Friday, October 29, 2004

What the Terrorists Have in Mind

October 27, 2004

With less than a week before the election, President Bush
is seeking to turn the favorable ratings he receives for
his prosecution of the war on terrorism into a clinching
advantage. His latest television advertisement, using a
pack of wolves to stand in for foreign terrorists, ends
with the line: "Weakness attracts those who are waiting to
do America harm." He has backed up this sentiment in his
foreign-policy stump speeches. "In a free and open society,
it is impossible to protect against every threat,'' he told
a New Jersey crowd. "The best way to prevent attacks is to
stay on the offense against the enemy overseas."

Of course, Mr. Bush is correct: A central part of our
strategy must be to pre-empt terrorists, attacking them
before they attack us. But not all offensive strategies are
equal, and Mr. Bush errs by arguing that the one being
employed is doing the job. One need only listen to the
terrorists and observe their recent actions to understand
that we face grave problems. After all, their analysis of
the battle is a key determinant of the level of terrorism
in the future.

To get a sense of the jihadist movement's state of mind, we
must listen to its communications, and not just the
operational "chatter" collected by the intelligence
community. Today, the central forum for the terrorists'
discourse is not covert phone communications but the
Internet, where Islamist Web sites and chat rooms are
filled with evaluations of current events, discussions of
strategy and elaborations of jihadist ideology.

Yes, assessing this material requires a critical eye since
there is plenty of bluster and some chat room participants
there is plenty of bluster and some chat room participants
may be teenagers in American suburbs rather than fighters
in the field. Some things, however, are clear: There has
been a drastic shift in mood in the last two years.
Radicals who were downcast and perplexed in 2002 about the
rapid defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan now feel
exuberant about the global situation and, above all, the
events in Iraq.

For example, an article in the most recent issue of Al
Qaeda's Voice of Jihad - an online magazine that comes out
every two weeks - makes the case that the United States has
a greater strategic mess on its hands in Afghanistan and
Iraq than the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan in the
1980's. As translated by the SITE Institute, a nonprofit
group that monitors terrorists, the author describes how
the United States has stumbled badly by getting itself
mired in two guerrilla wars at once, and that United States
forces are now "merely trying to 'prove their presence' -
for all practical purposes, they have left the war."

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist now wreaking
havoc in Iraq, sees things in a similar way. "There is no
doubt that the Americans' losses are very heavy because
they are deployed across a wide area and among the people
and because it is easy to procure weapons," he wrote in a
recent communiqué to his followers that was posted on
several radical Web sites. "All of which makes them easy
and mouthwatering targets for the believers."

Clearly, the president's oft-repeated claim that American
efforts are paying off because "more than three-quarters of
Al Qaeda's key members and associates have been killed,
captured or detained" - a questionable claim in itself -
means little to jihadists. What matters to them that the
invasion of Iraq paved the way for the emergence of a
movement of radical Sunni Iraqis who share much of the
Qaeda ideology.

Among the recurrent motifs on the Web are that America has
blundered in Iraq the same way the Soviet Union did in the
blundered in Iraq the same way the Soviet Union did in the
1980's in Afghanistan, and that it will soon be leaving in
defeat. "We believe these infidels have lost their minds,"
was the analysis on a site called Jamaat ud-Daawa, which is
run out of Pakistan. "They do not know what they are doing.
They keep on repeating the same mistake."

For the radicals, the fighting has become a large part of a
broader religious revival and political revolution. Their
discussions celebrate America's occupation of Iraq as an
opportunity to expose the superpower's "real nature" as an
enemy of Islam that seeks to steal the Arab oil patrimony.
"If there was no jihad, Paul Bremer would have left with
$20 trillion instead of $20 billion," one Web site

Moreover, the radicals see themselves as gaining ground in
their effort to convince other Muslims around the world
that jihad is a religiously required military obligation.
And the American presence in the region is making the case
for fulfilling this obligation all the more powerful.

Iraq, in fact, has become a theater of inspiration for this
drama of faith, in which the jihadists believe they can win
by seizing cities and towns, killing American troops and
destabilizing the country with attacks on the police, oil
pipelines and reconstruction projects. Although coalition
forces have retaken Samarra and pounded Falluja, we have
ceded control of much of western Iraq. Taliban-like
councils are emerging in places under the control of
extremists, some linked with Mr. Zarqawi's organization.

>From the militants' perspective, America's record has been
one of inconsistency and fecklessness. For example, we
signaled that we were going to attack Falluja last summer,
and then held off. We have allowed it and several other
cities to become no-go zones for coalition forces. The
apparent decision to postpone a major campaign to retake
western Iraq until after the Nov. 2 election is another
move that the militants will inevitably view as a sign of
weakness. In the end, we are stuck in the classic quandaryof counterinsurgency: we do not want to use the force
necessary to wipe out the terrorists because we would kill
numerous civilians and further alienate the Iraqi

Meanwhile, radicals in dozens of countries are increasingly
seizing on events in Iraq. Some Web sites have moved beyond
describing the action there to depicting it in the most
grisly way: images of Western hostages begging for their
lives and being beheaded. These sites have become
enormously popular throughout the Muslim world, thrilling
those who sympathize with the Iraqi insurgents as they see
jihad in action. Fired up by such cyber-spectacles,
militants everywhere are more and more seeing Iraq as the
first glorious stage in a long campaign against the West
and the "apostate" rulers of the Muslim world.

It is remarkable, for example, that the Pakistani Sunni
extremist group Lashkar-e-Tayba appears to be shifting its
sights away from its longtime focus on Kashmir and toward
Iraq. Probably the largest militant group in Pakistan, it
has used its online Urdu publication to call for sending
holy warriors to Iraq to take revenge for the torture at
Abu Ghraib prison as well as for what it calls the "rapes
of Iraqi Muslim women." "The Americans are dishonoring our
mothers and sisters," reads a notice on its site.
"Therefore, jihad against America has now become

The organization's postings speak of an "army" of 8,000
fighters from different countries bound for Iraq. While
that number is undoubtedly exaggerated, the statement is
not pure propaganda: members of the group have already been
captured in Iraq.

Another worrisome development is the parallel emergence of
a Shiite militancy that shares the apocalyptic outlook of
Al Qaeda. One citation that crops up frequently in chat
rooms is a quotation from a sheik describing the fighting
rooms is a quotation from a sheik describing the fighting
in Iraq as a harbinger of the arrival of the Mahdi, the
messiah figure whose expected return will bring about a
sort of final judgment: "The people will be chided for
their acts of disobedience by a fire that will appear in
the sky and a redness that will cover the sky. It will
swallow up Baghdad."

It seems clear that, while the administration insists that
we are acting strongly, our pursuit of the war on terrorism
through an invasion of Iraq has carried real costs for our
security. The occupation is in chaos, which is emboldening
a worldwide assortment of radical Islamists and giving them
common ground. The worst thing we could do now is believe
that the Bush administration's tough talk is in any way
realistic. If we really think that the unrest abroad will
have no impact on us at home - as too many thought before
9/11 - not even a vastly improved offense can help us.

Daniel Benjamin, a director for counterterrorism on the
National Security Council staff under President Bill
Clinton, is a co-author of "The Age of Sacred Terror."
Gabriel Weimann is professor of communications at the
University of Haifa in Israel and the author of the
forthcoming "Terror on the Internet."