From swatting flies to stirring up hornets' nests

A new terrorist document shows that as the U.S. flails in Iraq, only al-Qaida seems to have a strategy.

Husain Haqqani
April 15, 2004 4:32AM (UTC)

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told the 9/11 commission last week that President Bush was "tired of swatting flies" when it came to counter-terrorism, and that he wanted a "broader package of strategies" that didn't merely deal with individual terror attacks after they occurred, but eliminated the threat of terror permanently. Unfortunately, it looks as if the Bush administration has traded swatting flies for stirring hornets' nests.

There's increasing evidence that the administration's policies, particularly its war with Iraq, has played into its enemies hands, drawing the United States and its allies into several theaters of confrontation at once and helping to neutralize the Americans' decisive advantage in conventional warfare. One interesting window into the Islamic resistance's new strategy comes from a 42-page Arabic document called "Jihadi Iraq: Hopes and Dangers," which was posted on an extremist Islamist Web site supportive of al-Qaida around December 2003. Counter-terrorism researchers at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) translated it, and they believe it's a strategy paper intended for the resistance fighting within Iraq. While no one knows for sure who authored the paper, its significance became apparent after the March terrorist attacks in Madrid, just days before the Spanish election. The jihadist strategy paper had recommended "painful strikes" against Spain specifically around the time of the Spanish elections, aimed at weakening Spain's resolve to stay in the coalition in Iraq.


The jihadist document was ostensibly prepared by the Media Committee for the Victory of the Iraqi People (Mujahedin Services Center). The reference to a "services center" (markaz al-khidmaat) calls to mind the Services Bureau (maktab al-khidmaat) established in Peshawar, Pakistan, during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. Indeed, al-Qaida grew out of the Peshawar Mujahedin Services Bureau in the late 1980s, and the resurfacing of a services center for jihadists in Iraq indicates that the war in Iraq has created a new focal point for militant Islamists instead of being a step toward their destruction. The new Mujahedin Services Center was possibly conceived by Saudi jihadist Yusuf Al-Ayiri, who was reportedly killed by Saudi security forces in May 2003.

Al-Qaida's objective in attacking American targets on 9/11 was to convince its recruitment base in the Muslim world that the United States was not invulnerable, thereby creating opportunities to expand its terrorist jihad. A surgical military operation against al-Qaida, as well as its financiers and supporters, would have denied the terrorists a wider international audience for radical Islamism. The war for regime change in Iraq, even if well intentioned, has had the opposite effect.

Al-Qaida and its extremist supporters know that America cannot be coerced to leave Iraq by military or political means alone. But according to the authors of "Jihadi Iraq: Hopes and Dangers," the Islamist resistance can succeed by making the occupation of Iraq as costly as possible for the United States. One of that document's most important recommendations is to attack American allies present in Iraq "because America must not be allowed to share the cost of occupation with a wide coalition of countries." The goal of the jihadists is "to make one or two of the U.S. allies leave the coalition, because this will cause others to follow suit and the dominos will start falling."


The Bush administration's rush to war in Iraq, and its relative indifference to forging a coalition with traditional allies, are apparently fulfilling the best-case strategic scenario envisioned by the jihadists.

In addition to the Spanish, personnel from Ukraine, Germany and Japan have been targeted in Iraq. Terrorist attacks around the world have also become more frequent, as if fulfilling a strategic design for wider mayhem. Instead of dismantling the networks of terror cell by cell, the United States is trying to dissuade terrorism by demonstrating its greater military might. The number of terrorist cells, however, is continuing to multiply.

Historically, terrorism flourished in the chaos of the wars in Lebanon and Afghanistan. Iraq is now evoking memories of Lebanon, with the added feature of American military presence. The military presence is large enough to attract charges of occupation but not so big that it can keep the place fully under control. By waging war in Iraq to topple an evil regime that was not directly responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the United States has run the risk of overextending itself militarily. Combating the Shiite uprising in most of Iraq, for example, is not a necessary element of the war against terrorism. It is, however, antagonizing Shiite Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere and creating potentially active enemies for the United States where none existed before.


Al-Qaida and other extremists know the Muslim mind and seem also to have some understanding of the Bush administration's approach. They attract massive American military retaliation through violent acts, such as the murder of American civilians in Fallujah, because the collateral damage of military operations adds to the resentment of the U.S. occupation. The administration's sledgehammer approach loses America critical goodwill of existing and potential allies.

Adnan Pachachi, a senior member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, described the retaliatory operations in Fallujah as "mass punishment for the people of Fallujah." "It was not right to punish all the people of Fallujah," he said and added that he considered "these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal." Two Iraqi governing council members have already resigned in protest over the wider violence. Such chaos in governance and law enforcement in Iraq seems hardly reflective of the well-thought-out "broader package of strategies" that Rice says has been developed in response to terrorism.


Iraq is not the only area where the administration's policy seems adrift. The United States also appears to be ineffective in untangling the knots that made Afghanistan a safe haven for al-Qaida. According to Rice, "Al-Qaida was both client of and patron to the Taliban, which in turn was supported by Pakistan. Those relationships provided al-Qaida with a powerful umbrella of protection, and we had to sever them." While the Taliban have been toppled from power, the administration's policy toward Pakistan has been to embrace its military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Rice describes this as a new "carrot and stick" policy toward Pakistan.

A $600 million annual aid package for five years helps Musharraf retain power, and his military and intelligence services periodically nab and hand over al-Qaida figures to the United States in return. But the flipping of Musharraf can hardly be described a policy achievement. Pakistan obviously had strategic reasons of its own to back the Taliban and for turning a blind eye to al-Qaida. Those reasons are unlikely to change without a change in Pakistan's leadership or system of government.

Rice has a similarly optimistic view of Saudi Arabia, another source of non-state support for al-Qaida. But the Pakistani military retreated in a recent showdown with al-Qaida supporters in its tribal region bordering Afghanistan, and the Saudis can hardly be expected to suddenly clamp down on the extremist jihadist ideology they have espoused and funded for several decades. All this points toward an ad hoc flexing of muscle, not a comprehensive strategy to root out extremist ideologies, promote democracy, and eliminate terrorism. Meanwhile, the United States flails in Iraq, swatting at one fly after another. Only al-Qaida seems to have a strategy.

Husain Haqqani

Husain Haqqani is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He previously served as an advisor to former Pakistani Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and as Pakistan's ambassador to Sri Lanka.

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9/11 Al-qaida Iraq War Terrorism

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