In what appears to be a devastating two-part blow to the Bush administration’s prewar case for toppling Saddam Hussein, the U.S. military has called off its failed two-year search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and a CIA-linked report claims that the Middle East country has replaced Afghanistan as the main training ground for the next generation of “professionalized” terrorists.
“Iraq and other possible conflicts in the future could provide recruitment, training grounds, technical skills and language proficiency for a new class of terrorists who are ‘professionalized’ and for whom political violence becomes an end in itself,” warns a report released last week by the National Intelligence Council, a CIA-affiliated think tank.
On Tuesday, the Iraqi provisional government announced the shutting of the borders at the time of the election of a national assembly at the end of the month to prevent an influx of foreign-based insurgents. Instead of producing the democratic watershed promised by the Bush administration, Iraq is serving as a magnet for international terrorist activity, the report found.
Titled “Mapping the Global Future,” the report contains the analysis of 1,000 American and foreign experts on a host of issues, from China and India’s rising power to the growing risks of biological attacks against America to the changing nature of warfare.
Last week, administration officials were quoted as saying that the “Iraq survey group” in charge of the hunt for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction had called off its mission several months after its head claimed no substantive evidence of such weapons had been found. The outcome is an embarrassment not only for administration officials who had cited the lethal danger posed by Saddam as its prime argument to got to war, but also for the CIA, which had asserted that Saddam Hussein was indeed in possession of weapons of mass destruction.
The argument over whether Iraq was part and parcel of the war on terror or a distraction from it was one of the major disagreements during the 2000 campaign. It was also a major topic of debate following the publication of several books by former Bush administration officials, including anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, who argued that the administration’s judgment was clouded by an obsession with Iraq.
The Bush administration downplayed the recently released report. “This is a speculative report about things that could happen in the world,”’ White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters January 14. Asked about the finding that the war had created a recruiting and breeding ground for terrorists, McClellan said, “That’s assuming that terrorists would just be sitting around and doing nothing if we weren’t staying on the offensive.”
“The Al Qaeda membership that was distinguished by having trained in Afghanistan will gradually dissipate, to be replaced in part by the dispersion of the experienced survivors of the conflict in Iraq,” the report states. The “dispersion of the experienced survivors of the conflict in Iraq” to other countries will create a new threat in the coming 15 years, especially as the Al Qaeda network morphs into a volatile mix of autonomous radical groups, cells and individuals.
The report contends that unlike Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the new generation of terrorists will rely not on a geographical base, but the Internet.
The National Intelligence Council, which released the report, advises the CIA director and is in charge of crafting classified National Intelligence Estimates, which represent the consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies on specific issues. The so-called NIE on Iraq, hastily put together in 2002, has been a major topic of controversy because of its claims regarding Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and the little attention it gave to dissenting views on the issue, especially those emanating from the State Department.