The Myth of AQI (al-Qaeda Iraq)

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Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the perfect foil for a global system of fearmongering with the plutocracy as the only winner. (Wanted poster distributed by U.S. Army.)

BY ANDREW TIGHMAN Dateline: Sep 6, 2007

Fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq is the last big argument for keeping U.S.
troops in the country. But the military’s estimation of the threat is
alarmingly wrong. Meanwhile, as this report shows, the Bush administration continues to cynically play this hand, as it has turned the word “al-Qaeda” into a priceless propaganda asset.

In March 2007, a pair of truck bombs tore through the Shiite
marketplace in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar, killing more than
150 people. The blast reduced the ancient city center to rubble,
leaving body parts and charred vegetables scattered amid pools of
blood. It was among the most lethal attacks to date in the five-year-
old Iraq War. Within hours, Iraqi officials in Baghdad had pinned the
bombing on al-Qaeda, and news reports from Reuters, the BBC, MSNBC,
and others carried those remarks around the world. An Internet
posting by the terrorist group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) took
credit for the destruction. Within a few days, U.S. Army General
David Petraeus publicly blamed AQI for the carnage, accusing the
group of trying to foment sectarian violence and ignite a civil war.
Back in Washington, pundits latched on to the attack with special
interest, as President Bush had previously touted a period of calm in
Tal Afar as evidence that the military’s retooled counterinsurgency
doctrine was working. For days, reporters and bloggers debated
whether the attacks signaled a “resurgence” of al-Qaeda in the city.

Yet there’s reason to doubt that AQI had any role in the bombing. In
the weeks before the attack, sectarian tensions had been simmering
after a local Sunni woman told Al Jazeera television that she had
been gang-raped by a group of Shiite Iraqi army soldiers. Multiple
insurgent groups called for violence to avenge the woman’s honor.
Immediately after the blast, some in uniform expressed doubts about
al- Qaeda’s alleged role and suggested that homegrown sectarian
strife was more likely at work. “It’s really not al-Qaeda who has
infiltrated so much as the fact [of] what happened in 2003,” said
Ahmed Hashim, a professor at the Naval War College who served as an
Army political adviser to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar until
shortly before the bombing. “The formerly dominant Sunni Turkmen
majority there,” he told PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer soon after
the bombing, “suddenly … felt themselves having been thrown out of
power. And this is essentially their revenge.”

A week later, Iraqi security forces raided a home outside Tal Afar
andarrested two men suspected of orchestrating the bombing. Yet when
the U.S. military issued a press release about the arrests, there was
no mention of an al-Qaeda connection. The suspects were never
formally charged, and nearly six months later neither the U.S.
military nor Iraqi police are certain of the source of the attacks.
In recent public statements, the military has backed off its former
allegations that al-Qaeda was responsible, instead asserting, as
Lieutenant Colonel Michael Donnelly wrote in response to an inquiry
from the Washington Monthly, that “the tactics used in this attack
are consistent with al-Qaeda.”

This scenario has become common. After a strike, the military rushes
to point the finger at al-Qaeda, even when the actual evidence
remains hazy and an alternative explanation—raw hatred between local
Sunnis and Shiites—might fit the circumstances just as well. The
press blasts such dubious conclusions back to American citizens and
policy makers in Washington, and the incidents get tallied and
quantified in official reports, cited by the military in briefings in
Baghdad. The White House then takes the reports and crafts sound
bites depicting AQI as the number one threat to peace and stability
in Iraq. (In July, for instance, at Charleston Air Force Base, the
president gave a speech about Iraq that mentioned al-Qaeda ninety-
five times.)

By now, many in Washington have learned to discount the president’s
rhetorical excesses when it comes to the war. But even some of his
harshest critics take at face value the estimates provided by the
military about AQI’s presence. Politicians of both parties point to
such figures when forming their positions on the war. All of the top
three Democratic presidential candidates have argued for keeping some
American forces in Iraq or the region, citing among other reasons the
continued threat from al-Qaeda.

But what if official military estimates about the size and impact of
al-Qaeda in Iraq are simply wrong? Indeed, interviews with numerous
military and intelligence analysts, both inside and outside of
government, suggest that the number of strikes the group has directed
represent only a fraction of what official estimates claim. Further,
al-Qaeda’s presumed role in leading the violence through uniquely
devastating attacks that catalyze further unrest may also be
overstated.

Having been led astray by flawed prewar intelligence about WMDs,
official Washington wants to believe it takes a more skeptical view
of the administration’s information now. Yet Beltway insiders seem to
be making almost precisely the same mistakes in sizing up al-Qaeda in
Iraq.

Despite President Bush’s near-singular focus on al-Qaeda in Iraq, most
in Washington understand that instability on the ground stems from
multiple sources. Numerous attacks on both U.S. troops and Iraqi
civilians have been the handiwork of Shiite militants, often
connected to, or even part of, the Iraqi government. Opportunistic
criminal gangs engage in some of the same heinous tactics.

The Sunni resistance is also comprised of multiple groups. The first
consists of so-called “former regime elements.” These include
thousands of ex-officers from Saddam’s old intelligence agency, the
Mukabarat, and from the elite paramilitary unit Saddam Fedayeen.
Their primary goal is to drive out the U.S. occupation and install a
Sunni-led government hostile to Iranian influence. Some within this
broad group support reconciliation with the current government or
negotiations with the United States, under the condition that
American forces set a timetable for a troop withdrawal.

The second category consists of homegrown Iraqi Sunni religious
groups, such as the Mujahadeen Army of Iraq. These are native Iraqis
who aim to install a religious-based government in Baghdad, similar
to the regime in Tehran. These groups use religious rhetoric and
terrorist tactics but are essentially nationalistic in their aims.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq comprises the third group. The terrorist network was
founded in 2003 by the now-dead Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-
Zarqawi. (The extent of the group’s organizational ties to Osama bin
Laden’s al-Qaeda is hotly debated, but the organizations share a
worldview and set of objectives.) AQI is believed to have the most
non-Iraqis in its ranks, particularly among its leadership. However,
most recent assessments say the rank and file are mostly radicalized
Iraqis. AQI, which calls itself the “Islamic State of Iraq,” espouses
the most radical form of Islam and calls for the imposition of strict
sharia, or Islamic law. The group has no plans for a future Iraqi
government and instead hopes to create a new Islamic caliphate with
borders reaching far beyond Mesopotamia.

The essential questions are: How large is the presence of AQI, in
terms of manpower and attacks instigated, and what role does the
group play in catalyzing further violence? For the first question,
the military has produced an estimate. In a background briefing this
July in Baghdad, military officials said that during the first half
of this year AQI accounted for 15 percent of attacks in Iraq. That
figure was also cited in the military intelligence report during
final preparations for a National Intelligence Estimate in July.

This is the number on which many military experts inside the Beltway
rely. Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at
the Brookings Institution who attended the Baghdad background
briefing, explained that he thought the estimate derived from a
comprehensive analysis by teams of local intelligence agents who
examine the type and location of daily attacks, and their intended
targets, and crosscheck that with reports from Iraqi informants and
other data, such as intercepted phone calls. “It’s a fairly detailed
kind of assessment,” O’Hanlon said. “Obviously you can’t always know
who is behind an attack, but there is a fairly systematic way of
looking at the attacks where they can begin to make a pretty informed
guess.”

Yet those who have worked on estimates inside the system take a more
circumspect view. Alex Rossmiller, who worked in Iraq as an
intelligence officer for the Department of Defense, says that real
uncertainties exist in assigning responsibility for attacks. “It was
kind of a running joke in our office,” he recalls. “We would
sarcastically refer to everybody as al-Qaeda.”

To describe AQI’s presence, intelligence experts cite a spectrum of
estimates, ranging from 8 percent to 15 percent. The fact that
such “a big window” exists, says Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of
the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, indicates that “[those experts] really don’t have a very good perception of what is going on.”

It’s notable that military intelligence reports have opted to cite a
figure at the very top of that range. But even the low estimate of 8
percent may be an overstatement, if you consider some of the
government’s own statistics.

The first instructive set of data comes from the U.S.-sponsored Radio
Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In March, the organization analyzed the
online postings of eleven prominent Sunni insurgent groups, including
AQI, tallying how many attacks each group claimed. AQI took credit
for 10 percent of attacks on Iraqi security forces and Shiite
militias (forty-three out of 439 attacks), and less than 4 percent of
attacks on U.S. troops (seventeen out of 357). Although these
Internet postings should not be taken as proof positive of the
culprits, it’s instructive to remember that PR-conscious al- Qaeda
operatives are far more likely to overstate than understate their
role.

When turning to the question of manpower, military officials told the
New York Times in August that of the roughly 24,500 prisoners in U.S.
detention facilities in Iraq (nearly all of whom are Sunni), just
1,800—about 7 percent—claim allegiance to al-Qaeda in Iraq. Moreover,
the composition of inmates does not support the assumption that large
numbers of foreign terrorists, long believed to be the leaders and
most hard-core elements of AQI, are operating inside Iraq. In August,
American forces held in custody 280 foreign nationals—slightly more
than 1 percent of total inmates.

The State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR),
which arguably has the best track record for producing accurate
intelligence assessments, last year estimated that AQI’s membership
was in a range of “more than 1,000.” When compared with the
military’s estimate for the total size of the insurgency—between
20,000 and 30,000 full-time fighters—this figure puts AQI forces at
around 5 percent. When compared with Iraqi intelligence’s much larger
estimates of the insurgency—200,000 fighters—INR’s estimate would put
AQI forces at less than 1 percent. This year, the State Department
dropped even its base-level estimate, because, as an official
explained, “the information is too disparate to come up with a
consensus number.”

How big, then, is AQI? The most persuasive estimate I’ve heard comes
from Malcolm Nance, the author of The Terrorists of Iraq and a twenty-
year intelligence veteran and Arabic speaker who has worked with
military and intelligence units tracking al-Qaeda inside Iraq. He
believes AQI includes about 850 full-time fighters, comprising 2
percent to 5 percent of the Sunni insurgency. “Al-Qaeda in Iraq,”
according to Nance, “is a microscopic terrorist organization.”

o how did the military come up with an estimate of 15 percent, when
government data and many of the intelligence community’s own analysts
point to estimates a fraction of that size? The problem begins at the
top. When the White House singles out al-Qaeda in Iraq for special
attention, the bureaucracy responds by creating procedures that hunt
down more evidence of the organization. The more manpower assigned to
focus on the group, the more evidence is uncovered that points to it
lurking in every shadow. “When you have something that is really hot,
the leaders start tasking everyone to look into that,” explains W.
Patrick Lang, a retired U.S. Army colonel and former head of Middle
East intelligence analysis for the Department of Defense. “Whoever is
at the top of the pyramid says, ‘Make me a briefing showing what al-
Qaeda in Iraq is doing,’ and then the decision maker says, ‘Aha, I
knew I was right.'”

With disproportionate resources dedicated to tracking AQI, the search
has become a self-reinforcing loop. The Army has a Special Operations
task force solely dedicated to tracking al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Defense
Intelligence Agency tracks AQI through its Iraq office and its
counterterrorism office. The result is more information culled, more
PowerPoint slides created, and, ultimately, more attention drawn to
AQI, which amplifies its significance in the minds of military and
intelligence officers. “Once people look at everything through that
lens, al-Qaeda is all they see,” said Larry Johnson, a former CIA
officer who also worked at the U.S. State Department’s Office of
Counterterrorism. “It sort of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Ground-level analysts in the field, facing pressures from superiors
to document AQI’s handiwork, might be able to question such
assumptions if they had strong intelligence networks on the ground.
Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. The intelligence community’s
efforts are hobbled by too few Arabic speakers in their ranks and too
many unreliable informants in Iraqi communities, rendering a hazy
picture that is open to interpretations.

Because uncertainty exists, the bar for labeling an attack the work
of al-Qaeda can be very low. The fact that a detainee possesses al-
Qaeda pamphlets or a laptop computer with cached jihadist Web sites,
for example, is at times enough for analysts to link a detainee to al-
Qaeda. “Sometimes it’s as simple as an anonymous tip that al-Qaeda is
active in a certain village, so they will go out on an operation and
whoever they roll up, we call them al-Qaeda,” says Alex
Rossmiller. “People can get labeled al-Qaeda anywhere along in the
chain of events, and it’s really hard to unlabel them.” Even when the
military backs off explicit statements that AQI is responsible, as
with the Tal Afar truck bombings, the perception that an attack is
the work of al-Qaeda is rarely corrected.

The result can be baffling for the troops working on the ground, who
hear the leadership characterizing the conflict in Iraq in ways that
do not necessarily match what they see in the dusty and danger-laden
villages. Michael Zacchea, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine
Reserves who was deployed to Iraq, said he was sometimes skeptical of
upper-level analysis emphasizing al-Qaeda in Iraq rather than the
insurgency’s local roots. “It’s very, very frustrating for everyone
involved who is trying to do the right thing,” he said. “That’s not
how anyone learned to play the game when we were officers coming up
the ranks, and we were taught to provide clear battlefield analysis.”

ven if the manpower and number of attacks attributed to AQI have been
exaggerated—and they have—many observers maintain that what is
uniquely dangerous about the group is not its numbers, but the
spectacular nature of its strikes. While homegrown Sunni and Shiite
militias engage for the most part in tit-for-tat violence to forward
sectarian ends, AQI’s methods are presumed to be different—more
dramatic, more inflammatory, and having a greater ripple effect on
the country’s fragile political environment. “The effect of al-Qaeda
has been far beyond the numbers that they field,” explains Thomas
Donnelly, resident fellow for defense and national security at the
American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “The question is, What
attacks are likely to have the most destabilizing political and
strategic affects?” He points, as do many inside the administration,
to the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara, a
revered Shiite shrine, as a paramount example of AQI’s outsize
influence. President Bush has laid unqualified blame for the Samara
bombing on al-Qaeda, and described the infamous incident—and ensuing
sectarian violence—as a fatal tipping point toward the current unrest.

But is this view of AQI’s vanguard role in destabilizing Iraq really
true? There are three reasons to question that belief.

First, although spectacular attacks were a distinctive AQI hallmark
early in the war, the group has since lost its monopoly on bloody
fireworks. After five years of shifting alliances, cross-pollination
of tactics, and copycat attacks, other insurgent groups now launch
equally dramatic and politically charged attacks. For example, a
second explosion at the Samara mosque in June 2007, which destroyed
the shrine’s minarets and sparked a wave of revenge attacks on Sunni
mosques nationwide, may have been an inside job. U.S. military
officials said fifteen uniformed men from the Shiite-run Iraqi
Security Forces were arrested for suspected involvement in the attack.

Second, it remains unclear whether the original Samara bombing was
itself the work of AQI. The group never took credit for the attack,
as it has many other high-profile incidents. The man who the military
believe orchestrated the bombing, an Iraqi named Haitham al-Badri,
was both a Samara native and a former high-ranking government
official under Saddam Hussein. (His right-hand man, Hamed Jumaa Farid
al-Saeedi, was also a former military intelligence officer in Saddam
Hussein’s army.) Key features of the bombing did not conform to the
profile of an AQI attack. For example, the bombers did not target
civilians, or even kill the Shiite Iraqi army soldiers guarding the
mosque, both of which are trademark tactics of AQI. The planners also
employed sophisticated explosive devices, suggesting formal military
training common among former regime officers, rather than the more
bluntly destructive tactics typical of AQI. Finally, Samara was the
heart of Saddam’s power base, where former regime fighters keep tight
control over the insurgency. Frank “Greg” Ford, a retired
counterintelligence agent for the Army Reserves, who worked with the
Army in Samara before the 2006 bombing, says that the evidence points
away from AQI and toward a different conclusion: “The Baathists
directed that attack,” says Ford.

Third, while some analysts believe that AQI drafts Baathist
insurgents to carry out its attacks, other intelligence experts think
it is the other way around. In other words, they see evidence of
native insurgent forces coopting the steady stream of delusional
extremists seeking martyrdom that AQI brings into Iraq. “Al-Qaeda
can’t operate anywhere in Iraq without kissing the ring of the former
regime,” says Nance. “They can’t move car bombs full of explosives
and foreign suicide bombers through a city without everyone knowing
who they are. They need to be facilitated.” Thus new foreign
fighters “come through and some local Iraqis will say, ‘Okay, why
don’t you go down to the Ministry of Defense building downtown.'” AQI
recruits often find themselves taking orders from a network of former
regime insurgents, who assemble their car bombs and tell them what to
blow up. They become, as Nance says, “puppets for the other insurgent
groups.”

he view that AQI is neither as big nor as lethal as commonly believed
is widespread among working-level analysts and troops on the ground.
A majority of those interviewed for this article believe that the
military’s AQI estimates are overblown to varying degrees. If such
misgivings are common, why haven’t doubts pricked the public debate?
The reason is that alternate views are running up against an echo
chamber of powerful players all with an interest in hyping AQI’s role.

The first group that profits from an outsize focus on AQI are former
regime elements, and the tribal chiefs with whom they are often
allied. These forces are able to carry out attacks against Shiites
and Americans, but also to shift the blame if it suits their
purposes. While the U.S. military has recently touted “news” that
Sunni insurgents have turned against the al-Qaeda terrorists in Anbar
Province, there is little evidence of actual clashes between these
two groups. Sunni insurgents in Anbar have largely ceased attacks on
Americans, but some observers suggest that this development has less
to do with vanquishing AQI than with the fact that U.S. troops now
routinely deliver cash-filled duffle bags to tribal sheiks serving
as “lead contractors” on “reconstruction projects.” The excuse of
fighting AQI comes in handy. “Remember, Iraq is an honor society,”
explains Juan Cole, an Iraq expert and professor of modern Middle
Eastern studies at the University of Michigan. “But if you say it
wasn’t us—it was al-Qaeda—then you don’t lose face.”

The second benefactor is the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-
Maliki, often the first to blame specific attacks on AQI. Talking
about “al-Qaeda” offers the government a politically correct way of
talking about Sunni violence without seeming to blame the Sunnis
themselves, to whom they are ostensibly trying to reach out in a
unity government. On a deeper level, however, the al-Maliki regime
has very limited popular support, and the government officials and
ruling Islamic Dawa Party feel an imperative to include Iraqi
troubles in the broader “global war in terrorism” in order to keep
U.S. troops in the country. In June, when faced with increasingly
uncomfortable pressure from the Americans for his failure to resolve
key political issues, al-Maliki warned that Iraqi intelligence had
found evidence of a “widespread and dangerous plan by the terrorist
al-Qaeda organization” to mount attacks outside of Iraq.

Elsewhere within the Shiite bloc of Iraqi politics, Moqtada al-Sadr
has his own reasons for playing up the idea of AQI. “The Sadrists
want to overstate the role of al-Qaeda in a way to emphasize on
the ‘foreignness’ of the current problem in Iraq; and this easily
fits their anti-occupation ideology, which seems to gain more
popularity among Shia Iraqis on a daily basis,” said Babak Rahimi, a
professor of Islamic Studies and expert in Shiite politics at the
University of California at San Diego.

Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain eager to take
credit for the violence in Iraq, despite the bad blood that existed
between bin Laden and AQI’s slain founder, al-Zarqawi. They’ve
produced a long series of taped statements in recent years taunting
U.S. leaders and attempting to conflate their operations with the
Sunni resistance in Iraq. “They want to bring this all together as a
motivating tool to encourage recruitment,” said Farhana Ali, a
terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation.

The press has also been complicit in inflating the threat of AQI.
Because of the danger on the ground, reporters struggle to do the
kind of comprehensive field reporting that’s necessary to check facts
and question statements from military spokespersons and Iraqi
politicians. Today, for example, U.S. reporters rarely travel
independently outside central Baghdad. Few, if any, insurgents have
ever given interviews to Western reporters. These limitations are
understandable, if unfortunate. But news organizations are reluctant
to admit their confines in obtaining information. Ambiguities are
glossed over; allegations are presented as facts. Besides, it’s
undeniably in the reporter’s own interest to keep “al- Qaeda attacks”
in the headline, because it may move their story from A16 to A1.

Finally, no one has more incentive to overstate the threat of AQI
than President Bush and those in the administration who argue for
keeping a substantial military presence in Iraq. Insistent talk about
AQI aims to place the Iraq War in the context of the broader war on
terrorism. Pointing to al- Qaeda in Iraq helps the administration
leverage Americans’ fears about terrorism and residual anger over the
attacks of September 11. It is perhaps one of the last rhetorical
crutches the president has left to lean on.

his is not to say that al-Qaeda in Iraq doesn’t pose a real danger,
both to stability in Iraq and to security in the United States. Today
multiple Iraqi insurgent groups target U.S. forces, with the aim of
driving out the occupation. But once our troops withdraw, most Sunni
resistance fighters will have no impetus to launch strikes on
American soil. In that regard, al-Qaeda—and AQI, to the extent it is
affiliated with bin Laden’s network—is unique. The group’s leadership
consists largely of foreign fighters, and its ideology and ambitions
are global. Al-Qaeda fighters trained in Baghdad may one day use
those skills to plot strikes aimed at Boston.

Yet it’s not clear that the best way to counter this threat is with
military action in Iraq. AQI’s presence is tolerated by the country’s
Sunni Arabs, historically among the most secular in the Middle East,
because they have a common enemy in the United States. Absent this
shared cause, it’s not clear that native insurgents would still
welcome AQI forces working to impose strict sharia. In Baghdad, any
near-term functioning government will likely be an alliance of
Shiites and Kurds, two groups unlikely to accept organized radical
Sunni Arab militants within their borders. Yet while precisely
predicting future political dynamics in Iraq is uncertain, one thing
is clear now: the continued American occupation of Iraq is al-Qaeda’s
best recruitment tool, the lure to hook new recruits. As RAND’s Ali
said, “What inspires jihadis today is Iraq.”

Five years ago, the American public was asked to support the invasion
of Iraq based on the false claim that Saddam Hussein was somehow
linked to al-Qaeda. Today, the erroneous belief that al-Qaeda’s
franchise in Iraq is a driving force behind the chaos in that country
may be setting us up for a similar mistake.

Andrew Tilghman was an Iraq correspondent for the Stars and Stripes
newspaper in 2005 and 2006. He can be reached at tilghman.andrew@gmail.com.

ORIGINAL POST AT The Washington Monthly

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