Al Qaeda is still everywhere and nowhere,” or so opined a Columbia University professor after the double pair of car bombings in Istanbul. How can that be? For more than two years, the United States has led an international Coalition in a campaign that has succeeded in detaining or killing over half of al Qaeda’s leadership, cut off a significant amount of its funding, and deprived it of its territorial base.
Bombing attacks south of the Turkish-Iraqi border are regularly attributed to one party, Baathist stalwarts, while bombs north of that border are said to be the work of a completely different party, al Qaeda, as if one had nothing to do with the other. Why?
A major intelligence failure that began on Bill Clinton’s watch persists. American officials remain wedded to the conviction that Islamic militants operate independently of terrorist states. The U.S. error was compounded by an Israeli intelligence failure, closely linked to the ill-fated “peace process.” Yitzhak Rabin divided the Middle East into the “partners for peace” and the “enemies of peace.” The former included the likes of Yasser Arafat and Hafez al-Assad.
The enemies of peace were, as Rabin once asserted, “the organizations that belong to the ugly wave of…terrorist Islamic movements, a wave that covers today most of the Arab and Islamic countries. They are the enemies of peace and in their lead is Iran.” Indeed, a central premise of the “peace process” was that because the United States was the world’s only superpower, rational actors–Arafat, Assad, etc.–recognized they had no choice but to come to terms with Washington and its ally Israel. Only Islamic militants lacked the rationality to comprehend that.
Of course, these assumptions proved tragically wrong. The “secular” Arafat never made peace with Israel, and he proved quite capable of working with the “fundamentalist” Hamas. The same for “secular” Syria, which hosts the likes of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, while Hezbollah’s activities in Lebanon, are possible only because Damascus allows them.
This division between “secular” and “fundamentalist” is not meaningful. Princeton’s learned Bernard Lewis has cautioned that this is a Western distinction that does not exist in Islam. Nonetheless, many analysts persist in making it.
Moreover, such analysts habitually invert the relationship between states and groups, as the latter, particularly al Qaeda, is their focus. Yet states are the primary actors in international affairs. They control territory and have the power to tax and otherwise raise revenues. The nastiest of them have multiple intelligence services and major unconventional-weapons programs–biological, chemical, and nuclear. Indeed, senior administration officials have repeatedly warned that the threat is terrorist states working with and hiding behind terrorist groups to commit acts of unconventional terrorism.
Most probably, the Istanbul bombings were the work of Iraqi intelligence, in concert with Islamic militants. As I have written–at length, throughout the 1990s–Iraqi intelligence worked with and hid behind Islamic militants to attack the United States. Now it appears that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was, in fact, an Iraqi-intelligence agent. Most recently, The Weekly Standard has reported the extensive contacts between al Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence, while author Ed Epstein has provided fascinating new details on the Czech claim that Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi-intelligence agent five months before the 9/11 attacks.
Al Qaeda on its own–if it still exists in any meaningful form–would not have had the capability to carry out the attacks in Istanbul. Moreover, one indication of a “false flag” operation is that the investigation is too easy. Authorities are immediately led down one track, away from the real culprits. Thus, the passport of one suicide bomber in the first set of attacks, on the synagogues, was found amid the wreckage. He was easily identified and the link to al Qaeda quickly established. Perhaps, Turkish authorities are aware of this trap. The prime minister has cautioned that they are “not 100-percent sure” al Qaeda was responsible.
One major reason for ousting Saddam was the strong suspicion that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 strikes, as well as the anthrax letters that followed. There was, however, enormous bureaucratic resistance to that notion. The concept is not difficult to comprehend, nor is evidence lacking, but as columnist Andrew Sullivan recently suggested, government bureaucrats simply do not want to acknowledge a serious error.
The White House should straighten this out. It is a bad idea to allow U.S. agencies to operate on the basis of a fundamental misunderstanding. Intelligence failures should be corrected.
Moreover, the preoccupation with militants and groups, rather than major terrorist states, inhibits the achievement of critical U.S. goals, like blocking Iran’s nuclear program. Senior Israeli officials have warned that Iran is on the verge of a nuclear breakthrough that will pose an existential threat to their country. But what is being done? If one believes that every Tom, Dick, and Harry of a militant poses a major threat, then the truly serious threats appear less so. There are no sensible priorities and too many dangers to deal with.
Finally, explaining Iraq’s role in the terrorism against America may also prove necessary in fighting this war. Americans are now evenly divided on whether we should have toppled Saddam. Continued U.S. casualties will only increase those doubts. Yet no doubt would exist, if the public understood that Iraqi intelligence was intimately involved in the 9/11 attacks and that the military grade anthrax sent to Senators Leahy and Daschle almost certainly came from an Iraqi lab.
Unfortunately, there is a Catch-22. President Bush probably does not understand how easy it would be to demonstrate this, because the intelligence failures that left us vulnerable on 9/11 remain uncorrected.
–Laurie Mylroie is an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Bush vs. the Beltway: How the CIA and State Department Tried to Stop the War on Terrorism.