By Richard Norton-Taylor, the Guardian’s security affairs editor (THE GUARDIAN, 26/09/06):
A month before the invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair was privately warned by his top intelligence advisers that an invasion would increase the terrorist threat against Britain. The joint intelligence committee advised in February 2003 that “al-Qaida and associated groups continue to represent by far the greatest threat to western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq”.The JIC would have provided a better service to the British public and the country’s national interest had it not connived in the misleading intelligence dossier on Iraq’s alleged weapons programme and allowed Blair to persuade MPs and military chiefs to go to war.
Now, more than three and a half years later, in their first official assessment of global terrorism since the invasion of Iraq, 16 separate US intelligence agencies have agreed what was obvious then. Their National Intelligence Estimate, leaked last weekend, says the Iraq invasion has indeed increased the terrorist threat by encouraging the spread of Islamic radicalism across the world.
The CIA also admitted recently what its more competent officers had known from the start: there never was any link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. It is a sad irony that, having exaggerated the influence of Osama bin Laden’s network, by their actions the US and Britain have succeeded in increasing it.
Its influence is held up by governments as a useful tool to frighten the public and promote their anti-terrorist agenda. Gordon Brown was at it yesterday. In his speech to the Labour party conference, echoing Bush-Blair rhetoric, he praised the prime minister for realising that “no one can be neutral in the fight against terrorism”. Earlier, on the Today programme, Brown endorsed what he called “the liberation of Iraq” and spoke of “a new generation of al-Qaida terrorists”. Last week he told a New York conference hosted by Bill Clinton: “We’re seeing more al-Qaida bases in Africa than any other part of the world.”
Brown has clearly done his homework – there are few more damaging attacks that can be made against a prospective prime minister than to say he is soft on security. To be fair, he did also make the point that the battle against Islamic extremism cannot be fought by military or police measures alone, and that it was a battle for hearts and minds.
That battle is not being won. There is no doubt that al-Qaida as a hierarchical organisation has been weakened by the capture and killing of some of its leaders in Pakistan and elsewhere. Its communications and finances are more vulnerable to disruption as the result of action by national counter-terrorist agencies.
Yet there is also no doubt that the movement is increasingly widely dispersed, with cells probably in as many as 60 countries, and increasingly less vulnerable to military action. The cells are “self-generating” – though MI5 and MI6 believe that the 7/7 London suicide bombers and other alleged “home-grown” Islamist terrorists had closer links with core al-Qaida figures in Pakistan than at first thought.
Britain’s security agencies have always argued that the Iraq invasion is a significant factor behind the radicalisation of young British Muslims. Maha Azzam, the author of a recent Chatham House report, notes that al-Qaida’s involvement in Iraq kept its name “on the agenda in what is seen by many in the region and the wider Muslim world as ‘resistance’ to US occupation”. Al-Qaida may be losing the support of most Arabs in the Middle East, as Azzam suggests. But by pointing to the dangers it poses, and the continuing terrorist threat, ministers are inadvertently presenting it with a huge propaganda success, whatever its actual influence on the ground.