A tale of two headlines

By Dogtown Commoner | Posted at 8:22 pm, October 15th, 2007 | Topic: iraq, politics, the press

A headline in Monday’s Washington Post:

Al-Qaeda In Iraq Reported Crippled

A headline in Monday’s New York Times:

An Internet Jihad Sells Extremism to Viewers in the U.S.

So much for “we’re fighting them there so that we don’t have to fight them here.” That never really made any sense, but this pair of headlines appearing the same day really drives the point home. Our war in Iraq isn’t preventing terrorists from fighting us at home — on the contrary, our war in Iraq is being used as a recruiting tool by Al-Qaeda, and the message is appealing not just to alienated young men in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, but also to some alienated young men right here at home. As the Times article, by Michael Moss and Souad Mekhennet, says:

Mr. Khan, who was born in Saudi Arabia and grew up in Queens, is an unlikely foot soldier in what Al Qaeda calls the “Islamic jihadi media.” He has grown up in middle-class America and wrestles with his worried parents about his religious fervor. Yet he is stubborn. “I will do my best to speak the truth, and even if it annoys the disbelievers, the truth must be preached,” Mr. Khan said in an interview.

While there is nothing to suggest that Mr. Khan is operating in concert with militant leaders, or breaking any laws, he is part of a growing constellation of apparently independent media operators who are broadcasting the message of Al Qaeda and other groups, a message that is increasingly devised, translated and aimed for a Western audience.

Terrorism experts at West Point say there are as many as 100 English language sites offering militant Islamic views, with Mr. Khan’s — which claims 500 regular readers — among the more active. While their reach is difficult to assess, it is clear from a review of extremist material and interviews that militants are seeking to appeal to young American and European Muslims by playing on their anger over the war in Iraq and the image of Islam under attack.

The ability of Al Qaeda to attract sympathizers and even foot soldiers in the U.S. is disturbing, but it’s not a surprise. It was completely predictable that the invasion of Iraq would be a propaganda goldmine for Al Qaeda, which is one of many reasons that so many of us fought against the march toward war in 2002 and 2003. As unsurprising as the increase in “homegrown” terrorists and fellow travelers is, the whole Times article is really worth reading. It’s the best account I’ve seen yet of the inside workings of the terrorist propaganda machine, and it traces one young American’s path from nonviolent Islam to a jihadist ideology and an active role in spreading terrorist propaganda on the internet.

I hope people in Washington are taking note. The article is a reminder of what should have been obvious all along: a “war on terrorism” that relies almost exclusively on hunting down and killing terrorists will be counterproductive. This “war” will only be won by waging a better propaganda war than Al Qaeda wages, and by prudently weighing the long-term ramifications next time our leaders have an urge to start bombing a Muslim country.

The candidates for the Republican nomination for President seem to be competing for the “most hawkish” award, from John McCain’s “joke” about “bomb Iran” (sung to the tune of “Barbara Ann”) to Mitt Romney’s statement that he we should “double Guantanamo”. This might be a politically smart way to get votes, but it’s a frightening and dangerous way to approach the problem of terrorism. Rudy Giuliani, who should know better than any of them the consequences of Islamic radicalism, has chosen foreign policy advisers like Michael Rubin, one of the geniuses behind the Iraq debacle, and Norman Podhoretz, who is distinguishing himself by arguing more vociferously than anyone else that we should start bombing Iran.