Al Qaeda and its role in the Iraq insurgency
The attempts to minimize the role played by al Qaeda in Iraq in the larger Sunni insurgency took a significant step over the past week. Clark Hoyt, the public editor of the New York Times, claimed that the media had become complicit in the government's attempts to paint the entire Sunni insurgency with an al Qaeda brush. Also this week, Malcolm Nance published an article at the Small Wars Journal claiming al Qaeda is being given too much credit for the violence in Iraq. In the article, titled "Al Qaeda in Iraq--Heroes, Boogeymen or Puppets?," Nance claims al Qaeda is but a bit player in the Iraqi insurgency and is largely controlled by the Baathist remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime. To Nance, al Qaeda is both a U.S. Boogeyman and Baathist Puppet.
If taken seriously, these theories are likely to have a significant impact on the political battle over the war in Iraq as it is played out back here in the States. I took a look at the major points advanced by Nance and found his argument to be unpersuasive. Nance makes several factual errors and contradicts himself on several important points. And he fails to recognize the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq, the continually evolving nature of the Sunni insurgency and our understanding of it.
His theory that the insurgency is dominated by Baathist Former Regime Leaders (FRLs) was popular circa 2003-2004, and has long since been discredited. While Baathists and Former Regime Elements certainly play a role in the insurgency, their influence has diminished over time as al Qaeda and its puppet Islamic State of Iraq have coopted significant elements of the Sunni Insurgency.
Claim: Nance states that for the past four years, the Bush administration and military leaders have touted al Qaeda in Iraq as the only enemy in Iraq:
A better question is whom are we fighting? The response heard most often is that we are fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq. In May 2007 the President declared 'Al Qaeda is public enemy number one in Iraq.' The consensus opinion, from the Pentagon to the PFC, is that America is waging a desperate fight against Al Qaeda both in and out of Iraq and it will directly determine the national security on the streets of Europe and America. Additionally, for four years Abu Musab Zarqawi, AQI's first leader, was portrayed as the commander of the insurgency. It was an easily consumable media narrative so effective that even the Iraqis believed it until his death.
Fact: While President Bush did indeed say "Al Qaeda is public enemy number one in Iraq," he is doing little more than seconding the assessment of General David Petraeus, the Commander of Multinational Forces Iraq. General Petreaus stated on April 26, 2007:
"So this [Al Qaeda in Iraq] is a--you know, it is a very significant enemy. I think it is probably public enemy number one. It is the enemy whose actions sparked the enormous increase in sectarian violence that did so much damage to Iraq in 2006, the bombing of the Al Askaria mosque in Samarra, the gold-domed mosque there, the third holiest Shi'a shrine. And it is the organization that continues to try to reignite not just sectarian violence but ethnic violence, as well, going after Iraqi Kurds in Nineveh province and Kirkuk and areas such as that, as well. So again, I think a very, very significant enemy in that regard."
Note that General Petraeus did not single out al Qaeda in Iraq at the exclusion of other Sunni and insurgent groups. He merely identified al Qaeda as the primary threat. As the commander of MNF-I, General Petraeus's view of the insurgency is informed by the view of U.S. intelligence agencies. Is Nance arguing that politicization is occurring at the senior level of the U.S. military, or that General Petraeus is deliberately misleading the public at the president's behest? No. As Nance states, "The consensus opinion, from the Pentagon to the PFC [Private First Class], is that America is waging a desperate fight against Al Qaeda both in and out of Iraq," and that consensus opinion is based on intelligence gathering and the direct experience of those serving in the theater.
Nance also implies that because the al Qaeda and the insurgency continued the fight after Zarqawi's death, the idea that he was the "commander of the insurgency" must be little more than "an easily consumable media narrative." But that the group has done so is merely evidence of how robust the organization is. In fact, for the first year of the insurgency, Multinational Forces Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pointed the finger at Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party as the source of the insurgency. We were repeatedly told about how dead-enders, Baathist holdouts, and criminals were at the core of the movement. In 2004, the common narrative was that Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, the deputy chairman of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council under Saddam's regime, was leading the insurgency. This was the "easily consumable media narrative" on the nature of the insurgency.
But it should be noted that Nance later points to a statement by the president in November 2005, which he describes as as an accurate assessment of the role of al Qaeda. The president then said al Qaeda was "'the smallest, but the most lethal' insurgent force." So which is it? Was the administration hyping the role of AQI or was the president accurately describing it?
Claim: Nance states that the entire military establishment believes al Qaeda is the prime enemy in Iraq.
When I completed my most recent book The Terrorists of Iraq: Inside the Strategy and Tactics of the Iraq Insurgency many of my warfighting peers, both in and out of Iraq, insisted AQI was commanding the insurgency. When asked what gave them this impression they insisted that AQI was by far the smartest, most capable of the insurgent groups due to their car bomb (SVBIED) attacks. They argued that AQI had fostered a virulent, militant form of Islam among the formerly secular Sunni Iraqis. Some also point out that the formation of the Islamic State (Emirate) of Iraq and attempts to enforce Islamic law (Shari'a) on the population was the strategic error that pushed the Iraqi tribes of Anbar province into the arms of the coalition."
Fact: Nance clearly admits his view on the insurgency is the minority position. Combine this with his statement that even Iraqis themselves believed Zarqawi and al Qaeda in Iraq are the prime threat and you can see that two of the largest groups most likely to be in the know (the Iraqi people and Multinational Forces Iraq) disagree wholeheartedly with Nance's assessment. Part of the majority argument is that al Qaeda in Iraq has successfully radicalized large numbers of Iraqi Sunnis, a fact which is evident by the actions and propaganda of various insurgent groups. Nance sidesteps the issue of radicalization in the Sunni community, and their gravitation to al Qaeda, which Iraqi insurgents admit in intercepted letters and even in propaganda is a dominant force in Iraq.
Claim: Mr. Nance argues the administration is using al Qaeda as a "smokescreen" and ignores the flip side of the political argument.
"On the other hand, many advocates of immediate withdrawal, weary of the bloodletting, bank on the hope that the other groups of the insurgency will dispose of AQI as soon as the US forces withdraw and leave the battlefield. AQI is often described by administration opponents as a convenient smokescreen and boogeyman for the White House to use to keep American troops in Iraq. Knowing the particulars of AQI's strategy, who wants to take a chance on the insurgents doing our job once we leave."
Fact: There should be no doubt that the administration wants to highlight al Qaeda in Iraq's role in the insurgency to support its case. This does not mean the stated case that al Qaeda in Iraq is the prime enemy is false. Nance refuses to look at the flip side of this argument. Advocates of withdrawal downplay, minimize or discount al Qaeda's role in the insurgency, as it is political suicide to surrender to al Qaeda. If Nance wants to offer one degree of politicization in the debate about the administration's eagerness to play up the al Qaeda angle, he should be willing to look at the political calculations on the other side of the coin. Opponents of the war are more than willing to ignore the elephant in the room.
Claim: Mr. Nance breaks the insurgency into three categories: nationalist Former Regime Loyalists (FRLs) and their former military elements (FREs), nationalist Iraqi Religious Extremists (IREs), and "the foreign fighters of the Al Qaeda in Iraq and its umbrella group the Islamic Emirate of Iraq." He estimates the number of FRLs/FREs at 29,000, IREs at 5,000, and "foreign fighters" of al Qaeda at 1,500. Mr. Nance's view is the FRLs/FREs are a coherent group operating under a singular command.
Fact: Coalition and Iraqi forces have removed the vast majority of the Former Regime Loyalists, which was a term to used to describe Hizb al-Awda and the circa 2003 bid to restore Saddam Hussein to power. While there is still a real Ba'ath Party in Salahadin and Ninewa, they have basically collapsed as a major force within the insurgency as Iraqi Sunni identity has been informed less by Saddam Hussein and more by sectarian allegiances since February 2006 ( i.e. post-Samarra). To the extent that FRLs still exist, they do so in places like Syria, Yemen, and Mauritania where other branches of the Ba'ath Party are active and can support them.
A unified Ba'athist command structure for the insurgency does not exist. While there are still some FRLs overseas, there is infighting between the groups. The FREs (essentially the rank and file of the FRLs) seeded themselves among the various insurgent groups which sprung up locally after Saddam's Army was disbanded.
Jaysh al-Mujahideen was never an FRL organization, as its name emphasizes the group is an indigenous Sunni insurgent force that is trying to carve out a post-Saddam Hussein identity for religious Iraqi Sunni Arabs. This is extremely clear from their literature and propaganda. The Islamic Army in Iraq is a somewhat cynical and opportunist insurgent group and has cooperated with al Qaeda in Iraq at times and opposed the organization at others. The Islamic Army in Iraq has also rebroadcast al Qaeda propaganda via its television station Al Zawraa.
U.S. soldiers capture flag of al Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq in village in Diyala. Click image to view.
The designation of Ansar al-Sunna and Islamic Army of Iraq (AS and IAI) as "bit players" in the insurgency serves to even further highlight the shortcomings in Nance's view that the insurgency is largely a Ba'athist entity. Those are the second and third largest groups in the entire insurgency behind al Qaeda in Iraq and its Islamic State.
Al Qaeda's power within the Sunni insurgency can be seen by the recent formation of the Reform and Jihad Front, an alliance between the Islamic Army in Iraq, the Mujahideen Army, and Ansar al-Sunna. These groups opposed al Qaeda's establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq for ideological reasons. Al Qaeda in Iraq targeted the leaders of the Reform and Jihad Front, killing many of them. Since then, Ansar al-Sunna and large elements of the ranks of the Islamic Army in Iraq have been absorbed into al Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq, and the Reform and Alliance Front has withered on the vine.
Nance builds a firewall between the indigenous insurgent groups, the domestic Islamist groups, and al Qaeda in Iraq. His argument completely ignores the growth of the al Qaeda manufactured Islamic State of Iraq and its absorption of large elements of the Sunni insurgency. Along with Ansar al Sunna, the Islamic State of Iraq includes the Jihadist Brigades of Iraq, Just Recompense [Punishment] Brigades, Shield of Islam, and Jaysh al-Rashidin. Large elements of groups like the Islamic Army in Iraq have joined the Islamic State after their leadership was decapitated (in some cases literally).
Finally, the numbers. Nance claims al Qaeda in Iraq has only 1,500 members. While this may be true for the number of foreign fighters inside Iraq, al Qaeda has successfully "Iraqified," as was demanded by al Qaeda's senior leadership. Last fall Abu Ayyub al Masri, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq and the minister of defense in the Islamic State or Iraq, claimed to have over 12,000 fighters, with another 10,000 in training. He also admitted to taking over 6,000 casualties over the course of 2006. Even if we accept al Masri is spewing propaganda and inflating numbers, (though intelligence officials I spoke with take al Masri's numbers seriously) al Qaeda in Iraq's numbers are far greater than 1,500. Nance focuses on the foreign fighters at the exclusion of Iraqi members.
Claim: Nance credits Ba'athist elements with the "lion share" of U.S. deaths, and claims al Qaeda has but a small percentage of fighters in the insurgency.
"For over four years the FRLs (especially the paramilitary Saddam Fedayeen and Special Republican Guard) almost exclusively carries out IED, indirect fire (IDF), sniping, aircraft shoot downs and ambush attacks with conventional weapons with alarming regularity which account for the lion share of the US forces' 3,500 KIAs. The smaller IREs did the same type of attacks but occasionally peppered their missions with Suicide bombings. AQI almost exclusively perform carries out suicide car bombings and suicide vest bombings (SVBIED/SPBIED). They occasionally perform IED, rocket, MANPAD and even a few impressive massed infantry attacks on Iraqi Police and government buildings (such as the symbolic assault on Abu Ghraieb prison in 2005)."
Fact: Al Qaeda in Iraq has executed numerous massed infantry assaults since the insurgency began. The attack on Abu Ghraib was but one. Sophisticated assaults have been launched against U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces in Al Qaim, Tarmiyah, Mahmudiyah, Baghdad, Amiriyah, Fallujah and elsewhere. Al Qaeda combined car bomb attacks designed to breach the walls of outposts, along with mortar, rocket, and ground assaults. These type of assaults cannot be improvised on the fly, but indicate that al Qaeda boasts an experienced cadre of fighters with access to significant stockpiles of material.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has also formed its own anti aircraft teams, mortar teams, logistics teams, and other support elements. Al Qaeda was behind the recent spate of helicopter shoot downs in the regions around Baghdad this winter and early spring. Coalition and Iraqi forces have dismantled many of the anti aircraft teams and found evidence proving al Qaeda's involvement. For its part, al Qaeda in Iraq has released videos of showing successful attacks on U.S. aircraft. Many of these attacks are carried out under the guise of the Islamic State of Iraq, which is merely an al Qaeda front group.
Al Qaeda in Iraq also takes advantage of what numerous military commanders have told me is their greatest asset: cash. Al Qaeda pays unemployed youth or affiliated insurgent groups to conduct IED attacks against U.S. forces. Al Qaeda also has formed its own IED cells, which U.S. and Iraqi forces take out with regularity.
Claim: "AQI itself has been subject to a significant degradation since January 2005."
Fact: This completely ignores the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq, and al Qaeda's growth and absorption of like minded insurgent groups or groups it co-opted via a campaign of intimidation. The number of suicide car bomb (SVBIED) attacks has increased since the onset of the Baghdad Security Plan, demonstrating al Qaeda has the capacity to conduct these attacks. Nance attributes the SVBIED attacks to the Ba'athists, but this flies in the face of all intelligence coming from Iraq. Upwards of 85 percent of suicide bombers are foreign, which Nance ignores.
This theory also completely ignores what happened in Anbar province in 2006 and 2007. Insurgent groups and the tribes there didn't band together and cooperate with the U.S. and Iraqi forces in the region to fight al Qaeda because they were strong, they did it because al Qaeda was strong. Al Qaeda in Iraq then proceeded to conduct massive infantry assaults on police and Army units, struck at mosques which favored the anti-al Qaeda coalition called the Anbar Salvation Council, and targeted leaders of the Awakening movement.
In the Ameriyah neighborhood in Baghdad, Sunni insurgents fought al Qaeda in open street battles, and went to U.S. and Iraqi forces for help. In Diyala, the 1920s Revolution Brigade teamed up with U.S. forces to battle al Qaeda in Iraq. This has occurred in Babil, Salahadin, Niwena, and other provinces. Al Qaeda in Iraq established "emirates" in Mosul, Tal Afar, Qaim, Hadithah, Ramadi, Fallujah and Baqubah and had to be forcefully ejected by U.S. forces. The press reporting on al Qaeda's methods in these Islamic emirates is legion. The Iraqi insurgents and tribes have been and still are too weak to dislodge al Qaeda in Iraq on their own.
Claim: Mr. Nance said al Qaeda is using suicide attacks almost exclusively on Shia. "The AQI SVBIED is used almost exclusively as the basis of Zarqawi's' anti-Shiite sectarian war strategy (to punish the Shiite community and encourage the Sunnis to fight together) and kills relatively few coalition soldiers compared to other weapons."
Fact: The Shia are a major target of al Qaeda suicide attacks, as this tactic is crucial in stirring up sectarian violence, however, al Qaeda uses suicide attacks on other targets as well. Al Qaeda has targeted U.S. forces, Iraqi security Forces, the Iraqi Government, Iraqi civilians, other insurgent groups, the United Nations, the International Red Cross, the Jordanian embassies and the media in suicide attacks. The claim that al Qaeda "almost exclusively targets Shia civilians to incite sectarian violence" is a distortion of the facts on the ground.
He then claims "most Sunnis know who the real insurgents are in their neighborhood." Earlier in the article he stated "the Iraqis believed" Zarqawi and al Qaeda led the insurgency. The Iraqis repeatedly identify al Qaeda as having infiltrated their neighborhoods, yet Nance chooses to ignore them and contradicts himself in the process.
Claim: The "aggressive information operation" to label all insurgents as al Qaeda is causing U.S. troops to lump all insurgent groups together. "This rhetoric has already had a negative operational effect by making our own soldiers believe that all of the Sunni insurgents and community supporters are Al Qaeda. This may have led to several instances of battlefield murder, torture and abuses of prisoners."
Fact: There is no evidence to support this wild charge. U.S. troops on the ground have an understanding of the difference between al Qaeda, local insurgents, criminals and the plight of the villages and cities in the grip of al Qaeda. His assertion contradicts the cooperation of U.S. forces with groups like the Anbar Salvation Council or the 1920s Revolution Brigades in Diyala. U.S. officers and enlisted soldiers are repeatedly quoted as saying they understand that the solution to ending the insurgency is to ally themselves with insurgents who tried to kill them just months ago. Nance is underestimating the intelligence and tactical awareness of our troops on the ground. During my three embeds in Iraq, I have never heard a soldier or Marine conflate al Qaeda with other Sunni insurgent groups. In fact, during briefings, commanders have been clear to differentiate between the Sunni insurgent groups in their area of operations.
Nance passes on a dubious theory that the attempts to label the entire insurgency as al Qaeda is part of a military information operation. "If this is part of an aggressive information operation, as some have suggested, to turn the Iraqi people against the Iraqi Insurgents by giving them all a bad name (AQI), then it's a desperate gambit ...," Mr. Nance stated. Those who promote this theory are charging General Petraeus and his staff of intentionally lying to the American public about the nature of the insurgency. This is a serious charge, and the facts do not support it.
Finally, Nance's entire argument is predicated on the belief that the military is focusing on al Qaeda at the exclusion of other insurgent groups. Anyone that closely pays attention to the news from Iraq would know this is not the case. MNF-I briefings and operations have focused on Shia insurgent groups such as the Mahdi Army and the Iranian-backed "Special Groups" or "Secret Cells." MNF-I and Iraqi forces have devoted significant resources to these groups, which have been identified as long term threats to Iraq's security.
This was clear yesterday morning's conference call with Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, the spokesman for Multinational Forces Iraq.
Charlie Quidnunc, from the Wizbang blog, asked Bergner how he would respond to claims in the press that there was some sort of "Pentagon conspiracy to link all this violence to al Qaeda."
BERGNER: ...When you live this and you see it up close, it's absolutely evident, it's very real...at no time in my press conference and at no time in our discussion have we said that all this violence is attributed to al Qaeda, we have said that al Qaeda is the principle threat to Iraq in the near-term. And, specifically, they are fueling sectarian violence and these spectacular attacks, which are so destabilizing. That doesn't suggest that there isn't a range of other actors out there. We talked last week in great detail about the Lebanese Hezbollah as being used as surrogates by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force operatives here, specifically to train, equip, organize, and then guide sometimes the employment of these special groups....I would go back to that to say that we've actually been very forthright in explaining the role that those groups are having and they are an increasing problem--one that's having an increasingly destabilizing effect on both the government of Iraq and creating more problems for us to deal with. So no one would suggest that it's a monolithic threat, but there is no question that al Qaeda is the principle fueler of violence and sectarian attacks, and you can tell by their own propaganda that it is central to them.
The World Wide Standard: Do you view al Qaeda as "the center of the insurgency," and if so, "do you view al Qaeda in Iraq as essentially the same as al Qaeda otherwise...what's the level of command and control with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan?"
BERGNER: I don't think there's any question that the al Qaeda senior leadership is exercising influence over the al Qaeda in Iraq efforts, in fact, al Qaeda in Iraq has continued to be run, administered, overseen by foreigners in large measure. So there is a strong linkage between al Qaeda senior leadership and what they are trying to generate in terms of jihadist activity much like I described the Zawihiri video earlier...there's no question that these organizations in Iraq use a cellular structure--they use it to insulate themselves, they use it to make themselves less vulnerable, and they frequently will decide their targeting, their local actions, on a local cellular basis. Sometimes that will also be responsive to the guidance or direction of the regional leader, of a regional emir, or a citywide emir, who is directing certain priorities or certain kinds of attacks to take place. We shouldn't confuse the fact that the cellular nature of these networks doesn't necessarily make them independent, it means that they are using that to reduce their vulnerability and it doesn't dispute their freedom of action, but it also doesn't say that they are independent of al Qaeda, that they are influenced by al Qaeda. In fact, what we see from the Zawahiri video is frustration on the part of the al Qaeda senior leadership. He talks about his frustration about disunity, about conspiracy, about discord, they are trying to undermine, trying to generate more unity, and trying to counter the effect that we're seeing with these Awakening councils and support councils. I think that's the best way I can describe it. No one is suggesting this is a monolithic threat--it's not. But there is no question, if you look at U.S. intelligence agencies, if you look at how the government of Iraq looks at the security problems, and then you see how al Qaeda itself describes itself and its vision for Iraq, there's quite a bit of congruence there in terms of the reality al Qaeda has in Iraq.
The claims that al Qaeda in Iraq is a bit player in the Iraqi insurgency do not match the facts on the ground. Everyone from military commanders to intelligence specialists to the troops on the ground understand the nature of the insurgency and al Qaeda's role in it. Attempts to sideline al Qaeda's role in the insurgency are both misguide, and dangerous.