What Lessons on Countering Terrorists Can Be Drawn from the Military Operations in Iraq?
On the night of November 10, three suicide bombers detonated themselves at three hotels across Amman, Jordan. The coordinated attacks killed 60, including the three suicide bombers. One blast ripped through a wedding reception at the posh Radisson, killing notables among the Palestinian and Jordanian elite. Within a day, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq posted an internet message claiming responsibility for the bombing. The message reported that the suicide bombers were all Iraqis. Three days later Jordan announced it had caught the fourth bomber, an Iraqi woman who tried to detonate herself with her husband inside the Radisson. The bomb malfunctioned, sparing her life and the others surrounding her. During interrogation, she said her part in the campaign was to avenge the deaths of her three brothers who were slain fighting U.S. troops in Fallujah between April and November 2004.
Like Afghanistan before it, the Amman bombings suggest Iraq may become the next exporter of terrorism internationally. The jihadists have learned well the lessons of their war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and have exploited the Iraq war as a recruitment tool and training ground for new members and new terrorist ventures. If the United States and its “coalition of the willing” are to win in Iraq they must also learn the lesson of Afghanistan and deny Al-Qaeda and like-minded militants a new safe-haven in which to recruit, plan, and direct terrorist attacks. They must mitigate as much as possible “the ferocious blowback” caused by the war and occupation of Iraq, which “could be longer and more powerful than that from Afghanistan.” This paper will provide a short-term, multi-pronged strategy to do this, but first its important to show how crucial Iraq is to Al-Qaeda and its worldwide revolution of jihad amid renewed calls for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
II. Iraq: The New Afghanistan?
What occurred in Afghanistan beginning in 1979 is instructive to understanding how dangerous it would be to leave Iraq to today’s insurgents and jihadists. There are three similar, interdependent trends reappearing in Iraq today that occurred two decades ago in Afghanistan. First, there is a renewed call for and answer from Muslims to defend Islam within a particular country from outside “infidel” aggression. Second, the Iraq War, much like Afghanistan before it, is facilitating the creation of new terrorist networks, alliances, and financing opportunities that will provide the operational training, ideological radicalization, and funds to continue the fight in Iraq. Third, the war provides this new generation of terrorists with the capability to export terrorism to their own countries or internationally. Thus, if the U.S. were to withdrawal from Iraq, it would legitimize Al-Qaeda’s view of the U.S. as a paper tiger in decline and its corollary assumption: that radical Islam is in the ascendance and Iraq is its new strategic beachhead to begin the resurrection of its Islamic Caliphate. As a Century Foundation blueprint on Defeating the Jihadists wrote, “It is a bitter irony that Iraq has turned into the very thing we went to war to prevent: a terrorist sanctuary with an al Qaeda and jihadist presence that far exceeds what was there during Saddam Hussein’s reign.”
Another Call to Arms
The clarion call to jihad was heard by thousands of Arab men as they were summoned to defend their faith along side indigenous Afghan fighters as Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan. Among these foreign mujahideen, or holy warriors, that came to Afghanistan to fight between 1979 and 1988 were the three most important members of Al-Qaeda proper today: Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the arch-terrorist operating in Iraq presently, Zarqawi. The mujahideen’s victory over the Soviets had a profound effect on the insurgents and more broadly, Muslim youth. According to Zawahiri:
The most important thing about the battle in Afghanistan was that it destroyed the illusion of the superpower in the minds of the young Muslim mujahedeen. The Soviet Union, the power with the largest land forces in the world, was destroyed and scattered, running away from Afghanistan before the eyes of the Muslim youth. This jihad was a training course for Muslim youth for the future battle anticipated with the superpower which is the sole leader in the world now, America.The U.S. war in and occupation of Iraq today has created the same opportunistic conditions for jihad that the Soviets created during their invasion of Afghanistan. The Islamic world saw the invasion and occupation as another instance of Western aggression comparable to the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Echoing Afghanistan two decades ago, ex Afghan Arabs Bin Laden, Zawahiri and Zarqawi have called on Muslims to take up arms against the U.S. in defense of Islamic Iraq. An estimated 500 to 1500 foreign fighters have answered and smuggled themselves into Iraq to fight against U.S. forces and their proxies. Despite their small numbers, the foreign fighters --particularly Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq -- are responsible for the most brazen and bloody attacks.
The fear is that such spectacular and successful attacks that humble the U.S. forces are attracting young Iraqis to Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda rather than the primarily Baathist insurgency. The more foreign fighters can convert the Iraqi youth to jihad, the more the jihadists’ ranks will grow, which will make it much harder to separate the deterrables from the undeterrables using the political process. While the foreign fighters making up the jihadist ranks are undeterable due to ideology, the hope is Baathist insurgents – secular and once privileged and in power -- can be brought into the political sphere by demonstrating their minority rights will be protected within a democratic Iraq.
Also, mirroring Afghanistan, the longer the war drags on, the more foreign fighters will flood into Iraq. The most disturbing example of this is the young white Belgium woman recruited by the Zarqawi network who suicide attacked a U.S. military patrol a month ago. Her death shows the spread of radical Islam to the most unexpected of places and the most unexpected of persons.
New Opportunities for Alliance and Financing
The war in Afghanistan provided unlikely sources of financing to Islamic extremists due to the bipolar architecture of the Cold War. In an effort to give the Soviets “its Vietnam War,” the U.S. funneled $3 billion through Pakistan’s intelligence service Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). While little, if any, money went to the Afghan Arabs of which Bin Laden was a part, the ISI did give most of the money to Islamist guerilla factions that tended to be pro-Pakistani.
Considerable funding also came from Saudi Arabia as the monarchy tried to deflect their own Islamists’ attention away from their “apostasy” and promote the call of jihad in Afghanistan. More funding poured in from Islamic charities, many of which were created to support the Afghan resistance, and private individuals like Bin Laden. The guesthouses and training camps set up by such funds promoted communication between various jihadists and their related organizations. Bin Laden made the most of this, recruiting militants and building up contacts amongst the local mujahideen. By the time the Soviet invasion ended, according to journalist Jason Burke, he saw the future possibilities that Afghanistan made possible.
"He wanted to prevent the fragile international alliance created during the war against the Soviets falling apart. By uniting the various militant movements, split on national lines at the time, bin Laden (sic) hoped to concentrate their power.”He did just that as the subsequent vacuum of power within Afghanistan followed by the Taliban’s rise to power made this strategy possible and successful until the U.S. military action toppled the regime after 9/11, destroying Al-Qaeda’s sanctuary.
The Iraq War, like the Soviet invasion before it, is the new conduit for the financing of jihad as well as for new alliances. U.S. Treasury officials assert that the same network of donors and Islamic charities -- operating throughout the Middle East and Europe -- that once funded the Islamists in Afghanistan are the main culprits funding the Sunni jihadists led by Zarqawi. Other funding includes cash couriers exploiting Iraq’s unsecured borders, especially the Syrian border. One instance of this was a Zarqawi operative, the Syrian Sulayman Khalid Darwish, sending donations between $10K and $12K into Iraq using suicide bomber volunteers.
The most prominent alliance has been the merger of Zarqawi’s Unity and Jihad Group into Al-Qaeda. In an audiotape played 27 December 2004, Bin Laden named Zarqawi as the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. European intelligence believes Zarqawi is attempting to build an “Islamic United Resistance Front” among the various Sunni terrorist organizations. Some of the notables include the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, the Ansar al-Islam, Muhammad's Army, the Islamic Army in Iraq, the Black Flags Group. This united front will attempt to coordinate attacks with the Sunni Baathist insurgency to increase the power, scope and lethality of their attacks. These attacks aim to keep Iraq in chaos so that Iraq can remain a sanctuary for terrorists to train, communicate, organize and export their attacks internationally.
As the Amman bombings show, Iraq could be on its way to being an exporter of terrorism as Afghanistan became after the Soviet retreat. As the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the battle-hardened foreign volunteers returned home to begin their own domestic jihads. In Algeria, the returning mujahideen formed the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), whose terrorist attacks killed thousands of civilians, particularly after a military coup stopped Islamists from winning the country’s 1992 elections. The GIA then exported its terrorism to its once colonial master, France, with a string of bombings on the Paris Metro and the hijacking of an Air France airbus.
Egypt also felt the wrath of their returning mujahideen as well. The militants murdered over a thousand people between 1990 and 1997. An inspiration to many of these radical Islamists was the Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, otherwise known as the “Blind Sheik.” Rahman would later emigrate to New York City – a bastion for radical Islam – where he would be tried and convicted in 1995 for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. His godfather of terror like influence continued even after his life imprisonment as Jamaat al-Islamiyya murdered 58 tourists in an effort to force Rahman’s release. The attacks nearly destroyed Egypt’s tourism industry vital to its economic security.
But the most successful student of Afghanistan’s “University of Jihad” would be Bin Laden. He was able to take his experience and connections from the Afghan war and coalesce it into a horizontal terrorist network anchored by his own organization, Al-Qaeda, where he played the role of radical Islam’s CEO and venture capitalist. After being expelled from Saudi Arabia following his return from Afghanistan, he emerged as radical Islam’s main financier of terrorist operations, exploiting weak and failed states -- the Sudan and Afghanistan respectively -- to train new recruits in the techniques and strategies learned from the war. His attacks have been particularly directed at the U.S., its embassies and its interests abroad. Militants trained by Bin Laden are behind the Black Hawk Down disaster in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. This was followed by the two embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam in 1998, the 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing in the port of Yemen, and finally the spectacular atrocity of September 11th. The U.S. overthrow of the Taliban ended Bin Laden’s and Al-Qaeda’s safe-haven in Afghanistan and resulted in the capture and killing of major Al-Qaeda operatives. Bin Laden is purportedly hiding, along with al-Zawahiri, somewhere in the mountainous areas between the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Analysts argue that just when the U.S. had Al-Qaeda on the run in Afghanistan and could have directed a decisive blow against it, the U.S. created a new breeding ground in Iraq. The subsequent emergence of the Baathist insurgency and the import of foreign fighters combined with disproportionate U.S. military responses created the anarchy and hatred exploited by Al-Qaeda inspired Islamists to create new sanctuaries, to train new recruits and to give them real-world experience in battling the world’s premier fighting machine. Again, this is Afghanistan redux. Someday the fighters will either force a U.S. withdrawal or they will be scattered throughout, or expelled from, Iraq due to U.S. and Iraqi military offensives. Either way, there will be a new generation of trained, combat tested militants ready to fight another day, bolstered by new networks and new sources of financing ascertained in Iraq. RAND’s Brian Jenkins summed this development up concisely, “Iraq has been a ‘net importer’ of terrorists but may be on its way to becoming a ‘net exporter,’ one that spawns ‘knowledge, veterans and operations.’” Amman is just the beginning.
III. Strategies To Mitigate the Damage Already Done
The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has already created the favorable conditions Al-Qaeda exploited in Afghanistan due to the Soviet’s invasion. Therefore, the lesson and strategy is to rollback the insurgency and the Islamist movement’s gains in Iraq by denying the jihadists their safehavens, securing Iraq’s borders to stop the cross-border flow of money and volunteers, and separating the jihadists from the deterable Baathist insurgents and the Iraqi populace by winning broad political support. The lesson seems to have been learned as the Bush Administration has unveiled it’s “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq,” which integrates these short-term goals into a broader framework for establishing a functional democracy in Iraq and winning the war on terrorism.
For the U.S. to take the fight to the jihadists without alienating the public, the U.S. military will have to work flexibly and fluidly between the two opposing poles of counterterrorism: the criminal justice model (CJM) and the war model (WM). The CJM is concerned with preserving democratic principles even if it reduces the effectiveness of the counterterrorism response. The CJM is primarily organized around the police and the courts of a liberal-democratic state and is constrained by the rule of law. The WM favors using military responses to counter terrorism at the expense of liberal-democratic principles. As the Bush Administration’s new strategy outlines, the U.S.’s short-term response in Iraq will tend more towards the WM, but is constrained by the aim of moving toward the CJM if Iraq is to become more democratic. A strategy closer to the WM is more practical now as Iraq still relies on U.S. military force for security from jihadists and Sunni insurgents.
The Bush strategy is divided into three time periods: short-term, mid-term, and long term. I will concentrate wholly on the short-term strategy as it is devoted to denying Al-Qaeda and affiliated militants a safe-haven to exploit, while separating them from the Baathist insurgency and the general population with political and economic inducements. The short-term strategy is also divided into three interdependent, mutually reinforcing parts: the political, security and economic tracks. I will take them up individually.
The Political Track
The political track seeks to “isolate” the general population from the enemy – both jihadist and Baath insurgent – by facilitating democratic norms (i.e. elections) while seeking to “engage” those who can be swayed away from violence and towards peaceful participation. An important example of this was the Iraqi government’s call for the return of former junior officers of Saddam’s army disbanded by the Coalition Provisional Authority under its de-Baathification program. The hope is to drain the Sunni insurgency of new recruits and thereby decrease the number of insurgents converted into the ranks of the jihadists. Another way to instill democratic, pluralistic norms would be for the U.S. to empower civil society organizations -- such as unions -- like they did during the reconstruction of Japan. Iraq has a long history of unionism, unlike Afghanistan, which should be exploited for its ability to create a singular identity.
The political track looks to cement these gains by helping Iraqis “build” effective and responsive democratic institutions. The U.S. hopes the upcoming December legislative elections will further legitimize the democratic process as well as the Iraqi government, further distancing the population from the enemy. The U.S. and the Iraqi government must demonstrate their respect for the rule of law and human rights (i.e. the fairness of the Saddam Hussein trial and Abu Ghraib) to increase the popularity and legitimacy of liberal-democratic norms. Lastly, the Bush Administration must publicly promise not to build permanent military bases in Iraq to counter claims the U.S. is only seeking its imperial self-interest in Iraq.
The Security Track
The success of the political track strengthens the security track. As Iraqis gain trust in a democratic Iraq and see the U.S. forces as supporting such a development, the more prone they will be to provide intelligence on jihadist and insurgent elements. When the enemy is located, U.S. and Iraqi forces will “clear” these areas by going on the offensive. It is crucial here that military forces refrain from inflicting collateral damage or using indiscriminate means of warfare (i.e. cluster bombs and white phosphorous) thereby increasing support for the insurgents and the jihadists. As the Century Foundation advised, “we should cease the counterproductive assaults on the so-called no go zones. Civilian casualties and infrastructure damage done by such elective urban combat will, in the long run, strengthen anti-Americanism.” A way around this not touched on by the Bush strategy, but advocated by the Century Foundation, would be to strengthen special operation forces (SOF), allowing them to covertly combat the enemy surgically and discriminately on the basis of sound intelligence. This will avoid large assaults like that on Fallujah – a motivating factor for the female Iraqi suicide bomber in Amman, Jordan – that result in collateral damage thereby spawning more hatred for, and fighters against, the U.S. The greater use of SOF could result in soldier casualties and scenes similar to Mogadishu. The U.S. government should accept that risk.
Lastly as Iraqi troops “stand up,” the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces must deploy troops to secure Iraq’s borders – critically the Syrian border – and stop the flow of money and manpower fueling the insurgency and the jihadists. Most of the troops deployed to secure Iraq’s borders should be U.S. forces for two reasons. First, it will put more responsibility on Iraqi forces for maintaining security locally. Second, it will keep American soldiers away from the Iraqi population, thereby decreasing the likelihood of increasing hostile situations.
The Economic Track
A strong, reformed economy is no doubt crucial for a stable Iraq, but the biggest priority along economic lines is to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure and neighborhoods destroyed during the U.S. invasion and occupation. The inability to quickly begin reconstruction has aided the insurgency, keeping Iraq in chaos thereby providing support and space for the jihadists to intermingle with insurgents and the general population alike. Again, critical of the Administration’s post-war plan, the Century Foundation report advised:
We need to get funds flowing immediately into small, quick-impact projects focused in Najaf, Sadr City, Fallujah, and other hot zones. Large –infrastructure projects are important in the long run; however, smaller sums, spread to thousands of community-based projects, are the best hope we have to deflate the insurgency.Although progress has been made, much of Iraq’s electrical grid is still off and Iraq is still importing much of its oil because its refineries are not pumping at capacity. Oil is the future of Iraq. The U.S. must modernize and repair Iraq’s oil infrastructure for economic development to take hold and grow.
A useful anecdote for the importance of reconstruction comes from Ar Rutbah, a Sunni town in the hostile heart of Anbar province where the insurgency is strong. In April 2003, a company of SOF occupied it to force out Fedayeen Saddam fighters. By providing basic security, returning the town to civil rule, making a make-shift hospital symbolically out of the local Baath headquarters and getting basic foodstuffs to market, these SOF created a culture of democracy the locals cared about and which was defiant toward the insurgency. Unfortunately, as the SOF pushed out, subsequent troops failed to continue their example. As distance between the locals and the U.S. military widened, the insurgency moved in to exploit the mutual fear and hostility and Ar Rutbah fell.
The Iraq war has been a strategic blunder in the U.S.’s war on terrorism. Whereas the U.S. invaded to stop a terrorist alliance between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda that was nonexistent, the U.S. invasion created the internal chaos and ideological justifications for Al-Qaeda-inspired jihad. Today, Iraq is the central front in the war on terror as foreign fighters cross into Iraq, creating new alliances, networks, and funding opportunities that have begun to bleed out into the wider world. Fortunately, albeit late, the U.S. has learned the major lesson from Afghanistan: Al-Qaeda and its network cannot have a safe haven from which to train, recruit, organize, and direct new spectacular acts of terrorism. To accomplish this, the U.S. must do the following things:
1. Using the political process and inducements (i.e. reversing de-Baathification), separate the general population and deterable insurgents from the jihadists. Critical to this is the U.S.publicly avowing not to set up permanent military bases in Iraq. The U.S. should also empower civil society organizations that seek to create a singular Iraqi identity.The short-term strategy is now to mitigate the damage by incorporating these interdependent tactics into a multi-pronged counterterrorism strategy, which in the short-term will lean more towards the WM, but which will simultaneously build the conditions for the CJM. The best solution to the terrorism problem will be political – winning hearts and minds – but those policies will only be effective if the U.S. and Iraqi forces can provide an adequate security environment for Iraqi moderates to work in. But all this hinges on whether U.S. domestic politics make withdrawal inevitable. If the U.S. leaves Iraq immediately, thereby giving the Al-Qaeda network its sanctuary, the jihadists will have succeeded in bringing about Zawahiri’s first goal in their imperial project: “Expel the Americans from Iraq.” From this sanctuary, more Ammans and 9/11s will assuredly follow.
2. Increase the use of SOFs, which due to their covert, discriminate and surgical operations will minimize collateral damage thereby preventing the propaganda fueling support for insurgents and jihadists.
3. Plug up Iraq’s borders, especially with Syria. U.S. troops should bear the brunt of this to increase the Iraqi military’s readiness as well as to decrease the presence of U.S. troops in everyday Iraqis lives.
4. Disperse reconstruction funds immediately, focusing on hotspots within Anbar province and Iraq’s oil and electricity sectors. Reconstruction must follow in areas where military action has destroyed homes or infrastructure. Destruction upon economic insecurity only adds to the allure of the insurgency and the jihadists.
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