Ronald Reagan once said: “It’s not that liberals are ignorant, it’s just that they know so much that isn’t true.”
Today, it is not liberals alone whose minds have been muddled about the war being waged against free peoples by a network of despotic states and terrorist movements.
Much of what the public has learned about this conflict from the media and the professoriate is not just poor analysis but factually incorrect: memes, half-truths, and—in some cases—outright lies.
This is dangerous in the most literal sense. Only an accurate reading of the past and an insightful understanding of our enemies’ motives and goals can serve as a reliable guide to action in the present and future. With that in mind, here are the ten most pernicious myths now embedded in the popular imagination.
Myth #1: Poverty Breeds Terrorism
THIS MYTH, appearing immediately after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, is superficially plausible because it appeals to our intuitive belief that terrorists are motivated by “madness under the pretext of despair,” as a Le Monde editorial written two days after the attacks put it.
In addition to being offensive to the poor, most of whom would never contemplate murdering other people’s children to improve their economic status, it is also disproved by experience.
Most of the 9/11 hijackers came from middle-class or well-to-do backgrounds. Osama bin Laden was raised in one of the wealthiest families in Saudi Arabia. Ayman al-Zawahiri trained as a doctor. John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, was brought up in a comfortable home in the suburbs of San Francisco, California.
A Times of London news story on the background of al Qaeda members found that “the majority had been in further education and were from relatively affluent families…[and] from the wealthier Arab countries.” The article also quoted Abudullah Anas, a former mujaheddin commander in Afghanistan: “There is no question that most of those who came to Afghanistan in the 1980s were from middle-class backgrounds—teachers, doctors, accountants or imams.”
In his book Understanding Terror Networks, Dr. Mark Sageman, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, examined the lives and livelihoods of more than 100 jihadists and concluded that while there are many causes of terrorism, poverty is not prominent among them.
It is not even true that terrorists tend to come from poor societies, places where they might develop anger on behalf of their deprived compatriots. Professor Alberto Abadie from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, after an exhaustive analysis “of the determinants of terrorism at the country level,” concluded that “terrorist risk is not significantly higher for poorer countries.” Saudi Arabia is awash in oil wealth. Countless terrorists have emerged from within the kingdom. Sierra Leone is among the poorest nations in the world. Have you ever heard of a Sierra Leonean becoming a suicide bomber? Indeed, just as individual terrorists tend to come from the middle-class, Professor Abadie found that countries in the middle of the continuum between affluence and poverty tend to produce the most terrorists.
Myth #2: Shiite Terrorists and Sunni Terrorists Do Not Cooperate
DOCTRINAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN SHIITES AND SUNNIS, however serious on a theological level, have not, in fact, prevented deadly collaboration between their extremist, terrorist partisans against a common enemy.
Many Iraqi insurgent groups are fighting against the Iraqi government and the coalition forces that support it. There have been many instances of collaboration between Shiite and Sunni terrorists, including in the battle over Fallujah, where, as reported in the New York Times, Shiite militias joined Sunni insurgents fighting against coalition forces.
In his letter to the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri delicately broached the subject of Sunni jihadist attacks on Shiites and, according to CNN, urged Zarqawi to adopt a truce of sorts with the Shiite jihadists. This was based on Zawahiri’s strategic assessment that the religious differences between Shiites and Sunnis are secondary to the more important goal of destabilizing the Iraqi government.
Outside of Iraq, there also has been a large amount of collaboration between Sunni and Shiite terrorists. The Council on Foreign Relations has reported that in Lebanon, Sunni and Shiite terrorist groups have joined the Syrian army in attacks against Lebanese Christians. Similarly, the Shiite militant Islamist rulers of Iran are among the strongest backers of Hamas, which is Sunni. Hamas appears to cooperate with Hezbollah, which is Shiite.
Arguing as some do that religious differences between different sects of Islam preclude cooperation mistakenly assumes that it is religion, rather than hatred for the free world, that is the primary motivating force behind the jihads.
Myth #3: Secularists and Islamists Do Not Cooperate
JIHADISTS, THE ARGUMENT GOES, are so repulsed by the irreligiosity of secular authoritarian regimes like Saddam Hussein’s that cooperation between them is impossible. Some Western policymakers have even recommended using secular authoritarian regimes as a bulwark against militant Islam.
But—contrary to the idée fixe—there was extensive collaboration between the secularist Baath Party in Iraq and the militantly Islamist al Qaeda. Where the two groups had common interests—as they did in their hatred of and opposition to the United States and shared nihilism—they were willing and able to put their religious-philosophical differences aside.
The most obvious example of collaboration between secularists and Islamists against a common enemy is the one between the secular Palestine Liberation Organization and the Islamist Hamas. Khlaid Amayreh has written about the details of this collaboration in Al-Ahram, specifically about how the PLO restructured and reformed itself to include Hamas “as a welcome and full partner, even a potential savior.”
Yes, Hamas and Fatah are rivals. But they have collaborated in the past. And the al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades, as the name implies, is an Islamist terrorist group within Fatah.
Historian Efraim Karsh argues that radical secularists and radical Islamists have, in addition to common enemies, some common goals. Most of the radical secularists are pan-Arabists, meaning that they, like the Islamists, have an “imperial outlook.” The dream of conquest and empire “remains at the forefront of the social memory or imagination” of both groups. Both nurture “apocalyptic fantasies based on an idealized vision of a brilliant imperial past.”
Myth #4: Hezbollah and Hamas Threaten Only Israel — Not America and Europe
THE NOTION THAT HEZBOLLAH AND HAMAS don’t consider the United States an enemy in their global war is belied by the many attacks that each has sponsored against the United States and her allies, and by the eagerness of both groups to project force extraterritorially, that is to say, outside the locus of controversy in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Hezbollah, in addition to its attacks on Israel, has been directly implicated in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Lebanon that killed 63 people, including 17 Americans; and of the U.S. military barracks that same year in Beirut, which killed 241 American servicemen. In 1983 as well, Hezbollah bombed the French multinational headquarters, killing 58 Frenchmen. Members of Hezbollah were implicated in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina that killed 85 people, as well as of the Israeli embassy there.
Al-Manar, the official television station of Hezbollah, has waged a virulent campaign inciting violence against the United States. Its fiery speeches inciting violence not only against Israel, but against the United States and her allies, prompted the U.S. Treasury Department to name al-Manar as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity.
Since 1993, Hamas’s terrorist activities have caused the deaths of 27 Americans. There have been news reports that Hamas cells are currently operating in the United States. Moreover, two years ago, Hamas released a statement calling the U.S. President the “enemy of God, the enemy of Islam, the enemy of Muslims.” Hamas operatives have also been caught in the United States, and the FBI has alleged that al Qaeda has previously enlisted Hamas support in conducting surveillance on American targets.
Finally, Hamas itself has openly proclaimed its broader ambitions, with a spokesman from its Al-Qassam Brigades having been recorded as saying:
"We will rule the nations, by Allah’s will, the USA will be conquered, Israel will be conquered, Rome and Britain will be conquered. The Jihad for Allah… is the way of Truth and the way for Salvation and the way, which will lead us to crush the Jews and expel them from our country Palestine. Just as the Jews ran from Gaza, the Americans will run from Iraq and Afghanistan and the Russians will run from Chechnya, and the Indians will run from Kashmir, and our children will be released from Guantanamo. The prisoners will be released by Allah’s will, not by peaceful means and not by agreements, but they will be released by the sword, they will be released by the gun."
Myth #5: Iraq Had No Ties to Al Qaeda
EVIDENCE STRONGLY SUGGESTS THAT Saddam Hussein’s regime attempted to forge links with al Qaeda both before and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Evidence has also emerged suggesting that Saddam’s officials met with, and possibly offered assistance to, several of the hijackers.
The organizational links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda focused both on strategic planning as well as operational and logistical support. In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 11, 2003, then-CIA director George Tenet stated plainly: “Iraq has in the past provided training in document forgery and bomb-making to al Qaeda.” Following up on this, the New York Times reported on, and confirmed the authenticity of, documents discovered soon after the invasion of Iraq purporting to show a plan by the government of Iraq to assist al Qaeda operatives in their attempts to destabilize the House of Saud. This was a common goal—even if Saddam and al Qaeda differed on what kind of regime should replace the monarchy.
Although the 9/11 Commission Report concluded that no reliable evidence was available to clearly and convincingly prove that Saddam assisted the 9/11 hijackers, documents discovered after the report was produced expose just such a link. This prompted one member of the 9/11 commission, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, to say, as reported by the Washington Times, “Now there’s new intelligence... because, as you know, new intelligence is coming in steadily from the interrogations in Guantanamo and Iraq, and from captured documents… [that] there is at least one officer of Saddam’s Fedayeen, a lieutenant colonel, who was a very prominent member of al Qaeda.”
And an Iraqi intelligence operative, Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, was photographed by Malaysian intelligence at a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, where the 9/11 terrorist attacks were being planned, according to the Wall Street Journal, and based on “government sources.”
Clearly, the nature of al Qaeda’s relationship with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is still being uncovered. Most of the documents from Saddam Hussein’s rule that were discovered in Baghdad after the invasion remain untranslated, though investigative reporters like Stephen Hayes and Thomas Jocelyn are interpreting those that have been uncovered and translated. Believing that there were no links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda is no longer tenable, and the debate is now over the strength of those links.
Myth #6: Iraq Had No Links to Other Terrorist Organizations
SADDAM HUSSEIN’S REGIME WAS A NEXUS OF TERRORISM, offering terrorist groups—in addition to al Qaeda—sanctuary, as well as financial assistance, logistical support, and training.
For example, Abu Nidal lived in Iraq for many years and for a time even gave interviews to foreign journalists out of a government compound. The Abu Nidal Organization’s international terrorist activities have been extensively chronicled by the Council on Foreign Relations, and include a terrorist attack in 1985 that killed five Americans, among them Natasha Simpson, an 11-year-old girl.
During the so-called Second Intifada, Saddam Hussein pledged to give $25,000 to each family of a Palestinian suicide bomber. His support of the most extreme factions in the Palestinian nationalist movement has been extensively documented in the Guardian newspaper, and includes providing logistical and financial support to the Arab Liberation Front in the PLO, which wanted to expand the conflict to include the entire Arab world. The Filipino-based Abu Sayyaf group, which has extensive links to al Qaeda, received financial support from the Iraqi regime. One Abu Sayyaf leader, Hamsiraji Sali, was wanted in the United States on terrorism-related charges when he was implicated in a failed bombing attempt of a Filipino school. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Filipino intelligence traced the phone Sali used to Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Myth #7: Saddam’s Regime Posed No Threat to the United States
FROM THE HEROIC STATUES HE DEDICATED TO HIMSELF, and his opulent palaces and golden thrones, it was obvious that Saddam dreamed of becoming a Middle Eastern emperor. He launched a war of aggression against Iran and Kuwait. And his involvement in the internal factional disputes within the PLO was almost always in favor of groups that wanted to expand the conflict to include the entire Arab world. The Gulf War forced Saddam to abandon that dream, to disgorge Kuwait, and to dismantle his nuclear weapons program—a program that in 1991 was found to be much further along than intelligence analysts had estimated.
Chastened, he became resentful and vengeful. In a May 2001 interview with PBS, Sabah Khadada, an Iraqi military officer who had been assigned to the Salman Pak terrorist training camp south of Baghdad, said that Saddam had personally told him and his colleagues: “We have to take revenge from America. Our duty is to attack and hit American targets…. That’s how Saddam was able to attract those [foreign] Arabs and Muslims who came to train, because that’s exactly what they want to do.”
And Saddam pursued his policy of “revenge” against the United States with a dogged determination. In her book Study of Revenge, former Clinton Iraq adviser Laurie Mylroie argues that Saddam Hussein played a role in the 1993 World Trade Center attacks. For example, Ramzi Yousef used a fake Iraqi passport to enter the United States. In his recent book, The Connection: How al Qaeda’s Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America, investigative reporter Stephen Hayes points to recently discovered documents showing that Abdul Rahman Yasin, an Iraqi native who mixed the chemicals for the 1993 World Trade Center bomb, moved back to Iraq after the bombing and was actually paid by Saddam.
Several months after the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing, former President George H.W. Bush was traveling in Kuwait. Clinton intelligence officials uncovered a plot to assassinate the ex-president, which discovery culminated in a June 1993 precision attack on Iraq by American Navy warships stationed in the Persian Gulf.
Both Democratic and Republican administrations have been drawn into the proxy war Saddam Hussein has conducted against the United States—and Saddam’s response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, where he gleefully explained that “[t]he United States reaps the thorns its rulers have planted in the world,” suggests that had his regime not been removed in 2003 this war against the United States would have continued.
Myth #8: President Bush Lied About Iraq Posing an Imminent Threat to the United States
ONE OF PRESIDENT BUSH’S MOST CONTROVERSIAL DECISIONS in the period leading up to the Iraq war was his explicit rejection of an imminent threat as the necessary precondition for war, a logical consequence of the doctrinal position outlined in the National Security Strategy Report of 2002.
Developments in weapons technology and the proliferation of weapons to states and terrorists that cannot be deterred using traditional tools of statecraft and diplomacy have changed the calculus. It is no longer possible to wait until a threat is imminent before launching a preemptive attack.
In the congressional resolution authorizing the President to use force against Iraq, no mention was made of Iraq posing an imminent threat. In fact, the Senate rejected an amendment to the resolution proposed by Sen. John Kerry that tried to make the existence of an imminent threat the necessary precondition for war.
Myth #9: Bush Lied About Iraqi WMD
TO BELIEVE THAT PRESIDENT BUSH LIED about Iraq’s capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction is to believe that there was a massive conspiracy afoot, which conspiracy included President Clinton, numerous Democrat and Republican senators, the foreign intelligence agencies of France, Russia, and the United Kingdom—all of whom, in the months and years preceding the war in Iraq, believed that Iraq was not being forthcoming about its weapons program.
In fact, on March 7, 2003, which was the last time the UN Security Council met to consider whether Iraq was in compliance with its disarmament obligations, 14 of the 15 Security Council members explicitly rejected Iraq’s claim that it was in compliance, and the 15th, Syria, remained neutral on the matter.
What’s more, the bipartisan Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction concluded, “On the brink of war, and in front of the whole world, the United States government asserted that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program, had biological weapons and mobile biological weapon production facilities, and had stockpiled and was producing chemical weapons. All of this was based on the assessments of the U.S. Intelligence Community.”
There is, however, a related myth—that President Bush ignored the subtleties, caveats, and disclaimers in the various intelligence reports on Saddam Hussein’s WMD program, essentially distorting them to suit his political agenda. According to this argument, President Bush made claims about Iraq’s capacity to produce WMD that exaggerated the threat by, for example, suppressing evidence suggesting that Iraq’s weapons program was not as sophisticated and developed as many claimed.
However, the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence “did not find any evidence that Administration officials attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to change their judgments related to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities.” And the Robb-Silberman Commission seconded that conclusion, finding “no evidence of political pressure to influence the Intelligence Community’s pre-war assessments of Iraq’s weapons programs.”
After the Gulf War, Saddam’s weapons program was found to be much further developed than intelligence analysts had estimated. Given that the intelligence community was caught by surprise after the Gulf War, it is understandable that the Bush administration, in an abundance of caution, was afraid of making the same mistake. This was especially true given the Duelfer Report’s conclusion that Saddam Hussein was indeed planning on reconstituting his WMD stockpiles once UN sanctions were lifted.
Saddam Hussein’s intent was clearly there; the intelligence failure occurred in the assessment of Iraq’s technical capabilities. But, in this concern, the Bush administration was certainly not alone. Indeed, the German government’s assessment—that Saddam would have a nuclear weapon by 2005—was more severe than that of the United States.
There is also the related issue of Saddam’s preexisting weapons stock—weapons he legally produced prior to, during, and after the Iran-Iraq war, but which he was forced to declare and destroy after the Gulf War ceasefire. As UN weapons inspectors repeatedly pointed out, Saddam Hussein never fully complied with his obligations under Security Council resolution 687. Indeed, according to a report released in late June 2006, about 500 chemicals weapons were found buried in Iraq. Most of them were old (perhaps going back to the Iran-Iraq war) but at the very least this raises the possibility that other WMD, hidden more recently, have yet to be found, and reinforces fears that Iraq’s weapons may have been transported to Syria during the run-up to war.
U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra and Sen. Rick Santorum, chairman of the House Permanent Committee on Intelligence and the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference Committee, respectively, wrote that the report on these chemical weapons “should have been brought to public attention by officials in the intelligence community. Instead, it had to be pried out of them.” They asked whether other reports of a similar nature may also have been suppressed.
Myth #10: President Bush Lied in His 2003 State of the Union Address When He Claimed Iraq Had Attempted to Purchase Yellowcake Uranium from Niger
HERE ARE THE EXACT WORDS THAT PRESIDENT BUSH said in his State of the Union: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
In order to conclude that President Bush lied, it would need to be shown that he knew that Saddam Hussein was not trying to purchase yellowcake uranium, or that he was reckless in making that claim. The British government’s own inquiry into intelligence relating to the Iraq war, the Butler Review, concluded that the intelligence on which President Bush’s claim was made was “well-founded” when it was made.
Indeed, there is still considerable debate about whether Iraq was attempting to purchase uranium from Niger. Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, concluded that Saddam was attempting to purchase uranium through his ambassador to the Holy See, Wissam al-Zahawie. Al-Zahawie was a prominent Iraqi official who had previously served as Iraqi representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and its delegate to a 1995 United Nations session on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Al-Zahawie visited Niger in 1999, ostensibly for a trade visit. The visit to Niger, a country whose main exportable commodity is uranium ore, may have been innocent and coincidental, but Occam’s razor cautions us that the opposite is probably true.
Whether or not Saddam Hussein actually succeeded in purchasing uranium ore, the Butler Review concluded that President Bush’s statement that Saddam Hussein was trying to purchase yellowcake uranium was based on sound, solid, and credible intelligence.
In every war, there have been those who judge their own side harshly but are more than willing to give the enemy the benefit of every doubt. The War for the Free World—a new world war as perilous as any America has ever had to fight—is no exception.
Those who create myths and tell lies, those who forge false narratives that become the conventional wisdom, do great damage. To fail to correct them would be reckless.