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SITE In The News
What the Terrorists Have in Mind
Published in: New York Times
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 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 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 declared.

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 quandary of 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 population.

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 mandatory."

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 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."


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