The Bush administration rejects the idea that the war in Iraq has driven young Arab men into the arms of al-Qaida. But if you believe the young men themselves, the administration is wrong.
At a Baghdad jail for prisoners who have attacked U.S. forces, everyone — to a man — says it was the U.S. occupation of Iraq that drove them to violence. And they are not alone. Across the Middle East and South Asia, the same story can be heard in Internet cafes, mosques, safe houses and prisons.
“The U.S. says this war is part of the global war on terrorism,” Saedi Farhan, an Iraqi engineer who took part in an attack on U.S. forces, said in a weekend interview with NBC News. "But people here say that the war has increased fanaticism and brought terrorism to Iraq."
Interviews with Farhan and other radicals reveal that many young men were torn when it came time to choose sides. Even though they fight alongside al-Qaida, they insist that — contrary to what U.S. officials say — they do not support al-Qaida. Many, in fact, say they hate al-Qaida.
But they hate the United States more.
Turned against the Americans
“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 also admitted attacking U.S. troops.
At a government rehabilitation center in Saudi Arabia, many radicals say they now reject the al-Qaida philosophy. But at the same time, they admit that the U.S. occupation of Iraq drove many of them to join the movement and that it still drives their hatred of America. Some, in fact, were arrested for trafficking in Internet videos about Iraq designed specifically to motivate and recruit for al-Qaida.
One of them, Saddam Sogoby, says he was recruited over the Internet, seduced by videos of Iraqis fighting America.
In Zarqa, Jordan — home of the late leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — one member of the group, a 19-year-old high school dropout, told NBC News earlier this year that he was ready to carry out suicide bombings in Iraq — or anywhere else he was ordered to.
He, like many others in the Middle East, cannot look away from the powerful images of destruction to which many Americans have become desensitized. Indeed, they say they do not want to look away from what is happening to their neighbors, their fellow Arabs and Muslims.
It is often those videos that fuel the fire for these young men, nearly all of whom are educated, middle class and skilled in using the Internet to recruit for al-Qaida.
The daily stream of images from wartorn Iraq — of screaming men, women and particularly children; burned-out cars; twisted metal — has dramatically increased the organization’s pool of recruits, said al-Qaida sympathizers in cell after cell.
Recruiting impact ‘remains to be seen’
Like other U.S. officials, Adm. Scott Redd, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, says it still is not proven whether a visceral response to scenes of U.S. destruction is radicalizing a generation of young Arab and Muslim men.
“In the short term, that is probably true,” Redd said. “But ... I believe in the long-term strategic deal. And that remains to be seen."
But other U.S. officials are beginning to reject that view. And the closer they are to fighting the threat on the ground, the more vigorously they seem to reject it.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly expresses no doubt that the war has made his job harder.
“I think there is no question about it, that the war in Iraq has been a catalyst," Kelly said.
While the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington are often invoked to justify the war, Kelly said the war has actually made New York less safe.
“That’s what we have to deal with,” he said. “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.”
‘Chasing the wrong bad guys’
Bruce Riedel, a former Middle East expert with the CIA, said that the Bush administration was unable to admit that it had made mistakes and that the war had made things worse.
“We’ve got our best and brightest in the wrong desert, chasing the wrong bad guys,” said Riedel, who was the National Security Council’s senior director for Near East and North African affairs on 9/11. “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.” — that is, Osama bin Laden.
The war has “made America less safe,” he contended. “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.”
President Bush’s homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, remains unconvinced. The picture is a distortion, she suggests, maintaining that the war is simply a convenient rallying cry for jihadists sworn to destroying the West.
If it were not al-Qaida, it would be “something else,” Townsend said, citing a steady stream of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests before the invasion of Iraq.
“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,” Townsend said.
“There’s no question,” she said, that for bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, “the war in Iraq is critical for them to win. There’s no question that they look to ... leverage [the] expertise of fighters in Iraq, not only inside Iraq but around the world.”
Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC News, based in New York. Richard Engel is NBC News’ chief Middle East correspondent. For the past several months, he has worked on a series of investigative reports on “the New Al-Qaida.”
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