cooperating with the Americans in Iraq. The aim is to pick away at the coalition until it is reduced to a few token deployments and one lonely and overstretched superpower — one that the militants hope will grow weary of its deployments in the Middle East.

This is both a cunning strategy and a matter of simple expediency. Whatever relationship may have existed between the Saddam Hussein regime and terror groups before the American-led invasion, both the United States and its militant foes now agree on one thing: Iraq counts. The Bush administration has argued that a democratic Iraq will be a catalyst for positive change in the Middle East, while terrorists like Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi have cast the American intervention there as an attempt to impose an alien set of values on Arabs and to protect Israel.


Even before the Madrid bombings, the terrorist strategy was being put to work in ways big and small. Last August, militants bombed the United Nations office in Baghdad, killing Sergio Vieria de Mello, the chief United Nations envoy to Iraq, prompting the world organization to withdraw its staff. In November, 19 Italians were killed by a truck bombing at their base in Nasiriyah, and two weeks after that, 7 Spanish intelligence officers and 2 Japanese diplomats were slain in separate ambushes.

But the bombings in Spain represent a major escalation. They were clearly intended to bring the costs home to the Spanish and were timed to coincide with the election season there and to influence an electorate that was overwhelmingly opposed to the invasion of Iraq.

Given that Europe has so many soft and hard-to-defend targets and that much of the European public opposed the mission in Iraq, strategy and expediency suggest that European nations allied with Washington will be hit with more large-scale terror attacks.

Even if Osama bin Laden is captured and Al Qaeda is crushed, there is a strong likelihood that major terror attacks will continue. The C.I.A. director, George Tenet, said this month that in response to American pressure, Al Qaeda had evolved into a loose association of regional networks that operate more independently.

Mr. Tenet also explained that Mr. bin Laden had established Al Qaeda as much to inspire Muslims around the world to undertake a global Jihad against the United States as to carry out attacks on its own. Al Qaeda “has infected others with its ideology, which depicts the United States as Islam’s greatest foe,” Mr. Tenet said. “A serious threat will remain with or without Al Qaeda in the picture.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.