Monday, September 25, 2006
A 30-page National Intelligence Estimate completed in April cites the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the insurgency that has followed, as the leading inspiration for new Islamic extremist networks and cells that are united by little more than an anti-Western agenda.
It concludes that rather than contributing to eventual victory in the global counterterrorism struggle, the situation in Iraq has worsened the U.S. position, according to officials familiar with the classified document.
"It's a very candid assessment," one intelligence official said of the estimate, the first formal examination of global terrorist trends written by the National Intelligence Council since the March 2003 invasion. "It's stating the obvious."
The White House on Sunday sharply disagreed with the new assessment, as Bush administration officials stressed that anti-American fervor in the Muslim world began long before the war in Iraq.
Peter Watkins, a White House spokesman, declined to talk specifically about the National Intelligence Estimate.
But the White House view, according to Watkins, is that much of the radical fundamentalists' deep anger at the U.S. and Israel goes back generations and cannot be linked to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
"Their hatred for freedom and liberty did not develop overnight," Watkins said. "Those seeds were planted decades ago."
He said the administration has sought in Iraq to root out hotbeds of terrorism before they grow. "Instead of waiting while they plot and plan attacks to kill innocent Americans, the United States has taken the initiative to fight back," Watkins said.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney also have highlighted the war in Iraq as the main thrust in the fight against terrorism, contending that the world is safer overall without Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., agreed with the White House view that radicalism predates the toppling of Saddam and that fundamentalists are always looking for reasons to recruit new jihadists.
"If it wasn't Iraq, it'd be Afghanistan," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "If it wasn't Afghanistan, it would be others that they would use as a method of continuing their recruitment."
But McCain also cautioned that the longer the war continues, "the more likely they are to have more recruits."
He added, "It's obvious that the difficulties we've experienced in Iraq have certainly emboldened [terrorists]. Lack of success always does that."
Sen. Arlen Spector, R-Pa., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he was "very concerned" by the reports. "My feeling is that the war in Iraq has intensified Islam fundamentalism and radicalism," he told CNN's "Late Edition."
On the other political side, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he agreed with the intelligence assessment that the war is breeding more terrorists.
"President Bush's repeated missteps in Iraq and his stubborn refusal to change course have made America less safe," Reid said. "No election-year White House PR campaign can hide this truth.
"It is crystal clear that America's security demands we change course in Iraq," he added.
The NIE, whose contents were first reported by the New York Times, coincides with public statements by senior intelligence officials describing a different kind of conflict than the one outlined by Bush in a series of recent speeches marking the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"Together with our coalition partners," Bush said in an address earlier this month to the Military Officers Association of America, "we've removed terrorist sanctuaries, disrupted their finances, killed and captured key operatives, broken up terrorist cells in America and other nations and stopped new attacks before they're carried out. We're on the offense against the terrorists on every battlefront, and we'll accept nothing less than complete victory."
But the battlefronts that intelligence analysts depict are far more impenetrable and difficult, if not impossible, to combat with the standard tools of warfare.
Although intelligence officials agree the United States has seriously damaged the leadership of al-Qaida and disrupted its ability to plan and direct major operations, radical Islam has spread and decentralized.
Many of the new cells, the NIE concludes, have no connection to any central structure and arose independently. They communicate only among themselves and derive their inspiration, ideology and tactics from the more than 5,000 radical Islamic Web sites. They spread the message that the Iraq War is a Western attempt to conquer Islam by first occupying Iraq and establishing a permanent presence in the Middle East.
The April NIE, titled "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States," does not offer policy recommendations.
Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte announced last month that the National Intelligence Council would begin drafting a new NIE on Iraq in response to a request from the Senate Intelligence Committee. That estimate is still in the early planning stages, intelligence officials said.
But while the April NIE does not deal specifically with conditions in Iraq, many of its judgments emphasize the influence of the Iraq War on the spread of global terrorism.
According to officials familiar with the document, it describes the situation in Iraq as promoting the spread of radical Islam by providing a focal point with constant reinforcement of an anti-American message for disaffected Muslims.
The Web sites provide a narrative of a war with frequent victories for the insurgents and describe an occupation that they say regularly targets Islam and its adherents.
They also distribute increasingly frequent and sophisticated messages from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, urging Muslims wherever they are to take up arms against the "Crusaders" on behalf of Iraq.