The contrast is stark.
On the one hand we have the 9/11 Commission’s latest report, Overview of the Enemy, a detailed history of al Qaeda. Like the Commission’s other public statements, it’s informative and worth reading.
On the other, there is the response to the report from the mass media. Here we find a truly astounding conceptual mess, even when measured against the Fourth Estate’s own generously self-forgiving standards.
Dan Froomkin of The Washington Post nicely sums up this intellectual bus plunge. “Yesterday,” Froomkin wrote on 17 June, “a staff report from the Sept. 11 commission concluded that there was ‘no collaborative relationship’ between Iraq and al Qaeda. And this morning, pretty much every mainstream media outlet in the world concludes that this knocks down one of the Bush administration's few still-standing justifications for the war in Iraq.”
Perhaps the most eloquent distillation of this ubiquitous tripe comes to us courtesy of the editorial board at The New York Times. “Of all the ways Mr. Bush persuaded Americans to back the invasion of Iraq last year,” say the editors, “the most plainly dishonest was his effort to link his war of choice with the battle against terrorists worldwide.” Why is that? According to The Times, it is because the Commission report reveals “there was never any evidence of a link between Iraq and al Qaeda.”
This editorial demonstrates, beyond the slightest doubt, that The New York Times comprehends neither the purpose of the 9/11 Commission nor the nature of the Islamist threat.
What the 9/11 Commission does
President Bush charted the 9/11 Commission to investigate al Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — how they did it, how we reacted, why it wasn’t prevented, and what defensive measures we might take in the future. Its area of investigation is specific and historical. While the Commission is making some general observations, most of its reports are (and will continue to be) narrow and technical — or at least as narrow as one can be when dealing with the labyrinthine bureaucracies of the U.S. government.
What the Commission is not doing is strategic analysis. For the 9/11 Commission, the questions are not about the Jihadist threat, or about terrorism per se. They are about al Qaeda, the World Trade Center, and what went wrong with our defenses on 11 September.
By failing to grasp that the Commission is focused on the specific, historical actions of a single organization, The Times makes the first of two big mistakes. Even if the editors were correct about there being no link between al Qaeda and Iraq (and they aren’t), it still would not follow that Operation Iraqi Freedom had nothing to do with “the battle against terrorists worldwide.”
Again, the 9/11 Commission is investigating the circumstances of a particular attack by a specific Jihadist organization. Its technical findings are relevant to the broader strategic questions about global Jihadism, but they are not the same thing. The Times goes seriously awry when it conflates the two.
This brings us to the second, and most fundamental, problem with the opinions coming out of The Times and allied critics — i.e., the confusion of al Qaeda, a specific terrorist organization, with the threat from radical Islamism as a whole.
The Real Enemy
The 9/11 Commission’s Overview of the Enemy starts in 1980, when al Qaeda’s precursor organizations were forming to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. But as momentous as these events were, they form only a single chapter in the modern Jihadist story.
The Muslims of the Middle East spent most of the 20th Century trying to find meaning and pride in a world dominated by the Christian West. Many of the early post-WW I monarchs were overthrown in military coups and replaced by brutal martial regimes, all promising to restore past glories and gain new respect. These were the years of Arab Nationalism and Arab Socialism, the time of Gamal Abd al-Nasser and of strategic alliances with the Soviet Union.
The dreams of Arab Nationalism and Socialism ended in failure, but with the Iranian revolution in 1979 a new ideology arose to take their place — Islamic Fundamentalism. Iran’s radical Shi’a ideology was soon matched, and even surpassed, by the virulent Sunni Wahhabism that shot out of Saudi Arabia, propelled across the region and around the world by billions in oil money from the House of Saud.
It is these two main strains of Islamic fundamentalism (one Shi’a, the other Sunni), plus numerous off-shoots and minor cohorts, that constitute the foundation of the terrorist threat we face today. Al Qaeda is part of it, but only a part. If al Qaeda as an organization were to disappear tomorrow, the threat would remain essentially the same.
With this broader perspective, it is clear how Iraq fits in. Al Qaeda connection or not, Saddam was comfortably in bed with the terrorists, both of the new Islamist variety (e.g., his cash payments to the families of Hamas ‘martyrs’ on the West Bank) and of the older secular flavor, e.g., allowing Abu Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Front to live and operate in Baghdad.
The Iraq Occupation and the War on Terror
But the connection between Operation Iraqi Freedom and the fight against terror goes deeper still.
The single greatest catalyst and enabler for violent Islamic fundamentalism, including al Qaeda itself, is Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabist causes it supports.
But what can we do about Saudi Arabia? We can’t boycott Saudi oil; our own economy would sink. We can’t invade Saudi territory, given the Kingdom’s control of Mecca and Medina. So, how do we pressure the Saudis? How do we force them to straighten up and stop exporting their vicious Wahhabism?
One excellent way is to do just what we have done — powerfully insert tens of thousands of American combat troops into Iraq, just north of the Saudi border. Such a display wonderfully focuses the mind. And in fact, one basic reason we occupied Iraq was precisely to compel the states of the region to change their behavior, with Saudi Arabia near the top of the list.
And guess what? The pressure is doing its work. It’s no fun being a Saudi today, and that’s good. Our presence in Iraq, coupled with stern diplomacy, is pushing the House of Saud to confront and rein in the Kingdom’s Wahhabist class.
It’s a dangerous game, but one we must play.
Mr. Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the CIA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.