Symposium | After Iraq: A Symposium

Fight Al Qaeda

By Peter Bergen

Tagged Al QaedaForeign PolicyTerrorism

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 American-owned 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

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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Peter Bergen is a Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know.

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