The suicide supply chain

December 10, 2004|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - From what I can tell from the new organizational flow chart for U.S. intelligence that Congress adopted Wednesday, it is a god-awful combination of new titles and jobs at the top, without clear lines of authority to the people on the ground.

One thing I've learned from 25 years in the newspaper business (which is just another form of intelligence-gathering) is this: Whenever you add a new layer of editors on top of reporters, and don't get rid of some of the old layer of editors, all you get is trouble. You get less intelligent.

The right way to improve U.S. intelligence is to get more people in the field who speak the languages we need and who can think unconventionally. If that sounds blindingly obvious to you, it is, but it is precisely the shortage of such people that explains to me America's greatest intelligence failure in Iraq - a failure we are paying for dearly right now. You see, we didn't invade Iraq too soon. We actually invaded 10 years too late.

Let me explain: America's greatest intelligence failure in Iraq was not the WMD we thought were there but weren't. It was the PMD we thought weren't there but were. PMD stands for "people of mass destruction." And there were far more of them in Iraq than anyone realized. The failure of U.S. intelligence to understand what was happening inside Iraqi society during the decade-plus of U.N. sanctions that preceded our invasion is the key to many of the problems we've encountered in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

The U.N. sanctions pulverized Iraqi society - a society already beaten down by an eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the war over Kuwait and some 30 years of Mr. Hussein's tyranny. As Saddamism and sanctions chewed up the Iraqi people during the 1990s, many people of talent left. Before the war, the Bush team told anyone who would listen that Iraq had the most talented secular elite in the Arab world. And it was right. The only problem was that during the 1990s, many in that elite moved to Amman, Damascus, Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Cairo, where they worked as professors, music teachers and engineers.

Meanwhile, back in Iraq, those who had no access to Baath Party privileges got steadily ground down. Many Iraqi youths, unable to connect with the outside world and unable to find jobs at home, turned to religion. Mr. Hussein encouraged this with a mosque-building program. By wrapping himself in an aura of Islam, Mr. Hussein also hoped to buttress his own waning legitimacy. So Wahhabi religious influence flowed into the Sunni areas from Saudi Arabia, as Iranian religious influence flowed into Shiite regions.

You know all those masked Iraqi youths you see in the Al-Jazeera videos, brandishing weapons and standing over some foreigner whose head they are about to saw off? They are the product of the last decade of Saddamism and sanctions. They were 10 years old when the U.N. sanctions began. They are the mushrooms that Mr. Hussein and the sanctions were growing in the dark. The Bush team had no clue they were there.

These deracinated, unemployed, humiliated Sunni Iraqi youths are our biggest problem today. Some clearly have become suicide bombers. Not only are they ready to commit suicide on demand, but they are ready to do it anonymously. That bespeaks a very high level of commitment or psychosis, or both.

I would estimate that U.S. forces have been hit with over 200 of these human missiles, and we still are not sure how they are recruited and deployed. What we are facing, I think, is a crude underground suicide supply chain Its organizers appear to use word of mouth, and the Internet, to recruit suicide bombers from Iraq and the wider Muslim world. These bombers are ferried down the supply chain to bomb makers in the field, who get them wired up and deploy them against U.S. and Iraqi targets tactically.

This is not haphazard. These bombings are timed for maximum effect. That means the insurgents are quite confident about their supply of bombers.

When we have people in U.S. intelligence who can explain how that organizational flow chart works, I'll feel safer.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

Columnist Steve Chapman will return next Friday.

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