The Duck of Minerva

Schools of crime

8 July 2005

Prisons are schools of crime. Put a lot of socially deviant people together and they teach each other new tricks. Social scientists studying prisons have been making this argument for decades. I state this from memory: the high school debate topic in 1976-77 (the year I began debating) was on “penal reform.”

It is widely accepted by both supporters and opponents of the war that Iraq has served as something of a magnet for jihadists (even if many allied Iraqis are also nationalist insurgents). Conservative “flypaper theory” embraces this idea. Supporters argue that it is better to confront “the terrorists” (as if there was a finite supply) in a distant land like Iraq rather than in the streets of New York…or London.

Of course, the streets of Iraq provide a training ground for highly motivated potential terrorists. From the LA Times July 8 (via a comment at Democracy Arsenal):

Muslims flocking to Iraq from other countries are getting firsthand exposure to “a broad range of terrorist activity, everything from assassinations, kidnappings, bombings to attacks with conventional weapons,” said a U.S. intelligence official who described the contents of the classified report on condition of anonymity.

In contrast to the rustic training camps of Afghanistan, Iraq insurgents learn to operate and evade detection in an urban environment, the official said.

Iraq is breeding “a generation of people who have the potential to be the leadership of Islamic extremism for some time to come,” the intelligence official said.

These paragraphs refer to a National Intelligence Council report released earlier this year.

The British Ambassador to Italy, Sir Ivor Roberts, said in 2004 that “Bush is al Qaeda’s best recruiting sergeant.” Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarek famously predicted that Iraq would launch the careers of “100 Osama bin Ladens.” Asked to confirm that figure, former Anonymous terror expert Michael Scheuer said “more than that.”

I imagine you see where I’m going with this. Many prisoners eventually get out of prison and have new opportunities to test their advanced skills. What if highly motivated and newly enabled jihadists leave Iraq?

According to various sources, that seems to be what’s happening and may explain Thursday’s bombing in London. Back to the excellent LA Times story:

Over the last year, authorities have detected an increasing presence of insurgents back from the fighting in Iraq. The Dutch alone have identified “dozens” of such former combatants, a U.S. law enforcement official said.

Iraq could replace Russia’s Chechnya republic, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan as the breeding ground for terrorists who could unleash their new experience, skills and fervor on the West, European officials say. The CIA issued a classified report in May warning that Iraq had become a more effective training ground than Afghanistan for terrorists, and that the threat would spread as foreign fighters left Iraq and returned to their home countries or migrated elsewhere.

It is still too early to identify the perpetrators of yesterday’s attack in London, but after 26 months of insurgency in Iraq, it may be too late to discredit the flypaper hypothesis.

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