Is Iraq a training ground for terrorists, or the “flypaper” that lures terrorists to Iraq where they are in the reach of the U.S. military? Jim Judd, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service calls Iraq a “post-graduate faculty for terrorism” where foreign terrorists are receiving vital training. Mr. Judd’s statement acknowledges that Iraq is indeed flypaper as he admits foreign terrorists are entering the country; his concern is the “bleedback” – the return of foreign terrorists to their homeland, where they can use their new-found skills.
There can be no doubt that al Qaeda is gaining tactical experience in urban fighting, bomb making and other skills, as well as knowledge of U.S. operations and intelligence gathering. War is the crucible where warriors hone their skills and learn the strengths and weaknesses of their enemy. Close contact with the enemy always yields an increase in knowledge and experience.
But al Qaeda is not the only group gaining valuable knowledge and experience in Iraq. The U.S. military and intelligence agencies are also learning about how al Qaeda organizes and conducts its operations. The U.S. has an intelligence edge over al Qaeda, as it routinely captures terrorists and gains ample information on the structure and organization of al Qaeda inside and outside of Iraq. This intelligence often results in the capture or death of terrorists, such as the recent demise of Sa’ad Ali Firas and twelve of his compatriots.
In an October 20th press briefing, Major General Rick Lynch reports that 376 foreign fighters had been captured this year, and over 400 killed. This does not even begin to account for enemy wounded. The foreigners come from countries that are outside the reach of U.S. forces. With an estimated 150 terrorists entering the country monthly, well over half of the year’s total have been killed, captured or wounded, an exceedingly high attrition rate. General Lynch also points out that al Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership is often of foreign origin. al Qaeda is not in the habit of putting green recruits into leadership positions.
GEN. LYNCH: Zarqawi, as he mourns the loss of his leaders and replaces those leaders, he normally replaces them with another foreigner, because the foreign fighter element tends to be the most ruthless. They’re the ones that are willing to participate in horrendous acts of violence against innocent civilians. So even though the number of foreign fighters may indeed be small, their impact is very, very large.
I’ve talked about this before. Over the course of our operations, we have detained over 300 foreign fighters and killed probably an additional 400 more. So the number of their element inside the insurgency statistically might be small, but their impact is very, very large. They’re the ones that are willing to blow up the people of Iraq to further their cause. And remember, their cause has nothing to do with what’s right for the people of Iraq. They’re trying to derail the democratic process and discredit the Iraqi government. So they’ll continue to do that.
So I think, candidly, it’s not important what percentage of the terrorists are foreign fighters, because the people who are involved are indeed the people that want to do horrendous things to the people of Iraq.
Yet we cannot look at the number of terrorist killed or captured inside Iraqi alone. In some cases, terrorists that desire to operate in Iraq are captured during the planning and organizational stages. The call to fight Americans is irresistible to the jihadis, and Iraq is a focal point. Take the case of the al Qaeda member known as “Ibrahim Mohammed K.” , who was operating in Germany. His profile, according to the German intelligence is one of a significant actor in al Qaeda’s organization:
A veteran of al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan [who] spent a year there fighting the U.S. military after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. During his time in Afghanistan, the Iraqi was in regular contact with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as well as Ramzi Binalshibh, alleged to be a key planner of the Sept. 11 hijackings who had been living in Germany and was later captured in Pakistan.
The terrorists are pressed into duty by the call to jihad in Iraq, which Zawahiri referred to as “the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era.” In the month prior to Ibrahim Mohammed K.’s arrest about twenty five “militants” were arrested by German police. This pattern is repeated throughout Europe.
There is also a question of how valuable is the knowledge al Qaeda is gaining in Iraq. They may be perfecting roadside bombs and other tactics, but these tactics have not led to the withdraw or defeat of U.S. forces, and nor are other governments likely to submit to al Qaeda when attacked on their home soil. al Qaeda has always shown a propensity for dispensing death (remember that 9/11 and a host of terrorist attacks occrured without the training ground of Iraq) but tactics rarely help to acheive a strategic victory. And we have seen numerous cases where al Qaeda has failed to adapt its tactics despite the knowledge of their ineffectiveness, the latests attack on Camp Gannon being a prime example.
There is no singular answer to the question of whether Iraq is a training ground or a killing field for al Qaeda, as the answer is that Iraq is both. War, particularly war against a shadowy terrorist organization, is not a zero sum game. Every action, every operation, comes at a cost. The key to victory is to minimize your losses and maximize those of your enemy.
Al Qaeda is pushing fighters into the country, and some of those who leave will impart their knowledge to others and potentially conduct attacks against their home countries. But al Qaeda has been doing this in other countries; in Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Afghanistan and a host of countries throughout the world. Absent Iraq, the jihadis would enter these countries for their training.
Proponents of the Iraq War believe the establishment of democracy in the heart of the Middle East the accompanying ideological defeat for al Qaeda; the drawing in of senior al Qaeda operatives into the country, the high casualty rates among foreign terrorists, the valuable combat experience and intelligence gained by U.S. forces, the establishment of an Iraqi intelligence agency and security forces hostile to al Qaeda’s operations, the exposure of al Qaeda networks outside Iraq, the pressure placed on Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and other benefits far outweigh the negative of potential bleedback by the terrorists fleeing Iraq.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.