al Qaeda’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq

The pros & cons of al Qaeda funneling both novice and experienced jihadis into Iraq

In the wake of the destruction of the dome of the Golden Mosque and the ensuing unrest, al Qaeda in Iraq is hard at work with a suicide bombing campaign designed to increase the sectarian divide within Iraq. Over 40 Iraqis are killed in a spate of suicide bombings, including an attack by a terrorist with a suicide vest at a Baghdad gas station which killed 23 and wounded over 50.

While the presence of foreign al Qaeda in Iraq is often underplayed in the press, numerous veteran al Qaeda operatives have been killed or captured inside the country. Most recently, Asharq Alawsat reports Abdallah Salah al-Harbi, one of the suspects in last week’s attacks on the massive Saudi oil facility in Abqaiq, was arrested attempting to cross at the Saudi border. Abu al-Farouq al-Suri (the Syria), likely an al Qaeda cell leader was arrest in Ramadi. An perhaps the biggest catch is Saad Hussaini, who was arrested in Syria while trying to recruit and facilitate jihadis to fight in Iraq. The Counterterrorism Blog’s Olivier Guitta describes Hussaini as follows:

Hussaini is one of the leaders of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group GICM and is most likely the brain behind the Casablanca attacks in 2003 which killed 45 and the Madrid bombings in 2004 which killed 192. Hussaini is considered by many as one of the GICM founders and its European leader. According to Spanish press, Morocco and Spain have been looking for him for more than three years… American operatives tracked Hussaini down from Pakistan to Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia and finally Syria where he was arrested.

Counterterrorism expert Evan Kohlmann has recently release four al Qaeda ‘biographies’ of ‘Distinguished Martyrs’ in Iraq. While it should be remembered the biographies are used as al Qaeda recruiting tools, there is factual information contained within these bios. Abu Abdullah al-Turki was a veteran terrorist who trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and fought in Chechnya, Georgia and Turkey [where he was implicated in the terrorist attacks on the Jewish synagogues] prior to entering Iraq. Abu Khaled al-Suri was Syrian of Palestinian descent who was “among the select few who grew up following the Salafist beliefs.” Al-Hazbar al-Nahdi was a Saudi who was always sympathetic to the cause of jihad. Also included was a biography of Omar Hadid (a.k.a. Abu Khattab al-Falluji), who was a radical Iraqi Islamist long before the invasion of Iraq.

In several instances, you can see the naked hatred of al Qaeda for Shiites. For example, this can be discerned in the target selection: “All those working in the headquarters were [Shiite] scum, praise Allah for his blessing” and “The target was the Sadr city police station located in the Jamila district. There were more than a hundred and fifty vermin that would line up in rows at the outdoor courtyard of the police station at eight o’clock each morning.” The terrorists refused to alter their attack plans, even though it was known civilians were likely to be present. It is in this context that al Qaeda becomes the likely suspect in the Golden Mosque bombing.

These profiles match those of past profiles of Saudis who have entered Iraq to wage jihad against the Americans and subvert democracy in Iraq. There is a mix of sympathetic jihadis who were bound to enter the fight, be it in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, Bosnia or elsewhere, along with seasoned al Qaeda operatives with global experience. Iraq is both a training ground and trap for al Qaeda.

The influx of jihadis into Iraq is both a blessing and a curse. The positives: the influx of terrorists into Iraq has given the United States access to kill or capture experienced terrorists and jihadi sympathizers, where they were previously lying dormant in their home countries, beyond the reach of the U.S. military. This has given the U.S. intelligence on al Qaeda’s networks and exposed the terrorist group’s support mechanisms and lines of communications. U.S. and Iraqi military and intelligence services are gaining valuable experience in identifying and fighting terrorists.

The negatives: there is the very real concern about ‘bleedback’, where jihadis gain experience on the battlefields of Iraq and return to their home countries to train others and conduct terror attacks. Coalition soldiers and the Iraqi people are paying with their lives, and the future of Iraq remains in doubt as the terror campaign continues.

But the terror campaign has served to alienate al Qaeda in the heart of the Middle East. As al Qaeda continues to indiscriminately target Shiites and Sunnis alike, along with their religious symbols, al Qaeda becomes quite unattractive to even the most sympathetic element of the Iraqi public – the Sunnis. If the Coalition can complete the training of the Iraqi Security Forces, and the Iraqi government gains a footing and is able to continue holding successful democratic elections, al Qaeda will have been dealt a serious blow on the ideological front. A large, democratic Muslim nation hostile to al Qaeda’s methods and ideology is a nightmare scenario for al Qaeda, and puts a majore crimp in their plans for establishing an Islamist Caliphate.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • klee12 says:

    Congratulations on a fine blog.
    I wonder if you can write about the Shite militas. I suspect that the Sunnis are going to be less of a problem going forward than some of the Shite leaders who control the militias. How strong are the militias, what is their relation to the Iraqi army, what is their relation to the Kurds?

  • For AlQueda to lose in Iraq would be horrible for them.
    “No one likes to play on a losing team”.
    I’m predicting a “March Madness” as they go for broke on the Iraqi project.

  • Ardsgaine says:

    When you say that Hussaini was tracked down in Syria by US operatives and arrested, do you mean that he was taken out of the country covertly by our agents, or was he arrested by the Syrian government?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Ardsgaine, It appears the Syrians arrested him and turned him over to Morocco. The US played a role intracking him, and my guess is great pressure was placed on Syria to turn him over.

  • hamidreza says:

    Soldier’s Dad, unfortunately as the weather improves, it will bring out more of these vermins.
    In no democratic country are the clergy allowed to influence and direct politics. In secular Middle East nations, the mosques are tightly controlled by the intelligence services.
    I wonder why Iraq should be an exception. I say, lets pick them up now, and pick up their militia, starting from Sadr, make him an example, before it is too late. If the 30 Sadr parliamentarians are arrested for belonging to Sadr’s outlawed religious-political party, then the logjam in the Iraqi parliament will be broken.
    US should take its gloves off, and arrest anyone who does not play by the rules. This is what many liberals are saying too – that open democracy will not work for these vermins, and they will have to endure the rule of the boot, until they start behaving.
    One reason causing the insurgency is that the Sunnis believe US is siding with the Shiites.

  • ECH says:

    The political process in Iraq is dead and I see no possibility of reviving it. The success of the UIA in the most recient elections killed Iraqi democracy. Harkim and Sadr want near total power in Iraq and will settle for nothing less. I can’t see Harkim or Sadr allowing free or fair elections in Iraq ever again.
    I hate to say it, because I so much wanted Iraqi democracy to work, but it is time the US engineered a coup against the religious leaders in Iraq and installed a secular strongman. We are watching the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of pro-Iranian religious leaders that are dividing Iraq and setting the course for a broken Iraq or a largescale Sunni/Shia civil war. And, either way al-Qaeda and Iran will be the only ones who benifit.
    I want Iraq to be stabilized and I see Harkim and Sadr as unmovable obstacles to Iraqi stibility.

  • Mike says:

    I never understood the argument that the Iraq War is giving the terrorists great training opportunities. A terrorist operation against civilian targets is not the same as conducting military operations. Different skill set. They would be able to gain just as much, or more experience and training conducting terrorist operations in their camps if they weren’t fighting us.

  • David Davenport says:

    but it is time the US engineered a coup against the religious leaders in Iraq and installed a secular strongman.
    There is an experienced man available for that job.

  • The positives: the influx of terrorists into Iraq has given the United States access to kill or capture experienced terrorists and jihadi sympathizers, where they were previously lying dormant in their home countries, beyond the reach of the U.S. military.
    If they’re pouring in at the same time as we’re trying to shift the burden of the fighting to the Iraqi army, then what?
    I’m all in favor of turning terrorists into pink mist. But at some point we’ve got to find a way to snatch the heart out of their chests. It may be that Walter Laqueur is right, and all we can do is hang on and hope for Salafi Burnout to kick in.

  • David Davenport says:

    [comments have been deleted for violating comments policy and David is no longer welcome to comment here.]

  • ECH says:

    The US needs to stop funding the Iraqi police and focus completely on the Iraqi Army.
    The police have been totally compromised and basically turned into an Iranian militia.
    As Iraq the Model posted earlier today, is he supposed to feel safe with these fools running the police force?

  • Don Cox says:

    “In no democratic country are the clergy allowed to influence and direct politics.”
    That isn’t strictly true. In Britain, the Bishops had seats in the Upper Chamber by right for decades after the country could be regarded as “democratic”. (Which I would date from the introduction of votes for women.)
    There are probably other examples.

  • hamidreza says:

    Don Cox, I am talking about today, the 21st century, the clergy does NOT direct politics in a democracy. Church and State are disjoint. In fact the clergy and religious institutions are prohibited to run for elected office in most places. There is a good reason for that. (What you say is presentism.)


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