WASHINGTON—Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as the prime training ground for foreign terrorists who could travel elsewhere across the globe and wreak havoc, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials and classified studies by the CIA and the State Department.
Of particular concern, the officials and studies say, are the urban combat techniques being learned and used by foreign fighters assaulting U.S. and Iraqi troops. There's already evidence that those tactics are being replicated elsewhere.
Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James T. Conway told a Pentagon briefing last week that remotely detonated bombs known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs—the insurgents' weapon of choice in Iraq—are an increasing threat to U.S. forces trying to stabilize Afghanistan.
The trend is "a little bit troubling," Conway said.
Iraq's emergence as a terrorist training ground appears to challenge President Bush's rationale for invading and overthrowing leader Saddam Hussein in March 2003.
"To complete the mission, we will prevent al-Qaida and other foreign terrorists from turning Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban, a safe haven from which they could launch attacks on America and our friends," the president said in a nationally televised address last Tuesday.
But Iraq wasn't a source of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism under Saddam and played no role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Critics argue that the U.S. invasion harmed, rather than helped, the war on terror by acting as a magnet and recruiting tool.
"Arguably, it's created new problems that we're going to be dealing with for a long time," said Steven Simon, a senior analyst at the RAND Corp. who served at the National Security Council under President Clinton.
Foreign fighters' growing experience with IEDs, in particular, "is a real problem if you think these guys are going to wind up in the streets of Europe and the Middle East, or even the United States at some point," Simon said.
The classified CIA and State Department assessments were completed in May and deal with what intelligence analysts are calling "bleed out" or "terrorist dispersal" from Iraq to surrounding countries.
The officials who described them did so on condition of anonymity because intelligence matters are involved.
The studies compare Iraq to Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the Soviet invasion drew Muslim fighters known as mujahedeen from around the world. After the Soviet defeat, many of them, including Osama bin Laden, built terrorist networks or fought for Islamic causes outside Afghanistan.
Foreign fighters make up only a fraction of the Iraqi insurgency, perhaps as little as 5 percent. Many are killed or captured, but their numbers are replenished by fresh recruits, who often transit via Syria.
U.S. ally Saudi Arabia is a prime potential destination for experienced fighters returning from Iraq, the study by the State Department's Intelligence and Research bureau concludes, according to officials familiar with its contents.
Yemen is another likely destination.
Saudi citizens are thought to make up the largest contingent of foreign fighters in Iraq, and the Saudi royal family has expressed alarm to the U.S. government over the prospect of battle-scarred militants returning to the oil-rich kingdom.
Other insurgents are believed to come from Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa.
Some current and former government experts said the comparison between Afghanistan's one-time role as a global terrorist training headquarters and Iraq today is "overstated," in the words of one U.S. official.
Arab veterans of the Afghan war were often welcomed home by their governments and state-run media, and they were portrayed as heroes for their role in forcing the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989, the State Department report notes.
By contrast, foreign insurgents leaving Iraq are likely to face imprisonment or worse in their home countries.
Nor is the outcome of the insurgency known. For now, fighters remain focused on attacking U.S. and Iraqi forces, not conducting terrorism elsewhere.
Still, the CIA report, roughly two dozen pages long, warns that veterans of Iraq could in some ways pose a more potent threat.
The report's existence was first reported by Newsweek and The New York Times.
"You're talking about people who have had exposure to a broader range of strategies and tactics than we saw in Afghanistan," said a U.S. counterterrorism official who has read the report.
And, he said, "the people in Iraq come to the table more anti-American and more radicalized" than the fighters who went to Afghanistan two decades ago to fight Russian troops.
The reports are aimed at helping the Bush administration conduct contingency planning to deal with the "terrorist dispersal" threat.
Simon, the former counterterrorism official, said international coordination among law enforcement and intelligence agencies will be key.
Conway, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged concern about Iraq's role as a terrorist training ground.
"I think it's a logical conclusion, if you look at the history of Afghanistan and what we saw come out of there," Conway said. "It is a concern, but there is not much we can do about it at this point in time," he said, noting that the military's principal focus is on combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.