June 2, 2003 | National Review Online

Spinning for al Qaeda

By Ithaar Derweesh

There was almost a sense of glee in much of the media when al Qaeda recently hit Saudi Arabia and Morocco with a series of murderous suicide bombings. Pundits and public figures who had opposed the liberation of Iraq jumped on this opportunity to place blame where they believe it really always belongs: On the shoulders of President Bush.

“There's no question that Bush has increasingly destabilized the world,” Amy Goodman, the host of the radio show, Democracy Now, told CNN viewers on May 14. In Paris, Islamism “expert” Olivier Roy went even further, telling the Agence France Presse: “These attacks are a response to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

They went on to argue that the Saudi and Moroccan attacks demonstrated that al Qaeda is just as strong — if not stronger — than before, and that somehow by removing Saddam Hussein, one of the world's leading terrorist masters, America had strengthened terrorism.

Consider: Is it really logical to believe that al Qaeda terrorists would have stayed quietly at home had their base of operations in Afghanistan been left undisturbed? Al Qaeda still has thousands of trained terrorists capable of committing atrocities. Does it really make sense to suggest that were it not for Operation Iraqi Freedom those terrorists would be weaker?

Besides, the real test of al Qaeda's strength was — and will remain — its ability to make Washington do what it wants. The question was whether al Qaeda could intimidate the United States, could cow us into foregoing an historic opportunity to free millions of Iraqis and rid the world of a terrorist-sponsoring tyrant who was determined to develop weapon of mass destruction and achieve regional domination. In the end, al Qaeda did not frighten America. Instead, we braced for possible attacks in the United States as the terrorism threat warning was raised to orange days before the war began.

So far, al Qaeda has not struck again in the U.S. Instead, it struck in the heart of the Arab world. That is a sure sign of weakness.

It seems that the tightening of America's borders, the passage of the Patriot Act, stepped up intelligence and surveillance, and increased monitoring of Islamic extremism in our mosques and schools have made it harder for al Qaeda to infiltrate and assail our homeland.

This is not to say there won't be successful terrorist attacks against us in the future. But in the meantime, al Qaeda's decision to strike in Arab cities will have consequences. Pictures of dead and wounded Muslim victims do not help the vaunted “recruiting sergeant.”

Already, there are signs that local backlashes against terrorism are at least beginning. Last month, after Israel retaliated against another round of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist attacks, thousands of Palestinians protested in the streets — not against Israel, but against Hamas, angry that Hamas was using their homes and farms as staging grounds for attacks and thereby putting Palestinian non-combatants at risk.

At the same time, the liberation of Iraq has not only removed one of the major bankrollers of terrorism and potential suppliers of weapons of mass destruction (as well as the technology to produce WMD), it also has made the Arab world think. When Iraqis angrily call into question the meaning of an Arab “brotherhood” that stood by as Saddam killed them by the millions, and Kurdish leaders demand an official apology to the Iraqi people from the Arab League, you know that change is in the air.

And the war on terrorism cannot be won until there is change — until we shake up the stultified intellectual atmosphere of the Middle East. The only debate so far has been over which is worse: the secularized Arab national socialism in Saddam's Iraq, Assad's Syria, and Mubarak's Egypt, or the religious extremism of Khomeniist Iran and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. (Interestingly, both versions have a foothold in the West Bank and Gaza, where groups like Fatah coexists with such groups as Palestinian Islamic Jihad.)

A free Iraq can make its greatest contribution to the war on terrorism over the long run by offering disempowered and frustrated Arab youth a third path: liberal democracy. President Bush was right when he said that the liberation of Iraq was “one victory in the war against terrorism.” He never said Operation Iraqi Freedom was the end of the war. He never said that that war would be won quickly. Freedom in Iraq will not deliver its fruits overnight, but seeds have been planted. The breezes of change will help them to grow.

Ithaar Derweesh, M.D. escaped with his family from Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1979. He practices medicine in the Cleveland area, writes on foreign-policy issues and serves as a visiting fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.