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?

This is the fifth part in a series of eight exploring why the United States suffered no follow-up terror attacks after 9/11. To read the series introduction, click here.

The 9/11 attacks led to a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, whose Taliban regime was sheltering al-Qaida. That made sense. Then it led to a U.S. invasion of Iraq. That made no sense. The Bush administration claimed that Iraq's Saddam Hussein had close ties to al-Qaida. This was based on:

a) allegations made by an American Enterprise Institute scholar named Laurie Mylroie, later discredited;

b) an al-Qaida captive's confession under threat of torture to Egyptian authorities, later retracted;

c) a false report from Czech intelligence about a Prague meeting between the lead 9/11 hijacker, Mohamed Atta, and an Iraqi intelligence agent;

d) Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's zany complaint at a Sept. 12, 2001, White House meeting that "there aren't any good targets in Afghanistan, and there are lots of good targets in Iraq";

and

e) certain Oedipal preoccupations of President George W. Bush.

The purported terror link flatly contradicted the findings of intelligence agencies, and this became widely known to the public before the shooting started in Iraq. For the Bush administration, the absence of credible evidence linking Iraq and al-Qaida was deeply frustrating, especially after the other chief justification for the war—the presence of biological, chemical, and possibly nuclear weapons in Iraq—was disproved.

Then something wonderful happened. The al-Qaida link became true. After the U.S. invasion, Iraq was suddenly teeming with terrorists loyal to al-Qaida. Granted, this was terrible news for the nascent government in Iraq and for the American military, both of which came under violent attack as they tried to impose order. But it allowed President Bush to say, in effect: See? I told you the war in Iraq was part of the war on terror! Thus was born the Flypaper Theory.

The Flypaper Theory states that al-Qaida isn't attacking the United States because it's too busy attacking Americans in Iraq. Although sometimes mistaken for a strategy, this is, in fact, an after-the-fact justification. (If the Bush White House had expected al-Qaida to swarm into Iraq, it wouldn't have predicted prior to the invasion that American troops would be greeted "as liberators, not conquerors.") Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, may have been the first person to articulate the Flypaper Theory in a July 2003 interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer:

This is what I would call a terrorist magnet, where America, being present here in Iraq, creates a target of opportunity, if you will. But this is exactly where we want to fight them. We want to fight them here. We prepared for them, and this will prevent the American people from having to go through their attacks back in the United States [italics mine].

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].

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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.

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