The Iraq-London link that really matters

Liberal bloggers have been at pains to point out that the connection between Iraq and the bombings in London isn’t “simple” — that is, the strikes aren’t “strictly” retribution for Britain’s supporting role in the war. (Who, by the way, is suggesting they are? And anyway, when did it become so easy to divine terrorists’ motivations?) Spencer Ackerman at TNR takes a more instructive approach to the question of a link.

For months, counterterrorism officials across Europe have been noticing a disturbing phenomenon: Local Islamic extremists are showing up in Baghdad, Falluja, Ramadi, and elsewhere. …

Iraq is closing the loop between terrorist desire and terrorist ability. David Low, a senior U.S. intelligence official, recently observed to Dana Priest of The Washington Post that Iraq provides “a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills” to jihadists. In other words, a Parisian or Milanese jihadist wannabe can now learn online which mosque in Syria to visit in order to meet the right middleman to smuggle him into Iraq, where Anbar province-based terrorist cells are eager for new recruits. Once in Iraq, he can learn all about remote-detonated improvised explosive devices and urban combat–extremely valuable skills for him to take back home, where he can pass them along to his associates. In May, classified CIA and State Department analyses warned about the serious threat that such terrorist “bleed out” from Iraq poses to U.S. national security.

The scope of this is unclear. Iraq is not, or not yet, a jihadist proving ground on the order of Afghanistan in the 1980s. If the above is correct, though, it is beginning to resemble, as a terrorist finishing school, the Afghanistan of the late 1990s.

Another notion doing the rounds is that yesterday’s bombings, however horrific, are evidence, in their small scale relative to 9/11 and even Madrid, of a weakening in terrorist capabilities. One would like to believe this, but it’s a very large conclusion to draw from a very small sample of attacks. And anyway, if Ackerman is correct that a fresh supply of battle-hardened jihadists is rolling off the Iraqi assembly line, the inference begins to look a lot like complacency.

Last year in Madrid and, most likely, yesterday in London, we saw what destruction jihadists without Iraq experience can inflict; those with Anbar province on their resumes can almost certainly do worse. Barring a dramatic reversal of our fortunes in Iraq, the class of ’05 may soon be ready to seek some horrific post-graduation employment.