Caliphate of Terror

By misunderstanding al Qaeda and its nihilistic minions, the United States has made the world more dangerous.

This year, a group of international terrorists announced its intention to affect an election with the goal of replacing a government that favored the Iraq war with one that did not. They succeeded. A few weeks later, a taped message, presumed to be the voice of Osama bin Laden, offered a "truce" to America's European allies, provided that they would order their troops to leave Iraq and other Muslim lands. The al Qaeda movement has been cleverly exploiting tensions over the Iraq war to split America from its allies and to forge new alliances, not only with existing terrorist and insurgent groups, but also with ordinary people who oppose the Iraq war. What does this mean about our progress in the war on terrorism?

The terrorists — members of the movement inspired by al Qaeda — have become more adept at reading the popular pulse in Europe and elsewhere around the world than is the United States government. Al Qaeda and its nihilist minions understand that the majority of Europeans did not support the war in Iraq and are turning against America. They hope to increase the antipathy toward this country worldwide, and our government, alas, is repeatedly playing into their hands.

In a poll that examines attitudes toward the Iraq war, the Pew Foundation found that a majority of Americans still believe that President Bush made the right decision in going to war in Iraq and that the United States will ultimately achieve its mission there, although support for that decision appears to be declining — 54 percent in late April, down from 62 percent in January 2004 (see But elsewhere around the world, a majority of those polled said that the war in Iraq has diminished their confidence that the United States is trustworthy or that it truly aims to promote democracy. In six of the nine countries included in the Pew survey, a majority expressed the view that U.S. and British leaders lied about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to justify the war, rejecting the alternative explanations that they exaggerated their findings or were misinformed by bad intelligence. A growing percentage of Europeans would like to see Europe's foreign policy and security arrangements made independently of the United States, and view America's tendency toward unilateralism negatively.

Even America's coalition partners are no longer so supportive of the effort. British respondents — a majority of whom had supported the war in a poll taken a year earlier — are now significantly more critical, with only 43 percent (down from 61 percent) now expressing the view that their country made the right decision in going to war. The new Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero — elected in part on the basis of his promise to remove Spanish troops from Iraq — is now fulfilling that promise. Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski has suggested that he was deceived when his country agreed to participate in the coalition. As the Iranian cleric Hashemi Rafsanjani noted gleefully in a sermon on the first-year anniversary of the attack, "They are getting drifted apart. A gap has appeared in this group which they call a coalition."

Antipathy toward the United States has increased even more strongly in the Islamic world. In the predominantly Muslim countries surveyed by Pew (Pakistan, Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey), opposition to the war in Iraq is nearly universal. In Pakistan, Jordan, and Morocco, Osama bin Laden is viewed significantly more favorably than is President Bush. In these four countries, majorities doubt the United States's sincerity in the war on terrorism and do not support that effort.

In the recorded message released to al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya on April 14, bin Laden (or his impersonator) seems to be reaching out directly to a new audience: parents whose children have been sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, leftists, and all who oppose American hegemony, of whatever political stripe. "[I]njustice is inflicted on us and on you by your politicians, who send your sons — although you are opposed to this — to our countries to kill and be killed. Therefore, it is in both sides' interest to curb the plans of those who shed the blood of peoples for their narrow personal interest and subservience to the White House gang... We must take into consideration that this war brings billions of dollars in profit to the major companies, whether it be those that produce weapons or those that contribute to reconstruction, such as the Halliburton company, its sisters and daughters. Based on this, it is very clear who is the one benefiting from igniting this war and shedding of blood. It is the warlords, the bloodsuckers, who are steering the world policy from behind a curtain."


As we should have learned, we can't simply dismiss such a diatribe as idle rhetoric. During the last six years I have interviewed many mujahedin, and one of the most chilling things they have told me is that jihad becomes addictive. To support a jihadi habit, nearly any action becomes acceptable, including cooperating with enemy terrorist groups and criminal rings, killing innocent Muslims, or attacking friendly forces. Even as the war is increasing tensions between the United States and its allies, it is uniting the terrorist groups that aim to fight us.

Indeed, the consolidation of terrorist forces appears to be accelerating. On a website described by the U.S. government as "jihadist," Hani al-Sibai, the director of the London-based Al-Maqrizi Center for Historical Studies, explains, "When the United States occupied Iraq, the border was actually uncontrolled." Iraq, he says, "is currently a battlefield and a fertile soil for every Islamic movement that views jihad as a priority." He emphasizes that Iraq is a "better place" than Afghanistan for waging jihad "in terms of the language, features of the people, and popular sympathy — whether in Iraq's Sunni regions or its neighboring countries." He notes that "the continuation of the anti-occupation resistance will produce several groups that might later merge into one large group." Very few of the participants in the Iraqi "jihad" are members of al Qaeda, he says. "Nevertheless, the role of al Qaeda and its sympathizers in Iraq is more like the salt of the earth and it's reminiscent of the role of Arabs in Afghanistan who lifted the spirit of the Afghan people, who fought and sacrificed thousands of martyrs during the 1980s struggles against the Soviet Union."

Al-Sibai describes a new network of jihadist Sunni groups that formed five months after the occupation began and consists of mujahedin, ulema (Islamic legal scholars), and political and military experts, together with a number of jihadist factions from the north and south that previously operated separately. He concludes, "Even if the U.S. forces capture all leaders of al Qaeda or kill them all, the idea of expelling the occupiers and nonbelievers from the Arabian Peninsula and all the countries of Islam will not die."

From my interviews, I have learned just how real that threat is — and why. The groups that subscribe to al Qaeda's dystopic ideology have a grandiose vision but no set goals. The purpose of lethal attacks is to rally the troops at least as much as it is to horrify and frighten the victims. The goals continue to shift — from forcing U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia or Western troops out of Iraq, to stripping America of its allies and sowing discord in the West, to setting Iraq aflame with sectarian tensions. To achieve these shifting goals, the movement aims to create a clash not only among civilizations but also within civilizations. The ultimate objective is to "purify" the world — replacing the "new world order" with a caliphate of terror based on a fantasized simpler, purer past. For professional terrorists, the mission becomes a marketing strategy aimed at dividing and conquering enemies, maximizing adherents, and forging new alliances.

Not only are the terrorists exploiting and expanding divisions between America and its allies, they are also succeeding in their efforts to get governments to overreact or to react in ways that offend the public. In Pakistan, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco, and France, according to the Pew findings, the prevailing view is that the United States is overreacting to the terrorist threat. The percentage of French respondents with this view has nearly doubled since April 2002 (from 30 percent to 57 percent).

The al Qaeda movement's efforts to influence the Spanish election were greatly assisted by then prime minister José María Aznar's reaction to the terrorist strikes in Madrid in March. Aznar's government behaved the way many governments would, alas: by jumping to the conclusion that the "usual suspects" were responsible and then attempting to cover up its mistakes. This is certainly not the first time that victims of terrorism have assumed that a familiar group was responsible for an attack, only to discover that the violence was perpetrated by a mysterious, shadowy network with no clear home address. Nor is it the first time that a government has taken its time in divulging the truth about its intelligence mistakes.

Indeed, as the Pew polls cited above make clear, many people see a great deal about the war in Iraq very much in this light. President Bush and his administration lashed out at the usual suspects (in this case, Saddam) for the horrific attacks on September 11, 2001, and they have been extraordinarily slow to admit their mistakes — both in intelligence and in judgment. The Bush administration has not — even now — woken up to the fact that in today's world, rogue individuals can be more dangerous than rogue states. (This is as true in regard to nuclear proliferation as it is in regard to terrorism, as the nuclear-export escapades of A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, have made clear.)

The war in Iraq has assisted the terrorists' effort to spread the false idea that the United States is engaged in a "crusade" to humiliate the Islamic world. This idea is a critical component of the Islamist nihilists' world-view, and "proving" its "truth" is critical to their success. The unprovoked attack on Iraq, followed by an occupation that is widely perceived as inept and arbitrary, confirmed this view among potential sympathizers with the al Qaeda movement. But most damaging of all, of course, are the revelations and photographs of American (and British) interrogators' torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners, spread around the world with heart-sickening effect. According to the New York Times, Abdelmonem Said, the director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, asks: "What remains of the American logic for being in Iraq?" There are no WMD, he points out. "There was talk about fighting terrorism, and they brought terrorism with them. Finally, the issue of democracy and respect for human rights: Saddam was a butcher who tortured people; now the United States is torturing people." Omar Bakri Muhammad, the London-based cleric who leads the radical Islamist movement al-Muhajiroun and is an open admirer of bin Laden, asks on his website, "When will people see this war in Iraq and Afghanistan for what it really is — i.e., a Christian Crusade, full of the indiscriminate murder, rape, and carnage just like, if not worse, than the Christian Crusades of 'Richard the Lion-heart' and his own band of thugs in the past. Surely this is a wake up call for all Muslims around the world who have any dignity left. ...It is too late to stop the atrocities which have already taken place but it is not too late to drive these nasty infidels out of Muslim land once and for all."

Terrorists, Mao Zedong told us, aim to create spiritual unity between officers and their men and between themselves and the people. They also aim to destroy our alliances. Our goal must be the reverse: to create tensions between terrorist leaders and their followers and among the various terrorist groups that compete for attention and funding. We also need to strengthen our alliances and make them robust enough to withstand our enemies' attempts to split us from our friends. We need wholly different perceptions of and policies designed for the dangerous new terrorist threats we face — many of them engendered by the failure of our actions in Iraq.


Jessica E. Stern, Ph.D. '92, is lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government and the author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (Ecco, 2003).


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