Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank / Mother Jones – 2007-02-23 07:58:06
The Iraq War and Jihadist Terrorism
Jay Harris, President & Publisher, Mother Jones
(February 20, 2007) — An exclusive Mother Jones investigation documents how jihadist terrorism around the world has increased since the invasion of Iraq.
The study, by terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, uses data from the RAND Corporation to produce the first public report that measures the “Iraq effect”
on jihadist terrorism. Bergen and Cruickshank are Research Fellows at the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law. Bergen is also a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC.
Their report is summarized in the March issue of Mother Jones magazine. It documents that since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, incidents of jihadist violence in the world have increased by 607 percent, and the number of people killed in those attacks has risen by 237 percent.
Excluding violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the authors found a 35 percent rise in the number of jihadist attacks and a 12 percent rise in fatalities worldwide. They found that the rate of attacks on Western interests and citizens has risen by almost 25 percent.
This new study comes at a pivotal time as Congress and President Bush contend over authority to manage the war and its statistical analysis casts further doubt on the Bush administration’s claim that the Iraq invasion has helped stem global terrorism.
To help inform this critically important debate, Mother Jones is launching an extraordinary outreach effort to bring these sobering statistics to as wide an audience as possible. Today we’re holding a forum and press conference in Washington, D.C., to discuss the findings. We’ve scheduled Bergen on CNN, C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and numerous AM radio talk shows; and we’re contacting hundreds of bloggers and websites.
• To read the entire report, “The Iraq Effect: War Has Increased Terrorism Sevenfold Worldwide”, click here. The following is an excerpt from the longer report.
Increase in Suicide Bombing Attacks
* The Iraq front is where suicide bombing is employed most frequently.
* There have been 148 suicide bombing attacks in Iraq (43 percent of total Iraq attacks) post-March 2003.
* For the rest of the world there have been 47 suicide bombing attacks since the Iraq War began (13.5% of total attacks) whilst there were 6 in the period before. This corresponds to a 246% rise in the rate of suicide bombing attacks by jihadist groups. And the rate of those killed by suicide attacks rose by 24%.
* If Afghanistan is also excluded, there is a 150% rise in the rate of suicide attacks and a 14% increase in those killed in such attack
The Iraq Effect:
War Has Increased Terrorism Sevenfold Worldwide
Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank / Mother Jones
“If we were not fighting and destroying this enemy in Iraq, they would not be idle. They would be plotting and killing Americans across the world and within our own borders. By fighting these terrorists in Iraq, Americans in uniform are defeating a direct threat to the American people.”
So said President Bush on November 30, 2005, refining his earlier call to “bring them on.” Jihadist terrorists, the administration’s argument went, would be drawn to Iraq like moths to a flame, and would perish there rather than wreak havoc elsewhere in the world.
The president’s argument conveyed two important assumptions: first, that the threat of jihadist terrorism to U.S. interests would have been greater without the war in Iraq, and second, that the war is reducing the overall global pool of terrorists. However, the White House has never cited any evidence for either of these assumptions, and none appears to be publicly available.
The administration’s own National Intelligence Estimate on “Trends in Global Terrorism: implications for the United States,” circulated within the government in April 2006 and partially declassified in October, states that “the Iraq War has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists…and is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives.”
Yet administration officials have continued to suggest that there is no evidence any greater jihadist threat exists as a result of the Iraq War. “Are more terrorists being created in the world?” then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rhetorically asked during a press conference in September. “We don’t know. The world doesn’t know. There are not good metrics to determine how many people are being trained in a radical madrasa school in some country.”
In January 2007, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte in congressional testimony stated that he was “not certain” that the Iraq War had been a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda and played down the likely impact of the war on jihadists worldwide: “I wouldn’t say there has been a widespread growth in Islamic extremism beyond Iraq. I really wouldn’t.”
Indeed, though what we will call “The Iraq Effect” is a crucial matter for U.S. national security, we have found no statistical documentation of its existence and gravity, at least in the public domain. In this report, we have undertaken what we believe to be the first such study, using information from the world’s premier database on global terrorism. The results are being published for the first time by Mother Jones, the news and investigative magazine, as part of a broader “Iraq 101” package in the magazine’s March/April 2007 issue.
Our study shows that the Iraq War has generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks, amounting to literally hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and thousands of civilian lives lost; even when terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan is excluded, fatal attacks in the rest of the world have increased by more than one-third.
We are not making the argument that without the Iraq War, jihadist terrorism would not exist, but our study shows that the Iraq conflict has greatly increased the spread of the Al Qaeda ideological virus, as shown by a rising number of terrorist attacks in the past three years from London to Kabul, and from Madrid to the Red Sea.
The Globalization of Martyrdom
The globalization of jihad and martyrdom, accelerated to a significant degree by the Iraq War, has some disquieting implications for American security in the future. First, it has energized jihadist groups generally; second, not all foreign fighters attracted to Iraq will die there. In fact there is evidence that some jihadists are already leaving Iraq to operate elsewhere.
Saudi Arabia has made a number of arrests of fighters coming back from Iraq, and Jordanian intelligence sources say that 300 fighters have returned to Jordan from Iraq. As far away as Belgium, authorities have indicated that Younis Lekili, an alleged member of the cell that recruited Muriel Degauque, had previously traveled to fight in Iraq, where he lost his leg. (Lekili is awaiting trial in Belgium.)
German, French, and Dutch intelligence officials have estimated that there are dozens of their citizens returning from the Iraq theater, and some appear to have been determined to carry out attacks on their return to Europe. For example, French police arrested Hamid Bach, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, in June 2005 in Montpellier, several months after he returned from a staging camp for Iraq War recruits in Syria.
According to French authorities, Bach’s handlers there instructed him to assist with plotting terrorist attacks in Italy. Back in France, Bach is alleged to have bought significant quantities of hydrogen peroxide and to have looked up details on explosives and detonators online. (Bach is awaiting trial in France.)
This “blowback” trend will greatly increase when the war eventually winds down in Iraq. In the short term the countries most at risk are those whose citizens have traveled to fight in Iraq, in particular Arab countries bordering Iraq. Jamal Khashoggi, a leading Saudi expert on jihadist groups, told us that “while Iraq brought new blood into the Al Qaeda organization in Saudi Arabia, this was at a time when the network was being dismantled.
Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia could not accommodate these recruits so they sent them to Iraq to train them, motivate them, and prepare them for a future wave of attacks in the Kingdom. It is a deep worry to Saudi authorities that Saudis who have gone to Iraq will come back.” That’s a scenario for which Khashoggi says Saudi security forces are painstakingly preparing.
Americans Join the Jihad
Several US citizens have tried to involve themselves in the Iraq jihad. In December an American was arrested in Cairo, Egypt, accused of being part of a cell plotting terrorist attacks in Iraq. And in February 2006 three Americans from Toledo, Ohio, were arrested for allegedly plotting to kill U.S. military personnel in Iraq.
According to the FBI, one of these individuals, Mohammad Zaki Amawi, was in contact with an Arab jihadist group sending fighters to Iraq and tried unsuccessfully to cross the border into Iraq. However, to date there is no evidence of Americans actually fighting in Iraq so the number of returnees to the United States is likely to be small. The larger risk is that jihadists will migrate from Iraq to Western countries, a trend that will be accelerated if, as happened following the Afghan jihad against the Soviets, those fighters are not allowed to return to their home countries.
Already terrorist groups in Iraq may be in a position to start sending funds to other jihadist fronts. According to a U.S. government report leaked to the New York Times in November 2006, the fact that insurgent and terrorist groups are raising up to $200 million a year from various illegal activities such as kidnapping and oil theft in Iraq means that they “may have surplus funds with which to support other terrorist organizations outside Iraq.”
Indeed, a letter from Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman al Zawahiri, to Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi in July 2005 contained this revealing request: “Many of the [funding] lines have been cut off. Because of this we need a payment while new lines are being opened. So if you’re capable of sending a payment of approximately one hundred thousand we’ll be very grateful to you.”
Iraq and the ‘Lionization’ of Martyrs
The “globalization of martyrdom” prompted by the Iraq War has not only attracted foreign fighters to die in Iraq (we record 148 suicide-terrorist attacks in Iraq credited to an identified jihadist group) but has also encouraged jihadists to conduct many more suicide operations elsewhere.
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there has been a 246 percent rise in the rate of suicide attacks (6 before and 47 after) by jihadist groups outside of Iraq and a 24 percent increase in the corresponding fatality rate. Even excluding Afghanistan, there has been a 150 percent rise in the rate of suicide attacks and a 14 percent increase in the rate of fatalities attributable to jihadists worldwide.
The reasons for the spread of suicide bombing attacks in other jihadist theaters are complex but the success of these tactics in Iraq, the lionization that Iraqi martyrs receive on jihadist websites, and the increase in feelings of anger and frustration caused by images of the Iraq War have all likely contributed significantly. The spread of suicide bombings should be of great concern to the United States in defending its interests and citizens around the world, because they are virtually impossible to defend against.
The Iraq War has also encouraged the spread of more hardline forms of jihad (the corollary to an increase in suicide bombing). Anger and frustration over Iraq has increased the popularity, especially among young militants, of a hardcore takfiri ideology that is deeply intolerant of divergent interpretations of Islam and highly tolerant of extreme forms of violence.
The visceral anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Shiism widely circulated among the Internet circles around ideologues such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada (both Jordanian-Palestinian mentors to Abu Musab al Zarqawi) and Al Qaeda’s Syrian hawk, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, are even more extreme, unlikely as it may sound, than the statements of bin Laden himself.
Our study shows just how counterproductive the Iraq War has been to the war on terrorism. The most recent State Department report on global terrorism states that the goal of the United States is to identify, target, and prevent the spread of “jihadist groups focused on attacking the United States or its allies [and those groups that] view governments and leaders in the Muslim world as their primary targets.”
Yet, since the invasion of Iraq, attacks by such groups have risen more than sevenfold around the world. And though few Americans have been killed by jihadist terrorists in the past three years it is wishful thinking to believe that this will continue to be the case, given the continued determination of militant jihadists to target the country they see as their main enemy. We will be living with the consequences of the Iraq debacle for more than a decade.
Special thanks to Mike Torres and Zach Stern at NYU and Kim Cragin and Drew Curiel at RAND.