When the president addressed the nation about the ongoing insurgency in Iraq, he assured his audience “we have killed or captured hundreds of foreign fighters in Iraq who have come from Saudi Arabia and Syria, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and others.”
Neither President Bush nor anyone else mentions that prominent among the “others” are several European countries. It begins to be apparent that at least hundreds of aspiring jihadists travel to Iraq from Europe to join the fight. In the public debate over where we stand in Iraq, the central front in the war on terror, this has received surprisingly little attention.
Jihadist networks throughout Europe have been well documented in the years since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Many conspiracies have been interrupted, including plots to attack everything from embassies to airports to synagogues. The arrests and trials after provided ample evidence of the nature of the jihadi threat festering within European borders. A recent series of arrests across Europe confirmed the presence of support networks helping jihadists get from Europe into Iraq. Money and logistical support help shuttle these alienated young radicals into the largest urban-terror training ground since the Afghan-Soviet war.
Instructions for those interested in waging jihad in Iraq are easily available on the internet. Recently, the Times of London referenced a manual posted on Jihadweb, an online magazine. The manual, titled “This is the Road to Iraq,” outlines, often in chilling detail, helpful hints for taking this journey, including optimal travel routes and how to spend money discreetly.
The guide even advises wearing blue jeans, eating donuts and listening to a portable music player to remain inconspicuous en route. Such publications lead one to wonder: If this road is traveled by new jihadists to Iraq, what about the road home?
Islamist networks throughout Europe are not only a conduit to the jihad in Iraq, but provide a pathway for veteran insurgents who choose, or are ordered, to return to the West. The frightening reality is the road to jihad in Iraq may soon be a busy two-way street.
Although many European Muslims involved in the Iraqi insurgency are motivated by the prospect of imminent martyrdom, not all will meet this fate. Some who travel to Iraq to take part in the jihad will absorb the zeal and the instruction in operations and return to European states with massive networks of contacts, poised to assume leadership roles.
Given al Qaeda’s history of recruiting and training Western Muslims for operations against targets in Europe and North America, there is every reason to believe camps specifically designed for English speakers and citizens of Western countries are functioning in Iraq; a model al Qaeda debuted in the 1990s.
The recent arrests in Spain of more than a dozen radicals alleged to be directly affiliated with Iraqi insurgent leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, and the arrests of Ansar al-Islam members in Germany are all cause for great concern — proving the tentacles of the Iraqi insurgency have, like the Afghan jihad before, become transnational, reaching into Europe’s heart.
The implications of this phenomenon are profoundly menacing. Whatever the outcome in Iraq, foreign insurgents who survive will pose a grave threat to their home countries for years to come. On one hand, if Iraqis manage to consolidate their nascent democracy and force the jihadists to leave, these terrorists will likely return via the road they traveled in the first place — a road with destinations including Milan, Hamburg, Paris and London. On the other hand, if the insurgency continues several more years, the long-term threat to the West will prove almost impossible to contain, as many thousands of veteran insurgents will constitute a new and experienced network of Islamic radicals, mirroring the development of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network in the 1990s. One of the legacies of Iraq may prove to be a strengthened and galvanized European franchise of al Qaeda.
The New York Times recently disclosed a classified CIA report that acknowledges the danger of foreign insurgents returning to Western countries. The assessment is said to warn that Iraq may ultimately prove a more effective training environment than Afghanistan in the 1980s, largely because the insurgents operate mainly in cities. The threat of insurgents trained in urban warfare tactics returning to European cities is very real.
It is eminently possible that the London attacks could be the first operation executed by terrorists trained by former Iraqi insurgents. Some of those responsible for the bombings may even be jihadists with combat experience in Iraq.
Given the proven interest in urban warfare, the proliferation of technological know-how, and the increasing numbers of European-based veterans of the intense and protracted Iraqi insurgency, there is an impending threat of a prolonged wave of terrorist attacks in the West. A byproduct of the conflict in Iraq, this next chapter in the War on Terrorism is one Western leaders must be prepared to confront.
Shawn Brimley and Aidan Kirby are both research associates at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.