Editor’s note: Richard Engel has covered the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism from the start. For the past several months, he has worked on a series of investigative reports on “the New Al-Qaida.” The effort has taken him to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and, most recently, Washington. In this report, he looks at the fundamental disconnect between what the jihadis say is driving their operations and what U.S. officials believe their rationale is.
Asked if the war in Iraq created a recruiting tool for al-Qaida, making the pool of jihadists deeper, Adm. Scott Redd who heads the National Counterterrorism Center, responded: “In the short term, that is … that is probably true. But the question is — you’ve got to look at this, I believe, in the long-term strategic deal. And that’s — that remains to be seen."
The jihadis don’t see it that way. A group of al-Qaida sympathizers in Zarqa, Jordan — home of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — told NBC News earlier this year that their pool of recruits has increased dramatically. They showed off a 19-year-old who had agreed to carry out suicide bombings in Iraq or anywhere else.
The would-be bomber, a high school dropout, told us he was inspired to fight because of the images he saw on television of the fighting in Iraq. They are powerful images. But many Americans have become desensitized to all those pictures of screaming men and women, burned-out cars and twisted metal. It’s easy to glance over what’s happening 7,000 miles away, especially as many want to look away. Many in the Middle East, however, can’t ignore — and don’t want to ignore — what is happening to their neighbors, fellow Arabs and Muslims.
In a Saudi rehab center, radicals now eschew the al-Qaida philosophy but admit that it was Iraq that drove many of them to join the movement. Many of the young men — nearly all educated and middle class — were arrested for trafficking Internet videos about Iraq designed specifically to motivate and recruit for al-Qaida.
Turned against the Americans
This weekend, we went to a Baghdad jail, reserved for those who have carried out attacks against U.S. troops. The feeling is the same.
To a man, each prisoner says, it was the American occupation of Iraq that drove him to violence. Many of these people hate al-Qaida but found themselves fighting on the same side.
“An aggressor occupied my country, destroyed it and made millions [of] refugees. It is an honor to fight this,” said Hamid Ali, the owner of a construction company, who admits to attacking American troops.
“The U.S. says this war is part of the global war on terrorism,” said Saedi Farhan, an engineer who had also attacked U.S. forces. “But people here say that the war has increased fanaticism and brought terrorism to Iraq."
Not all U.S. officials agree with the president’s top counterterrorism advisors, Fran Townsend and Redd. New York police officials certainly don’t. They are on the ground level fighting the threat.
Asked if the war in Iraq made his job harder, New York police commissioner Ray Kelly expressed no doubt whatsoever.
“I think there is no question about it that the war in Iraq has been a catalyst, has brought together people who perhaps otherwise be bent on attracting U.S. interest, not only overseas but over here as well,” he said.
Kelly grasped the irony that while 9/11 has often been used to justify the war, he believes the war has made New York less safe.
“That’s the world as it is,” Kelly said. “That’s the reality. That’s what we have to deal with. We can’t deal with the world as we wish it would be. That’s, in our judgment, a fact, and it has made our job perhaps more challenging, more difficult, yes.”
‘Chasing the wrong bad guys’
Bruce Riedel, a former Middle East expert with the CIA, says the administration cannot admit its mistake and agrees that Iraq has made things much worse. “We’ve got our best and brightest in the wrong desert, chasing the wrong bad guys,” said. “We need to put our best people in South Asia, going after the man who we know is planning another attack on the U.S.
“No question, it’s made America less safe. By diverting so much money, so much of our intelligence effort and so much of our special forces in the military to fighting a war in Iraq, we have diverted resources from the central battlefield in the war against al-Qaida.”
Townsend, though, suggests that is a distortion, that if it wasn’t Iraq, jihadis would have some other rallying cry.
“We should be very clear that every time we take the fight to the enemy, we make the United States safer and we make our citizens safer,” she said, defending the war in Iraq. “There’s no question that [for Osama] bin Laden himself, [like] Zawahiri, that the war in Iraq is critical for them to win. There’s no question that they look to take ... to leverage, expertise of fighters in Iraq, not only inside Iraq but around the world.”
And they might.
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