What the Terrorists Have in Mind

October 27, 2004


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

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

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


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 quandaryof 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


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


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

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.”