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Behind the Messages on Stopping Terrorism, and Iraq

President Bush and other supporters of the surge in Iraq say that if U.S. troops withdraw, the terrorists "will follow us home." But many military and intelligence analysts say the U.S. presence in Iraq - and elsewhere in the Middle East - is what really upsets the terrorists and mobilizes their base.

"There's no national security analyst that's really credible who thinks that people are going to come from Iraq and attack the United States, that that's a credible scenario," said retired Army Lt. Col. James Carafano, a specialist in international security threats at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Still, the president's allies in Congress, such as Sen. John Thune (R-SD), insist the Iraq war has kept terrorists at bay.

Paul Pillar, a former deputy CIA counterterrorism chief who now teaches at Georgetown University, says that logic requires the belief that there is a fixed number of terrorists out there to bedevil the United States.

"And we are either engaging them or killing them in Iraq or they're doing something else," Pillar said. "Well, we don't have a fixed number, of course, and the longer that we stay engaged in what has become in the eyes of the Islamist jihadists the biggest and foremost jihad, namely Iraq, the more likelihood we will breed even more terrorists."

Other experts question whether it's even possible to defeat terrorists in Iraq, no matter how long U.S. forces are deployed there.

Still, the president and his allies are likely to keep repeating that terrorists will follow us out of Iraq. That's because for some it's politically persuasive, says Thomas Sanderson of the non-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies:

"I do think it has the effect of galvanizing support among a percentage of our population," Sanderson said. "But i think a lot of people won't buy it in the first place, or number two, assume that we're already in that pipeline of attacks that the terrorists are planning."

One thing all the experts agree on is that it's not a question of if such attacks will occur, but when.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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