While President Bush was careful to remind Americans that even with Saddam Hussein behind bars, "we still face terrorists," the White House and Pentagon have characterized the arrest as a major victory in the war on terrorism. But is Iraq really the central battleground in that struggle, or is it diverting our attention while Al Qaeda and its confederates plan for new strikes elsewhere? There's strong evidence that Osama bin Laden is using Iraq the way a magician uses smoke and mirrors.
News reports that Al Qaeda plans to redirect half the $3 million a month it now spends on operations in Afghanistan toward the insurgency in Iraq lent credence to the view that it is turning Iraq into center stage for the fight against the "Great Satan." That might actually be good news: Iraq could become what American military commanders have described as a terrorist "flytrap."
But there's a better chance that Osama bin Laden is the one setting a trap. He and his fellow jihadists didn't drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan by taking the fight to an organized enemy on a battlefield of its choosing. In fact, the idea that Al Qaeda wanted to make Iraq the central battlefield of jihad was first suggested by Al Qaeda itself. Last February, before the coalition invasion of Iraq, the group's information department produced a series of articles titled "In the Shadow of the Lances" that gave practical advice to Iraqis and foreign jihadists on how guerrilla warfare could be used against the American and British troops.
The calls to arms by Al Qaeda only intensified after the fall of Baghdad, when its intermittent Web site, Al Neda, similarly extolled the virtues of guerrilla warfare. In urging Iraqis to fight on, the site invoked prominent lessons of history—including America's defeat in Vietnam and the Soviet Army's in Afghanistan.
But as useful as Iraq undoubtedly has been as a rallying cry for jihad, it has been a conspicuously less prominent rallying point, at least in terms of men and money. The Coalition Provisional Authority may be right that thousands of foreign fighters have converged on Iraq, but few who have been captured have demonstrable ties to Al Qaeda. Nor is there evidence of any direct command-and-control relationship between the Qaeda central leadership and the insurgents.
If there are Qaeda warriors in Iraq, they are likely cannon fodder rather than battle-hardened mujahedeen. In the end, Qaeda's real interest in Iraq has been to exploit the occupation as a propaganda and recruitment tool for the global jihadist cause.
While America has been tied down in Iraq, the international terrorist network has been busy elsewhere. The various attacks undertaken by Qaeda and its affiliates since the occupation began have taken place in countries that are longstanding sources of Osama bin Laden's enmity (like Saudi Arabia) or where an opportunity has presented itself (the suicide bombings in Morocco in May, Indonesia in August and Turkey in November).
In fact, Saif al-Adel, the senior Qaeda operational commander who was credited with writing the "Shadow of the Lances" articles, is widely believed to have been behind the May attacks that rocked Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but he has yet to be linked to any incidents in Iraq.
And even if Osama bin Laden has now decided to commit some new funds and Qaeda forces to Iraq, it is unlikely to be a significant drain on his wallet or the vast reservoir of operatives trained in Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere. According to a Congressional report on the 9/11 attacks, an estimated 70,000 to 120,000 jihadists passed through those training camps. So even if a few thousand are sent to Iraq, Osama bin Laden will retain a healthy reserve capable of sustaining his global jihad.
As we bear down on Iraq, Al Qaeda is bearing down on us. Chatter on Web sites affiliated with Al Qaeda reveals that the jihadists are constantly monitoring America, studying and gauging our reactions to intelligence we gather on them and adapting their plans accordingly. One recent posting read: "The enemy has set up special bodies to analyze and correlate all this information and deduce the conclusions from them. If we know the importance of the information for the enemy, even if it is a small piece of information, then we can understand how important are the information that we know."
For America, the fundamental challenge remains our willingness and our ability to fight our adversaries across several fronts. Turning Iraq into a viable democracy is of course important, but we must not be drawn into concentrating on one battleground to the exclusion of all others.
Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert with the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in New York Times on December 17, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.