Why al-Qaeda Thrives

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Whether or not a decent outcome is eventually achieved, Iraq won't present President Bush with the triumphant centerpiece of a successful reelection campaign. Still, Americans' fear of terror remains a rich seam of political support for the president — indeed, recent polls indicate that while more Americans believe his presumptive challenger, Senator John Kerry, would do a better job handling Iraq, Bush has a significant lead when the question is who would do a better job of fighting terrorism. Not surprisingly, then, the president's handlers have sought to make terrorism the prism through which the Bush presidency must be viewed — even when the conversation turns to Iraq.

President Bush framed his Monday keynote address on Iraq around the idea that the country is now "the central front in the war on terror." He implied that the invasion of Iraq was a choice forced on the U.S. by the Sept. 11 attacks and that the enemy facing the U.S. there shares al-Qaeda's goal of establishing "Taliban-type" rule. In all, he used the words "terror" or "terrorist/terrorism" 19 times. But the president's characterization will hardly have resonated with his Iraqi audience, who see al-Qaeda as a problem brought into their country by the U.S. invasion rather than by Saddam Hussein. Even the U.S. intelligence community has long maintained that Saddam's regime had no connection with the 9/11 attacks, while U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq say that foreign terrorists constitute only a small fraction of the insurgency facing Coalition troops there.

If, indeed, there is a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda, it may not be the kind the Bush campaign is likely to dwell on. The same day the President spoke, the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies released its annual survey that found, among other things, that far from dealing a blow to al-Qaeda and making the U.S. and its allies safer, the Iraq invasion has in fact substantially strengthened bin Laden's network and increased the danger of attacks in the West. And the London-based IISS is not some Bush-bashing antiwar think tank; it hosted the president's keynote address during his embattled visit to the British late last year.

The IISS reported that al-Qaeda's recruitment and fundraising efforts had been given a major boost by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It estimated that bin Laden's network today commands some 18,000 men, of which about 1,000 are currently inside Iraq. After almost three years of President Bush's war on terror, the IISS offered the following assessment of the movement's prospects: "Although half of al-Qaeda's 30 senior leaders and perhaps 2,000 rank-and-file members have been killed or captured, a rump leadership is still intact and more than 18,000 potential terrorists are still at large, with recruitment accelerating on account of Iraq." The continuing danger of an al-Qaeda strike inside the U.S. as it moves into election season was underscored Wednesday by Attorney General John Ashcroft, who warned that intelligence tips suggest that the movement plans to attack inside the U.S. some time in the coming months. It was a non-specific warning, of course, and the color-coded terror alert level was not raised as a result. But the announcement affirmed for Americans the fact that they remain vulnerable to al-Qaeda attack, if better prepared and forewarned than three years ago.

So why is al-Qaeda continuing to grow and prosper despite the loss of its Afghan sanctuaries and so many of its personnel, and the fact that it has been relentlessly hounded by security services across Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia? The consensus among security analysts is that the key to eliminating al-Qaeda as a threat is to transform the permissive political environment in which it operates in the Muslim world. Instead, the opposite has occurred — Muslim anger at the U.S. has reached an all-time high and continues to grow, driven by outrage at U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by Israel's actions against the Palestinians. The precipitous decline in support or sympathy for the U.S. in the Muslim world after 9/11 has meant fertile ground for al-Qaeda recruiters.

Authoritative voices from the IISS to former U.S. commander for the Mideast and Bush administration envoy to the region General Anthony Zinni to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies have lately warned that the achievement of U.S. goals in the Middle East depends on its ability to revive and complete the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The administration's approach has been to leave that issue on the back burner while pursuing Iraq on the assumption that ousting Saddam's regime would facilitate peace between Israel and the Palestinians — an argument dismissed as spurious by Zinni, Cordesman and others. Instead, the Iraq occupation and the ongoing conflict in the West Bank and Gaza has burnished al-Qaeda's appeal in relation to the pro-U.S. Arab regimes it hopes to supplant, because these regimes appear powerless to affect the plight of the Palestinians and Iraqis. With seemingly no Arab leaders capable of protecting Arab interests, bin Laden paints himself and his politics of suicidal jihad as the path to redeeming Islam's lost honor.

While al-Qaeda's appeal in the Arab and Muslim world has grown in the years since 9/11, the group has not mounted a single attack in the U.S. in the same period. Bin Laden's goals are to rally Muslims to the cause of jihad, in order to drive the U.S. and its influence out of the Islamic world and restore the Islamic empire of the Middle Ages. And the antagonism provoked by U.S. actions such as invading Iraq have been more effective even than the terror of 9/11 in building support for the movement. Still, al-Qaeda continues to seek to mount mass-casualty terror attacks in the U.S. It has been hampered by the U.S.-led crackdown on its organizational structures, and by the domestic security efforts that have made operations across such great distances more difficult. Al-Qaeda will necessarily have had to put new leadership and communication protocols in place, and its decentralization and dispersion may have changed the very nature of its operations. It has continued to strike in Europe and Asia, and of course Iraq. But now the Bush administration is warning that it plans to attack in the U.S. too, in time to have an impact on the election.

The last al-Qaeda terror strike on U.S. soil rallied the overwhelming majority of Americans strongly behind President Bush. Whether and how a new terror strike on U.S. soil three years later might do the same remains to be seen. But whereas the 9/11 attack shocked and horrified much of the international community, including the Arab and Muslim world, and drew them initially closer to Washington, it's unlikely that a new attack would do much to reverse the deep polarization of the international community brought on by the war in Iraq.