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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Sunday, May 2, 2004

Iraq Prison Abuse Photos Unleash Tough New Problems In Terror War

ANALYSIS: Abu Ghraib charges have major ramifications for international security, terrorist recruiting, political realities

By J.M. Berger

Photographs depicting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners of war at the hands of U.S. and U.K. soldiers will almost certainly increase the flow of funding and volunteers to al Qaeda-linked insurgencies in Iraq, sharply heightening the risk of terrorist attacks on U.S. interests around the world for the foreseeable future.

UPDATE: Class-Action Suit Gives Graphic Details Of Abu Ghraib Horrors

The Bush administration's 2002 refusal to take part in the International Criminal Court and the upcoming war crimes tribunal of Saddam Hussein are also poised to become major related issues in the wake of the unfolding scandal at the Abu Grhaib prison in Iraq, where smiling U.S. soldiers posed for photographs while sexually abusing Iraqi prisoners.

Before the new revelations, Saddam Hussein's prosecution for war crimes would have prominently featured Abu Grhaib, which was a notorious prison under his regime, as an example of his atrocities. The U.S. cited torture at the prison as part of its rationale for invading Iraq and features "tales of brutality" from the prison on a White House Web site.

At the very same time that abuses were being carried out at the prison by U.S. soldiers, President Bush was highlighting the previous regime's offenses and calling on Middle Eastern nations to embrace Western values, saying that Saddam and other Middle Eastern regimes had left "a legacy of torture, oppression, misery, and ruin."

"To have the American soldiers supposedly bringing freedom and democracy and the American way of life to this part of the world, spreading this kind of shameful misconduct, that is an irony that to my taste is very sickening," a spokesman for the Arab League told Reuters last week.

Further deepening the crisis is the fact that the U.S. is holding hundreds of suspects (at minimum) in the War on Terror, many at undisclosed locations, and virtually all of them outside the normal checks and balances that U.S. prisoners could once expect.

Many of these captives are being held and interrogated by U.S. intelligence agencies, a further complication since the soldiers at Abu Grhaib are claiming that they were ordered to abuse prisoners by military intelligence officers who wanted to "set favorable conditions" for interrogation.

The U.S. has until now detained top al Qaeda leaders like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah in total secrecy, with no accountability. In another case, accused al Qaeda dirty bomber Jose Padilla was denied access to a lawyer specifically because such access would disrupt the interrogation of Padilla, an American citizen who has not been charged with a crime.

In the wake of Abu Ghraib, all these detentions will receive new and perhaps painful scrutiny. Padilla's case, currently before the Supreme Court, may be the first of many to be swept up in the Iraq prison scandal's aftershock.

Additionally, there is a very real possibility that CACI International, one of the contractors implicated in the Abu Ghraib report, is involved in at least some top-level al Qaeda detentions and interrogations. If that is the case, there will be significant consequences, especially in light of the U.S. government's strong push to conceal even the smallest details of their interrogations.

If abuses are uncovered, it could potentially impact the continued detention and eventual prosecution of top Qaeda figures like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, which would be a disaster for the U.S. on virtually every level imaginable.

Implicit Claim of Moral Legitimacy

Prior to the outbreak of war in Iraq, the U.S. announced it would not consider itself subject to the International Criminal Court. Marc Grossman, Under Secretary for Political Affairs, said on May 6, 2002, said that the Bush administration made the decision based on several concerns including simply that "the treaty threatens the sovereignty of the United States."

According to Grossman, the ICC "claims the authority to detain and try American citizens, even through our democratically-elected representatives have not agreed to be bound by the treaty. While sovereign nations have the authority to try non-citizens who have committed crimes against their citizens or in their territory, the United States has never recognized the right of an international organization to do so absent consent or a UN Security Council mandate."

Implicit in the U.S. position was an unspoken statement that U.S. leadership inherently possessed the moral and legal authority to effectively prosecute war crimes, should an American ever be found culpable. That premise is now being put to the test, and the U.S. response thus far is deeply problematic.

On Wednesday, CBS News published graphic and disturbing photographs of U.S. soldiers sexually abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib (link to photos) , a prison which had also been notorious under Saddam Hussein's regime as a place of torture and oppression. The photographs show naked Iraqi prisoners being forced to take part in simulated sexual activity with each other and other humiliation, often at the hands of female soldiers.

According to an report in the New Yorker (link) and another in the Washington Post (link), the accused soldiers have attempted to deflect blame onto U.S. intelligence agencies, saying they were ordered to treat prisoners this way in order to soften them up for interrogation. According to New Yorker and the Independent, soldiers also took orders from private contractors hired by the U.S. government, who would be ineligible for prosecution under military law.

(Regardless of the merits of this claim, it seems highly unlikely that intelligence agencies would encourage any sort of photographic evidence, let alone the appalling souvenir-style snapshots published by 60 Minutes II).

The consequences of the photos in the international arena cannot be overstated. The images are perhaps the most provocative imaginable to the Arab Muslim population, where public nakedness and any hint of homosexuality are deeply stigmatized. The fact that the perpetrators are American women substantially increases the stakes.

There may be more to come. According to Amnesty International, "our extensive research in Iraq suggests that this is not an isolated incident." Amnesty says it has received "frequent reports of torture or other ill-treatment by Coalition Forces during the past year. Detainees have reported being routinely subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment during arrest and detention."

Democracy Initiative Amplifies Problem

The situation is further aggravated by U.S. policy decisions over the last two years, which now stand in stark contrast to documented behavior. The Bush administration's heavy-handed push for the democratization of Arab states has been predicated on the explicit notion that a democratic society is morally superior to existing Arab regimes, which range from monarchy to theocracy to dictatorship.

In November 2003, even as a prisoner was allegedly being tortured to death at Abu Ghraib by U.S. intelligence officers, President Bush issued a call for Middle Eastern states to embrace democracy (link):

"In many nations of the Middle East — countries of great strategic importance — democracy has not yet taken root. And the questions arise: Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism?"

Later in the same speech, Bush said: "Dictators in Iraq and Syria promised the restoration of national honor, a return to ancient glories. They've left instead a legacy of torture, oppression, misery, and ruin."

Saddam Hussein's human rights abuses have increasingly been cited as the primary justification for the war in Iraq, in the absence of any evidence for a significant weapons program. In September 2003, just before the abuses at Abu Ghraib began, the White House posted a propaganda Web page titled Tales of Saddam's Brutality (link):

"The Iraqi people talk about mass graves and Saddam's crimes against humanity The cruelty of Saddam's regime is evident in its brutality toward Iraqi citizens. Mass grave sites across Iraq provide further evidence of Saddam's atrocities."

Ironically, the collection of news citations included several items relating to abuses perpetrated by the Saddam regime at Abu Ghraib. These words and many more like them are now coming home to roost.

"To have the American soldiers supposedly bringing freedom and democracy and the American way of life to this part of the world, spreading this kind of shameful misconduct, that is an irony that to my taste is very sickening," a spokesman for the Arab League told Reuters last week (global reaction).

The immediate political fallout is likely to deepen based on the U.S. response to the situation. Specifically, the question looms large of whether and how the perpetrators will be punished — and which perpetrators will be punished.

One key theological argument employed by extremists in an effort to justify violent jihad calls on Muslims to fulfil their Islamic obligation to fight for justice by fighting Western interests. If there is a widespread perception that the Abu Grhaib abuses are not going to be justly punished, it will provide a powerful propaganda and recruiting tool for Osama bin Laden and like-minded militants.

The alleged involvement of U.S. intelligence agencies adds the color of authority to the abuse, but there is no clear path to justice nor any sign that the U.S. is investigating that aspect of the situation.

No Clear Path To Just Punishment

The U.S. decision to exempt itself from the International Criminal Court is likely to have a profound impact on the level of anger among Arab nations, both on the streets and in the corridors of power.

The refusal to take part in the ICC has significant ramifications for how the criminal case against U.S. soldiers and citizens will proceed. Six suspects have been charged in relation to the incidents, which were described in a military report cited in the New Yorker as "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses."

None of the suspects facing charges rank higher than sergeant; some are specialists and privates. The Washington Post says a seventh suspect is likely to be charged as well. According to the New Yorker, the suspect (also a private) was reassigned stateside because she was pregnant.

The investigation to date has been conducted secretly, and the soldiers were quietly brought up on charges in March. While the court martial punishments may well include jail time, if the suspects are convicted, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq said Sunday on NBC's Today Show that "criminal charges will be filed" and "careers will be ended" because of the investigation.

Because the U.S. has opted out of the ICC, the military court may end up being the only judicial review of the case. An even deeper issue concerns the private contractors, who may not be subject to any applicable law or authority for their actions. In the minds of many Iraqis, this lack of accountibility will retroactively justify recent attacks on civilians, such as in Fallujah. The new anger will also add luster to the reputation of foreign fighters tied to such attacks, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

As far as the soldiers, the current charges, while serious, fall short of the definition most Middle Eastern countries will apply to the conduct — war crime. The impending war crimes tribunal of Saddam Hussein only heightens the question that has been asked repeatedly by Arabs in media interviews over the last week: "What's the difference between the U.S. and Saddam Hussein;s regime?"

Significantly, no charges have yet been brought against the military brass at the prison, although they have been subject to administrative suspensions and review. It's entirely unclear whether any such charges will be filed. On Sunday, the Pentagon indicated that it was "investigating" charges that military intelligence officers may have directed or instigated some of the abuse, but the status of that investigation was decidedly unclear as of Monday morning, May 3.

Finally, and significantly in the minds of Arabs, there is virtually no chance that any American politician or high-ranking administration official will face any sort of criminal liability or punishment for the abuse, even if it is eventually determined to have been authorized by intelligence agencies on behalf of the White House (a prospect which has not yet been widely discussed in the U.S. media).

At worst, such liability (if it exists) would be resolved by a political process, likely with strictly political consequences, potentially generating hostility toward subsequent administrations which may be left to deal with the issue of determining appropriate punishments. The tribunal of Saddam Hussein may well be seen as sharply hypocritical in this context, further inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment. Certainly, the Abu Grhaib prison would have been one of that tribunal's centerpieces prior to the developments of the past week.

In the absence of ICC jurisdiction, Arab and Muslim nations and their citizens are not likely to accept the fairness and objectivity of any American court, let alone a closed military court, a non-criminal administrative review or a toothless political censure. The Arab media have already begun citing the decision to opt out of the ICC as fuel for speculation that the U.S. premeditated war crimes in Iraq.

Immediate Consequences

Taken as a whole, there will certainly be grim consequences resulting from the prison abuse reports, especially considering that any judicial resolution that will assuredly fall far short of even moderate Arab and Muslim conceptions of justice.

The most obvious and probably the most immediate consequence will be an escalation of the jihad in Iraq, which will likely become visible within several weeks to six months at most. The graphic photos of U.S. (and apparently U.K.) soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners play directly into the hands of terrorist recruiters.

According to U.S. authorities, there has not yet been a dramatic influx of foreign fighters to Iraq. That will almost certainly change in the weeks to come. Countless thousands of young Muslim men flocked to Afghanistan during the 1980s without such a visceral provocation.

As in Afghanistan, a popular international jihad in Iraq presents multiple challenges over the short, medium and long terms. An extended Iraq conflict would create a host of new alliances, personal connections, trained soldiers and logistical networks which can then be employed to support global terrorist activity for decades to come.

The inflammatory pictures also make it extremely difficult for Arab nations which have directly and indirectly supported the U.S. and the War on Terror to continue doing so with impunity, notably including Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The first cracks may already be appearing in those alliances. After months of Saudi P.R. touting the Kingdom's role in fighting al Qaeda, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah said in a speech this week that "Zionism is behind terrorist attacks in the Kingdom." State-affiliated newspapers in Egypt ran the Iraq abuse photos on their front pages.

The Saudi situation is particularly acute. During the Afghan jihad, Saudi leadership attempted to solve the kingdom's domestic unrest by exporting young men overseas to fight in Afghanistan. Such a strategy may hold significant appeal in light of the unprecedented wave of attacks within the kingdom over the past year.

The U.S. fight to stem terrorist financing is also highly dependent on cooperation from Middle Eastern governments, especially the Saudis. The prison photos will certainly increase the flow of funds coming from Arabs and Muslims at the ground levels, and regional governments may be increasingly willing to look the other way if they think the funds being raised will be put to use in Iraq.

Key nations around Asia, including Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, will also have to contend with new pressure from their large Muslim populations, as anti-U.S. sentiment may become increasingly mainstream. These nations run a larger risk of regime change in the medium- and long-term future, depending on the voting public's response to how the prison abuse is finally adjudicated (and how that resolution compares to the handling of Saddam Hussein's not-yet-scheduled war crimes tribunal).

Finally, the U.S. will face growing issues surrounding its continued detention of Muslims in the United States, at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and at undisclosed locations worldwide. The Bush administration has forcefully argued that it need not account for its detentions of enemy combatants in the War on Terror, often refusing to submit to international monitoring of the conditions of imprisonment and arguing against judicial review of its interrogation and imprisonment practices. It reiterated these views just last week before the Supreme Court, which may now take the Abu Grhaib situation under consideration in the cases of Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla (link)

If it eventually emerges that the abuse at Abu Ghraib was carried out at the direction of U.S. intelligence agencies, European nations will likely mount a serious international effort to force inspections of the conditions of imprisonment for such al Qaeda leaders as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah.

The U.S. government has insisted that its treatment of these prisoners is consistent with international law, however the Abu Grhaib abuses were clearly illegal. France and Germany will almost certainly lead other nations in seeking assurances that the Abu Grhaib practices are not being applied to other U.S. captives. In the wake of the revelations of the last week, the administration will shortly be forced to prove Abu Ghraib is an aberration rather of U.S. interrogation techniques, rather than an example of them.

Until now, the Bush administration has essentially argued in political and legal forums that the legality and morality of its conduct regarding terrorist POWs should be an article of faith. Abu Ghraib represents a breach of that faith, in a magnitude that the international community will not be able to ignore.


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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