Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Was the U.S. Fighting Terrorists In Iraq So That It Wouldn’t Have To Fight Them In America?


One of the main justifications for the war in Iraq was that it was part of the Bush administration’s global struggle against terror. President Bush made many statements about how the Americans were fighting the terrorists in Iraq so they would not have to fight them in America. In September 2003 for example, the President gave an interview to Brit Hume of Fox News stating, “I know I would rather fight them [terrorists] there [Iraq] than here, and I know I would rather fight them there than in other remote parts of the world, where it may be more difficult to find them.” The next month Bush said the U.S. was fighting in Iraq so that “Americans would not have to confront terrorists in the streets of our own cities.” He would later say, “Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror. And we are rolling back the terrorists threat at the heart of its power.” The question was whether the president was correct or not. Iraq obviously became a terrorist hotbed, but was it bringing in anti-U.S. militants from around the world? Studies would say that rather than attracting hardened international fighters, instead Iraq radicalized a new generation of Arabs who saw the U.S. invasion as a war on Islam and the region. Rather than drawing in existing terrorists, Iraq mostly created new ones.

The flow of foreign fighters to Iraq seemed to confirm part of the administration’s argument that Iraq was becoming an important center for terrorists. Early on in the Iraq war, the U.S. military identified foreign fighters as being part of the insurgency. In July 2003, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq General Richardo Sanchez and the head of the Central Command General John Abizaid both mentioned foreigners as being part of the insurgency. By September, the U.S. had already captured 300 of these militants, with 100 coming from Syria, and the rest from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, India, Turkey, Malaysia, Somalia, and Palestine. In October, the U.S. military estimated that there were 1,000-3,000 foreign fighters in Iraq. Later on in 2007, when the Americans had a larger pool of data to draw upon, it said that 45% of the foreigners were Saudis, 15% Syrians and Lebanese, and 10% were from North Africa. Later statistics, upheld Saudis as being the largest foreign group operating in Iraq. While these men were only around 10% of the overall insurgency, they played important roles. First, most of them carried out deadly suicide bombings. Second, they tended to work with the most militant Islamist groups, and helped keep their numbers up early on when they came in large quantities every month.

Later analysts noted that these foreigners came in different waves. First, were fighters fleeing Afghanistan after the 2001 invasion. Several hundred arrived in Iraq by 2002 where they joined Ansar al-Islam, an Islamist group based in Kurdistan. Second, were Arab volunteers who also came to Iraq before 2003. Many heeded the call by Saddam Hussein to help to repel the U.S. invaders. The third were men recruited by Islamists groups like Al Qaeda and individuals such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Both of them used the impending U.S. invasion as a recruiting tool, which proved largely successful. They provided a steady flow of fighters to Iraq from 2002 up to 2008. There were recruiters throughout Europe for example, who appealed to Arab immigrants there in Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Britain, and Norway. Al Qaeda tended to use networks established during the wars in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Chechnya to ferry people to Iraq. These also served as a conduit for funds to the insurgency as well. The U.S. detected much of this movement of men and material to Iraq early on in 2002. That seemed to confirm the president’s belief that Iraq had become the central front on the war in terror, and that it was drawing in terrorists from around the world, who could then be eliminated by the American military. Later studies however, would contradict these views.

Despite the early arrival of fighters from Afghanistan to Iraq, most recruits were not hardened fighters. In fact, most had never been involved in any militant activity before. One study by Reuven Paz for the Israeli International Affairs Center that looked at 154 foreigners who died in Iraq found that none of them had fought anywhere else before. They’re main motivation was the belief that the U.S. invasion was an act of war against Islam. Another report by Saudi Nawaf Obaid of the Center for Strategic and International Studies of 300 Saudis captured in Iraq, as well as 36 suicide bombers who killed themselves there reported that the vast majority were young men in their early 20s who wanted to drive the Americans out of an Arab country and defend Islam. One example used was that of Saud Bin Muhammed Bin Saud Al-Fuhaid of Saudi Arabia. He was in his early 20s, and rather than being an extremist was a university student. He was going back to his hometown when he ran into some friends that were all heading to Iraq for Jihad. He decided to join them, and blew himself up in a suicide bombing on March 24, 2005, three days after entering Iraq. Obaid claimed that most of his subjects were radicalized by the images they saw of the fighting in Iraq on TV and the internet or had a relative of tribe member killed there. Saudi clerics were also sanctioning fighting against the Americans, giving it a religious cover. In October 2004 for instance, a Saudi cleric said that it was the duty of all Muslims to fight in Iraq. Obaid also noted that the majority of foreigners going to Iraq were Arabs, not Muslims from other parts of the world. A third report released in 2008 of 48 foreign fighters captured in Iraq found very similar things, noting that the majority were young men in their late teens/early 20s, that they had no previous military training, and wanted to be recognized for doing something notable in their lives. U.S. intelligence officials tended to support these studies, and there was even a CIA National Intelligence Council report from early 2005 that warned that Iraq could prove to be a breeding and training ground for a future generation of international terrorists. What all of these papers had in common was the fact that after that initial wave of militants from Afghanistan came to Iraq, the vast majority of foreign fighters arriving were young Arab men who had never participated in any armed struggle before. Instead, they were motivated to sacrifice themselves because of what they saw, heard, and came to believe about Iraq. As Paz and Obaid both argued, the Iraq war was radicalizing people in the Arab world. These observations were in stark contrast to President Bush’s theory that Iraq provided one of the main ways to eliminate the existing terrorist threat to the United States.

As the insurgency waned in Iraq, so did the flow of foreign fighters. In Mid-2007 the U.S. military believed that around 120 outside militants were coming to Iraq each month. By early 2008 that number had gone down to 40-50 a month. By mid-2008 that amount had declined to just around 20 fighters per month. Later that year, the Americans were claiming that only around 10-20 foreigners were coming. (1) With the civil war ending in Iraq, the insurgency lost a lot of its standing and support within and without the country. The death of Abu Musab Zarqawi was also a setback as he was the main organizer of foreigners within Iraq. The networks reaching form Europe and the Middle East to Iraq are still active, they are just are a shadow of their former selves. That’s not only because of the changes within Iraq, but the emergence of other hot spots such as Afghanistan as well. That has accounted for the dramatic decline in the number of foreigners coming to Iraq. 

The Bush administration liked to call Iraq the major front in the war on terror. According to the President’s hypothesis, Iraq would act as a sponge, attracting terrorists from around the world that could then be eliminated by the United States military. The Iraq war did end up drawing in some hardened terrorists from Afghanistan initially and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but that was only a few hundred. Thousands more ended up coming to Iraq, but most of those were young men who were not radicals before. Rather they were offended by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and wanted to do something about it. They came under the sway of the radical Islamists who said that the Americans were at war with the Arab and Muslim worlds. Most of them would have just continued on with their normal lives in their home countries if it had not been for the U.S. intervention. Instead, they came to Iraq and killed themselves, Iraqis, and Americans. Iraq definitely was a center of terrorism, but it was one largely created by the United States. Thankfully, Zarqawi and his ilk were wiped out, and Iraq has lost much of its zeal for radicals. That means fewer and fewer men are feeling the urge to go to Iraq to sacrifice themselves, and the Arab Spring is a far more important event in the region now drawing away people’s attention.

FOOTNOTES

1. O’Hanlon, Michael and Campbell, Jason, “Iraq Index,” Brookings Institution, 11/20/08

SOURCES

Bender, Bryan, “Study cites seeds of terror in Iraq: War radicalized most, probes find,” Boston Globe, 7/17/05

Benjamin, Daniel and Simon, Steven, The Next Attack; The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right, New York: Times Books, 2005

Bonner, Raymond and Brinkley, Joel, “U.S. intelligence not consistent in analyzing attacks,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10/28/03

Davidson, Amy, “How Iraq Came Undone,” New Yorker, 11/15/04

Debat, Alexis, “Vivisecting the Jihad,” National Interest, 6/23/04

Elliott, Michael, “The War That Never Ends,” Time, 7/7/03

Eisenberg, Daniel, “’We’re Taking Him Out,’” Time, 5/5/02

Fang, Bay, “IRAQ: A magnet for angry, fervent men,” U.S. News & World Reports, 9/29/03

Hess, Pamela, “US: Iraq fighters extort, kidnap to raise funds,” Associated Press, 7/29/08

Johnson, Scott and Liu, Melinda, “The Enemy Spies,” Newsweek, 6/27/05

Natta, Don Van, Jr. and Butler, Desmond, “Young militants making way to Iraq,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11/1/03

Oppel, Richard, “Foreign Fighters in Iraq Are tied to Allies of U.S.,” New York Times, 11/22/07

Parker, Ned, “The Conflict In Iraq: Saudi Role In Insurgency,” Los Angeles Times, 7/15/07

Roberts, Kristin, “Saudis biggest group of al Qaeda Iraq fighters: study,” Reuters, 12/19/07

Schlesinger, Robert, “General in Iraq says U.S. faces a guerrilla war,” San Francisco Chronicle, 7/17/03

Suskind, Ron, The One Percent Doctrine, Deep Inside America’s Pursuit Of Its Enemies Since 9/11, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2006

Walt, Vivienne, “Foreigners in Iraq say Koran requires fighting U.S.,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11/28/03

Zavis, Alexandra, “Foreign fighters in Iraq seek recognition, U.S. says,” Los Angeles Times, 3/17/08

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Most of them would have just continued on with their normal lives in their home countries if it had not been for the U.S. intervention.

Pure supposition. If they were radicalised by the US presence in Iraq, why couldn't they have been radicalised by the US presence in Afghanistan, or US support for Israel, or any of the other "grievances" that prompted the Hamburg cell to carry out the 9-11 attacks, which occurred before the US was in Afghanistan or Iraq?

Your explanation of why the flow of new jihadists fell is somewhat inconsistent, given that
it occurred during the "surge" when US troop numbers were increasing. It seems they were demoralised by their waning effectiveness rather than a lessening of their grievances. This implies that a key part of jihadist recruitment was convincing these men that America could be defeated and Iraq would be the birthplace of a new Caliphate.

Joel Wing said...

Anon said:

"If they were radicalised by the US presence in Iraq, why couldn't they have been radicalised by the US presence in Afghanistan, or US support for Israel, or any of the other "grievances" that prompted the Hamburg cell to carry out the 9-11 attacks, which occurred before the US was in Afghanistan or Iraq?"

The studies of foreign fighters to Iraq showed that: 1) They were almost all Arabs, they were not Muslims from other parts of the world. Therefore they were not heading to Afghanistan because it was not an Arab country, 2) Iraq was invaded two years after the invasion of Afghanistan and it did not incite this flow of foreign fighters that Iraq did, 3) The conflict in Israel has been going on since 1948 and these Arabs were not heading there either in the years before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. All together that does not point to these foreign fighters heading off to these other conflicts. Iraq seemed to hit a chord in the Arab world that inspired these people to go there, that these other conflicts did not.

"Your explanation of why the flow of new jihadists fell is somewhat inconsistent, given that
it occurred during the "surge" when US troop numbers were increasing."

Actually the numbers showed that the highest number of fighters were coming during the civil war period and the Surge from 2006-2007, and then started dropping off in 2008, which was after the Surge was over. The U.S. military had 120 coming a month in mid-2007 then dropping to 40-50 in early 2008, and then 10-20 by mid-08.

Anonymous said...

They were almost all Arabs, they were not Muslims from other parts of the world. Therefore they were not heading to Afghanistan because it was not an Arab country,

Many Arabs did go to Afghanistan, of course, Osama bin Laden being the most famous of them, hence the term "Afghan Arabs".

Actually the numbers showed that the highest number of fighters were coming during the civil war period and the Surge from 2006-2007, and then started dropping off in 2008, which was after the Surge was over. The U.S. military had 120 coming a month in mid-2007 then dropping to 40-50 in early 2008, and then 10-20 by mid-08

By mid-2008 US troop numbers had only fallen to pre-surge levels, so that can't be the explanation of why the flow of jihadists was waning. Larry Schweikart argued that the massive casualties inflicted on al-Qaeda by US forces depleted their strength, not only in Iraq but throughout the world.

Joel Wing said...

Don't "Afghan Arabs" refer to the fighters that went to Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s to fight the Soviets and then in the civil war afterward? Do you have any evidence that 100 Arab men were going to Afghanistan each month in the 2000s to help bin Laden and fight the Americans? Otherwise there's not a counter argument that Iraq radicalized a new generation of young Arab men to go fight.

I just read that Al Qaeda was trying to recruit fighters to counter Obama's troop increase in the last couple years, but I don't have any numbers on whether that was successful or not, whether it matched the flow of foreigners going to Iraq, and also that it wasn't just Arabs, but Islamist militants from around the world, which would make it different from Iraq.

So you're arguing that the number of foreign fighters to Iraq dropped due to attrition? That might have played a role, but I still think there had to be a change in motivation, that something about Iraq changed in people's minds and they didn't want to go there anymore.

Joel Wing said...

Also remember that the information available on foreign fighters to Iraq show that these were not Al Qaeda members going, but rather young men with no military training beforehand that were volunteering. That may mean the destruction of Al Qaeda's international cadre might not be related to the drop in fighters going to Iraq.

Anonymous said...

Don't "Afghan Arabs" refer to the fighters that went to Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s to fight the Soviets and then in the civil war afterward?

Ahmed Shah Massoud was killed by Tunisian suicide bombers two days before 9-11. In the subsequent campaign against the Taliban, the Northern Alliance claimed there were Arabs fighting with the Taliban.

I'm not surprised Iraq was the destination of choice for radicalized Arab men in 2006 - that's where al Qaeda was seeking recruits because it looked like they had a good chance of winning at that stage.

Yet Mohamed Atta also fitted the profile of a young man with no previous military training, and it didn't need a war in Iraq to radicalise him or provide a suitable destination for his martyrdom operation.

Joel Wing said...

Were over 100 men showing up to Afghanistan each month for around 5 years though? I'm not saying that islamist foreign fighters were not going to other destinations around the world or that people weren't joining Al Qaeda before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, but I've not seen anything that's around the amount of people that were heading to Iraq.

Also, Zarqawi had his own independent networks that were bringing people into Iraq and despite him taking up the mantle of Al Qaeda, he was an independent operator that had his own plans, and never listened to what bin Laden and Zawahiri wanted.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi said...

Hi Joel,

"I just read that Al Qaeda was trying to recruit fighters to counter Obama's troop increase in the last couple years, but I don't have any numbers on whether that was successful or not."

It would appear that al-Qa'ida's efforts in that field, if they did exist, were not successful. al-Qa'ida's presence is largely limited to just a few dozen fighters in Nuristan province and a couple other isolated pockets. The group's presence in Afghanistan has largely been negligible since the U.S. invasion. In contrast, General Aslam Baig estimates that al-Qa'ida's 'Brigade 500' in Pakistan can be backed by around 3000 fighters. I know that's a side issue from the post at hand, but I thought you might be interested to know, Joel.

As for this statement on your part:

"Most of them would have just continued on with their normal lives in their home countries if it had not been for the U.S. intervention."

I broadly agree that the Iraq War did help foster more al-Qa'ida terrorism. However, it's very difficult to say what proportion of foreign fighters were radicalised specifically by the U.S. invasion. Many Islamist militants do in fact live outwardly normal lives as al-Qa'ida tracts circulated among supporters encourage the practice of dissimulation even while harbouring beliefs such as the necessity of waging jihad.

@Anonymous:

"This implies that a key part of jihadist recruitment was convincing these men that America could be defeated and Iraq would be the birthplace of a new Caliphate."

In fact, a major part of the recruitment was that the Shi'a could be wiped out or subdued. By 2007 the Sunni insurgents realised this was not possible as the war for the mixed neighbourhoods went largely in favour of the Shi'a militias, so more and more Sunnis in Iraq turned against al-Qa'ida, whose rhetoric about defeating the Shi'a became less convincing to Muslims outside Iraq.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi said...

Also, Joel, you'll note in my last comment I refer to al-Qa'ida rhetoric about wiping out and subduing the Shi'a infidels. I think that 'Sunni solidarity' against the Shi'a definitely played its part (i.e. the sense of grievance that the Shi'a and their militias were oppressing the Sunnis and had usurped them of their 70-year rule), rather than just the point about the United States occupying a Muslim land. The foreign Arab fighters who came into Iraq were never Shi'a, as far as I know.

By the way, completely off-topic, but I would be interested to hear your views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (don't worry, I'm not looking for an extended argument).

Joel Wing said...

Aymenn, the drive to wipe out the Shiite in Iraq was expressly the policy of Zarqawi. Bin Laden and Zawhiri chided him over this several times, but he never listened. He believed starting a civil war would be the way to destroy the American project in Iraq and bring about a Sunni-led Islamist revolution. Of course, with the Shiites being the majority and having the backing of the U.S. made that dream impossible, and by 2006 it was pretty clear to the insurgency that they were losing that fight as they were being kicked out of Baghdad and central Iraq.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi said...

Hi Joel,

Thanks for your reply.

"the drive to wipe out the Shiite in Iraq was expressly the policy of Zarqawi. Bin Laden and Zawhiri chided him over this several times, but he never listened."

Incidentally, I don't think this was a matter of opposing Zarqawi's vision so much as his pace and timing. Specifically, Aymenn al-Zawahiri wrote:

"The collision between any state based on the model of prophecy with the Shia is a matter that will happen sooner or later. This is the judgment of history, and these are the fruits to be expected from the rejectionist Shi'a sect and their opinion of the Sunnis."

All that said, I'm pretty sure the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis by Shi'a militias from mixed neighbourhoods in Baghdad (with the tacit support of the government at the time) provided some recruiting material and appeal for foreign fighters- if not to wipe out the Shi'a, then to at least stop the advances of the Shi'a militias.

With regards to the Sunni insurgency in general, it was, as I understand, partly rooted in the belief among Sunni Arabs that they were in the majority and could defeat the Shi'a in a sectarian civil war, but by the end of 2006 many insurgents realised that this was a fantasy as the Shi'a militias had the upper hand in the battle over Baghdad. Have you written on this subject? George Packer collected some anecdotal examples of the meme of 'Sunnis in majority' among the insurgents in his book 'Assassins Gate', didn't he?

Joel Wing said...

In late-2005 the U.S. released a captured letter from Zawahiri to Zarqawi chiding him on his tactics. It said that Zarqawi's operations were costing Al Qaeda in Iraq popular support, and called on him to stop attacking Shiites. It said that Zarqawi had to consult with Al Qaeda central, which he never did. Zarqawi only pledged support to bin Laden to gain their financial support and greater name recognition. He was always his own man who had his own vision and plans. While Zawahiri and Al Qaeda might have had plans for Shiites in the Muslim world, attacking them in Iraq was purley Zarqawi's plan.

As for the argument about Iraq and the radicalizing of young Arab men, I'll repeat my previous points. Al Qaeda was created at least by 1989. It bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, bombed the U.S. embassies in east Africa in 1998, attacked the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, and then had the 9/11 attacks in 2001. That's 14 years of history before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Each month for those 14 years did they have the same number of recruits that were coming to Iraq each month? If not, I still have not heard a counter argument that it was the Iraq war, not Al Qaeda per se that was radicalizing young Arabs in the 2000s. Saudis were the largest group of foreign fighters and there were all kinds of clerics and others in that country calling on men to defend Iraq against the U.S. invasion that were not Al Qaeda. Also, Zarqawi had his own networks bringing in foreign fighters and that was before he officially joined Al Qaeda.

As for the turn in the Sunni insurgency, I touched on many of the points you brought up in this review of two articles about the Surge. The Sunnis definitely thought they were the majority at first, and thus could defeat the Shiites and come back in power.

http://musingsoniraq.blogspot.com/2011/08/re-thinking-surge-in-iraq.html

Joel Wing said...

Here's something on the Saudi role in the insurgency as well.

http://musingsoniraq.blogspot.com/2009/04/saudi-role-in-iraqi-insurgency.html

Iraqi Mojo said...

"the vast majority were young men in their early 20s who wanted to drive the Americans out of an Arab country and defend Islam"

So why didn't they fight the American presence in Saudi Arabia throughout the 90s, or the American presence in Qatar? Did they not know the war on Iraq was launched from CENTCOM in Qatar?

There is more to this than a simple desire to drive Americans out of an Arab country and to "defend Islam". Their clerics told them to go fight in Iraq and that killing "infidels" would be rewarded in heaven. Fatwas are issued whenever it's convenient for them.

"During the [1991] Gulf War Ibn Baaz issued fatwa allowing the deployment of non-Muslim troops on Saudi Arabia soil to defend the Kingdom from the Iraqi army." The same cleric 'issued fatwa denouncing Shia as apostates, and according to Shia scholar Vali Nasr "Abdul-Rahman al-Jibrin, a member of the Higher Council of Ulama, even sanctioned the killing of Shias,[141] a call that was reiterated by Wahhabi religious literature as late as 2002." '

It has more to do with Sunni extremist hatred of Shia than it has to do with expelling Americans from an Arab country and defending Islam.

Joel Wing said...

Good points Mojo. While I was responding to comments for this post I realized that I should've mentioned the Saudi angle on the insurgency more. They were the largest number of foreign fighters, they were huge financiers of the insurgency, the fatwas, etc. Something that's hardly mentioned in the U.S. since they're our allies.