The war in Iraq has made global terrorism worse by fanning Islamic radicalism and providing a training ground for lethal methods that are increasingly being exported to other countries, according to a sweeping assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies.
The classified document, which represents a consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, paints a considerably bleaker picture of the impact of the Iraq war than Bush administration or U.S. intelligence officials have acknowledged publicly, according to officials familiar with the assessment.
“They conclude that the Iraq war has made it worse,” said a government official familiar with the document who spoke on condition of anonymity because of its classified nature.
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly have described the war in Iraq as the central front in the war on terrorism and argue that Americans are safer as a result of the administration’s policies.
The report, titled “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States,” was completed and described to U.S. government officials in April but not made public. The document is what is known as a National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, which is designed to represent the U.S. intelligence community’s most comprehensive treatment of a subject.
The 30-page report documents an array of disturbing trends in the war on terrorism and focuses on forces that are contributing to the evolution of Islamic terrorist networks from centralized structures to an increasingly fragmented ideological movement.
“It paints a fairly stark picture of what we all know, and that this is a movement that is spreading and gaining momentum around the world,” said the official familiar with the document. “Things like the Iraq war have given the terrorists recruiting tools and places to ply their trade and a training ground.”
The official said the estimate touches on a number of factors fueling the jihadist movement, but that “the reference to Iraq was the main one.”
A U.S. intelligence official who has seen the document said that many of the report’s findings were outlined in a speech in San Antonio in April by Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the former principal deputy director of national intelligence. Hayden has since become director of the CIA.
Hayden did not single out the Iraq war in the speech as a particularly powerful force shaping terrorist networks. But he did acknowledge “the centrality of Iraq” and said the conflict there and how it is portrayed in Islamic media continue to cultivate support for the global jihadist movement.
In that speech, Hayden said that the global jihadist movement “is spreading and adjusting to our counterterrorism efforts, and it is also exploiting the communications revolution, the Internet.”
While describing the Al Qaeda terrorist network as still the most dangerous threat to the United States, Hayden said that Islamic activists were increasingly identifying themselves as jihadists, and that they were “increasing in both their number and in their geographic dispersion.”
Hayden went on to say how factors fueling the spread of the movement, including “entrenched grievances -- corruption, historic injustice, even fear of Western domination -- leave many in parts of the Islamic world with feelings of anger and a sense of powerlessness.”
The Bush administration has made the case that a democratic government in the Middle East would serve as a beacon to other nations, providing new hope to populations of disaffected Muslims.
“The world is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power,” Bush said in his speech to the nation on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad.” He also said that Americans were “safer, but we are not yet safe” from terrorism.
Bush and Cheney frequently have dismissed suggestions that the U.S. presence in Iraq has inflamed anger toward the United States, arguing that U.S. forces were not in Baghdad on Sept. 11, 2001.
In the run-up to November midterm elections, Republicans in Congress have sought to emphasize their credentials on national security and fighting terrorism, uncoupling those issues from the war in Iraq, which is unpopular with voters.
In public testimony and unclassified documents, U.S. intelligence officials have for several years been pointing to the more troubling consequences of the drawn-out conflict in Iraq. In particular, officials have highlighted the anger that Muslim extremists feel about the U.S. presence in the region -- which has also been one of Osama bin Laden’s rallying cries.
Intelligence officials have also pointed to the flow of Muslims from other countries, including Europe, to Iraq to join the insurgency. Those who survive the fighting often leave and return to their home countries with dangerous new experience in urban fighting, bomb-making and -- perhaps most important -- credibility with other potential Muslim recruits.
Last week, the House Intelligence Committee warned in a report that the danger from terrorists faced by the U.S. was “more alarming than the threat that existed” before Sept. 11. The document also warned that Iraq had become a breeding ground for terrorists who might target other countries.
The April intelligence estimate was produced under the direction of David B. Low, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats. Its conclusions were first reported by the New York Times on its website on Saturday.
National Intelligence Estimates are produced by the National Intelligence Council, a group of high-level analysts from government and academic institutions. The council was previously based at the CIA. But following intelligence overhauls passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the council was restructured to report to Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte.