Iraq: Terrorist Flypaper or Terrorism’s “Cassus beli“?

I’ve thought that there was some credence to be given to the flypaper theory–fight the terrorists there so we won’t have to fight them here–as applied to Iraq. With the recent London bombings as background, Gregory Scoblete convincingly argues that Iraq-as-flypaper is a flawed theory.

The strategy of aggressively preempting terrorists and terror-threats, the essence of the administration’s counter-terrorism policy, is fundamentally sound. The problem begins when the pitched battle between Jihadists and U.S. forces in Iraq is framed as an either/or equation — either we fight terrorists in Iraq or we fight them here — because the reality, as London, Madrid, Turkey and the entire tragic litany demonstrates, is that we’re fighting them everywhere. That Iraq has attracted the flies is both true and largely irrelevant; the flies continue to murderously alight elsewhere, despite our presence in Iraq. . .
The idea that Iraq is an irresistible magnet for jihad, diverting the radicals’ attention from U.S. domestic targets, assumes that there is a hard-and-fast number of holy warriors and that once they enter the killing fields of Iraq in sufficient numbers our troubles will be over. It also ignores the still open question of whether the conflict is motivating Muslims who would otherwise have demurred from martyrdom to join the fight and thus constitute a seemingly limitless suicide assembly line. [emphasis in original]

I concur. It really isn’t an either/or choice, as London and Madrid have reminded us. Thus, Scoblete is accurate when he further explains that Al-Qaeda is too decentralized and “that the ‘central battlefield’ on the war on terror is wherever a suitably fanatical Muslim is prepared to blow him/herself up. That U.S. forces are decamped enticingly in Iraq does not mean that terrorists will forsake Western targets.” Iraq is the biggest front, but not the only front.
Yet, this leads me to a criticism of Scoblete’s belief that there is still an “open question” regarding the War in Iraq as the centerpiece of jihadist motivation. He should know better. It is more than mere mantra to say such things as “9/11 happened before Iraq.” And as the blogger Callimachus reminds us:

But wait, weren’t we told not too long ago it was all about Israel? And that they were all on fire over the defiling presence of U.S. military boots way on the other side of the Land of the Two Holy Mosques?
Face it: there’s a simmering stew of resentment among a vast pool of Muslims over a broad swath of the earth. Many sticks can stir the pot. If a more potent one comes along, the stirrers will use it till they find an even better.

In essence, while Scoblete is correct that Al-Qaeda is too decentralized for us to think that all of their jihadist eggs will be broken in the Iraq basket, he shouldn’t buy into the belief that Iraq is a unique, or even the primary source of jihadist fertilizer. In fact, why Iraq and not Afghanistan?
The answer is because, unlike the War in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq has caused a rift in the West which Al-Qaeda has sought to exploit. In this, they have succeeded. They have picked up on the Western rhetoric espousing the illigitimacy of the “War for oil” and used it to add a kind of warped legitimacy to their terrorism. As such, their own rhetoric is both derivative of, and buttressed by, that of Western critics of the War in Iraq. (This does not mean that Western critics are conscious, or even unconscious or subconscious, supporters of terrorism. Nonetheless, like it or not, their words are being used by those who commit terrorism). In a society already predisposed to have a strong dislike for the Western “other,” stories that support these predispositions, especially when accompanied by the “confessions” of those from the West, are extremely attractive. The result is a strengthening of both the appeal and apparent legitimacy of the ideology of radical Islam, particularly Al-Qaeda’s strain, among those ready to receive it.
Scoblete touches upon the inherent strength of organizational decentralization, but he doesn’t really say why it is effective. The reason decentralization is so effective for Al-Qaeda is because the organization of Al-QAeda has succeeded in installing the ideology of Al-Qaeda as preeminent throughout radical Islam. In essence, the ideology has superseded the organization itself. As such, while Iraq has been used effectively as a recruiting tool and rhetorical touchstone, there were, and will be other, perceived “insults” to Islam that will be used as legitimization for jihad. There is still Israel, after all. It is correct to say that Iraq is not the only front in the War on Terror. It also isn’t the only reason for it.

UPDATE: Greg Scoblete has responded and believes that I misinterpreted his postion on Iraq.

I manifestly don’t buy the argument that Iraq is “causing more terrorism” in the broad sense of Islamic terrorism – bin Laden’s group, and those flying planes into buildings, are motivated by a fundamentalist religious zeal and not a political grievance. They can’t be appeased. Nor should they.
That doesn’t change the basic though murky question: are Muslims entering Iraq and committing acts of terrorism who would have otherwise not embraced terrorism? If that question is answered affirmatively, our job is immeasurably harder. If the answer is no, then our prospects improve.

My apologies to Greg for the misunderstanding. So, we agree that Iraq isn’t a conspicuous root cause for terrorism.
Greg’s main concern is whether our job in Iraq is made tougher because more terror-minded individuals are able to enter the fray there. As Greg mentions, the geographical convenience of Iraq facilitates greater “participation” in jihad. Perhaps, then, the answer is this: the number of potential terrorists has not increased, but the number of both potential terrorists able to actively participate in jihad (facilitated by their proximity of Iraq) as well as the rate at which these potential terrorists have actually decided to take action (and die) has increased. The easier something is to do, the more likely it is that more people will do it.
Iraq is not a conspicuous motivator for more terror, it is just another piece of the ideological template. Thus, I don’t think that more people are being “converted” to terrorism because of Iraq. But the practical affect of a larger battlefield that is closer to the terrorist nexus has been an increase in the rate at which passive consumers of terrorist ideology are able to become proactive jihadists. But remember, the location of the terrorists is more important than their number: 100 terrorists in Fallujah facing down a battalion of Soldiers or Marines is less of a threat than 100 terrorists dispersed throughout the U.S. ready to self-detonate.
[Cross-posted at both Spinning Clio and OSB]

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Greg Scoblete
18 years ago

Thanks for your comments on my article. Rather than spell out the entire response, I’ve posted something here:

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