On February 9, 2004, Jeffrey White, Jonathan Schanzer, Patrick Clawson, and Soner Cagaptay addressed The Washington Institute's Special Policy Forum. All four were part of the Institute fact-finding delegation tasked with conducting an independent survey of local security conditions and emerging political currents in Iraq. The delegation traveled throughout Iraq, from the Turkish border to the Kuwaiti frontier, speaking with Coalition Provisional Authority officials, coalition military leaders, Iraqi Governing Council members, and Iraqi clerics, tribal leaders, and intellectuals. The following is a rapporteur's summary of Mr. Schanzer's remarks.
Prior to 2003, Ansar al-Islam was a small organization confined largely to the northern part of Iraq, in the Halabja area. The group was highly centralized with a clear command structure. Yet, after February 5, 2003, when Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that the group was a major U.S. concern, its leadership developed a dispersal plan. As a result of that plan, approximately 400 Ansar al-Islam fighters reportedly escaped to Iran. In the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom, many fighters returned to Iraq, resuming their operations in the area of Fallujah, Tikrit, and Ramadi. Similar to the current global structure of the al-Qaeda network, Ansar al-Islam has become quite decentralized, with members operating via small cells and informal groupings. According to one intelligence source, the average cell consists of about six operatives with one commander. These cells employ freelancers, outsiders, Ba'athists, and militants who do not fit the al-Qaeda mold to carry out operations.
Recent interviews with Ansar al-Islam prisoners in Sulaymaniyah, as well as with other Iraqi and U.S. sources, indicate that the prewar cooperation between Ba'athists and Ansar may have been the result of one man's work: Col. Saadan Abd al-Latif Mahmoud al-Ani, also known as Abu Wael. Although he was not on the U.S. list of fifty-five most-wanted Iraqis, all of those interviewed stated that he was responsible for organizing some of al-Qaeda's activities inside Iraq. Apparently, he brought al-Qaeda to Iraq under a strategy not of winning war, but of foiling U.S. plans for the country. In the late 1990s, he invited several al-Qaeda groups to train at Salman Pak, a camp located twenty miles southeast of Baghdad, and helped to finance them as well.
In general, the majority of jihadis entering Iraq come across the Iranian border. Although Kurdish intelligence reports that three to ten such individuals are captured per week, they are unsure how many others are getting through. It is unclear whether the Iranian government is deliberately helping these individuals cross the border or simply turning a blind eye. Many foreign jihadis are using old smuggling routes that were employed during Saddam's time. After crossing the border they go to a safe house, receive weapons and orders, and then attack their targets.
Although the coalition is doing a good job under difficult circumstances, some officials are overly optimistic about the prospects that Islamist extremism will not be popular in Iraq. Islamism is often a utopian crutch for people during uncertain times. It is usually popular among the young and unemployed, and Iraq has a young population with a high rate of under- or unemployment. Moreover, the Iraqi Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowment) is currently being restructured, leaving Iraqi mosques unmonitored in the meantime. For their part, Islamists are well positioned to provide social services that the coalition and the Iraqi government are still struggling to establish. Indeed, providing such services has been an effective recruiting aid in other countries, where Islamists take advantage of the vacuum left by other authorities in order to gain the support of the masses.
The potential for Islamist growth in Iraq is also evident in attitudes expressed by Iraqis in the Kurdistan region. For example, even though that region is less susceptible to Islamism than the rest of the country, an official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) stated that Islamist factions would garner 10 to 15 percent of the vote in the PUK area if elections were held today.
Some have speculated that Iraq will come to resemble 1980s-era Afghanistan. To be sure, foreign jihadis have flocked to Iraq from Tunisia, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, the Palestinian territories, and elsewhere. Nevertheless, Iraq is not the next Afghanistan, despite an upsurge in terrorism, porous borders, general confusion, and weak central authority. In the north, the Kurds have been fairly successful at counterterrorism (despite the recent bombings in Irbil). In the south, the Shi'is keep the coalition informed about people who are new to the area and other suspicious individuals. In the central part of Iraq, however, the situation is likely to remain confusing. Fortunately, the foreign jihadi problem seems to be confined to that part of the country.
This Special Policy Forum Report was prepared by Jeff Cary, a Dr. Marcia Robbins-Wilf young scholar and research assistant at The Washington Institute, and by Ryan Phillips, also a research assistant at the Institute.