[ Terrorism experts like Pollack, Gunaratna, and Cannistraro agree that Bush’s Iraq War has helped create bin Ladenism. –BL ]
The Wrong War | Backdraft: How the war in Iraq has fueled Al Qaeda and ignited its dream of global jihad
by Peter Bergen
President Bush’s May 2003 announcement aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln that “major combat operations” had ended in Iraq has been replayed endlessly. What is less well remembered is just what the president claimed the United States had accomplished. “The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001,” he declared. The defeat of Saddam Hussein, he told the American people, was “a crucial advance in the campaign against terror.” In fact, the consensus now emerging among a wide range of intelligence and counterterrorism professionals is that the opposite is true: The invasion of Iraq not only failed to help the war on terrorism, but it represented a substantial setback.
In more than a dozen interviews, experts both within and outside the U.S. government laid out a stark analysis of how the war has hampered the campaign against Al Qaeda. Not only, they point out, did the war divert resources and attention away from Afghanistan, seriously damaging the prospects of capturing Al Qaeda leaders, but it has also opened a new front for terrorists in Iraq and created a new justification for attacking Westerners around the world. Perhaps most important, it has dramatically speeded up the process by which Al Qaeda the organization has morphed into a broad-based ideological movement?a shift, in effect, from bin Laden to bin Ladenism. “If Osama believed in Christmas, this is what he’d want under his Christmas tree,” one senior intelligence official told me. Another counterterrorism official suggests that Iraq might begin to resemble “Afghanistan 1996,” a reference to the year that bin Laden seized on Afghanistan, a chaotic failed state, as his new base of operations.
Even Kenneth Pollack, one of the nation’s leading experts on Iraq, whose book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq made the most authoritative case for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, says, “My instinct tells me that the Iraq war has hindered the war on terrorism. You had to deal with Al Qaeda first, not Saddam. We had not crippled the Al Qaeda organization when we embarked on the Iraq war.”
The damage to U.S. interests is hard to overestimate. Rohan Gunaratna, a Sri Lankan academic who is regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on Al Qaeda, points out that “sadness and anger about Iraq, even among moderate Muslims, is being harnessed and exploited by terrorist and extremist groups worldwide to grow in strength, size, and influence.” Similarly, Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of counterterrorism at the CIA under presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, says the Iraq war “accelerated terrorism” by “metastasizing” Al Qaeda. Today, Al Qaeda is more than the narrowly defined group that attacked the United States on September 11, 2001; it is a growing global movement that has been energized by the war in Iraq.