Ending U.S. torture gains the moral high ground, but will not in itself make America safer.
By Thomas Hegghammer
The CIA torture memos have generated a media storm in the United States. Many have expressed surprise and indignation at the nature and extent of state-sanctioned torture in the war on terror. On the center-left of the political spectrum there is also a sense of relief and hope that the dark Bush era is over and that a torture-free America will regain the moral high ground and be safer as a result.
Switch to the jihadi Internet forums, where thousands of radical Islamists log on every day to debate religion, politics, and the latest news from the war on terror. Last week there were debates on all kinds of topics, from swine flu to the financial crisis to the alleged capture of the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. But there was virtually nothing about the torture memos.
This wasn't because the jihadists don't care about how the United States treats detainees. Pictures from Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib have been among al Qaeda's most widely used and most potent recruitment tools in the post-9/11 era. Since early 2002, not a day has passed without Guantánamo being mentioned somewhere on the jihadi Internet. Outrage over Abu Ghraib was the single most important motivation for foreign jihadists going to Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Al Qaeda hostage takings began after the establishment of Guantánamo and skyrocketed after Abu Ghraib. More than one Western hostage met his fate in Iraq wearing an orange jumpsuit.
Nor is al Qaeda's silence on the memos a tacit admission that the end of torture is bad for its recruitment. Jihadi strategists have never shied away from publicly discussing the objective challenges they are facing. There are many reasons for al Qaeda to fear an Obama administration, but the cleanup of the CIA black sites is not one of them.
The reason for the silence on the forums is that al Qaeda couldn't care less about the current U.S. debate about torture. The questions of who signed which memos when, whether Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 80 or 180 times, and whether a millipede was inserted into Abu Zubaydah's confinement box are only interesting for those who did not expect the United States to behave this way. And the jihadists are not among them.
For a start, al Qaeda never cared about the black sites in the first place. It never expected its leaders to be treated gently, and it knew the dungeons of Cairo were infinitely worse anyway. Moreover, even if the CIA really did stop torture, the United States has so little credibility left in the Muslim world that virtually nobody would believe it. And those who would believe it would rightly point out that the practice of rendition will continue. Most importantly, Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib have already provided enough propaganda material to last a generation. For the jihadists -- indeed for most Muslims -- the CIA memos are a small drop in an ocean of examples of Western injustice toward Muslims.
The bottom line is that the damage caused by Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib is irreparable and the end of U.S. torture will not in itself make the United States safer from this generation of jihadists. Ending torture in the United States is obviously important, but it will only bring security benefits if it is part of a broader policy package that includes pressure on allied regimes to do the same.
Cleaning up America's own backyard might make liberals feel good about themselves, but they should not be fooled into thinking that this alone will make them safer.
Thomas Hegghammer is a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment. He is the coauthor of Al Qaeda in Its Own Words and author of the forthcoming Jihad in Saudi Arabia. He blogs about jihadi Web sites at www.jihadica.com.
Photo: Abid Katib/Getty Images