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Flypaper Revisited

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The Jamestown Organization has an interesting report on the Salafi-jihadists fighting in Iraq — the contingent personified by and mostly led by Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq. Information on the backgrounds of the mujahideen is not hard to come by; though they mask their faces, they proclaim the histories of their “martyrs” on Islamist Web sites.

According to the report, more than half (53%) of the Salafi-jihadists fighting in Iraq are Saudis. No other nation provides nearly as many.

The next biggest contingent are Syrians, at only 13%. Moreover, as the report notes, many of the Saudis “are prominent fighters and ideological trainers,” so the 53% figure may not sufficiently suggest their importance to the movement.

Obviously, ease of access is part of the reason so many Saudis go there: The border, a relatively unguarded stretch of desert, is a short drive away. It seems a preponderance of the Saudis in Iraq are from the region closes to Iraq, but that also may be because that region is the hotbed of Salafism in Saudi Arabia.

But there seems to be more to it than geography. It’s also a spillover of the insane and cowardly policy of the Saudi leaders of actively and ruthlessly cracking down on any al-Qaida activity in their kingdom, while allowing religious leaders to preach jihad and while themselves encouraging the spread of fundamentalist doctrines that are at the root of the jihad movement.

They breed the problem, then they make sure it has to go somewhere else. If you’re a young Saudi Salafi-jihadist, you go to Iraq. Other Islamic countries that have disproportionate representation among the foreign fighters in Iraq also are those where the government takes an active stance against Salafi-jihadists — Morocco, Algeria, Libya.

Which makes me pause and wonder where all these good folks would be going if they weren’t going to Iraq. I’m picturing the world if the U.S. had not chosen to overthrow Saddam. They would have lost their base in Afghanistan, but there still would be plenty of other places to go and wage jihad if it’s uncomfortable in your homeland.

Chechnya, for instance. Russia would have a lot more trouble on its hands. Or soft, easy Europe. The recent disturbing revelations about Islamic fundamentalists in Bosnia suggest to me the situation there could be a lot worse with a little more influx of the kind of “prominent fighters and ideological trainers” now going to Iraq.

Or nuclear-tipped Pakistan, where the problem went when we chased it out of Afghanistan. Or if these thousands of Salafi-jihadis of Saudi Arabia had chosen to stay home and join the struggle for their homeland, how close would the kingdom be to its tipping point?

Or the most tempting, if most difficult, target could beckon them: the United States. Many of the prominent Salafi-jihadists fit exactly the profile of the 9-11 hijackers. Many others easily could have found their way to chaotic places like Somalia and trained themselves to carry out attacks against American interests around the globe.

All of which is perilously close to the “better to fight them there than fight them here” rationale for the Iraq invasion, which I reject. I reject it because I believe our primary goal in Iraq is to build a free and stable, democratic nation that will give its people hope and opportunity and something to live for besides festering resentments and religious poisons. That’s the long-term strategy for victory over Islamist fundamentalism, and it suits America’s virtues.

I’m pleased that our military forces can mow down terrorists who flock to Iraq, but that would be a secondary goal, and it conflicts with the higher purpose. You can’t build up the nation and tear it up in battle at the same time. You can’t set up the china shop of democracy in a shooting gallery. Consider this observation from the Jamestown report:

Another interesting fact is that Egyptians no longer represent a significant constituency among Arab fighters as was the case in Afghanistan and Bosnia. This is primarily because the role of jihadist movements has receded in Egypt and many former leaders of jihadist organizations have now publicly renounced violent methods.

And why have they done that? As the price of entering into the political process in Egypt, and eventually sharing power in their own country. I’m not blind to the dangers of theocrat demagogues, or the way anti-democratic parties can exploit elections. But I’d rather have the struggle between Islamic fundamentalism and secular democracy play out in the shaky elections of Egypt than in the cities of Iraq.

Yet the “flypaper effect,” even if I don’t like it, is real. And the experience of it in Iraq is something worth noting. Salafi-jihadists do not have a nation; they cannot be defeated in a conventional war. They are an ideology, and they can be defeated inside the body they infect — the Muslim Arab world. Which brings up the Iraqis themselves.

Interestingly, in the list posted on the al-Saha forum, the number of local Iraqis among the ranks of the Salafi-jihadists is very low (around 8%), which indicates that insurgent Iraqis prefer to join indigenous “nationalist� resistance networks, rather then foreign-led extremist ideological movements.

If this is right, it’s interesting. Far better if the Iraqis weren’t fighting us at all at this point in the game. But too many blunders have been made, and perhaps with the Sunni minority an insurgency was inevitable. However, it seems that the insurgents have not fully merged with the foreign jihadis. That means it’s possible for an Iraqi government with some authority among the Sunnis to reel them in and isolate the jihadist elements.

[Hat tip, Zenpundit, who makes his own worthwhile observations on the report, which I’ll not duplicate because I’m not in the thunder-stealing trade.]