Saturday’s Washington Post had an article that quotes the usual unnamed intelligence sources saying that they are surprised to discover that al Qaeda has “reconstitute[d]” itself. This surprise derives from, inter alia, the computer data found recently in Pakistan, intelligence sources (both ours and friends’), and simply looking at the range of activities in which the terrorists engage.
This surprise is, as usual, unsettling, since it has been quite clear for some time now that al Qaeda and the other major terrorist groups–Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Jamaa, etc.–are all working together, and have been ever since we went into Afghanistan. The cooperation increased in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, and was only possible because the regimes who gave the bulk of the operational support to the terrorists–Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia–worked closely to coordinate the anti-American jihad. That coordination has, for the most part, continued (note the visit of Bashar Assad to Tehran at the time of the turnover of “sovereignty” in Iraq. At those meetings, Syria and Iran agreed on a five-point plan to attack us in Iraq, Europe, and at home, and to do everything possible–including massive efforts to get the price of oil as high as they can–to defeat President Bush in November’s elections).
This helps understand the coordination between, say, attacks by the forces of Moqtada al Sadr and Baathist “loyalists.” The infrastructure was created before we ever arrived in Iraq.
I wrote about this phenomenon at the time, and it enabled me to accurately forecast what happened in Iraq: the active cooperation among terrorists of widely diverse ideological, religious, and national backgrounds and convictions, in a desperate effort to drive us out of Iraq.
The war in the Middle East–for it is a regional war, not merely a battle for Iraq–cannot be analyzed at the level of the individual terrorist groups, because the terrorists are part of a larger context. The organizing center is, as Spanish Magistrate Balthazar Garzon publicly put it, a “directorate” located in Iran, that works closely with Iranian intelligence organizations, including the Revolutinary Guards. Those organizations, in turn, work with their counterparts in other friendly countries.
In order to conceal their activities from us, the Iranians have deployed several deceptive myths. The two most effective are “al Qaeda” and “Zarqawi.” I believe I was the first American writer to call attention to Zarqawi (long before he was named by secretary of State Colin Powell in his presentation to the U.N. Security Council). I was able to do that because I had read German and Italian court documents that proved Zarqawi, operating from Tehran, had organized a European terrorist network. I’m sure that fact was known to Garzon, as it was to the Italian military intelligence organization, SISMI, which came to similar conclusions (published a few months ago in the Corriere della Sera).
This was the period when, according to our intelligence analysts, Zarqawi became a major player in al Qaeda.
It follows that the Iranians were involved in the marriage between al Qaeda and Zarqawi. To believe otherwise, you’d have to believe that Zarqawi and top al Qaeda officials were operating freely and independently of the Iranian regime. I don’t think any serious person would buy that one.
But the notion that radical Sunni terrorists like Zarqawi and bin Laden and Zawahiri were working hand in glove with the radical Shiite regime in Tehran was an impossible hypothesis for most of our analysts, who believed that strategic cooperation between Sunnis and Shiites was not possible (even though, for example, the Sunnis of Arafat’s Fatah-trained Khomeni’s Shiites–the embryonic Revolutionary Guards–in the Bekaa Valley as early as 1972. I have personally interviewed the person who organized that training program). Those analysts were working with false assumptions within the wrong context.
By now, an Iranian role is obvious, as is the Syrian component. More evidence pours in every hour. Just look at the best Iraqi bloggers, or, if that’s too hard, just listen to the Iraqi defense minister or the Iraqi interior minister. But I don’t think we have accepted the full context, and we won’t get it right so long as we continue to obsess over al Qaeda and/or Zarqawi.
Zarqawi is an instrument of a far more powerful terrorist engine: the Iranian regime, allied with other terror masters. Zarqawi himself is only involved in a fraction of the actions for which he gets credit; the most important figure is actually our old enemy, Imad Mughniya, the operational commander of Hezbollah. And if you’re in a betting mood, I’ll give you even money that Hezbollah is the operational glue that binds together the various terrorist factions on the ground in Iraq.
TYRANNICAL TERROR TRIO
I think it’s fair to say that my analysis has stood up pretty well, starting more than a year before Operation Iraqi Freedom. If I am right, then we cannot possibly “win” in Iraq, because Iraq is just one battlefield in a (at a mininum) regional war. The Iranians, Syrians, and (a significant group of) Saudis dare not acquiesce in the creation of a free and successful Iraq, because that would mortally threaten their own survival. The regimes in Tehran, Damascus, and Riyadh are extremely unpopular; their peoples are aching for the chance to remove the regimes and experiment with freedom. The regimes know that, and are ruthlessly oppressing their peoples.
Remember that Machiavelli said that tyranny is most unstable form of government. And precisely because the regimes are unstable, our most potent weapon against them is political, not military. I do not believe we can win the war by force of arms alone. It is certainly very important to defeat al Sadr in Najaf and Kut, and to liberate Fallujah, but even those victories will not suffice. Our regional enemies will find new instruments–indeed, I have no doubt they have them already in place. Victory, as the president has said, requires regime change and the spread of freedom. And this is not nearly so daunting as might appear.
We defeated the Soviet Empire at a time when only a small minority of the people was willing to fight for freedom. We overthrew Milosevic with a minority of the Yugoslavs. In Iran we have upwards of 70 percent of the people on our side. If we supported them, I think it quite likely that we could liberate Iran in a matter of a few months. And if Iran falls, Syria will most likely come right alongside.
If we do not quickly expose the vulnerability of mullahs and empower the Iranian people, I believe the next few months in Iraq will, if Tehran has its way, be bloodier than anything we have seen to date. Not to mention the planned attacks against us here at home.
–Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen is Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.