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:
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";
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].
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Iraqi man on Slate's home page by Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images.