Sir Ivor Roberts, Britain's Ambassador to Italy, declared last September that the "best recruiting sergeant for al-Qaeda" was none other than the U.S. President, George W. Bush. With the American election entering its final furlongs, he added, "If anyone is ready to celebrate the eventual re-election of Bush, it is al-Qaeda." The remarks, made at an off-the-record conference, were leaked in the Italian press, and Sir Ivor, facing the displeasure of his Foreign Office masters for committing the sin of candor, disowned the comments. But now, as the soot settles in the London Underground, the words hang again in the air.
It is, of course, bad manners to point the finger at anyone but those responsible for the killings in London. They shed the blood; they must answer for it. But as the trail of bodies that began with the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 continues to lengthen, we need to ask why the attacks keep coming. One key reason is that Osama bin Laden's "achievements" in standing up to the American colossus on 9/11 have inspired others to follow his lead. Another is that American actions--above all, the invasion and occupation of Iraq--have galvanized still more Muslims and convinced them of the truth of bin Laden's vision.
The conflict between radical Islam and the West, like all ideological struggles, is about competing stories. The audience is the global community of Muslims. America portrays itself as a benign and tolerant force that, with its Western partners, holds the keys to progress and prosperity. Radical Islamists declare that the universe is governed by a war between believers and World Infidelity, which comes as an intruder into the realm of Islam wearing various masks: secularism, Zionism, capitalism, globalization. World Infidelity, they argue, is determined to occupy Muslim lands, usurp Muslims' wealth and destroy Islam.
Invading Iraq, however noble the U.S. believed its intentions, provided the best possible confirmation of the jihadist claims and spurred many of Europe's alienated Muslims to adopt the Islamist cause as their own. The evidence is available in the elaborate underground railroad that has brought hundreds of European Muslims to the fight in Iraq. And the notion that the West would enhance its security by occupying Iraq has proved utterly illusory. Coalition forces in Iraq face daily attacks from jihadists not because Saddam Hussein had trained a cadre of terrorists--we know there was no pre-existing relationship between Baghdad and al-Qaeda--but because the U.S. invasion brought the targets into the proximity of the killers.
Those who bombed the Madrid commuter lines last year were obsessed with Iraq. They delighted in the videotape that showed Iraqis rejoicing alongside the bodies of seven Spanish intelligence agents who were killed outside Baghdad in November 2003; they spoke of the need to punish Spain (their adoptive country) for supporting America; they recruited others to fight in the insurgency. They began work on their plot the day after hearing an audiotaped bin Laden threaten "all the countries that participate in this unjust war [in Iraq]--especially Britain, Spain, Australia, Poland, Japan and Italy." It had been the first time Spain had been mentioned in an al-Qaeda hit list.