Archive for the ‘Militancy’ Category

Yesterday, I was drawn into a prolonged and painful argument over the question — to my mind solved five years ago, but apparently not to others — of Saddam Hussein’s alleged ties with al-Qaeda.

Thankfully the discussion ended shortly before midnight, but just in case discontent is still simmering out there, here’s something I’ve been meaning to link to for a while. It’s a brilliant essay by Thomas Hegghammer on the history of Saudi jihadism, which the U.S. should’ve studied closely before and after 9/11, but of course never did.

Incidentally, the invaluable West Point CTC study I linked to yesterday shows conclusively that Saudi militants have provided by far the largest contribution to the Iraqi insurgency, in terms of both money and bodies blown up. Talk about a nexus.

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West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center has published its fifth “Harmony Report” on the inner workings of al-Qaeda, this time its Iraqi variant, AQI. Based on the Sinjar Records and written in clear and concise language, it’s an extremely important paper everyone interested in Islamic terrorism should read. Some key findings:

There is a strong risk of blowback from Iraq. Relatively small numbers of Jihadis will ‘bleedout’ to fight elsewhere, but they will likely be very dangerous individuals.
The Iraq war has increased Jihadi radicalization in the Muslim world and the number of al‐Qa`ida recruits. Foreign fighters in Iraq have also acquired a number of useful skills that can be used in future terrorist  operations, including massive use of suicide tactics, organizational skills, propaganda, covert communication, and innovative improvised explosive device (IED) tactics.

AQI has produced fewer, but far more skilled, fighters than the  ‘Arab‐Afghans’ did in the 1980s.
The foreign fighters in Iraq share important similarities—such as country of origin and ideology—with the so‐called  ‘Afghan  Arabs’ that traveled to Afghanistan to fight Soviet and Afghan‐communist forces in the 1980s. But there are important differences as well. Foreign fighters in Iraq have seen more combat than their predecessors in Afghanistan. In addition,  they have shown greater ability to innovate critical tactical skills, such as IED development and suicide bombings.

The report also notes that although AQI is “a wounded organization”, American withdrawal from Iraq “may not end the flow of foreign fighters” as long as parts of the country remain ungoverned and opportunities for humiliating the U.S. abound.

This was the point I was trying to make rather crudely last week in my post about Iraq being a country-sized training ground for foreign jihadis. On the other hand, the report quite spectacularly disproves my theory that Iraq is a “sideshow” for AQ Central.

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For some weeks there have been reports that foreign jihadis are departing Iraq in increasing numbers to join their fellow believers in Afghanistan. According to The Washington Post, Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri himself has recently relocated. With security improving in Iraq, Americans with neocon leanings have predictably announced that “victory” is at hand.

This is the same as if Roosevelt would’ve declared the Pacific War won when the last Japanese was killed on Guadalcanal.

Just as President George W. Bush himself has always spoken of his “global war on terror” as a multi-front struggle, Iraq for al-Qaeda has been but one battlefield among many. For bin Laden, it has never been the central front, but rather a useful sideshow, an unexpected opportunity to bleed the stumbling superpower even more. And it has been a spectacular success: thousands of Americans have died, Iraqi deaths probably number at least 100,000, billions of dollars have been wasted, resources have had to be diverted from Afghanistan, and America’s image as a beacon of democracy has suffered irreparable damage.

Only fools believe al-Qaeda’s local affiliates really sought to establish a Salafi state in Iraq. The jihadis knew that once the U.S. realised what it was up against and harnessed its military might to fight a counterinsurgency, it would all be over. Iraq was nothing more than a country-sized training ground for terrorist tactics, and the surge provided the trainees with their last live targets before the real deal — Afghanistan.

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In case you haven’t noticed it, please click here, here and here for an ongoing series of excellent posts by Will McCants at Jihadica on how a group of Kuwaitis transitioned “from forum fighters to foreign fighters”.

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Over 40 percent of Americans think torture is fine if used on terrorists to save innocent lives, Reuters reported yesterday, quoting a new poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org.

Here’s the thing, though: it doesn’t work.

As Chris Zambelis writes in the Jonestown Terrorism Monitor:

Explicit references to accounts of torture in the region by al-Qaeda and other militants helps sustain the narrative that Muslims and Islam as a whole are under siege by a hostile U.S.-led campaign. These messages also resonate with wide segments of society in U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes in the region.


There is ample evidence that a number of prominent militants—including al-Qaeda deputy commander Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri and the late al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—endured systematic torture at the hands of the Egyptian and Jordanian authorities, respectively (see Terrorism Monitor, May 4, 2006). Many observers believe that their turn toward extreme radicalism represented as much an attempt to exact revenge against their tormentors and, by extension, the United States, as it was about fulfilling an ideology. Those who knew Zawahiri and can relate to his experience believe that his behavior today is greatly influenced by his pursuit of personal redemption to compensate for divulging information about his associates after breaking down amid brutal torture sessions during his imprisonment in the early 1980s. For radical Islamists and their sympathizers, U.S. economic, military, and diplomatic support for regimes that engage in this kind of activity against their own citizens vindicates al-Qaeda’s claims of the existence of a U.S.-led plot to attack Muslims and undermine Islam. In al-Qaeda’s view, these circumstances require that Muslims organize and take up arms in self-defense against the United States and its allies in the region.

Before you get too worked up, let me just say that stupidity isn’t exclusive to Americans. I have no doubt that with the right questions, you’d get a similar result in Finland.

(Don’t forget these two reports.)

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Clinton Watts looks at the Sinjar records and concludes:

Western fixation with AQ’s propaganda has resulted in over-focus on countering media outlets that likely have limited and at best a secondary recruiting impact in high foreign fighter producing cities and countries. While AQ mass media propaganda is an important factor in the war of ideas, it should be addressed more in Western counterterrorism efforts in Western countries where socially isolated second and third generation Muslims and Western converts have limited direct access to militant ideologies, limited access to veteran foreign fighters, increased access to the Internet, and a propensity to access militant websites. The two non-Western exceptions to this might be Saudi Arabia and Morocco, which appear to have sufficient access and desire to utilize militant websites. However, the plethora of former foreign fighters in Saudi Arabia and Morocco is far more likely the radicalization culprit with the Internet acting as a distant second factor.

The West should fear instead what it cannot see on the Internet: the day-to-day interactions and subsequent radicalization occurring when veteran foreign fighters encounter young recruits in living rooms, ideological centers, schools, workplaces and neighborhoods in flashpoint cities.

The whole shebang, including discussion on data, plus country and city analysis, can be found here.

For comparison, see Andrew Exum’s take on what happens when Omar comes marching home.

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Andrew Exum aka Abu Muqawama raises an important question in Democracy: What happens when “Omar comes marching home” — when foreign jihadis traumatised by combat in Iraq return to their home countries? The short answer is that as these countries have far fewer means of assimilating the fighters or providing them with proper psychiatric care than the West has for its veterans, and because their ideology keeps them willing to fight, they’re likely to react violently to their new surroundings. And so the jihad continues.

[…] The trauma of war is likely to be harsher for jihadists than most soldiers, with the result that they are likely to continue their combat lives regardless of their ideological disposition. The experience of a jihadist in Iraq might not be as jarring as that of a doughboy in the trenches of World War I, who was subject to endless artillery barrages and gas attacks. But at least those soldiers deployed with large units comprising their friends and neighbors. A jihadist leaves for Iraq in a pair or as part of a small group. Unit cohesion, perhaps the defining stabilizing factor in a conventional soldier’s combat experience from training to battle to home, is missing for him. Thus, even if he undergoes the same objective traumas as a U.S. Marine, he is more vulnerable to the stresses of combat and liable to react violently to his home environment.

We’ve seen this happen before. Consider the return of the “Afghans” in the 1980s, men–including Osama bin Laden–who took the ideology, experience, and trauma of war against the Soviets into the Balkans, the Maghreb, and the Middle East, resulting in over a decade of war and terrorism. And we have already seen examples emerging from the latest round of jihad-driven conflict: The fighters of Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, many of whom had combat experience in Iraq, treated both the local authorities in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared and the Lebanese state with disdain during the battles there last year.

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