Bush Likens War on Terror to Cold War
President Bush on Thursday compared the war on terrorism to the struggle against communism and said a network of Islamic extremists was determined to use Iraq as a staging ground to topple moderate governments in the region and to “establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia.”
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush said, the United States and its allies have disrupted at least 10 Al Qaeda terrorist plots against the West, including three planned attacks on U.S. soil, and stopped at least five additional attempts to scout out potential targets in this country.
The White House later issued a list of the foiled plots, citing potential Sept. 11-style airliner attacks on both coasts, a plan to blow up apartment buildings and surveillance of gas stations, bridges and tourist sites nationwide. But several senior law enforcement officials interviewed later questioned whether many of the incidents on the list constituted an imminent threat to public safety and said that authorities had not disrupted any operational terrorist plot within the United States since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Although the arguments Bush used in his lengthy speech were not new, he described the U.S.-declared war on terrorism and its link to Iraq in grander terms than previously, equating it to the Cold War that dominated U.S. foreign policy throughout the second half of the 20th century and comparing terrorist leaders Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Zarqawi to such tyrants as Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Cambodia’s Pol Pot.
“Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascism,” Bush said in his remarks to the National Endowment for Democracy, a nongovernmental advocacy group in Washington. “Whatever it’s called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam.”
Bush described what he saw as the depth of the terrorist threat on a day when New Yorkers were alerted to an unspecified threat to the subway system.
The speech, billed as a major policy address, came at the end of a weeklong effort by his administration to shore up popular support for the central tenets of his foreign policy. Bush’s approval rating has fallen to new lows in recent polls, and support for the Iraq war has declined.
The remarks also suggested a renewed effort by the administration to regain favor in the wake of criticism over its handling of Hurricane Katrina and were intended in part as a response to the antiwar movement, coming just weeks after a big demonstration in Washington and a monthlong protest outside his vacation home in Texas brought new visibility to the war’s opponents.
Bush, in his remarks, appeared to counter recent statements by military commanders in Iraq, including two generals who told lawmakers last week that the presence of U.S. troops was fueling the insurgency in Iraq and energizing terrorists across the Middle East.
Pulling out of Iraq, the president said, would not cause the anger of terrorists to subside.
“We were not in Iraq on Sept. 11, 2001, and Al Qaeda attacked us anyway,” he said. “The hatred of the radicals existed before Iraq was an issue, and it will exist after Iraq is no longer an excuse.”
It was not the first time Bush’s message differed from that of his generals. Over the summer, generals suggested that U.S. troops could begin coming home in the spring, but Bush insisted that they would remain in Iraq until the insurgency was defeated.
Bush said America’s failure to respond more aggressively to attacks in Beirut during the Reagan administration and Mogadishu, Somalia, during the Clinton presidency had convinced terrorists that they had a winning strategy: “They hit us and expect us to run.”
Pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq would only reinforce that conviction, Bush said, and it would not happen on his watch. “Against such an enemy there is only one effective response,” he said. “We will never back down, never give in and never accept anything less than complete victory.”
He acknowledged the toll of the war in Iraq, where more than 1,900 U.S. troops and thousands of Iraqis have been killed, and said the casualty count would certainly rise. U.S. officials have predicted an upsurge of violence as Iraq’s Oct. 15 constitutional referendum nears.
On Capitol Hill, Republican leaders said the president’s speech demonstrated his “strong, principled leadership.”
Democrats countered that Bush was perpetuating what they called a false linkage between the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war.
“The president went into Iraq on the basis of a false premise, without a plan, and has totally mismanaged the war,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said. “Now he’s trying to justify his actions with a series of excuses that are not reasons for us to be there.”
The reaction in some foreign capitals was equally skeptical. Ahmed J. Versi, editor of the Muslim News in London, said Bush was exaggerating the power and influence of Al Qaeda among Muslims and disregarding perceptions of U.S. foreign policy in the region.
“It is so glaringly obvious to most of the Muslim world that it is the American policies that are the problem,” Versi said. “People are not against the American people, it is the policies of the American government that are the issue.”
Bush said the global terrorist threat had evolved from a centralized operation directed by Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders to a confederation of distinct organizations, paramilitary groups, separatist movements and local cells.
“Islamic radicalism is more like a loose network with many branches than an army under a single command,” he said. “Yet these operatives, fighting on scattered battlefields, share a similar ideology and vision for our world.”
Hours after the speech, the White House described the 10 “serious” terrorist plots Bush had mentioned, including three Al Qaeda “plots to attack within the United States.” It also briefly described five instances of “casings and infiltrations” in which individuals were believed to have been assigned by terrorist groups to gather information on potential U.S. targets.
One of the three “terrorist plots” against the U.S. cited by the White House was the case of Jose Padilla, who has been accused of being an enemy combatant and is being held by the U.S. military. The White House said that U.S. authorities disrupted a plan by Padilla and others to blow up apartment buildings in the United States and that the suspect had discussed the possible detonation of a radioactive “dirty bomb” somewhere on U.S. soil.
Senior federal law enforcement officials, who asked to remain anonymous because of departmental guidelines, said later that although Padilla was believed to have discussed terrorist attacks in the United States with the senior Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, they hadn’t found any evidence of co-conspirators inside the U.S. or other indication that the plot had developed into any kind of operational plan.
The other two U.S.-based plots cited by the White House involved plans to use hijacked airplanes to attack targets on the West Coast in 2002 and the East Coast in 2003. The senior law enforcement officials interviewed by the Los Angeles Times said that although they knew of no instance in which such a plot was disrupted, the White House mention of the 2002 case apparently was a reference to the so-called second wave of suicide hijackings that was disclosed last year by the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.
The second wave apparently never rose to the level of a coordinated plan. The Sept. 11 commission report said that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, believed to be the mastermind behind the 2001 terrorist attacks, became “too busy” to complete the planning for subsequent strikes and that the plots did not progress beyond theoretical stages.
“I don’t think we ever resolved these,” a federal counter-terrorism official said. He said the plots described by the White House were “on the boards, but they never got anywhere.”
That official and three others declined to say why the White House would include such alleged plots in a list of thwarted or foiled plots. “Everyone is allowed to count in their own way,” a second federal counter-terrorism official said.
Bush also said that U.S. agents and allies had “stopped at least five more Al Qaeda efforts to case targets in the United States or infiltrate operatives into our country.” The White House list included a description of the detention of Ohio truck driver Iyman Faris, a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen who admitted providing material support to Al Qaeda by exploring the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York.
Other “casings and infiltrations” on the White House list were less detailed, including one in which an unnamed person was said to be given the task of collecting information on unspecified tourist targets.
One FBI counter-terrorism official said that in general, it was difficult to determine whether a person gathering information was actually participating in a terrorist plot. “People are always videotaping this building or that, many of them [in the country] on immigration violations,” an FBI counter-terrorism official said. “Were they casing targets for terrorist attacks? It depends on what definitions you are using.”
In the overall fight against Islamic militants, Bush cited strategies that included preventing attacks in the U.S., denying nonconventional weapons to outlaw governments, deterring countries from providing sanctuary to militants, and preventing extremists from overthrowing moderate governments.
Bush specifically mentioned Iranian and Syrian support for militants as a problem.
Urging moderate Muslim leaders to speak out against terrorism, he quoted Chapter 5, Verse 32, of the Koran, which equates the killing of one person with the death of all humanity.
Times staff writers John Daniszewski in London and Tyler Marshall, James Gerstenzang and Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.