Has the war in Iraq increased jihadist terrorism? The Bush administration has offered two responses: First, the moths-to-aflame argument, which says that Iraq draws terrorists who would otherwise “be plotting and killing Americans across the world and within our own borders,” as President Bush put it in 2005. Second, the hard-to-say position: “Are more terrorists being created in the world?” then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked at a press conference in September 2006. “We don’t know. The world doesn’t know. There are not good metrics to determine how many people are being trained in a radical madrasa school in some country.”
In fact, as Rumsfeld knew well, there are plenty of publicly available figures on the incidence and gravity of jihadist attacks. But until now, no one has done a serious statistical analysis of whether an “Iraq effect” does exist. We have undertaken such a study, drawing on data in the mipt-rand Terrorism database (terrorismknowledgebase .org), widely considered the best unclassified database on terrorism incidents.
Our study yields one resounding finding: The rate of fatal terrorist attacks around the world by jihadist groups, and the number of people killed in those attacks, increased dramatically after the invasion of Iraq. Globally there was a 607 percent rise in the average yearly incidence of attacks (28.3 attacks per year before and 199.8 after) and a 237 percent rise in the fatality rate (from 501 to 1,689 deaths per year). A large part of this rise occurred in Iraq, the scene of almost half the global total of jihadist terrorist attacks. But even excluding Iraq and Afghanistan—the other current jihadist hot spot—there has been a 35 percent rise in the number of attacks, with a 12 percent rise in fatalities.
Contrary to Bush’s assertion, jihadists have not let the Iraq War distract them from targeting the United States and its allies. The rate of attacks on Western interests and citizens has risen by almost 25 percent, while the yearly fatality rate has increased by 4 percent, a figure that would have been higher had planned attacks, such as the London airline plot, not been prevented.
The globalization of jihad and martyrdom has disquieting implications for American security in the future. Jihadists are already leaving Iraq to operate elsewhere, a “blowback” trend that will greatly increase when the war eventually winds down. Terrorist groups in Iraq, which have learned to raise millions through kidnapping and oil theft, may be in a position to help fund their jihadist brethren elsewhere. Finally, Iraq has increased the popularity of a hardcore takfiri ideology so intolerant that, unlikely as it seems, it makes Osama bin Laden appear relatively moderate.
Though few American civilians have been killed by jihadist terrorists in the past three years, it is naive to assume that this will continue to be the case. We will be living with the consequences of the Iraq debacle for many years.
Iraq’s Newest Export: Refugees
1.6 million Iraqis have been displaced within the country. As many as 1.8 million have left Iraq, with 3,000 fleeing daily. Saudi Arabia is building a 560-mile border fence to keep them out. As many as 700,000 Iraqi refugees now live in Jordan. More than 60,000 live in Sweden. Only 202 were admitted to the United States last year.
Iraq: Before and After
In 2006, 30% of Iraqi children went to school. Before the war, attendance was nearly 100%. A 2006 survey of children in Baghdad found that 47% had recently experienced a major traumatic event; 14% had posttraumatic stress disorder. An American psychiatrist says Iraqis are suffering “epidemic levels of ptsd.” 40% of Iraqi professionals have fled, including 1/3 of all doctors. 2,000 doctors have been murdered since 2003. The number of Iraqis in jail or prison is up 30% since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The president of the Iraqi National Council of Women does not go out without bodyguards. “I started with 6, then I increased to 12, and then to 20 and then 30.” One of the 66 women in the Iraqi Parliament told the UK Observer, “This is the worst time ever in Iraqi women’s lives. In the name of religion and sectarian conflict they are being kidnapped and killed and raped.”
(Originally posted at Mother Jones.)