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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Commentary: Fighting al Qaeda 'There' Instead of 'Here' Makes Iraqi Civilians Into Cannon Fodder For Terrorists

By J.M. Berger

During last week's vice-presidential debate, Dick Cheney reiterated a key tenet of the administration's policy on the Iraq War: "We need to battle (terrorists) overseas so we don't have to battle them here at home."

President Bush has struck the same chord several times since the beginning of the war in Iraq, mentioning it during the first presidential debate.

"We will fight the terrorists around the world so we do not have to face them here at home," he said. The sentiment has also been expressed in different words by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Bush political adviser Karl Rowe.

The deployment of U.S. troops as cannon fodder for terrorists is bad enough, but the "there not here" strategy is also drafting Iraqi civilians to die as victims of terrorism in the place of American civilians.

And they are dying, every month, by the hundreds.

The number of Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. forces during the U.S. invasion and occupation already dwarfs the number of Americans killed by al Qaeda over the last 15 years.

Roughly 14,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the beginning of the war, according to the independent media-based research of Of those, hundreds have been killed by terrorist attacks since the occupation phase began. In an incident that occured shortly after the president's first debate, 35 Iraqi children were killed by terrorist car bombings in a single day.

The civilian toll is only part of the picture. More than 1,000 U.S. soldiers have also been slain. Thousands more Iraqi combatants have been killed, mostly nationalists and insurgents.

These casualties would be troubling even if they were incurred on al Qaeda's home turf in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. But before the U.S. invaded, virtually no one in Iraq was a participant in the "War on Terror."

The number of civilian bystanders in Iraq is monumentally large compared to the number of al Qaeda-linked terrorists. Only a handful of expert terrorists are currently operating "over there." Have they been diverted from attacking America and its allies "here" at home? The evidence suggests just the opposite.

Jordianian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is by far the most prolific terrorist in Iraq. Despite his busy schedule, he still made time to orchestrate the successful Madrid train bombing in March, and a near-disastrous chemical attack plot in Jordan, which was narrowly averted in April.

Is Madrid "there" or "here" under the Bush Doctrine? What about Jordan? Is "there" defined by geography, by politics, by religion, or by the color of the victim's skin?

The "there instead of here" attitude is based on a cynical "end justifies the means" calculation. The Bush Administration's intends to sacrifice Iraqi civilians in order to protect American civilians. At its most basic level, this is an immoral and flatly unacceptable exchange.

Some may argue the presumed benefit outweighs the moral cost. But before you can launch that debate, you first must demonstrate that the strategy works.

Given the extremely large number of Iraqis volunteering for the insurgency, it takes only a few expert terrorist coaches like Zarqawi to make a big impact.

Before the Iraq war, few Westerners had even heard Zarqawi's name. Today, he's a terrorist celebrity with a veritable army at his disposal. Zarqawi can operate with impunity in the current Iraqi environment. In addition to the Madrid and Jordan attacks, his organization sets off half a dozen bombs and kidnaps half a dozen hostages every week in Iraq.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda's U.S. network soldiers on. Sleeper agents on U.S. soil are not going to pack their bags and move to Baghdad. There's absolutely no evidence that al Qaeda has directed any meaningful resources away from the West to deal with Iraq.

Instead, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are now more motivated than ever to craft strikes in the U.S. and in other countries, where the risks are less and the rewards are great.

For instance, since the invasion of Iraq, al Qaeda-linked terrorists have made two attempts to assassinate Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

If that effort succeeds, Pakistan could very well descend into civil war. In the ensuing chaos, al Qaeda could finally get its hands on a nuclear weapon from Pakistan's arsenal. Why make the difficult journey to Iraq when there are weapons of mass destruction on al Qaeda's home turf?

Yet Pakistan was mentioned only once during a 90-minute presidential debate on the subject of foreign policy - and then only in passing.

Is Pakistan "there" or "here"?

The conclusion is obvious, but it bears repeating: The war in Iraq is distracting America far more than al Qaeda. And that means the "cannon fodder" strategy isn't just immoral. It's also stupid.

The "there not here" strategy has already seen the death of 14,000 Iraqi civilians and more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers. Many more will die before this engagement ends. In the end, the U.S. death toll in Iraq will almost certainly surpass the U.S. death toll on September 11.

On even the most cynical and amoral level, the Bush Administration can defend the "there not here" strategy only by conclusively showing that the carnage in Iraq is preventing civilian deaths on U.S. soil.

When the next "September 11" comes - and it almost certainly will, undeterred by the Iraq war - Americans will demand an accounting of this cruel calculus.

When they do, the Iraqi death toll will not be subtracted from the casualties of terrorism on U.S. soil. It will be added to the total.

For 15,000 human beings, it's already too late to do the math.

J.M. Berger is a terrorism analyst for Cambridge, Mass.-based (


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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