WASHINGTON – The White House on Friday downplayed a CIA think tank report that said the war in Iraq is cultivating a fertile training ground and recruitment center for Islamic terrorists.
"This is a speculative report about things that could happen in the world," press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters on Air Force One as President Bush traveled to Florida for an education speech.
The National Intelligence Council (search) released a report Thursday that said Iraq is now the world's top training ground for terrorists, and survivors of the fighting there will move on to mount attacks in other parts of the world.
Bush has frequently described Iraq as the central front in the War on Terror, and has said the United States wants to confront terrorists overseas rather than at home.
"The report confirms that we have the right strategy for winning the war on terrorism," McClellan said.
Asked about the finding that the war had created a breeding ground for terrorists, he said, "That's assuming that terrorists would just be sitting around and doing nothing if we weren't staying on the offensive."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on Friday responded to questions about Iraq being such a training ground by saying, "It's an important part of government, planning to look at those long-term problems and to deal with them."
But he did not accept the suggestion that Iraq has merely replaced Afghanistan as terrorists' top choice for training.
"Terrorists are coming to Iraq and carrying out horrible murders and actions. If you want to call that training, call it training. We call it murder," Boucher said. "And the fact is that there are terrorists in Iraq that need to be defeated. We're determined to do that. The Iraqis are determined to do that. And we think the entire world should be making the effort to do that, because it's important, not only now to Iraq, but long term for all of us."
While whether Iraq has actually replaced Afghanistan as a terrorists' choice for training is in dispute by some, it's been no secret that the U.S. government has always thought foreign fighters have been crossing the border into Iraq from countries such as Syria to fight the U.S.-led coalition and the new Iraqi security forces there.
"We've been saying that ourselves for awhile now, to tell you that there are foreign terrorists who have come to Iraq, but there is also a domestic-based insurgency as well" that now needs to be defeated, Boucher said.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was in Syria recently, giving what is being described as a "stern" message to the Syrians to stop financing Iraqi insurgents and to prevent travel over their border.
Armitage acknowledged it's still happening, however, in a Thursday interview with Al Arabiya Television.
"I think there's no question that they're busy financing from Syria. I think it's a little hard to actually direct from Syria. You'd have to be a little more involved. But the financing allows people to purchase weapons, to cause difficulties for the Iraqi people," Armitage said.
He did emphasize, however, that Syrians have been making decent efforts on other issues.
"I believe we've seen activities recently on behalf of the Syrian government in which they've shown a new seriousness about controlling the border, and that's a good thing and it should be remarked upon," Colin Powell's deputy said.
"It seems to me the better part of wisdom for the Syrian government would be to try to have a more congenial relationship with Iraq, and part of that relationship has to be in shutting down the activities which emanate from Syria."
Conventional Weapons Threat
While analysts continue to be concerned that terrorists wish to acquire biological agents, or even a nuclear device, the more likely scenario is the use of conventional weapons, according to the report, which is an assessment of long-term global trends.
Having lost their bases in Afghanistan, terrorists have found a training ground, a place to recruit and an "opportunity for enhancing technical threats" in Iraq, the analysts say.
"Any fundamentalist out there who wants to be part of their future needs to be in Iraq to start honing up his skills to find out how to fight Western, U.S. or coalition forces," Lt. Col. Bill Cowan (search), a FOX News military analyst, said Friday in an analysis of the report. "There shouldn't be any surprises here."
The report, entitled "Mapping the Global Future," says jihadists who are not killed in Iraq will likely return to their home countries. It suggests that radical Islam will continue to spread.
"The key factors that spawn international terrorism show no signs of abating over the next 15 years," the report reads. "Experts assess that the majority of international terrorist groups will continue to identify with radical Islam. The revival of Muslim identity will create a framework for the spread of radical Islamic ideology both inside and outside the Middle East, including Western Europe, Southeast Asia and Central Asia."
By 2020, the report suggests, Al Qaeda "will be superseded by other Islamic extremist groups that will link up with local separatist movements, further decentralizing these movements and making them more difficult to uncover."
The report also points to the ability of terrorists to operate in a "virtual" world. The Internet, where it's easy to exchange training material, weapons technology and, most significantly, to raise money, has emerged as terrorists' preferred method of communication.
Cowan saw a silver lining in the stark analysis.
"The one good news perhaps about a lot of non-Al Qaeda or even Al Qaeda people coming to Iraq to operate is that we will develop a lot of intelligence that we wouldn't get otherwise," he said Friday.
"We're capturing a lot of documents, we're capturing a lot of people. Even if we don't capture all these specific individuals, we'll have dossiers on them, and we'll be able to pass a lot of that information back to their home countries so that when they return back home, their security services will already have an idea who some of these guys are."
Rod Nordland (search), Baghdad bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, agreed with the assessment and blamed American lack of planning for the situation.
"It's worth noting that it wasn't a terrorist training ground until we invaded it," Nordland told FOX News. "That's the situation that we've created, and I think we should take responsibility for it."
George Friedman (search), chairman of the private intelligence firm Stratfor (search) and author of "America's Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle Between America and Its Enemies," was more skeptical about the CIA report.
"There's some truth to it, but not as much as it might seem," he told FOX News. "[Islamic terrorists have] certainly gone to Iraq. They've gotten weapons training. But Al Qaeda's strength was not training in weapons. It was the ability to operate long-range in the United States, in many continents at the same time."
"[Jihadists] are learning how to fight inside of Iraq, how to take out Shiite leaders," Friedman added. "That's a problem ... [but] I wouldn't agree that the fact they're being trained in fighting a guerrilla war in Iraq really translates into a global threat."
Friedman suggested that Islamic terrorism in Iraq might not last long after the upcoming elections.
"I think you're going to get a Shiite government, and that Shiite government is going to be much more ruthless in prosecuting the war against the Sunnis than the Americans have been," he said. "You're looking at a civil war, but [one] that the Sunni guerrillas, the jihadists from outside the country, are likely to lose."
Even if the Shiites win, Friedman argued that Iraq's future was probably bleak.
"I can't imagine a democracy as we understand it, or would like to think about it, taking hold," he said. "The best we can hope for is a minimization of violence and a government not too hostile to the United States. ... The Americans are there to put pressure on the Saudis, Syrians, Iranians. We don't have a national interest in the kind of government Iraq will have."
FOX News' Catherine Herridge, Teri Schultz and Paul Wagenseil and The Associated Press contributed to this report.