The CIA this month conducted a simulation of how the Iraq war affects the global jihadist movement, and one conclusion was that a U.S. loss would embolden al Qaeda to expand its ranks of terrorists as well as pick new strategic targets, according to sources familiar with the two-day exercise.
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield confirmed to The Washington Times yesterday that the simulation took place in Northern Virginia. He declined to discuss its findings, saying that a final report is not finished and that the report will not be the intelligence community’s official view. It will, however, be circulated within the community and possibly to U.S. policy-makers.
The exercise involved 75 CIA analysts and outside specialists. It was conducted by the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis, within the agency’s Counterterrorism Center.
A source familiar with the simulation said it was a “red team” exercise in which participants played the role of global jihadists and war-gamed how the U.S. involvement in Iraq will influence their terror movement.
Although it takes no policy positions, the simulation’s key finding appears to bolster Mr. Bush’s contention that a U.S. loss in Iraq will have far-reaching ramifications.
At a press conference yesterday, Mr. Bush said, “A lot of Americans understand the consequences of retreat. Retreat would embolden radicals. It would hurt the credibility of the United States. Retreat from Iraq would dash the hopes of millions who want to be free. Retreat from Iraq would enable the extremists and radicals to more likely be able to have safe haven from which to plot and plan further attacks.”
Al Qaeda has made stopping democracy in Iraq a top priority, according to U.S. military officials. It has recruited hundreds of suicide bombers to come to Iraq and inflict mass casualties to spur a Sunni-Shi’ite Muslim civil war. The group wants to wear down U.S. troops to the point where they will retreat. Al Qaeda’s ultimate goal is to turn Iraq and other Middle East countries into hard-line Islamic states, U.S. military officials say.
One key finding from the “red team” exercise is that al Qaeda will follow past practices. Jihadists perceived the victory over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1988 as a seminal event that spawned the creation of al Qaeda under the direction of Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda leaders thought that if jihadists could defeat a global power in one theater, it could bring down governments in other nations.
Six years later, when U.S. troops left Somalia after taking casualties at the hands of al Qaeda-trained Muslim fighters, it reaffirmed its feeling of invincibility and its belief that Western powers have a low threshold for casualties. After Somalia, al Qaeda — and like-minded jihadists — began attacking U.S. targets in the Persian Gulf region and ultimately struck America on September 11, 2001.
The CIA-sponsored simulation predicts that al Qaeda will view a U.S. defeat in Iraq as another jihadist victory over a superpower and one that will bring it even more terrorist recruits.
“When we did the simulation, the ramifications were enormous,” said the source, who asked not to be named. The source said al Qaeda will proclaim, “God has given us a second victory over a superpower.
“Imagine what defeat in Iraq would do,” said the source. “Al Qaeda picks new targets after it thinks it’s won.”
This person expressed unhappiness that the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, devoted less than a page to what a loss in Iraq would mean for global terrorism.
The source said he hopes the CIA report is circulated within the administration to drive home the point that the stakes are high in Iraq. Mr. Bush is set to announce early next year new strategies and tactics for winning in Iraq. He previously has dismissed proposals from Democrats to pull out all 135,000 U.S. troops now or withdraw them on a set timetable regardless of events on the ground.
Mr. Mansfield said the Counterterrorism Center this year has sponsored 20 internal simulations, seminars and conferences using outside experts to examine issues related to the war on terror.
He added, “We frequently reach out to experts outside of government and solicit their views on a range of matters. It is done routinely, and it is a very important aspect of our work. The simulation consisted of officers from around the intelligence community as well as outside experts.”
Such events are held, he said, “to better understand emerging threats to the United States.”
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