It seems callous to liken 9/11 or last week’s tragedy in Paris to bee stings. But an evolutionary biology professor says that metaphor explains what we did wrong after 9/11. (More)

Terrorism and Team Violence, Part III: Playing Into Their Hands

This week Morning Feature considers David Wong’s thesis on terrorism and “Team Violence.” Tuesday we began with how World War II lured our nation onto Team Violence, both in policy and in popular opinion. Yesterday we saw how the fall of the Soviet Union made it easier to stay committed to Team Violence. Today we see that President Bush’s response to 9/11 was exactly what Al Qaeda wanted. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with whether last week’s horror in Paris will keep us locked in this deadly dance, or see us finally stop the music.

“It was designed to provoke a reaction”

Bret Weinstein isn’t a national security professional. He’s a professor of biology at The Evergreen State College, with a special interest in Adaptive Evolution and Complex Adaptive Systems. And perhaps his different background that helped him crystallize the Bush administration’s reaction to 9/11:

The 9/11 perpetrators killed about 3,000 people, and did about $13 billion in physical damage to the United States. That’s a lot of harm in absolute terms, but not relative to a nation of 300 million people, with a GDP of almost $15 trillion. It was a massive blow to many families, and to New York City. But to the nation as a whole that level of damage was about as dangerous as a bee sting.

You may find that analogy suspect because bee stings are deadly to those with an allergy. But what kills people is not the sting itself. It is their own massive overreaction to an otherwise tiny threat, that fatally disrupts the functional systems of the body. And that is exactly what terrorists hope to trigger – a muscular and reflexive response on the part of the victim-state that advances the perpetrators’ interests far beyond their own capacity to advance them.

The 9/11 attack was symbolic. It was not designed to cripple us economically or militarily, at least not directly. It was designed to provoke a reaction. The reaction cost more than 6,000 American lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than $3 trillion in U.S. treasure. The reaction also caused the United States to cripple its own Constitution and radicalize the Muslim world with a reign of terror that has killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani civilians

The return on the terrorists’ investment was spectacular. Assuming the official story is right, then Al Qaeda got $7 million of effect for every dollar it spent on the attack – $7 million, to one. The ratio of harm inflicted on U.S. targets by the 9/11 attacks, to the financial harm the U.S. inflicted on itself reflects the same amplification. For every $1 of damage they did to us, we did $231 to ourselves. For every American that was killed in the attack, we sacrificed more than two on the battlefield. And that is all before we consider the instability we brought to the Middle East, the harm we did to our own freedoms, and the spectacular cost to our reputation abroad.

We could debate whether we “crippled” our Constitution, and whether we inflicted or merely enabled a “reign of terror” in Iraq. But Weinstein’s tally of casualties and costs is correct.

“An American invasion of Iraq is already being used as a recruitment tool by Al Qaeda and other groups”

That’s not merely 20/20 hindsight. On March 15, 2003 intelligence officials told the New York Times’ Don van Natta and Desmond Butler the Iraq War would be a boon for terrorist groups:

In recent weeks, officials in the United States, Europe and Africa say they had seen evidence that militants within Muslim communities are seeking to identify and groom a new generation of terrorist operatives. An invasion of Iraq, the officials worry, is almost certain to produce a groundswell of recruitment for groups committed to attacks in the United States, Europe and Israel.

“An American invasion of Iraq is already being used as a recruitment tool by Al Qaeda and other groups,” a senior American counterintelligence official said. “And it is a very effective tool.”
Some of the information about Al Qaeda recruiting comes from interrogations of captured operatives and from materials found at the house in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the third-ranking Al Qaeda leader, was arrested this month, officials say.

Note that those warnings came five days before the U.S. invasion. This was hardly a case of “no one could have foreseen….”

“A potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups and networks”

The warnings kept coming. In February 2005, CIA Director Porter Goss explained the problem to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee:

The insurgency in Iraq continues to baffle the U.S. military and intelligence communities, and the U.S. occupation has become a potent recruiting tool for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, top U.S. national security officials told Congress yesterday.

“Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists,” CIA Director Porter J. Goss told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

“These jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced and focused on acts of urban terrorism,” he said. “They represent a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups and networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries.”

In September 2006, a secret National Intelligence Estimate said the Iraq War was multiplying the terrorist threat:

The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has increased the number of terrorist groups worldwide and “made the overall terrorism problem worse,” a U.S. intelligence official said in a secret study.

The assessment of the war’s impact on terrorism came in a National Intelligence Estimate that represents a consensus view of the 16 disparate spy services inside government, CBS News learned Sunday.

Among the report’s conclusions: the war was “providing new recruits” and had made Al Qaeda and its spinoff groups “self-sustaining” and “no longer directly tied to Osama bin Laden.” And those groups were no longer isolated. They could communicate and coordinate worldwide on the internet.

“Shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives”

By March 2007, New York University Center on Law and Security research fellows Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank concluded that the Iraq War had boosted terror attacks:

The administration’s own National Intelligence Estimate on “Trends in Global Terrorism: implications for the United States,” circulated within the government in April 2006 and partially declassified in October, states that “the Iraq War has become the ’cause celebre’ for jihadists … and is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives.”

Bergen and Cruickshank concluded that the war had boosted terrorist attacks seven-fold worldwide, and later that year Brookings Institute research director Daniel Byman wrote that the Iraq War actually saved Al Qaeda:

Before the United States invaded Iraq, Al Qaeda was on the ropes. The United States and its coalition partners had rousted it from Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban, while a global manhunt was steadily shutting down jihadist cells from Morocco to Malaysia. Perhaps equally important, many Islamists, including fellow jihadists, harshly criticized bin Laden for having rashly attacked a super power and, in so doing, causing the defeat of the Taliban, the only “true” Islamic regime in the eyes of many radicals.

The invasion of Iraq breathed new life into the organization. On an operational level, the United States diverted troops to Iraq rather than consolidate its victory in Afghanistan and increase its chances of hunting down Bin Laden. Today, Al Qaeda is reconstituting itself in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Politically, Iraq vindicated bin Laden’s argument that the primary enemy of the Muslim world was not the local Muslim autocrats, but the “faraway enemy,” the United States. Today, Al Qaeda is again on the march.

If you want more confirmation, in 2011 The New Statesman’s Mehdi Hasan offered a long list of British and U.S. intelligence sources who described the Iraq War as “a recruiting sergeant for extremists,” “a training ground, a recruitment ground” that “moved Osama and Al Qaeda from man and group to philosophy and movement” and “created more terrorists in the west.”

And in January of this year, Juan Cole reported that Sharif and Said Kouashi transformed from petty thieves into the deadly gunmen who led the slaughter at the Charlie Hebdo offices … because of the the Iraq War.

I’ll emphasize again that this was not a case of “no one could have foreseen.” Intelligence analysts warned this would happen – before the Iraq War was launched – and they have consistently repeated those warnings in the years since. After 9/11, our invasion of Iraq gave Al Qaeda the political, financial, recruiting, and training opportunities that produced the horrific Islamic State.

President Bush played right into bin Laden’s hands … and tomorrow we’ll see that Republicans now want to make the same mistake again.


Note: English spellings of Arabic names have changed repeatedly since 2003. For consistency, in all quotes I substituted the spellings that are now standard.


Photo Credit: John F. Knott, 1918 (Wikimedia)


Happy Thursday!