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Terrorist Talk Shows Just How Wrong Bush Is
Published on Thursday, October 28, 2004 by the International Herald Tribune
Terrorist Talk Shows Just How Wrong Bush Is
by Daniel Benjamin and Gabriel Weimann

With less than a week before the election, President George W. Bush is seeking to turn the favorable ratings he receives for his prosecution of the war on terrorism into a clinching advantage. "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, Bush is correct: A central part of America's strategy must be to pre-empt terrorists. But not all offensive strategies are equal, and Bush errs by arguing that the one being employed is doing the job. One need only listen to the terrorists to understand that we face grave problems.

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 the Internet, where Islamist Web sites and chat rooms are filled with 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: 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 1980s. 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.

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 posted on several radical Web sites. "All of which makes them easy and mouthwatering targets for the believers."

Clearly, Bush'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 1980s 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 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.

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, they have ceded control of much of western Iraq. Taliban-like councils are emerging in places under the control of extremists, some linked with Zarqawi's organization.

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 cyberspectacles, 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 seems clear that, while the Bush administration insists that America is acting strongly, its pursuit of the war on terrorism through an invasion of Iraq has carried real costs for American security.

The worst thing Americans could do now is believe that the Bush administration's tough talk is in any way realistic. If they really think that the unrest abroad will have no impact at home - as too many thought before the Sept. 11 attacks- not even a vastly improved offense can help them.

© 2004 IHT


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