Articles

Sep 10, 2007

Fight Al Qaeda in Iraq (Democracy, fall 2007)

Fight Al Qaeda

One of the most bitter ironies of the Iraq tragedy is that our occupation
has been a godsend to Al Qaeda and its affiliates, drawing thousands of
foreign fighters to the country over the past four years. As a result, jihadist
terrorists have, for the first time, secured a substantial presence in a country
at the heart of the Middle East. The Iraq war has also inspired a rising wave of
terrorist attacks, from London to Kabul, and it has helped to spread militant
ideas among Iraq’s Sunnis, who were previously more secular than most other
Muslims in the region.

A persistent Al Qaeda safe haven in Iraq will be a launching pad for attacks
against American interests in the region, and even against the United States
itself. The National Intelligence Estimate made public in July explains that Al
Qaeda “will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of Al-Qaeda
in Iraq, its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have
expressed a desire to attack the Homeland.” In addition, a safe haven would
be an ideal location from which to attack “near enemy” American allies such
as Saudi Arabia and to disrupt the world’s oil supply, which Osama bin Laden
has made a priority according to tapes he has released since 9/11. According
to one U.S. counterterrorism official, an Al Qaeda haven in Iraq would also be
a psychological boost for jihadist terrorists: “The reason Iraq is different than
Afghanistan, especially for Al Qaeda is, Iraq is Arab land [and] Al Qaeda is still
a predominantly Arab organization.”

Indeed, America’s top strategic challenge post-drawdown is to position itself
in such a way as to prevent the emergence of a long-term Iraqi safe haven for
Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups. Establishing such a stronghold in the
Muslim world has been an integral part of Al Qaeda’s strategy. As Al Qaeda’s
number-two, Ayman al Zawahiri, explained in 2001 in his autobiographical
Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, “Liberating the Muslim nation, confronting
the enemies of Islam and launching jihad against them require a Muslim
authority, established on a Muslim land that raises the banner of jihad and rallies
the Muslims around it. Without achieving this goal our actions will mean
nothing more than mere and repeated disturbances.”

Such a jihadist haven would then become a launching pad for attacks on
the United States and its allies. We have already seen previews: In 2005, the
Al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq launched suicide attacks against three Americanowned
hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing 60. Earlier this year, Saudi authorities
arrested 172 jihadists, some of whom had trained in Iraq, who were planning
large-scale attacks on oil facilities, Westerners, and government officials. In
May, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda—a
quite profitable enterprise thanks to donations, kidnappings, and protection
money—is now wealthy enough to provide funding to Al Qaeda central on
the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. And in July, an Iraqi doctor who may have
had connections to Al Qaeda in Iraq launched attempted terrorist attacks in
London and Glasgow.

What, then, is the best strategy to disrupt Al Qaeda in Iraq—now known by
the more Iraqified name of the Islamic State of Iraq—especially given the likely
withdrawal of at least a substantial portion of American troops in the next couple
of years? The successful elimination in Anbar province of Al Qaeda forces
suggests one approach—persuading, empowering, and bribing tribal leaders to
do the work for you. Of course, like a game of whack-a-mole, Al Qaeda fighters
have now migrated to other provinces such as Diyala. Applying the Anbar
model to fight Al Qaeda in other parts of the country is a promising strategy,
particularly since it uses relatively few U.S. troops to leverage larger local forces.
The Shia-dominated Maliki government is not happy with such an approach,
believing—probably correctly—that enhancing the powers of the Sunni tribes
in any manner hurts its own interests. That unhappiness is a price the United
States should feel comfortable accepting, given that its own interests are far
from identical with those of the Maliki government’s.

However, the United States cannot wholly rely on tribes of uncertain loyalties
to secure its interests in Iraq, which include not only disrupting Al Qaeda
but also securing a number of bases and the enormous embassy that is being built in Baghdad. Other important functions the U.S. military will have to sustain
after a withdrawal include training the Iraqi army and any other groups
who might help American interests; gathering intelligence; maintaining some
kind of reserve combat force; regularly deploying several thousand Special
Forces troops for operations against Al Qaeda; and, of course, maintaining the
logistical tail to supply all of those functions and soldiers. Given the need to
successfully continue those various tasks, some estimate the United States will
have to maintain a reinforced division of about 20,000 soldiers combined with
logistical delivery teams of a further 10,000 to 15,000 to supply them. Those
soldiers should not be stationed “over the horizon” in countries like Kuwait, but
should remain inside Iraq for the foreseeable future. This is not only a practical
demand of defeating Al Qaeda; after all, we don’t want to have to “reinvade
Iraq” in some future emergency. It is also an important symbolic move, as a total
U.S. withdrawal would confirm what Osama bin Laden has said for more than a
decade—that the United States is a weak superpower, just as the Soviet Union
was in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Another terrorism-related challenge will be mitigating the blowback from
the Iraq war, specifically, the creation of a whole cohort of insurgents and terrorists
indoctrinated and trained to fight America and the West. Considering
that Al Qaeda in Iraq has fought more of an unconventional terrorist war of
suicide attacks and IEDs against the best army in modern history, the blowback
stands to be more intense than what we saw from the alumni of the Afghan
war against the Soviets in the 1980s. Compounding this risk is the fact that Al
Qaeda’s ideas have found more fertile ground among Iraqis than was the case
among Afghans, who are culturally quite different than the Arabs who form the
core of Al Qaeda. What’s more, there is the growing Iraqi refugee population:
Already there are two million Iraqi refugees outside the country, most of them
Sunnis, and two million more have been displaced internally. Those numbers
are likely to increase significantly as the United States draws down in Iraq. We
know from the experiences of the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan that refugee
populations can be breeding grounds for militants. Considering that there
are substantial refugee populations in places like Jordan and Egypt, this could
prove a significant problem to important American allies and a huge destabilizing
force throughout the region.

The best approach to managing this blowback from Iraq is for the United
States and its allies to build a database that maps the social networks of the terrorists inside Iraq, as well as the foreign fighters who have gone back and forth
between Iraq and their home countries. This master database of all the militants
who have joined the jihad in Iraq would then be used to monitor, disrupt, and
capture terrorists in the future. (Imagine if such a database had been available
to the United States and its allies after the Afghan conflict in the 1980s.)
The first building block of such a database should be identifying the suicide
attackers in Iraq—who are mostly foreigners—a process that can be accomplished
using DNA samples, accounts on jihadist websites, good intelligence work, and
media reports. We know from former CIA officer Marc Sageman’s investigations
of the histories of hundreds of jihadist terrorists that friends and family are the
ways most terrorists join the global salafi jihad, and so this investigatory work
should include an effort to identify friends and/or family members who brought
the suicide attackers into the jihad.

Mapping social networks must also include identification of the clerical
mentors of the suicide attackers, as it seems likely that only a relatively small
number have persuaded their followers of the religious necessity of martyrdom in Iraq. Armed with that intelligence, the United States can turn to the governments
of countries like Saudi Arabia and Morocco—where many of the suicide bombers in Iraq originate—and demand they rein in particularly egregious clerics. The U.S. government can make the argument that not only do those militant clerics and their followers threaten American interests, but that they will cause problems in their home countries (much like Afghan war veterans did in Algeria in the 1990s) as well.
According to counterterrorism officials, the U.S. government is already doing
some of the work necessary to create such a database—for instance, by fingerprinting captured insurgents, using social-network software to map the insurgency, and beginning to collect some information on the foreign fighters who
have gone to Iraq. However, much remains to be done to improve the quality
of the information that is gathered in Iraq. According to a veteran U.S. counterterrorism official, “we don’t have the resources” to do a master database of
all the jihadist terrorists in Iraq and their social networks. The official says
that such a database, in addition to examining the family relationships of the
jihadists, also needs to map the other “facilitative nodes” that bring young men
into the jihad, such as websites, operational planners, financiers, and jihadist
underground networks.

In Iraq, the United States faces a list of bad options, and the task is to pick
the least of the worst. A complete pullout would deeply imperil U.S. interests
in the region by making it difficult if not impossible to battle our main strategic
threat in the region: a resurgent Al Qaeda bent on gaining a haven in the Middle
East. On the other hand, keeping a force of around 30,000 American soldiers
in Iraq for the foreseeable future (about the size of the force the United States
presently has in Afghanistan), persuading or bribing the Sunni tribes to take on
Al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliates, and building a master database of all the jihadist terrorists in Iraq and their social networks are all elements of a strategy that will
allow the United States to salvage something from the Iraq debacle.

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