Commentary

Al Qaeda — Not Iraq — Is the Real Threat

By Charles V. Peña
July 22, 2004

The 9/11 commission report will stand by the conclusion of a previous staff report that there was “no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States” and that known contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda “do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship.” Thus, one of the justifications used by the Bush administration for invading Iraq - an Iraq-al Qaeda alliance - appears invalid.

Nonetheless, President Bush continues to insist that “we were right to go into Iraq” and that, as a result, “the American people are safer.” But this assertion is hard to reconcile with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s warning that al Qaeda is planning “a large-scale attack in the United States.” Ultimately, it is impossible to ignore the reality that al Qaeda - not Iraq - attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001 and remains the real threat to America.

But with the Iraq war and the creation of a new, democratic government in that country occupying so much of the administration’s and public’s focus, we may inadvertently be making the same mistake we made before 9/11: not paying enough attention to the real threat. The real wake-up call of the 9/11 commission report is not problems with intelligence and law enforcement related to the Sept. 11 attacks (although these certainly need to be addressed), but that Iraq is a dangerous distraction. It is time to smell the coffee and realize that the United States must find a way out of Iraq - sooner rather than later.

Although President Bush has characterized Iraq as the central front in the war on terrorism and claims that the United States is taking the fight to the terrorists in Iraq so we will not have to face them at home, the truth is that the al Qaeda terrorist threat does not emanate from Iraq. Al Qaeda has grown from a relatively small group of radical Islamic extremists to a larger ideological movement in the Muslim world. The threat now goes beyond al Qaeda to include a growing number of radical Muslim groups that share at least some of al Qaeda’s ideology, but many of which are not directly connected to or formally affiliated with al Qaeda.

Although many of the suicide attacks, as well as the kidnappings and executions, in Iraq are attributed to Abu al-Zarqawi - a Jordanian previously linked to al Qaeda - they are all post-regime change. The terrorist groups supported by Saddam Hussein were Palestinian anti-Israeli groups, not militant Islamic jihadists who threatened the United States. In other words, Iraq under Hussein’s control was not a hotbed for al Qaeda, as was Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule. Ironically, removing Hussein from power is what has created the conditions that allow al-Zarqawi to sow the seeds of jihad in Iraq.

Even worse, the continued U.S. military presence (currently 140,000 troops) does more to create anti-American sentiment in Iraq, which breeds hatred, which becomes a steppingstone to violence, including terrorism - rather than quelling a growing insurgency. Consider that in September 2003, less than 20 percent of those Iraqis polled believed attacks against U.S. troops were justified. In April 2004, that number skyrocketed to over 60 percent—in Baghdad alone that translates to an increase from 440,000 adults 18 or older to over 1.3 million (out of an adult population of 2.3 million).

Or consider that in April 2003, the anecdotal evidence was the sentiment expressed by one Iraqi: “We thank the Americans for getting rid of Saddam’s regime, but now Iraq must be run by Iraqis.” A year later, a poll conducted by the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority , before the handover to the interim Iraqi government, showed that 92 percent of Iraqis viewed U.S. troops as occupiers with 86 percent wanting them to leave immediately or after a permanent government was elected.

The numbers don’t lie. The Iraqis want U.S. troops out of their country. We should have the wisdom to listen to them. After all, we know that the presence of 5,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War was one of Osama bin Laden’s stated reasons for engaging in terrorism against the United States, including the September 11 attacks. It is not a question of appeasement, but common sense strategy: 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq will only feed and spread Muslim anger throughout the world that will converge on the United States.

While it’s important to fix intelligence and law enforcement problems as the 9/11 commission is calling for, doing so doesn’t fix the terrorist threat problem. On the other hand, ending the U.S. military occupation of Iraq would go a long way towards stemming the tide of growing radical Islamic extremism. And instead of being preoccupied with Iraq, the United States could refocus its attention where it’s needed: the al Qaeda terrorist threat.

Charles V. Peña, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, is a member of the Cato Institute Special Task Force that produced the report Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al Qaeda (2004).