Wednesday, April 13, 2005

When the Flypaper Loses Its Stickiness

Tom Friedman has a theory (I know, so what else is new) about the reasons behind the lack of a terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11. According to Friedman, this positive outcome is largely the result of two factors (aside from the increased security measures and scrutiny by the intelligence community): First, Al Qaeda's base of operations was disrupted in Afghanistan making planning and coordination attacks in America more difficult; Second, and according to Friedman more importantly, the ranks of the jihadists, as well as the attention of the leaders of the movement, were drawn to Iraq because of the importance of defeating America in the "heart of the Arab-Muslim world" - aided in this cause by the logistical niceties of proximity and ease of access. This is a basic recasting of the "flypaper theory" which denotes the tangential benefit of invading Iraq as the ability to fight the jihadists over there, rather than in America. Friedman contends, however, that the flypaper may be losing its adhesive force with the gradual success of the "new Iraq."

The reason things may be getting more dangerous now is that the formation of a freely elected government in Iraq may signal that the Baathist-Jihadist insurgency is being gradually defeated. The U.S. may even be able to withdraw some troops. And there is nothing worse for the Baathists and Jihadists than to be defeated in the heart of their world - and, even more so, to be defeated in the heart of their world by other Arabs and Muslims who are repudiating the Jihadists' vision and tactics.

I fear that when and if the Jihadists conclude that they have been defeated in the heart of their world, they will be sorely tempted to throw a Hail Mary pass. That is, they may want to launch a spectacular, headline-grabbing act of terrorism in America that tries to mask, and compensate for, just how defeated they have become at home.
This may or may not be true, but if it is true then it is time to take stock of the unfortunate role Iraq has played in establishing a locus to form networks, provide training, and conduct the additional indoctrination for the jihadists that will, according to Friedman, disengage from Iraq to search out American targets. This is what happens to the fly-paper theory when you realize that underneath the fly-paper is an incubator, and the flies that can avoid the paper emerge stronger, better connected, more focused, more resilient, and in many ways unable to re-enter society writ large and thus left with few options other than to pursue a life of jihad. In February, Porter Goss told Congress of the incubator effect (from an earlier post):

"Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists," CIA Director Porter J. Goss told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

"These jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced and focused on acts of urban terrorism," he said. "They represent a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups and networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries."
As Matthew Yglesias points out, referring to the work of Marc Sageman and Richard Clarke on this topic, Afghanistan previously served as the central hub for Al Qaeda, providing a known location for potential recruits to travel to and, in essence, try-out for a spot in Al Qaeda - at which point they would receive more practical and ideological training. With Iraq replacing Afghanistan, we get the advantage of the flypaper's allure, but this comes with a different cost.

Thus, having created a new global locus for the jihad as part of the strategic error that was the Iraq War, we also get the side benefit of "flypaper." Basically, US civilian casualties are displaced onto US military personnel and Iraqis of various stripes.

So far, so good (or so bad). The real question, however, is what happens if the jihad in Iraq ends? It would be remarkably odd if we wind up killing every single jihadi before going home. Either we'll need to start pulling troops out with many jihadis still in the field, or else we'll start gaining the upper hand and many jihadis will make themselves scarce. Either way, a new generation of recruits will have signed up, new networks will have been formed, and when people depart Iraq (either because we've won, or else because we've lost) they'll go somewhere else and start waging jihad there. Most of the native-born Iraqis who've joined up for the fight against America will probably stay put in Iraq, but not all of them will. You still won't be talking about a huge number of people, but the flipside of the insight that al-Qaeda was never a particularly large organization is that al-Qaeda never needed to be a particularly large institution to mount attacks on the scale of WTC, Bali, Madrid, etc.
It is true that certain segments of Muslim society were seduced, and would have been seduced, by the ideologies, mythologies, and propaganda of Bin Laden and Zawahiri with or without the invasion of Iraq (although the invasion was surely a boon to these radicalizing efforts). But the point is, this once disconnected, unskilled riff-raff can now acquire the contacts, training, and expertise that greatly augments their lethality. The difference between amateur jihadists and those learned in the art of terror should not be underestimated, and this unintended outcome of the Iraq invasion could blowback on us ala Friedman. For a glimpse at the contrast, compare the series of bombings in Morocco on May 16, 2003 with the Madrid bombings of March 11, 2003.

In Casablanca, Morocco, the terror cell was a group of mostly uneducated, impoverished men inspired by the work of Bin Laden, and local radical Imams, with no real substantive training. Their only connection to Al Qaeda, aside from ideological admiration, was a spattering of superficial guidance from some compatriots who had brief stints in camps in Afghanistan and/or Pakistan. The result was a series of poorly executed attacks that created a backlash amongst the indigenous population. While the cells targeted ostensibly Jewish locations (and one European), all forty five of the victims were Muslims from the region, and thus the population was confused and angered rather than sympathetic. The attacks by similarly unpolished copycats in Saudi Arabia and Istanbul, Turkey also resulted in mostly Muslim casualties and an alienation, rather than inspiration, of the local populations. As Gilles Kepel notes in The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, after the Istanbul bombings, a local Islamist newspaper ran the headline: "Sixty-nine Dead, But Only Six Jews."

For the train bombings in Madrid, on the other hand, the links of the ring leaders to Al Qaeda were strong and these connections were instrumental in shaping the contours of the destruction. The differences in methodology, symbolism, and efficiency were profound. As the attacks of 9/11 targeted a symbol of American culture, air-travel, the Madrid bombings chose a means of travel emblematic of Europe, trains. There was also a significance to the choice of Spain as a target because of the view of Bin Laden and his ilk that Spain, once part of the Muslim world as a result of the Moorish incursion, should be reconquered (a charge that resonates to some degree in the Muslim world at large). Even in minutiae, there were layered meanings: the trains carrying the deadly explosives departed from towns with Muslim names - Alcala de Henares (from al-qala, meaning the fortress) and Guadalajara (from wadi-al hajara, meaning rocky river). The effects were also of a magnitude far deadlier than their amateurish counterparts with 191 dead and more than 1,800 wounded - almost all of them Europeans.

Even then, and despite the tragic toll, the death count was serendipitously low. The explosives were set to go off as both trains were entering the station to maximize the carnage, potentially with thousands more dead and a collapse of the station, but since the trains were running behind schedule, the station and its commuters were spared.

The problem we will now be dealing with, whether Iraq progresses toward a peaceful and stable democracy, or whether it descends into partition and civil strife, is that a new generation of jihadists will emerge with various and sundry networks of well trained and ideologically schooled operatives with the ability to pull off more Madrids than Casablancas.

(cross-posted at Liberals Against Terrorism)

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?