The recent assassination of a senior U.S. diplomat in Jordan should not have been a surprise given the deepening of anti-Americanism in Arab lands and the clarion call in Washington for war against Iraq.
Although intelligence experts and U.S. officials are likely to point fingers at al-Qaida, evidence exists that unconnected Muslim individuals --outraged by U.S. policy toward the Palestinians or Iraq -- can apparently be nudged by the inflammatory rhetoric of al-Qaida leaders to kill Westerners, particularly Americans.
I fear dissatisfied individuals and groups will act independently because they know al-Qaida will be held responsible for terrorism. This wave of free-lance terrorism is bound to increase and spread if and when the United States decides to militarily oust Saddam Hussein. Eradicating terrorism becomes more difficult when enraged peoples take matters into their own hands. It also supplies al-Qaida with more willing foot soldiers to join its suicidal squads.
There are few buyers in the world of Islam for Washington's masculine approach on Iraq. U.S. officials must recognize that although Arabs do not care for Mr. Hussein, they neither buy the Bush administration's attempt to link him to al-Qaida nor the thesis that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction represent a threat to international peace.
Far from undermining militancy, a war will play into militant Islamists' hands and supply them with the needed ammunition to continue the fight against their new enemy -- the United States. Islamists already are positioning themselves to capitalize on the coming war with Iraq to recover from the devastating aftershocks of Sept. 11.
From the outset, Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants have used an anti-American message as an effective tool to recruit soldiers. In a recent audiotape broadcast on Al-Jazeera, a leading Arab TV station, bin Laden's chief deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, refers to a war against Iraq as having less to do with Mr. Hussein and more with consolidating U.S. hegemony over "the Arab-Islamic world" and Israeli "supremacy" in the region. This theme, which may be dismissed by U.S. officials as propaganda, is taken for granted by Arab commentators and civic leaders. The dominant Arab-Muslim narrative stresses that the coming war is intended to settle old scores and make Washington the arbiter of Arab destiny and resources, particularly oil.
It is no wonder that al-Qaida's anti-American message resonates powerfully in the Arab and Muslim political imagination. It provides the fuel that powers the terrorist engine and keeps it running.
Pro-U.S. Arab regimes will likely weather the coming storm in Iraq much as they survived the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Despite its lack of legitimacy and vulnerability, the Arab ruling elite has proved to be durable, capable of maintaining control during a crisis.
Since 1970, this elite has managed to consolidate power and crush all threats to its security. Particularly since 9/11, the pro-U.S. Arab governments have tightened their grip on civil society and have cracked down against not only the fringe opposition but also the mainstream. In this context, the Arab street is not in a strong position to explode and endanger the stability of America's Arab allies.
But a U.S. war against Baghdad will sow the seeds of further extremism, nihilism and terrorism.
During my recent travels in the Middle East, Arab educators expressed anxiety about the desperation and fatalism that has taken hold of their people, particularly the Arab youths, a constituency that represents more than 50 percent of the population. Political repression and the silence of the Arab street, coupled with the absence of political channels to let the public release its frustration, should worry the United States and its Arab allies, not reassure them, these educators said.
A U.S. invasion of Iraq, with large numbers of civilian casualties, would deepen the sense of victimization and defeat felt by Arab youths and make them inclined to join holy war cells of the al-Qaida variety. Thus the pool of recruits for militant causes would likely expand and swell the ranks of al-Qaida and other fringe Islamist groups.
Our policy toward Iraq appears to play unwittingly into the hands of al-Qaida by giving it a new lease on life. This is worrisome because the recent attacks in Bali, Yemen, Kuwait, Pakistan and Tunisia and other plots clearly indicate al-Qaida has partially regrouped and has built informal alliances with radical groups in Pakistan, Yemen, Algeria, Kuwait, Indonesia and other countries. Al-Qaida has shown itself to be adaptable and resourceful and able to continue the fight.
The United States must rethink its war against terror, focusing on the longer-term view, by remembering that multilateralism and coalition-building were critical to our early successes. The killing of a senior al-Qaida leader and five low-level associates in Yemen this week could not have happened without the cooperation of local authorities. But this regional counterterrorism is not adequate on its own to stem al-Qaida's support and influence in Muslim lands.
Unlike conventional war, fighting terrorism will not be won on the battlefield but by reaching out to mainstream Muslim public opinion and addressing the complex social and political roots of extremism.
Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor in international affairs and Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College and is author of the forthcoming The Islamists and the West (Cambridge University Press).