06 January 2005


You hear it all the time: “our soldiers are fighting the terrorists in Iraq so we don't have to deal with them at home.” Critics of this idea — like me — call it the “flypaper theory.” It assumes that there is set of terrorists out there, and if we can just kill them all off, that will put an end to terrorism. I figure that if we invade a Muslim country for no good reason, and send pictures of American soldiers waving rifles at bleeding women in head scarves around the world, this is going to help Islamist terrorists do some recruiting. Duh.

Big Media Matt has been reading Marc Sageman's book Understanding Terror Networks and has written a dazzling post about the flypaper theory, among other things, arguing that there actually is a grain of truth to the flypaper account, but that the Iraq war has still been badly counterproductive in reducing terrorism. He later summarized that part of the argument thus:

  1. Eliminating the Afghan sanctuary cut down on al-Qaeda recruitment because despite the continuing appeal of the al-Qaeda ideology, people who wanted to sign up didn't know where to go.
  2. By invading Iraq and then botching the aftermath, we've created a new location for would-be jihadis to travel to in order to join the war.
  3. Thus, we're creating some number of new anti-American warriors.
  4. Right now, those warriors aren't killing people in America because they're in Iraq.
  5. But at some point, some of them will leave Iraq, and start launching attacks in the United States, Europe, and other countries.

Now my point four above has a certain similarity to the "flypaper" account. It's different, though, because the flypaper theoy assumes you had some fixed quantity of terrorists prewar who have now been drawn into Iraq. I'm saying, rather, that the war created some quantity of terrorists, most of whom are in Iraq right now but won't always be there in the future. Note that I'm also not saying that every member of the Iraqi insurgency is going to go on and join some worldwide jihad. The vast majority of insurgents are, by all accounts, native-born Iraqis. The vast majority of those native-born Iraqis will stay put if and when the fighting ends. But since al-Qaeda's formal organization was always pretty small (even if there were a large number of sympathizers and fellow-travelers out there), you don't need to add that many new people to revitalize a network that was in trouble after the fall of Kandahar.

Definitely check out what Matt has to say. Then, for extra credit, read Ezra at Pandagon's elaboration on the theme, looking at how the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan gave rise to Islamist global jyhad.

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