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Iraq's Jihad Myths

By Reuel Marc Gerecht
Sunday, February 17, 2008

Among Democrats and even many Republicans, it is by now accepted wisdom that the war in Iraq brought huge numbers of holy warriors to the anti-American cause. But is it true? I don't think so.

Muslim holy warriors are a diverse lot, reacting with differing intensity to the hot-button issues that define contemporary Islamic militancy. For many fundamentalists, what is seen as an unrelenting Western assault on Muslim male honor and female virtue is the core infuriating offense. For others it may be the alienation that second-generation young Muslim men encounter in an immigrant-unfriendly Europe. And for still others, Iraq, Afghanistan, the tyranny of U.S.-backed Muslim rulers and the Palestinian resistance can all come together to convert individual indignities into a holy-warrior faith.

These complexities may help explain, at least in part, why so many secular Westerners seek relief in more easily understood explanations for jihadism (the war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being the usual favorites) -- explanations that don't probe too deeply into Islamic history and the militant Muslim imagination.

Regarding the Iraq war and jihadism, two facts stand out. First, if we make a comparison with the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979-89, which was the baptismal font for al-Qaeda, what's most striking is how few foreign holy warriors have gone to Mesopotamia since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Admittedly, we don't have a perfect grasp of the numbers involved in either conflict. But the figure of 25,000 Arab mujaheddin is probably a decent figure for those who went to Pakistan to fight the Red Army. Most probably did so in the last four years of the war, when the recruitment organizations and logistics became well developed. In Iraq, we see nothing of this magnitude, even though Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, is in the Arab heartland and at the center of Islamic history. Moreover, for Arabs, getting to Iraq isn't difficult, and once there they speak the language and know the culture. And of course the United States, the bete noire of Islamists, is the enemy in Iraq.

But according to the CIA and the U.S. military, we are now seeing at most only dozens of Arab Sunni holy warriors entering the country each month. Even at the height of the insurgency in 2006-07, the figure might have been just a few hundred (and may have been much smaller).

In the 1980s the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most well-organized Islamist movement, was at the center of the anti-Soviet jihadist recruitment effort. But in the case of Iraq, the Brotherhood has largely sat out the war. Even in Saudi Arabia, the mother ship of virulently anti-American, anti-Shiite, anti-moderate Muslim Wahhabism, the lack of commitment has been striking. We should have seen thousands, not hundreds, of Saudi true believers descending on Iraq.

Throughout the Arab world, fundamentalism today is much stronger on the ground than it was in the 1980s. Yet the fundamentalist commitment to the Iraqi Sunni Arab insurgency pales in comparison with that made to Sunni Afghans.

A second striking fact about Islamism and the Iraq war is that the arrival of foreign holy warriors is deradicalizing the local population -- the exact opposite of what happened in Afghanistan. In the Soviet war, the "Arab Afghans" arrived white-hot -- their radicalization had occurred at home in the 1960s and 1970s, when Islamic fundamentalism replaced secular Arab nationalism as the driving intellectual force. On the subcontinent, Arab holy warriors accelerated extreme Islamism among both Afghans and Pakistanis. We are still living with the results.

In Iraq, as we have seen with the anti-al-Qaeda, Sunni Arab "Awakenings," Sunni extremism is now in retreat. More important, the gruesome anti-Shiite tactics of extremist groups, combined with the much-quoted statements made by former Sunni insurgents about the positive actions of the United States in Iraq, have caused a great deal of intellectual turbulence in the Arab world.

It's way too soon to call Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda spiritual outcasts among Arab Muslims, but they have in fact sustained enormous damage throughout the region because of Iraq. The lack of holy-warrior manpower coming from the Muslim Brotherhood is surely, in part, a reflection of this discomfort with al-Qaeda's violence, the complexity of Iraqi politics and America's not entirely negative role inside the country. If bin Ladenism is now on the decline -- and it may well be among Arabs -- then Iraq has played an essential part in battering the movement's spiritual appeal.

Iraq could still fall apart (and if an American president starts withdrawing troops haphazardly, it probably will). The country's descent into chaos and renewed sectarian strife would likely reenergize Islamic extremism. But it is certainly not too soon to suggest that Iraq could well become America's decisive victory over Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and all those Muslims who believe that God has sanctified violence against the United States.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former case officer for the CIA.

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