Poisonous legacy of Iraq

FOUR years ago the US and its coalition of the willing plunged into Iraq to punish it among others for an alleged connection with the 9/11 attacks. In a self-fulfilling prophesy, what was not true then has come to pass: Iraq has become the mecca of terrorism against people of all faith. It is as good as an occasion as any to examine the roots of an American blunder and its consequences.

By Fawaz A Gerges

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Published: Sat 31 Mar 2007, 9:18 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:53 PM

The US has long viewed terrorism as ahistorical and apolitical, more of a moral mutation than a social phenomenon, which can be battered away with military might. Analysing jihadists as social actors driven by political, religious and geostrategic concerns may prove beneficial to the US and the world at large in seeking a lasting and nuanced political-diplomatic strategy to deal with this essentially social phenomenon.

Three background points are in order:

The jihadist enterprise represents a tiny fraction of the larger Islamist movement, which renounced violence in the early 1970s and which dominates the social and political space in most Muslim societies.

From the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s, the jihadist movement targeted Arab and Muslim governments, particularly in Egypt and Algeria, and labelled them as the “near enemy.”

It was not until the second half of the 1990s that a small fraction of jihadists, Al Qaeda and its affiliates, decided to target the US and some of its Western allies, and labelled them as the “far enemy.”

After September 11, 2001, some simple questions were not fully addressed: Why did Bin Laden and his associates suddenly turn their guns on the “far enemy” after having been in the same trenches during the 1980s and 1990s? Why did they target civilians, when up to the mid-1990s Bin Laden went on record saying that he opposed targeting Western civilians?

I ask these questions to understand the reasons behind the shift in tactics and strategy on the part of Al Qaeda jihadists: the shift away from attacking local Arab and Muslim governments to attacking the US and its allies, and the shift to using terrorism and attacking civilians on a large scale.

Understanding the changing geopolitical and geostrategic contexts, and how they motivated jihadists, is essential to understanding two fundamental shifts in Al Qaeda’s conduct.

When I began interviewing mainstream and militant Islamists in the 1990s, I could not find documents that made a case for targeting the US and its citizens. Jihadist manifestos focused on the “near enemy.” Ayman Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s #2 in charge, advised followers as late as 1995 that “The road to Jerusalem goes through Cairo.”

However, after US military intervention in the 1990 Gulf War and the subsequent decision to permanently station troops in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, in 1991, Bin Laden left Saudi Arabia on a murderous journey. Of course, other factors were involved, such as the defeat of Russian forces in Afghanistan, the emboldening of the Afghan Arabs and the defeat of jihadists on their home fronts, Egypt and Algeria, in the late 1990s. Without a doubt, geopolitics was instrumental in motivating jihadists to attack the American homeland.

As to why Bin Laden and his associates decided to target civilians by carrying out suicide bombings, three factors were pivotal: First, Zawahiri, ideologue and theoretician of jihadism, was instrumental in convincing Bin Laden to go suicidal; second, Bin Laden blamed his expulsion from Sudan to Afghanistan in the 1990s on Saudi Arabia and the US; and finally, Bin Laden miscalculated by thinking that killing Americans would force the US to change its Mideast policies.

Sadly, the dominant narrative in Washington neglects the role of politics and foreign policy in driving violence and constantly downplays political means in combating it. In fact, the Bush administration, while paying lip service to public diplomacy, has relied excessively on militarism to wage all-out war against an unconventional and fractured foe.

The irony is that Bin Laden and Zawahiri had actually failed to draw the bulk of former jihadists into their war against the US. Many former jihadists, whom I interviewed in the late 1990s and after 9/11, said that while delighted at America’s humiliation, they also feared that Bin Laden and Zawahiri recklessly endangered survival of the Islamist movement. Instead of the river of recruits to Afghanistan, only a trickle of volunteers signed up to defend the Taleban and Al Qaeda after 9/11.

Widespread empathy for the victims came from the Arab and Muslim world. Leading Muslim clerics and opinion makers condemned Al Qaeda’s terrorist tactics and exposed the falsity on which Al Qaeda based its jihad. An historic moment was lost, as the Bush administration declared war against both real and imagined enemies.

What if the Bush administration, after toppling the Taleban and pursuing Al Qaeda, had constructed a political vision, one that sought to resolve the region’s simmering conflicts, particularly the Arab-Israeli dispute?

What if the Bush administration had built alliances with Muslim civil societies as opposed to relying on corrupt, oppressive local regimes?

What if the Bush administration had developed a Marshall Plan, with European and Asian partners, to rejuvenate stagnant Middle Eastern economies? Imagine if the American foreign-policy elite had the vision to allocate $400 billion —US Congressional appropriations for the war so far —to the building of institutions and civil societies in the Muslim world, healing historic wounds.

Imagine if the Bush administration had genuinely made the democratic paradigm the foundation of its foreign policy toward Muslim societies, using carrots and sticks, rather than guns and bombs, to persuade dictators to open political systems.

The rhetoric of democracy amounts to little unless translated into concrete actions like institution building, reducing the huge existing socio-economic inequities, trying to resolve regional conflicts and showing a universal commitment to human rights and the rule of law.

A political approach would have been more effective in combating extremism. Terrorism could have been reduced to an inconsequential phenomenon.

Expansion of the so-called “war on terror” has radicalised mainstream Muslim public opinion and provided ideological ammunition to militants. In particular, the US-led invasion of Iraq and subsequent violations of human rights have created a new generation of radicals who search for ways to join the jihad caravan.

In my travels in the Arab world, I have met young Muslim teens, with no prior Islamist or jihadist background, desperately trying to raise a meagre sum of money to take a bus ride or an airline flight to the Syrian-Iraqi border and join the fight.

The reverberations of the Iraq war are heard on European streets and could soon reach American shores if Iraq fractures and sinks into an all-out civil war. A consensus is emerging within the European and US intelligence communities that the Iraq war is strengthening global jihad.

Tragically, the Iraq war has given rise to a new generation of militants who use terrorism as a rule, not an exception. More youngsters are deeply affected by what they see as external aggression perpetrated against their religion.

Thus, the Bush administration, instead of countering extremism with creative political initiatives, relied on militarism. By exacerbating regional fault lines, already shaking with tension, the decision may have caused irreparable damage, not just to US global strategy, but international peace and security.

Fawaz A Gerges, who holds the Christian Johnson Chair in Middle East and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence University, is author of the recently published Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy, recently published by Harcourt Press. Gerges is currently a Carnegie Scholar and visiting professor at the American University in Cairo.

2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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