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.
Several U.S. 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."
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.
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