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[] NYT 27.10.04: Op-Ed Contributor: What the Terrorists Have in Mind,

October 27, 2004
What the Terrorists Have in Mind

With less than a week before the election, President Bush is seeking to 
turn the favorable ratings he receives for his prosecution of the war on 
terrorism into a clinching advantage. His latest television advertisement, 
using a pack of wolves to stand in for foreign terrorists, ends with the 
line: "Weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm." He has 
backed up this sentiment in his foreign-policy stump speeches. "In a free 
and open society, it is impossible to protect against every threat,'' he 
told a New Jersey crowd. "The best way to prevent attacks is to stay on the 
offense against the enemy overseas."

Of course, Mr. Bush is correct: A central part of our strategy must be to 
pre-empt terrorists, attacking them before they attack us. But not all 
offensive strategies are equal, and Mr. Bush errs by arguing that the one 
being employed is doing the job. One need only listen to the terrorists and 
observe their recent actions to understand that we face grave problems. 
After all, their analysis of the battle is a key determinant of the level 
of terrorism in the future.

To get a sense of the jihadist movement's state of mind, we must listen to 
its communications, and not just the operational "chatter" collected by the 
intelligence community. Today, the central forum for the terrorists' 
discourse is not covert phone communications but the Internet, where 
Islamist Web sites and chat rooms are filled with evaluations of current 
events, discussions of strategy and elaborations of jihadist ideology.

Yes, assessing this material requires a critical eye since there is plenty 
of bluster and some chat room participants may be teenagers in American 
suburbs rather than fighters in the field. Some things, however, are clear: 
There has been a drastic shift in mood in the last two years. Radicals who 
were downcast and perplexed in 2002 about the rapid defeat of the Taliban 
in Afghanistan now feel exuberant about the global situation and, above 
all, the events in Iraq.

For example, an article in the most recent issue of Al Qaeda's Voice of 
Jihad - an online magazine that comes out every two weeks - makes the case 
that the United States has a greater strategic mess on its hands in 
Afghanistan and Iraq than the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan in the 
1980's. As translated by the SITE Institute, a nonprofit group that 
monitors terrorists, the author describes how the United States has 
stumbled badly by getting itself mired in two guerrilla wars at once, and 
that United States forces are now "merely trying to 'prove their presence' 
- for all practical purposes, they have left the war."

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist now wreaking havoc in Iraq, 
sees things in a similar way. "There is no doubt that the Americans' losses 
are very heavy because they are deployed across a wide area and among the 
people and because it is easy to procure weapons," he wrote in a recent 
communiqué to his followers that was posted on several radical Web sites. 
"All of which makes them easy and mouthwatering targets for the believers."

Clearly, the president's oft-repeated claim that American efforts are 
paying off because "more than three-quarters of Al Qaeda's key members and 
associates have been killed, captured or detained" - a questionable claim 
in itself - means little to jihadists. What matters to them that the 
invasion of Iraq paved the way for the emergence of a movement of radical 
Sunni Iraqis who share much of the Qaeda ideology.

Among the recurrent motifs on the Web are that America has blundered in 
Iraq the same way the Soviet Union did in the 1980's in Afghanistan, and 
that it will soon be leaving in defeat. "We believe these infidels have 
lost their minds," was the analysis on a site called Jamaat ud-Daawa, which 
is run out of Pakistan. "They do not know what they are doing. They keep on 
repeating the same mistake."

For the radicals, the fighting has become a large part of a broader 
religious revival and political revolution. Their discussions celebrate 
America's occupation of Iraq as an opportunity to expose the superpower's 
"real nature" as an enemy of Islam that seeks to steal the Arab oil 
patrimony. "If there was no jihad, Paul Bremer would have left with $20 
trillion instead of $20 billion," one Web site declared.

Moreover, the radicals see themselves as gaining ground in their effort to 
convince other Muslims around the world that jihad is a religiously 
required military obligation. And the American presence in the region is 
making the case for fulfilling this obligation all the more powerful.

Iraq, in fact, has become a theater of inspiration for this drama of faith, 
in which the jihadists believe they can win by seizing cities and towns, 
killing American troops and destabilizing the country with attacks on the 
police, oil pipelines and reconstruction projects. Although coalition 
forces have retaken Samarra and pounded Falluja, we have ceded control of 
much of western Iraq. Taliban-like councils are emerging in places under 
the control of extremists, some linked with Mr. Zarqawi's organization.

 From the militants' perspective, America's record has been one of 
inconsistency and fecklessness. For example, we signaled that we were going 
to attack Falluja last summer, and then held off. We have allowed it and 
several other cities to become no-go zones for coalition forces. The 
apparent decision to postpone a major campaign to retake western Iraq until 
after the Nov. 2 election is another move that the militants will 
inevitably view as a sign of weakness. In the end, we are stuck in the 
classic quandary of counterinsurgency: we do not want to use the force 
necessary to wipe out the terrorists because we would kill numerous 
civilians and further alienate the Iraqi population.

Meanwhile, radicals in dozens of countries are increasingly seizing on 
events in Iraq. Some Web sites have moved beyond describing the action 
there to depicting it in the most grisly way: images of Western hostages 
begging for their lives and being beheaded. These sites have become 
enormously popular throughout the Muslim world, thrilling those who 
sympathize with the Iraqi insurgents as they see jihad in action. Fired up 
by such cyber-spectacles, militants everywhere are more and more seeing 
Iraq as the first glorious stage in a long campaign against the West and 
the "apostate" rulers of the Muslim world.

It is remarkable, for example, that the Pakistani Sunni extremist group 
Lashkar-e-Tayba appears to be shifting its sights away from its longtime 
focus on Kashmir and toward Iraq. Probably the largest militant group in 
Pakistan, it has used its online Urdu publication to call for sending holy 
warriors to Iraq to take revenge for the torture at Abu Ghraib prison as 
well as for what it calls the "rapes of Iraqi Muslim women." "The Americans 
are dishonoring our mothers and sisters," reads a notice on its site. 
"Therefore, jihad against America has now become mandatory."

The organization's postings speak of an "army" of 8,000 fighters from 
different countries bound for Iraq. While that number is undoubtedly 
exaggerated, the statement is not pure propaganda: members of the group 
have already been captured in Iraq.

Another worrisome development is the parallel emergence of a Shiite 
militancy that shares the apocalyptic outlook of Al Qaeda. One citation 
that crops up frequently in chat rooms is a quotation from a sheik 
describing the fighting in Iraq as a harbinger of the arrival of the Mahdi, 
the messiah figure whose expected return will bring about a sort of final 
judgment: "The people will be chided for their acts of disobedience by a 
fire that will appear in the sky and a redness that will cover the sky. It 
will swallow up Baghdad."

It seems clear that, while the administration insists that we are acting 
strongly, our pursuit of the war on terrorism through an invasion of Iraq 
has carried real costs for our security. The occupation is in chaos, which 
is emboldening a worldwide assortment of radical Islamists and giving them 
common ground. The worst thing we could do now is believe that the Bush 
administration's tough talk is in any way realistic. If we really think 
that the unrest abroad will have no impact on us at home - as too many 
thought before 9/11 - not even a vastly improved offense can help us.

Daniel Benjamin, a director for counterterrorism on the National Security 
Council staff under President Bill Clinton, is a co-author of "The Age of 
Sacred Terror." Gabriel Weimann is professor of communications at the 
University of Haifa in Israel and the author of the forthcoming "Terror on 
the Internet."

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