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Iraq war may have made terror threat worse

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor   |   July 9, 2003 at 7:04 PM
WASHINGTON, July 9 (UPI) -- One of the world's leading terrorism experts Wednesday told the panel investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the U.S. invasion of Iraq may have worsened the threat of terrorism.

Prof. Rohan Gunaratna, giving evidence at a public hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also criticized the failures of intelligence and policy he said had turned Afghanistan into a "terrorist Disneyland," and allowed al-Qaida and other terror groups "a free reign."

Asked by panel member Max Cleland, the war-wounded Vietnam veteran and former Democratic Georgia senator, to comment on the impact of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, Gunaratna said that deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- on the run with nothing to lose but with money and possible biological or chemical weapons -- might be a bigger threat now than before.

"You have not taken him out," he said referring to Saddam, "he is still there ... with finance and perhaps with access to certain special weapons (he) may be a greater threat today than he was in power in that country."

Noting the opposition the invasion had provoked, Gunaratna said, "The terrorist organizations will harness that displeasure and that resentment and that anger in the Muslim world and they will grow in strength and they will become a greater threat to you."

But another of the expert witnesses who gave evidence during the daylong hearings on al-Qaida, terrorism and the Islamic world disagreed.

Asked by a panel member whether the invasion might be a "recruiting poster" for al-Qaida and other extremists, Mamoun Fandy, from the quasi-governmental U.S. Institute for Peace, said, "the jihadists are the losers" in the Iraq war, because it had sent the message that the United States was capable of and willing to deploy in force in the Middle East.

"The different poster -- the poster that people read also in the region, (is) that the United States is here and here to change bad regimes that committed huge crimes against their own peoples," he added.

In common with the other experts testifying, Fandy argued for a huge U.S. public diplomacy initiative, to help create what Gunaratna called "a societal norm and ethic against terrorism" in the Islamic world.

Referring to the inculcation of values, "what is in the Muslim world's head, how people are being raised and educated," as "the software" of Islamic societies, Fandy said, "We have to rewrite that software, if you will. And if we don't rewrite it, nobody else will rewrite it."

But he cautioned that much previous good work had been undone because U.S. officials and didn't follow up their efforts carefully enough.

Using the example of schools built with U.S. funds that were named after radical Islamic leaders, he said, "We have to follow up. We have to follow our money. Even our money can go to al-Qaida, believe it or not."

He said that a big problem was a lack of foreign policy expertise in the United States. Drawing the contrast with the expertise of Lawrence of Arabia and other British imperial officials, he said, "We don't know the realm that we are claiming to have control over. We don't have the expertise, languages and other things. And all of this really has to be put in place."

Despite the $30 billion the United States spends on intelligence every year, Gunaratna told the panel, "The U.S. intelligence community had a very poor understanding of those movements. Al-Qaida was created in March '88, but if you ... examine the CIA reports, until August 1998, (they refer) to Osama bin Laden's organization as what -- as the Islamic Army, or as the UBL network ... they did not know even the accurate name of Osama's organization that had declared war on you in 1996."

But a U.S. intelligence official, speaking to United Press International on condition of anonymity, said after the hearing, "That's flat wrong. Even an initial search of intelligence reports and publications shows that we were calling (the network) al-Qaida as early as 1993. Besides," he added, "the name is not the most important thing."

Gunaratna, a professor at the Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, was careful to add that this was not just -- or even mainly -- a failure of intelligence. He noted that the United States' response to the destruction of two of its east African embassies in August 1998 was ineffective and that there had been no response whatsoever to the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000.

"It wasn't just what wasn't known," he told reporters after the hearing, "It was what wasn't done. That was an operational failure, a failure of policy."

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