The Corner

Who Creates Jihadists?

Sorry, this is going to be a long one.  Juxtaposing Jonah’s analysis of the NIE finding that the Iraq war sparked more jihadism with analysis by Clinton administration NSC staffers’ Dan Benjamin and Steve Simons in today’s Washington Post got me thinking.  The real debate still seems to be between proponents of a long-term strategy to fight Islamist extremism versus proponents of more short-term, band-aid solutions.  But what really bothered me about Benjamin and Simons’ argument is its oversimplification of cause-and-effect in terrorism.  Jihadism is seldom spontaneous.  Iraqis and Saudis don’t merely watch al-Jazeera, get pissed off, and go out to hunt Americans.  Rather, there are networks that recruit and train.  Part of our difficulties in Iraq and elsewhere stem from our failures to get at these networks.  Before blaming Iraq for increasing the jihadist threat, a few questions: 

  • Specifically, how do jihadists join the jihad?  
  • Do they simply purchase high explosives at the bazaar or do they get supplied?  If so, by whom?  Who funds them?  How does the money get there?

(Interviewing Iraqis earlier this month, they noted two patterns:  An increase in shipments through diplomatic pouches to the Iranian consulates in Karbala and Basra, as well as shipments of appliances like television sets to import-export companies in al-Anbar, which then sell them, using the cash to purchase supplies).

  • Among European terrorists, how many received training in Afghan or Pakistani terror training camps?  If they received such training, is their terror really homegrown?  (In this regard, the Bush administration’s willingness to ignore terror training camps in southwestern Somalia may one day be seen in retrospect as just as negligent as Clinton’s willingness to ignore camps in Afghanistan.
  • How much money have Iranian, Persian Gulf Arab, or Saudi donors contributed to jihadist organizations?  Have we charted an increase in donations?  (Do we even have the information?)  Can these negotiations be correlated to Iraq or to the rise in oil prices?
  • No doubt, jihadists have become more lethal.  Indeed, lethality has steadily increased since the 1970s.  But how have jihadists become more lethal?  Does practice make perfect?  (It’s difficult for suicide bombers to learn from their mistakes).  Clearly, jihadists receive training.  What is important is not only from whom, but rather who introduces them to those trainers. 

(When journalists describe Palestinian suicide bombers as being teenagers from a Palestinian refugee camp, they seldom explored further to find out that UN-salaried teachers at UN-funded high schools had observed certain characteristics in one of their charges and facilitated the introduction to the terror masters.  This is why many families did not know what their children were about to do; Alex Alexiev highlighted a recruitment system especially popular among followers of some South Asian strains of Islam, here).

  • How influential are mosque sermons?  If Iraqis are joining jihad, to which sermons do they listen and where?  If Iraqi mosques are contributing to incitement, did the resident imam serve the same mosque under Saddam?  If so, did he receive his training in Iraq?  If not, where did he come from and how did he happen to take over that mosque? 

(In October 2003, Sunni Arab Iraqis spoke of mullahs being forced out at gunpoint with new imams installed; the same thing later occurred in Shi’ite mosques; in a more fashion, Uriya Shavit did a good piece on the intellectual history of al-Qaeda, here).

  • To what extent do jihadists use snippets of Congressional debate—whether in context or outside—in their recruitment propaganda?  While Iraq impacts media coverage, to what extent does media coverage impact Iraq?
  • It may be tempting for political reasons to blame Iraq or, for that matter, Israel’s existence and occupation for jihadism and terrorism.  If so, what did Iraq or Israeli have to do with Muslim Brotherhood terrorism pre-1948 (again, see this declassified document).  What did Iraq or Israel have to do with Islamist slogans shouted in the French riots?  What did Iraq or Israel have to do with the Danish cartoon controversy?
  • Does engaging terror-sponsoring regimes work (note this declassified document (.pdf), about US engagement toward the Taliban)?

Before we blame everything on ourselves and the Bush administration, I’d sure like to have some more answers.  Because I suspect that jihadists may be far more bipartisan in their willingness to kill than some of the commentaries about them.  Iraq appears to be the latest excuse.  If not Iraq, then Afghanistan.  If not Afghanistan, then Saudi Arabia.  If not Saudi Arabia, then Sicily or Spain.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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