The war in Iraq has become a “cause célèbre” for Islamic extremists, breeding deep resentment of the U.S. that probably will get worse before it gets better, federal intelligence analysts conclude in a report at odds with President Bush’s contention of a world growing safer.
In the bleak report, declassified and released Tuesday on Bush’s orders, the nation’s most veteran analysts conclude that despite serious damage to the leadership of al-Qaida, the threat from Islamic extremists has spread both in numbers and in geographic reach.
Bush and his top advisers have said the formerly classified assessment of global terrorism supported their arguments that the world is safer because of the war. But more than three pages of stark judgments warning about the spread of terrorism contrasted with the administration’s glass-half-full declarations.
“If this trend continues, threats to U.S. interests at home and abroad will become more diverse, leading to increasing attacks worldwide,” the document says. “The confluence of shared purpose and dispersed actors will make it harder to find and undermine jihadist groups.”
The intelligence assessment, completed in April, has stirred a heated election-season argument over the course of U.S. national security in the years following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Virtually all assessments of the current situation were bad news. The report’s few positive notes were couched in conditional terms, depending on successful completion of difficult tasks ahead for the U.S. and its allies. In one example, analysts concluded that more responsive political systems in Muslim nations could erode support for jihadist extremists.
Leaked sections spark criticism
Bush ordered a declassified section of the secret report released after several days of criticism sparked by portions that were leaked to the news media over the weekend. Bush said Tuesday critics who believe the Iraq war has worsened terrorism are naive and mistaken.
“To suggest that if we weren’t in Iraq we would see a rosier scenario, with fewer extremists joining the radical movement, requires us to ignore 20 years of experience,” Bush said.
The unclassified document said:
- The increased role of Iraqis in opposing al-Qaida in Iraq might lead the terror group’s veteran foreign fighters to refocus their efforts outside that country.
- While Iran and Syria are the most active state sponsors of terror, many other countries will be unable to prevent their resources from being exploited by terrorists.
- The underlying factors that are fueling the spread of the extremist Muslim movement outweigh its vulnerabilities. These factors are entrenched grievances and a slow pace of reform in home countries, rising anti-U.S. sentiment and the Iraq war.
- Groups “of all stripes” will increasingly use the Internet to communicate, train, recruit and obtain support.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a U.S. ally in Washington for a Thursday meeting with Bush, found himself drawn into the political dispute. He was asked in a CNN interview about an assertion in his new book that he opposed the invasion of Iraq because he feared that it would only encourage extremists and leave the world less safe.
“I stand by it, absolutely,” Musharraf said. “It has made the world a more dangerous place.”
More jihadists, report says
White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend took issue with one of the report’s most damning conclusions: that the number of jihadists has increased.
“I don’t think there’s any question that there’s an increase in rhetoric,” she said. But “I think it’s difficult to count the number of true jihadists that are willing to commit murder or kill themselves in the process.”
The intelligence assessment also lays out weaknesses of the movement that analysts say must be exploited if its spread is to be slowed. For instance, they note that extremists want to see the establishment of strict Islamic governments in the Arab world — a development they say would be unpopular with most Muslims.
The report also argues that the loss of key al-Qaida leaders — Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — in “rapid succession” would probably cause the group to fracture. Al-Zarqawi was killed in June, but the top two al-Qaida leaders have remained elusive for years.
Hours before the report was made public, Democrats seized on the political ammunition. Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Carl Levin of Michigan both said release of the key findings alone wouldn’t give Americans enough information, and they accused the administration of selective declassification.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sought a rare secret session of the House to discuss the report’s classified findings. Her request was rejected — 217-171 — on a nearly straight party-line vote. In an interview, she said the intelligence estimate “is not a corroboration of what the president is saying. It is a contradiction of what the president is saying.”