Did the U.S. occupation really draw all the anti-American terrorists to Iraq?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
March 2 2009 11:17 AM

The Flypaper Theory

Why kill Americans in the United States when you can kill them in Iraq?

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President Bush rephrased this in a June 2005 speech to the nation:

Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war. Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home [italics mine].

Responsible discussion of the Flypaper Theory requires a few caveats. For one thing, not all—or even most—of the insurgents battling U.S. troops in Iraq have been foreigners; in 2005, the Washington Post estimated foreigners represented 4 percent to 10 percent. Even al-Qaida in Iraq, the group to whom the Flypaper Theory seems most to apply, consists largely of Iraqis, and it's more a franchise of al-Qaida than a subsidiary. Another caveat is that the Central Intelligence Agency concluded as far back as 2005 that for Islamist extremists, Iraq was at least as much of a training ground as it was a flytrap. The number of anti-Western jihadis created by the Iraq war probably exceeds the number of anti-Western jihadis killed in the Iraq war.

For our purposes, though, the most significant caveat is that the Flypaper Theory has become at best a historical explanation, not a guide to current reality. There's considerably less fighting in Iraq today, and al-Qaida in Iraq has been on the ropes at least since 2007. The group's founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a June 2006 airstrike, and in May, his successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, suffered the humiliation of seeing the U.S. government bounty on his head be reduced from $5 million to $100,000. Iraq is no longer the jihadi diversion that it used to be and probably never was the jihadi diversion it was cracked up to be.

That's good news for Iraq but not such good news for Americans who worry about a follow-up to the 9/11 attack. To whatever extent al-Qaida and its affiliates were distracted by the war in Iraq, they aren't distracted now. What happened to all those trained jihadis? Are they redirecting their efforts to plot against the United States? We don't know. The Flypaper Theory earns its place in the worry spectrum not because of what it explains but because of the many imponderables it can't explain.

Next: "The He-Kept-Us-Safe Theory," in which we'll evaluate the efficacy of government anti-terror efforts in the years since 9/11.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.