Monday, January 24, 2005

When Did Iraq Become a "Breeding Ground" for Terrorism?

Links and References Updated: 1-6-05 (DD)

A week ago, I wrote about an article from the January 14th Washington Post, entitled "Iraq New Terror Breeding Ground". The author of the article, Ms. Dana Priest, seized upon the release of an analytical report by the CIA's National Intelligence Council to discuss what she describes as "Iraq's new role as a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists." Her argument is as follows:

President Bush has frequently described the Iraq war as an integral part of U.S. efforts to combat terrorism. But the council's report suggests the conflict has also helped terrorists by creating a haven for them in the chaos of war.

"At the moment," NIC Chairman Robert L. Hutchings said, Iraq "is a magnet for international terrorist activity."


But as instability in Iraq grew after the toppling of Hussein, and resentment toward the United States intensified in the Muslim world, hundreds of foreign terrorists flooded into Iraq across its unguarded borders. They found tons of unprotected weapons caches that, military officials say, they are now using against U.S. troops. Foreign terrorists are believed to make up a large portion of today's suicide bombers, and U.S. intelligence officials say these foreigners are forming tactical, ever-changing alliances with former Baathist fighters and other insurgents.

My previous post dealt with the way Ms. Priest stretched the report's conclusions to support her point. In this post, I will address her argument directly, and examine the following two questions: Has Iraq truly "replaced Afghanistan as the training ground for the next generation of "professionalized" terrorists"? Secondly, has the Iraq campaign created a new "breeding ground" and base of operations for terrorism where none previously existed?

1. Has Iraq replaced Afghanistan as a terrorist haven?

A look at the available evidence shows that while al-Qaeda and other jihadists have established themselves in Iraq, the circumstances there are far less favorable than those they enjoyed in Afghanistan. In the latter country, al-Qaeda and affiliated groups ran a network of camps that, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, trained between 10,000-20,000 jihadists from 1996-2001. (p.67) In Iraq, by contrast, the New York Times reported on October 23, 2004 the possible existence of "a sophisticated network that has helped recruit nearly 1,000 young men from the Middle East and Europe" to wage terror there. This is a far cry from the tens of thousands who passed through the Afghan camp network.

The difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is more than just quantitative. The environment in the former country is far less hospitable to the jihadists, as Cliff May recently explained:

In Afghanistan, the Taliban government facilitated the training of terrorists. Not so in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the training was conducted openly, in large, well-supplied terrorist training camps. Not so in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the United States did not interfere in any serious way with the training of terrorists. Not so in Iraq. In Afghanistan, trained terrorists graduated and then dispersed around the world to plan acts of mass murder. In Iraq, trained terrorists fight the U.S. armed forces -- which also, one hopes, are becoming "professionalized" in 21st Century warfare.

Iraq may be, as the story says, "a haven" for terrorists, but surely it's not a safe haven, not with U.S. Special Forces and Marines on the ground.

In short, when you look at both numbers and permissiveness of environment, there is no comparison between the safe haven that the jihadists had in Afghanistan and the situation they face in Iraq.

2. When did Iraq start "breeding" terrorism?

Is the presence of foreign jihadists in Iraq a new phenomenon, a result of the US invasion? Once again, contrary to Ms.Priest, it is apparent that terrorists were in Iraq well before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The State Department's Patterns of Global Terrorism 2002 report, published on April 30, 2003, makes this abundantly clear:

Iraq was a safehaven, transit point, and operational base for groups and individuals who direct violence against the United States, Israel, and other countries…


The presence of several hundred al-Qaida operatives fighting with the small Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam in the northeastern corner of Iraqi Kurdistan—where the IIS operates—is well documented. Iraq has an agent in the most senior levels of Ansar al-Islam as well. In addition, small numbers of highly placed al-Qaida militants were present in Baghdad and areas of Iraq that Saddam controls. It is inconceivable these groups were in Iraq without the knowledge and acquiescence of Saddam’s regime. In the past year, al-Qaida operatives in northern Iraq concocted suspect chemicals under the direction of senior al-Qaida associate Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and tried to smuggle them into Russia, Western Europe, and the United States for terrorist operations.
("Overview of State-Sponsored Terrorism", p.79 in print/PDF version)

(emphasis added-DD)

In an article from the March 1, 2004 Weekly Standard, titled "Saddam's Ambassador to al-Qaeda", Jonathan Schanzer interviewed an Iraqi intelligence officer held by Kurdish forces in northern Iraq:

Al-Shamari said that importing foreign fighters to train in Iraq was part of his job in the Mukhabarat. The fighters trained in Salman Pak, a facility located some 20 miles southeast of Baghdad. He said that he had personal knowledge of 500 fighters that came through Salman Pak dating back to the late 1990s; they trained in "urban combat, explosives, and car bombs."

This account is confirmed by the Duelfer Report, which stated that M14, the special operations branch of Iraqi intelligence, "trained Iraqis, Palestinians, Syrians, Yemeni, Lebanese, Egyptian, and Sudanese operatives in counterterrorism, explosives, marksmanship, and foreign operations at its facilities at Salman Pak." Iraqi intelligence also maintained an organization called “Tiger Group”, which "was primarily comprised of suicide bombers." (V.1, Annex B)

As the possibility of war with the US loomed in 2002 and early 2003, the flow of jihadists into Iraq became a virtual flood. The son of Abdullah Azzam, who was Osama bin Laden's mentor, told Agence France Presse in August 2004 that "young Al-Qaeda members entered Iraq in large numbers" at Saddam's invitation in order to fight the expected American attack. On March 11, 2003, the AP reported that "Saddam Hussein has opened a training camp for Arab volunteers willing to carry out suicide bombings against U.S. forces in case they invade Iraq, Arab media and Iraqi dissidents said Tuesday."

There was another way in which Saddam's Iraq was a 'breeding ground" for terrorism. In the 1990's, the Baathist regime turned openly to Wahhabism as a tool for maintaining the support of Iraq's Sunni Arab population. The Associated Press noted this process and its impact in a January 5th, 2005 article:

Internationally isolated and fearful of losing power, Saddam Hussein made an astonishing move in the last years of his secular rule: He invited into Iraq clerics who preached an austere form of Islam that's prevalent in Saudi Arabia.

He also let extremely religious Iraqis join his ruling Baath Socialist Party. Saddam's bid to win over devout Muslims planted the seeds of the insurgency behind some of the deadliest attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces today, say Saudi dissidents and U.S. officials.

At one point in the mid-1990's, Saddam even agreed to broadcast Wahhabi propaganda at the behest of Osama bin Laden. The consequences of this Wahhabization of Sunni Iraq have been eloquently noted by Tom Friedman of the New York Times:

Many Iraqi youth, unable to connect with the outside world and unable to find jobs at home, turned to religion. Saddam encouraged this with a mosque-building program. By wrapping himself in an aura of Islam, Saddam also hoped to buttress his own waning legitimacy. So Wahhabi religious influence flowed into the Sunni areas from Saudi Arabia, as Iranian religious influence flowed into Shiite regions.

You know all those masked Iraqi youth you see in the Al Jazeera videos, brandishing weapons and standing over some foreigner whose head they are about saw off? They are the product of the last decade of Saddamism and sanctions. Those youth were 10 years old when the U.N. sanctions began. They are the mushrooms that Saddam and the sanctions were growing in the dark. The Bush team had no clue they were there.

So not only did Saddam's regime train and harbor thousands of jihadists, it also laid the ideological groundwork for recruiting future terrorists as well.

Ms. Priest is correct that Islamist terrorists have migrated to Iraq in hopes of defeating the US and preventing "infidel" democracy from coming to the Arab world. The jihadists would like nothing better than to make Iraq into a safe haven such as they enjoyed in Afghanistan. For now, however, the two situations are drastically different. In Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and its affiliates operated a veritable conveyor belt, turning out tens of thousands of trained jihadists over a five year period in an extremely permissive environment. In Iraq, a few thousand Islamists are engaged in a mortal struggle with the most powerful military machine in history, and have suffered a grievous toll as a result. After all, there's no such thing as a "veteran suicide bomber". Iraq, in short, isn't even close to what Afghanistan was as a base for terrorism.

Contrary to Ms. Priest's second key point, the presence of terrorists in Iraq is nothing new. Hundreds of al-Qaeda fugitives gained safe haven with Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq, with the active cooperation of Iraqi intelligence. Hundreds of other jihadists received training at Salman Pak and other camps. There is strong reason to believe that Saddam invited thousands more terrorists into Iraq as war grew likely. Finally, the Baathist regime's increasing embrace of Wahhabism during the 1990's helped indoctrinate future Islamist fighters. Iraq was a "breeding ground" for jihadist terrorism well before the US invaded. Toppling Saddam did not make Iraq a safe haven for terror, it was a necessary step in ending Iraq's status as such a haven.


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