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For Al Qaeda, Iraq may be the next battlefield

Paul Bremer, Iraq's governor, said Sunday that 'foreign terrorists' are entering Iraq.

Jihad in Iraq? The devastating Al Qaeda-style suicide bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad has given new heft to declarations by US officials that there is mounting evidence of Islamist fighters crossing Iraq's borders.

It's also spurring analysts to ask if Iraq is becoming the new Afghanistan - a magnet for Islamic extremists bent on waging jihad against the United States in the heart of the Arab world.

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"Iraq is developing as Al Qaeda's new battlefield," says Rohan Gunaratna, an author and terrorism expert. "Without a theater of jihad, they cannot produce terrorists for operations anywhere else. They lost Afghanistan, so they needed a new combat theater in which to train and inspire. And the US invasion gave it to them."

Thousands of Muslim volunteers flocked to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight Soviet occupation forces which had invaded the country in 1979.

The cumbersome Soviet military was unable to subdue the lightly armed, resourceful Afghan and Arab mujahideen (holy fighters) and withdrew from the country in 1988.

Now analysts say that calls for young men to fight in Iraq are popping up on jihad websites across the world.

If Gunaratna is right, the US is in for a long and bloody occupation. In the thinking of Al Qaeda, the mere sustaining of a presence, and the ability to carry out intermittent attacks, is a form of victory, a sign that the world's great superpower is incapable of stamping them out.

"We recommend luring the enemy forces into a protracted, close, and exhausting fight," Osama bin Laden threatened in a taped statement to "his Iraqi brothers" in February. "The enemy fears city and street wars most."

Common ground against the US

Bin Laden loathed the secular Saddam Hussein, who repressed Islamic movements in his country as much as he did his political opponents.

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But in the wake of the US invasion, he urged his followers to make common cause with the socialist Baath regime.

"Under these circumstances, there will be no harm if the interests of Muslims converge with the interests of the socialists in the fight against the crusaders, despite our belief in the infidelity of socialists," he said.

But despite the potential common cause among Hussein's Baathists and Al Qaeda fighters, not all analysts believe that the Afghanization of Iraq has already begun.

US officials have said nothing conclusive about the source of specific attacks yet, but they are convinced that militant Islamist groups, both Shiite and Sunni, are well established in Iraq and that foreign fighters are pouring into the country.

"The borders are quite porous, as you'd imagine, and the fact that we've captured a certain number of foreign fighters in Baghdad and around Iraq indicates that the ways that these people are getting into the country is from Iran and from Syria and from Saudi Arabia," said Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in an interview Friday with the Al Jazeera Arabic satellite channel.

The number of volunteers crossing into Iraq remains unclear. However, the Saudi security authorities reportedly have expressed unease at the "disappearance" of some 3,000 young men, suspecting that they have crossed the border into Iraq to wage jihad against the coalition forces.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's chief ideologue, has written of the need to shift Al Qaeda's confrontation with the US from relatively peripheral places like Afghanistan to the Middle East.

"We must seek to move the battlefront to the heart of the Islamic world, which represents the true arena of the battle and the theater of the major battles in defense of Islam," he writes.

A threat to Saudi Arabia

Al Qaeda's immediate goals have been the overthrow of corrupt or secular regimes in the Middle East - starting with Saudi Arabia, the land of the prophet. An Al Qaeda beachhead near Saudi Arabia could directly threaten the monarchy - in addition to threatening US forces.

"I do think Iraq - as well as Afghanistan - are the two places now where mujahideen can go to kill an American on a relatively level playing field," says Graham Fuller, a former vice president of the CIA's National Intelligence Council. "I don't think Iraq is an 'Afghanistan' in the sense that there will be a massive international jihad like there was in Afghanistan [in the 1980s] - that one required massive funding and weapons from the US itself, as well as from other countries." [Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly described Graham Fuller's employment status.]

Mohsen al-Awajy, a Saudi lawyer and Islamist campaigner, says that despite the anti-coalition fighters' limited support, the truck bombing of the UN headquarters and other attacks are just the beginning of a campaign that he predicted will increase as next year's US presidential election draws closer.

"The anger of the people in the region is tremendous. The most powerful punishment against the Americans for their dirty campaign in Iraq will be harvested in November next year," he says, adding that there is a "very strong mood" among young Saudis to join the "Iraqi resistance."

Robert Baer, a former CIA operative and author of "Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Its Soul for Saudi Crude," says that Saudi volunteers were joining Sunni tribesmen in Iraq. "The easiest way into Iraq is across the Saudi border," he says. "Once they have hooked up with the Bedouins, there's no way we can know who they are."

A civilian adviser to a European military contingent based in southern Iraq says that villagers near the border with Saudi Arabia recently told him that "hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters" were streaming into Iraq.

"They are having little difficulty entering Iraq and then they head north to join up with the Iraqi Sunnis," the adviser says. "These people don't have to go to New York to kill Americans anymore. The Big Satan has showed up on their doorstep. Logistically it's fantastic for them."

Islamist volunteers reportedly are still slipping into Iraq across the Syrian and Iranian borders as well, although the Saudi frontier appears to be the most porous.

Paul Bremer, the coalition administrator of Iraq, last week accused Syria of not doing enough to block "foreign terrorists" from entering the country.

During a television appearance Sunday, Ambassador Bremer directly addressed the issue of foreign fighters, saying: "We are now seeing a large number of international terrorists coming into Iraq."

Not entirely like Afghanistan

Nonetheless, there are significant differences between Iraq of 2003 and Afghanistan of the 1980s.

The "Arab Afghans" enjoyed the general support of the Pashtun majority and were amply funded by Saudi Arabia and the US, the latter also providing weapons and training. The wild mountains of Afghanistan provided a secure base of operations for the mujahideen and CIA-supplied Stinger antiaircraft missiles devastated the Soviet military's air advantage. "The situation is different in Iraq," says Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and an Iraq specialist. "The vast majority of the country is Shiites and Kurds, neither of them sympathetic to Sunni radicalism, so that the volunteers would be turned in by the local population if they tried to operate anywhere but in the narrow Sunni Arab triangle."

Although the influx of foreign volunteers is attracting the concern of the coalition forces, Professor Cole believes the bulk of the attacks are still being carried out by "Iraqi Sunni Arab nationalists, with some evidence of Iraqi Sunni religious radicals joining in."

"The steady, horrible picking off of US troops by small bands of guerrillas, using roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, is far more effective," he says. "In my view, the real danger to the US is a continued indigenous insurgency" by Iraqi nationalists.

While it is still possible for the US to manage the situation in Iraq, says Mr. Fuller, "most of the indicators are increasingly negative."

"I am pessimistic," he says. "But I don't think it will be a military disaster in the sense of Afghanistan for the USSR. The US will declare victory and go home before that happens - maybe even by next summer in time for the elections."