A gathering threat from Iraq, a safe haven for Al Qaeda; stockpiles of chemical weapons in the hands of forces hostile to the United States; Iraqi terrorist groups capable of attacking American allies and even, perhaps, the homeland itself. That was the utterly false portrait of Iraq that the Bush administration painted in constructing a rationale to invade. Four and a half years later, Bush is once again touting the threat from terrorists in Iraq as the key justification for continuing the war in Iraq. But in a hideously ironic twist, what was once fiction is now a dangerous fact on the ground. The president is still wrong when he claims that withdrawal would mean “surrendering the future of Iraq to Al Qaeda”; the group’s few thousand fighters have no chance of ever taking over the entire country. But it is now deeply entrenched in Iraq and is carrying out scores of attacks each week, some of them using chemical weapons—chlorine-gas bombs. Al Qaeda has used Iraq as a training ground for thousands of jihadist terrorists, and it has said it will use its stronghold there as a base from which to attack the United States. As the nation wrestles with the question of how to execute the inevitable withdrawal, it is incumbent on all of us to ask the questions the Bush administration has not: What exactly is Al Qaeda in Iraq? How dangerous is it really, to Iraqis and to Americans? And how can it be fought or contained? Using Al Qaeda’s Iraq presence as a propaganda tool is inexcusable and irresponsible. But so is ignoring it.
al qaeda didn’t establish itself in Iraq until October 2004—more than 18 months after the U.S. invasion—when the notorious Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi fused his group with Osama bin Laden’s organization. Back in 2002, Zarqawi’s ragtag band of around 25 foreign fighters—mostly hardline Salafist Sunnis on the run from the authorities in Amman—had set up shop in Kurdistan under the auspices of Ansar al-Islam, a small Kurdish Islamist (and deeply anti-Saddam) group. Like bin Laden, Zarqawi had been a jihadist in Afghanistan, but he kept his distance from Al Qaeda and until 2002 sought to attack only Israeli, Jewish, and Jordanian targets—the near enemy, in jihadist parlance, not the far enemy, a.k.a. the United States. The Bush administration blithely ignored this fact when it made Zarqawi the core of its case for a “sinister nexus” between Saddam and Al Qaeda. In his infamous address to the United Nations in February 2003, Colin Powell argued that “Iraq today harbors a deadly network headed by Abu Musabal-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden.” Powell claimed that Zarqawi’s forces were operating (and getting bioweapons training) in Kurdistan with Saddam’s approval, even though the area was essentially out of Baghdad’s control thanks to the U.S.-imposed no-fly zone.
When the far enemy came to his terrain in 2003, however, Zarqawi did begin attacking coalition forces as well as international institutions—to devastating effect. One of the group’s bombs killed the U.N. special envoy to Iraq while another left 19 Italians dead, the two attacks together serving to deter much of the international community from getting involved in Iraq.
But Zarqawi’s biggest impact was in provoking sectarian warfare. On August 30, 2003, his group—still not affiliated with Al Qaeda—exploded a massive car bomb outside a Shiite mosque in Najaf. Among the 125 dead was one of Iraq’s top Shiite clerics. Then in 2004, U.S. forces released a letter they said Zarqawi had written to Al Qaeda associates in Afghanistan; though the letter’s authenticity is disputed, its content is consistent with Zarqawi’s other statements. The letter argued that getting Shiites to attack Sunnis was crucial to bolstering the Sunni insurgency because Sunnis “have little expertise or experience” in fighting and “most of the groups are working in isolation with no political horizon.
“The Shia in our opinion are the key to change,” it continued. “I mean that targeting them…will provoke them to show the Sunnis their hidden rancor. If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death.”
By this time, a closer alliance made sense to both Zarqawi and Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda wanted a foothold in the Iraqi insurgency, seeing it as the cause célèbre for jihadists worldwide, while Zarqawi presumably recognized the power of Al Qaeda’s global brand. After months of negotiations, Zarqawi released an online statement on October 17, 2004, promising obedience to Al Qaeda’s leader: “By God, O sheikh of the mujahideen, if you bid us plunge into the ocean, we would follow you. If you ordered it so, we would obey!” (Since Zarqawi’s death in June 2006, his successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri—an Egyptian operative thought to have ties to Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s second in command—has deepened cooperation with Al Qaeda’s top leadership.)
Zarqawi’s strategy has, unfortunately, proved wildly successful. It was his group’s February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, a sacred shrine for the Shiites, that tipped Iraq into full-blown civil war. As Sunnis faced growing Shiite violence, Al Qaeda in Iraq—largely made up of foreign volunteers as late as 2004—dramatically increased its local membership; it now has at least 3,000 fighters, and according to Edward Gistaro, a top U.S. intelligence official, around 90 percent are Iraqi.
Though smaller than most insurgent groups, Al Qaeda in Iraq—often referred to as aqi—has been punching above its weight, contributing more significantly to the bloodshed than is generally understood. Mohammed Hafez, author of the authoritative 2007 book Suicide Bombers in Iraq, says the U.S. government has counted more than 800 suicide bombings in Iraq to date; because of improvements in American armor, more and more of them are directed against Shiite civilians, and an estimated 10,000 people have been killed. The military estimates aqi has been responsible for up to 90 percent of those attacks.
Of all the Sunni insurgent groups, aqi is also the only one that has declared an interest in targeting Americans outside Iraq. Its current leader, al-Masri, declared last November that “we will not rest from jihad until we have blown up the White House.” Zarqawi himself believed that establishing a stronghold in Iraq would provide “strategic depth and reach” for jihadists throughout the Middle East. If that failed, he wrote in the 2004 letter, “we pack our bags and search for another land, as is the sad recurrent story in the arenas of jihad.”
To be sure, aqi currently poses less of a threat to the U.S. homeland than Al Qaeda Central in Pakistan—in part because Al Qaeda’s safe haven there is considerably more reliable. Inside Iraq, Al Qaeda constantly faces attack from the U.S. military, and the country’s relatively flat terrain makes it difficult to conceal training camps. The lack of operational safety has meant that only the most committed and hardcore jihadists are willing to go to Iraq, limiting aqi‘s numbers.
Still, it is an oversimplification to maintain that the central front of the war on terror is either in Iraq, as many Republicans insist, or on the Afghan-Pakistan border, as Democrats are fond of saying. The sad fact is that today there are two key havens for Al Qaeda: Iraq and Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Ironically, perhaps the most effective force working against Al Qaeda in Iraq is Al Qaeda itself. The barbaric violence, radicalism, and extreme puritanism of its recruits have turned off many Iraqi Sunnis. In some areas, aqi imposed Taliban-style restrictions on local people and kidnapped and beheaded civilians as well as fellow insurgents. Tensions between aqi and homegrown insurgent groups—composed mostly of former Iraqi Army troops and Sunni tribals—were rising as far back as 2005, when aqi intimidated Sunnis to boycott the national election.
In March of this year, aqi assassinated the leader of a key Sunni insurgent group, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, after he refused to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq, aqi‘s latest nom de guerre. Shortly afterward, a commander of the 1920 Brigades told the London Arabic daily Al Hayat that aqi‘s actions had “left resistance groups with two options: either to fight Al Qaeda and negotiate with the Americans, or fight the Americans and join aqi, which divides Iraq. Both options are bitter.”
A month later, the major insurgent group Islamic Army of Iraq issued an online communiqués condemning aqi. It is worth quoting in some detail:
“These people became insolent against us and wrongly and hostilely killed some mujahideen brothers from this group, more than 30 to date…Indeed, Sunnis in general have become a legitimate target for them, especially the wealthy…. Anyone who criticizes them or goes against them and demonstrates their error in such actions they try to kill…[We] appeal to Shaykh Osama Bin Laden, may God Almighty preserve him… Let him vindicate his religion and honor and take legal and organizational responsibility for the Al Qaeda organization.”
By this summer, various insurgent groups had formed the Jihad and Reform Front to combat aqi, and fierce fighting between insurgent and aqi forces was raging in several Baghdad neighborhoods.
Nowhere has this schism been more evident than in Al Anbar province, the Sunni-dominated region to the west of Baghdad whose population centers of Ramadi, Fallujah, and Haditha serve as gateways to the western desert. By the summer of 2006, aqi had become, according to a U.S. Marine intelligence report authored by Colonel Peter Devlin and obtained by the Washington Post, “the dominant organization of influence” in the province, more powerful than the Iraqi government and U.S. troops “in its ability to control the day-to-day life of the average Sunni.” It was, he wrote, “an integral part of the social fabric of western Iraq,” so deeply entrenched that there was no longer the option of defeating it with a “decapitating strike.”
To counter this dangerous reality, Devlin proposed creating a local paramilitary force to protect Sunnis and strengthen the police. In the months that followed, the U.S. military did just that, persuading or paying the region’s tribes to work with them in fighting aqi. They gained a crucial ally in Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, whose father had been assassinated by aqi and who subsequently helped organize the Anbar Salvation Council, a coalition of tribal leaders opposed to aqi. (Sheikh Sattar himself was killed on September 13, with aqi taking credit.)
A number of offensives in November by U.S. and Iraqi troops weakened aqi and helped convince the tribes that the tide was turning; the U.S. has also promised to funnel some $300 million in aid into the region, likely through tribal sheikhs. The sheikhs in turn instructed their followers—many of them former insurgents—to join the police force, swelling its number from a paltry 3,500 in October 2006 to more than 20,000 in June of this year. Today, the “Anbar Awakening” has become Exhibit A in the Bush administration’s argument for why the war is winnable (see “Miracle in Ramadi?“); in other words, by shooting itself in the foot, aqi has handed the White House its sole pr victory in Iraq.
As history shows, this kind of self-defeating behavior by radical Islamists is not uncommon. In Algeria during the 1990s, a collection of Islamist groups battled the military regime. But the radical gia soon broke away from the more moderate fis and began to target anyone who disagreed with its hardcore “takfiri” ideology, helping to precipitate a civil war that left more than 100,000 dead. By 1997 the Islamist insurgency was so fractured and unpopular that it imploded—a process accelerated by the termination of its key mouthpiece, the London-based journal Al Ansar, whose editors could no longer keep up with the infighting.
Yet Algeria only offers so many parallels. aqi‘s pioneering manipulation of the Internet means that it is in no danger of losing its ability to issue communiquÃ©s. Unlike the Algerian gia, aqi seems to be waking up to the fact that violent excesses such as executing ice cream vendors (because there were no sorbets at the time of the Prophet) might not be good for their cause. In a July video, Al Qaeda Central’s al-Zawahiri pointedly reminded aqi that “unity is the gateway to victory.”
But the most crucial difference between Iraq and Algeria is the role of sectarian conflict, which was largely nonexistent in Algeria. In Iraq, Shiite on Sunni violence legitimizes Al Qaeda’s hardline approach, and it is no coincidence that wherever sectarian conflict rages, aqi remains strong. Unfortunately, the civil war is likely to provide fuel for aqi for some time, saving it from collapsing under the weight of its own mistakes.
could an american withdrawal help starve Al Qaeda of oxygen? Some have argued that pulling the troops would automatically weaken the terrorist group’s power by erasing its main raison d’être. And clearly, Al Qaeda and other jihadists have benefited enormously from the occupation, which has increased their recruiting exponentially.
In a study published in Mother Jones in March, we found that the global rate of fatal jihadist attacks had increased by 265 percent outside Iraq since the March 2003 invasion. Four months later, the administration’s National Intelligence Estimate concluded that aqi “helps Al Qaeda energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks.” aqi seems to have, among other things, developed into an effective fundraising apparatus for Al Qaeda Central, using kidnappings, oil smuggling, and other criminal activities; insurgent groups as a whole are raising up to $200 million each year, according to the U.S. military. (The 9/11 operation cost only $500,000.)
A rapid and total withdrawal from Iraq, however, is not going to deflate jihadist energy around the world anytime soon, whereas it will strengthen Al Qaeda in Iraq immediately, removing its top military adversary and potentially increasing the sectarian violence that drives Sunnis into its arms. Colonel Pat Lang, a former top official at the Defense Intelligence Agency who is a critic of the Bush administration (and an Arabic speaker), argues that to counter that threat the United States should leave at a minimum a force of around 30,000, including a reinforced division of around 20,000 soldiers, thousands to handle supply and logistics, and around 500 Special Forces. Others argue for an even larger contingent, in the high tens of thousands, or for accelerating U.S. aid to Sunni tribes.
Whatever the strategy ultimately chosen, there is no doubt that the bomb-making and urban-warfare skills developed by veterans of a jihad against the most effective fighting force in history will help sustain terrorist groups for at least a generation. This fact alone makes the Iraq War perhaps the largest strategic blunder in recent American history. But it also makes it even more vital for the United States to now pursue the right policies.
Miracle In Ramadi?
The Bush administration says the recent “Anbar Awakening” heralds a new way of winning in Iraq. The truth is more complicated.
|Anbar is evidence of the surge’s success and that of General David Petraeus.||Bush benefited from lucky timing. Sunni tribes fed up with Al Qaeda’s extremism began an anti-AQI campaign in September 2006, 4 months before the surge was even announced. As things improved, the White House eagerly took credit.|
|The Anbar model is being replicated all over central Iraq, including Baghdad.||It’s only working in places where a majority of both residents and police are Sunni; in other areas, Sunnis view the mostly Shiite police as death squads in uniform.|
|Sunni tribes are on our side now.||Maybe, but there’s no guarantee they won’t switch back. 93 percent of Iraqi Sunnis think attacks on U.S. forces are justified.|
|Defeating Al Qaeda is the start of pacifying Iraq.||AQI makes up no more than 5 percent of the Sunni-led insurgency. And while the group did its best to stir up sectarian violence, the conflict now has momentum of its own.|
|Anbar is a model province.||Parts of Ramadi and other major cities lie in ruins; municipal services and local governments are almost nonexistent.|
|Changed military tactics won the day.||In General Petraeus’ words, “What happened in Anbar is politics.”|