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No such thing as experienced suicide bomber
Scripps Howard News Service


June 29, 2005

There is no such thing as an experienced suicide bomber.

This insight seems to have eluded the Central Intelligence Agency. A few days ago a classified CIA report was leaked to the media. It put forward the frightening "assessment" that terrorists in Iraq are developing greater skills than those who learned their trade in Afghanistan under Taliban/al Qaeda rule in the 1990s.

Think about that: The most effective weapon the terrorists utilize in Iraq is the suicide bomber. Surely it is the rare suicide bomber who improves his performance mission after mission.

What other abilities are the terrorists mastering in Iraq? They are assembling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Does anyone seriously believe that the IED learning experience provided in a Fallujah basement is so much richer than what used to be offered in Kandahar in the days when Osama bin Laden was resident there?

As for kidnapping and hostage-holding, let's concede that these skills probably can best be acquired through on-the-job training rather than classroom instruction. But we now know that many abductions in Iraq are carried out by non-ideological criminals who then sell their victims to the highest bidder. The throat-cutting of the hostages that often follows is a competence that probably can be mastered in a variety of environments.

It is not clear on what basis the CIA has been able to compare the expertise of terrorists now learning their trade in Iraq with those who studied in the 1990s under al Qaeda teachers in Afghanistan. And by what yardstick do CIA analysts measure the abilities of those who studied terrorism at Salman Pak, an Iraqi training camp maintained by Saddam Hussein and whose purpose was - according to Saddam himself - to enable both Iraqi and foreign terrorists to "hit American targets?"

During Saddam's reign, terrorists trained, too, at the Ansar al-Islam camp in northeastern Iraq. Does the CIA happen to know how effective were the programs provided by that group, which has ties to the Iranian mullahs and which administration officials have linked to al Qaeda as well?

It would be useful to know why certain CIA officials decided to leak this classified report. Could the answer be that it bolsters those within the agency who have argued that the U.S. approach to terrorism ought to be to stay out of the terrorists' way and hope they will then leave us alone? (The best-known advocate for that policy is former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, A.K.A. "Anonymous.")

Perhaps it has something to do also with defensiveness and sensitivity over the fact that the CIA knew little - and did less - about either Saddam's or bin Laden's training of terrorists during the 1990s, a period when there were multiple attacks on Americans, a period when planning was underway for what would be the most devastating terrorist atrocity in American history.

The CIA report predicts that when the war in Iraq ends, the terrorists will disperse to Arab countries, Europe and the United States. Presumably, those we kill or capture in Iraq will not move about so freely.

A major mission of the CIA is to steal secrets. But America's premier spy agency knew little about what was going on in the Kremlin before the Soviet Union collapsed. It failed to penetrate Saddam's regime or that of the mullahs in Iran. It had no assets inside the Taliban, al Qaeda and Hezbollah.

While not ferreting out the secrets of others, the CIA has become adept at letting its own secrets get loose. The motivation behind leaking classified "assessments" such as this one is obvious: to shape public opinion, influence policy makers and affect domestic politics. These are not the tasks the CIA receives billions of dollars to carry out.

If the new leaders of the intelligence community, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte and Director of Central Intelligence Porter Goss, mean to fix what's broken, they have their work cut out for them.


Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies,
a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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