Iraq Effect (continued)
One measure of the impact of the Iraq War is the precipitous drop in public support for the United States in Muslim countries. Jordan, a key U.S. ally, saw popular approval for the United States drop from 25 percent in 2002 to 1 percent in 2003. In Lebanon during the same period, favorable views of the United States dropped from 30 percent to 15 percent, and in the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia, favorable views plummeted from 61 percent to 15 percent. Disliking the United States does not make you a terrorist, but clearly the pool of Muslims who dislike the United States has grown by hundreds of millions since the Iraq War began. The United States’ plummeting popularity does not suggest active popular support for jihadist terrorists but it does imply some sympathy with their anti-American posture, which means a significant swath of the Muslim population cannot be relied on as an effective party in counter-terrorism/insurgency measures. And so, popular contempt for U.S. policy has become a force multiplier for Islamist militants.
The Iraq War has also encouraged Muslim youth around the world to join jihadist groups, not necessarily directly tied to Al Qaeda but often motivated by a similar ideology. The Iraq War allowed Al Qaeda, which was on the ropes in 2002 after the United States had captured or killed two-thirds of its leadership, to reinvent itself as a broader movement because Al Qaeda’s central message–that the United States is at war with Islam–was judged by significant numbers of Muslims to have been corroborated by the war in Iraq. And compounding this, the wide dissemination of the exploits of jihadist groups in Iraq following the invasion energized potential and actual jihadists across the world.
How exactly has The Iraq Effect played out in different parts of the world? The effect has not been uniform. Europe, the Arab world, and Afghanistan all saw major rises in jihadist terrorism in the period after the invasion of Iraq, while Pakistan and India and the Chechnya/Russia front saw only smaller increases in jihadist terrorism. And in Southeast Asia, attacks and killings by jihadist groups fell by over 60 percent in the period after the Iraq War. The strength or weakness of The Iraq Effect on jihadist terrorism in a particular country seems to be influenced by four factors: (1) if the country itself has troops in Iraq; (2) geographical proximity to Iraq; (3) the degree of identification with Iraq’s Arabs felt in the country; and (4) the level of exchanges of ideas or personnel with Iraqi jihadist groups. This may explain why jihadist groups in Europe, Arab countries, and Afghanistan were more affected by the Iraq War than groups in other regions. Europe, unlike Kashmir, Chechnya, and Southeast Asia for example, contains several countries that are part of the coalition in Iraq. It is relatively geographically close to the Arab world and has a large Arab-Muslim diaspora from which jihadists have recruited.
European intelligence services are deeply concerned about the effect of the Iraq War. For example, Dame Eliza Mannigham-Buller, the head of Britain’s MI5, stated on November 10, 2006, “In Iraq, attacks are regularly videoed and the footage is downloaded onto the Internet [and] chillingly we see the results here. Young teenagers are being groomed to be suicide bombers. We are aware of numerous plots to kill people and damage our economy…30 that we know of. [The] threat is serious, is growing, and, I believe, will be with us for a generation.” Startlingly, a recent poll found that a quarter of British Muslims believe that the July 7, 2005, London bombings were justifiable because of British foreign policy, bearing out Dame Eliza’s concern about a new generation of radicals in the United Kingdom.
While Islamist militants in Europe are mobilized by a series of grievances such as Palestine, Afghanistan, the Kashmir conflict, and Chechnya, no issue has resonated more in radical circles and on Islamist websites than the war in Iraq. This can be seen in the skyrocketing rate of jihadist terrorist attacks around the Arab world outside of Iraq. There have been 37 attacks in Arab countries outside of Iraq since the invasion, while there were only three in the period between 9/11 and March 2003. The rate of attacks in Arab countries jumped by 445 percent since the Iraq invasion, while the rate of killings rose by 783 percent. The November 9, 2005 bombings of three American hotels in Amman, Jordan, that killed 60, an operation directed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq network, was the most direct manifestation of The Iraq Effect in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has seen an upsurge in jihadist terrorism since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There were no jihadist terrorist attacks between 9/11 and the Iraq War but 12 in the period since. The reason for the surge in terrorism was a decision taken by Al Qaeda’s Saudi branch in the spring of 2003 to launch a wave of attacks (primarily at Western targets) to undermine the Saudi royal family. These attacks were initiated on May 12, 2003 with the bombing of Western compounds in Riyadh, killing 34, including 10 Americans. While Saudi authorities believe that planning and training for the operation predated the war in Iraq, the timing of the attack, just weeks after the U.S invasion is striking.
The fact that the Iraq War radicalized some young Saudis is underlined by studies showing that more Saudis have conducted suicide operations in Iraq than any other nationality. For instance, Mohammed Hafez, a visiting professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, in a study of the 101 identified suicide attackers in Iraq from March 2003 to February 2006, found that more than 40 percent were Saudi. This jihadist energy was not just transferred over the Saudi border into Iraq. It also contributed to attacks in the Kingdom. The group that beheaded the American contractor Paul Johnson in Riyadh in June 2004 called itself the “Al Fallujah brigade of Al Qaeda” and claimed that it had carried out the killing in part to avenge the actions of “disbelievers” in Iraq. In January 2004 Al Qaeda’s Saudi affiliate launched Al Battar, an online training magazine specifically directed at young Saudis interested in fighting their regime. The achievements of jihadists in Iraq figured prominently in its pages. Indeed, a contributor to the first issue of Al Battar argued that the Iraq War had made jihad “a commandment” for Saudi Arabians “[because] the Islamic nation is today in acute conflict with the Crusaders.”
The Iraq War had a strong impact in other Arab countries too. Daily images aired by Al Jazeera and other channels of suffering Iraqis enraged the Arab street and strengthened the hands of radicals everywhere. In Egypt, the Iraq War has contributed to a recent wave of attacks by small, self-generated groups. A Sinai-based jihadist group carried out coordinated bombing attacks on Red Sea resorts popular with Western tourists at Taba in October 2004, at Sharm el-Sheikh in July 2005, and at Dahab in April 2006, killing a total of more than 120.
One of the cell’s members, Younis Elian Abu Jarir, a taxi driver whose job was to ferry the group around, stated in a confession offered as evidence in court that “they convinced me of the need for holy war against the Jews, Americans, Italians, and other nationalities that participated in the occupation of Iraq.” Osama Rushdi, a former spokesman of the Egyptian terrorist group Gamma Islamiyya now living in London, told us that while attacks in the Sinai were partly directed at the Egyptian regime, they appeared to be primarily anti-Western in motivation: “The Iraq War contributed to the negative feelings of the Sinai group. Before the Iraq War, most Egyptians did not have a negative feeling towards American policy. Now almost all are opposed to American policy.”