It may be true that Iraq is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders, and that the US presence there is a "cause célèbre" for jihadists, as a recently declassified US intelligence assessment holds.
But that doesn't mean the Iraqi insurgency is a wholly owned Al Qaeda subsidiary. Foreign fighters make up a relatively small slice of the forces targeting the US military in Iraq. Most insurgents are native Iraqi Sunni Islamists or former members of the old Baath party regime.
Thus, to Osama bin Laden, Iraq might be more important as a symbol than a physical battlefield or training ground. Fighting there may not produce as many hardened mujahideen eager to export jihad as did the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
"It is not obvious now how many Iraqi jihadists will support the global jihad of bin Laden and how many will focus their efforts on Iraq's fledgling state," says a recent analysis of the evolving terrorist threat by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The leak of a National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism trends to The New York Times, and President Bush's subsequent move to declassify the NIE's key judgments, has focused new attention on the relationship between the war in Iraq and global jihad.
One NIE conclusion is that US involvement in Iraq has served as a recruiting sergeant for Islamist terrorism. "Perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere.... Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves ... to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight," says the NIE.
But the NIE – or at least the portions declassified so far – does not estimate how many of these jihadists are fighting in Iraq today, and how many may be members of terrorist cells elsewhere, looking to Iraq for inspiration.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq killed by a US airstrike in June, was undoubtedly a key insurgent leader, able to rally native Iraqi Sunni Islamists to his cause. Evidence suggests, however, that foreign fighters such as he are a small minority of the overall insurgent force.
Between 50 and 70 foreign fighters sneak over the border into Iraq every month, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, chief US military spokesman in Iraq, said last week. Most come from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt, or Syria.
Between January and mid-September, US or Iraqi government forces captured some 630 foreign fighters, according to General Caldwell. Of these, 370 remain in detention in Iraq. The rest have been processed through Iraqi courts and sentenced, or released. Some may have been taken to undisclosed locations elsewhere.
The total number of foreign fighters in Iraq is between 800 and 2,000, according to estimates by the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. In contrast, the total strength of the insurgency is more than 20,000 people, according to Brookings. That means the vast majority of its fighters come from Iraq itself.
"In proportion to the whole insurgency, [the percentage of foreign fighters] is very small," says Aidan Kirby, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
On the one hand, this makes Iraq's effect on the global jihad of Mr. bin Laden unpredictable. The Afghan war against Soviet invaders in the 1980s created substantial numbers of battle-hardened Islamist fighters. It's unclear whether Iraq will have an effect of the same magnitude.
Some native Iraqi insurgents may become part of the larger Al Qaeda network. But many more are likely to be uninterested in uprooting themselves to take the fight to other countries.
On the other hand, numbers are not the sole indicator of the scale of the danger. Already there are anecdotal reports of foreign fighters traveling back to Europe from Iraq, prepared to spread jihad, says Ms. Kirby of CSIS.
"It really only takes a few people," she says. "They're acting as a force multiplier."
Jordan, Kuwait, Syria, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have seen some spillover of violence from Iraq inside their borders, notes a CSIS analysis of Al Qaeda. And terrorists appear to have won a sanctuary in Iraq's overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar Province. "The likelihood is that this sanctuary will be there for years," says the report.
Moreover, the death of Mr. Zarqawi may affect Al Qaeda's targeting. A charismatic leader with his own agenda, he was focused on attacking "the near enemy," according to Brian Fishman, a scholar at the US Army's Combating Terrorism Center. And Zarqawi's near enemy appeared to be apostate Arabs in the Middle East.
Bin Laden, on the other hand, emphasizes the "far enemy" – the US and the West. "Zarqawi's death may actually strengthen the negotiating position of jihadists dedicated to attacking the US homeland," writes Mr. Fishman in an article in the current issue of The Washington Quarterly.