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.
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