In Iraq we have created a new "field of jihad", argue Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon
Exactly who bombed the U.N. in Baghdad is the question everyone wants answered. But in some ways it misses a point that is already clear—that there is a growing abundance of potential suspects, ranging from radicalized locals to al-Qaeda émigrés. What's worrisome is that they may be coalescing around the same cause, which is to turn Iraq into a showplace of terrorism.
For militants who share al-Qaeda's ideology, the target of the bombing was a natural one. For years, jihadists have reviled the U.N. as an arm of world infidelity. They have depicted the organization as a tool America relied on to allow the slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia and to kill innocent Iraqis through the sanctions that were Saddam's punishment for noncompliance with U.N. resolutions. Islamist militants had already tried once to bomb U.N. headquarters. That 1993 effort grew from the same jihadist circle that provided the manpower for the first World Trade Center attack, which killed six.
In Iraq the old regime wanted to avoid military retaliation or invasion, so it made sense to shun collaboration with Osama bin Laden's maximal terrorists. But since Saddam and his loyalists have lost their state, the prudence that deterred them from working with the jihadists is gone. Together or alone, the radicals must strike in Iraq, the newest "field of jihad." That phrase, redolent of Scripture, is actually a modern coinage to refer to a theater of operations for the Islamist insurgency. There are many: the U.S. and Europe have emerged as central fields of jihad, along with Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Indonesia and others. The extremists will fight and die to evict "infidel" forces from those places, including any Muslim government they consider apostate.
For these God-obsessed terrorists, the imperative to free Iraq is profound. The country is in the heartland of Dar al-Islam, the true realm of the faith, not some backwater like Afghanistan. For 500 years, Baghdad was home to the Caliph, the leader of all Muslims, the equivalent of both Pope and King. For them, U.S. occupation of this land is an existential affront. Now they must prove their core claim that they, not the corrupt potentates of the region, are the true defenders of the faith. That requires the radicals to bloody the Americans—the more savagely, the better.
A continuing wave of terrorism in Iraq will have real consequences. America's relationship with the Muslim world is staked to our success in reconstructing and stabilizing the ruined country. As long as our troops must attend to protecting themselves and tracking insurgents instead of setting the country aright, the U.S.'s claims of being a beneficent liberator will ring hollow in the ears of many Muslims. And they in turn may find the al-Qaeda view of the universe increasingly attractive.
Daniel Benjamin is senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Steven Simon is senior analyst at the RAND Corporation. They are the authors of The Age of Sacred Terror (Random House, 2002).
This commentary originally appeared in Time Magazine on August 25, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.