Al Qaeda in Iraq is Part of Al Qaeda, Take 12

Christopher Hitchens takes on the tired but not dead argument that al Qaeda in Iraq (Mesopotamia) is not really part of al Qaeda proper and we should therefore get out of Iraq and fight the “real” enemy. The key ‘graph:

As it happens, we also know that Zarqawi—who probably considered himself a rival to Bin Laden as well as an ally—wrote from Iraq to Bin Laden and to his henchman Ayman al-Zawahiri and asked for the local “franchise” to call himself the leader of AQM. This dubious honor he was duly awarded. We further know that he authored a plan for the wrecking of the new Iraq: a simple strategy to incite civil murder between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The incredible evil of this proposal, which involved the blowing up of holy places and the assassination of pilgrims, was endorsed from whatever filthy cave these deliberations are conducted in. As a matter of fact, we even know that Zawahiri and his boss once or twice counseled Zarqawi to hold it down a bit, especially on the video-butchery and the excessive zeal in the murder of Shiites. Thus, if there is any distinction to be made between the apple and the tree, it would involve saying that AQM is, if anything, even more virulent and sadistic and nihilistic than its parent body.

This is well trod ground but, alas, apparently there are still plenty of doubters on this one. TigerHawk commenter Ray nails it with his quip, “By this standard, the failures of the US Army in Iraq, which is a completely separate organization from the US Army in America, cannot be rightly placed at any American politician’s door.”

Hitchens contends that we should therefore take comfort from the fact that “thousands of AQM goons been killed” and, more importantly, that “local opinion appears to have shifted decisively against them and their methods.”

If I am right about this, an enormous prize is within our reach. We can not only deny the clones of Bin Ladenism a military victory in Iraq, we can also discredit them in the process and in the eyes (and with the help) of a Muslim people who have seen them up close. We can do this, moreover, in a keystone state of the Arab world that guards a chokepoint—the Gulf—in the global economy. As with the case of Afghanistan—where several provinces are currently on a knife-edge between an elected government that at least tries for schools and vaccinations, and the forces of uttermost darkness that seek to negate such things—the struggle will take all our nerve and all our intelligence. But who can argue that it is not the same battle in both cases, and who dares to say that it is not worth fighting?

That’s the plan, anyway, and there’s plenty of positive signs. Still, even if we truncate our goals in Iraq to defeating AQI/AQM, it goes too far by miles to see the “prize is within our reach.” Certainly, it’s not going to happen in time for Petraeus’ milestones report next month or, indeed, within the next Friedman. It remains to be seen, then, whether the American public can be sold on this goal and that the latest strategy is finally the right one.

UPDATE: I’ve been asked to provide recent examples of people claiming AQI is not part of al Qaeda. The meme and its variants have been Democratic Party talking points for the last several weeks. See Barack Obama, John Kerry and Harry Reid, Ike Skelton, Media Matters, and Bill Moyers for example.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Iraq War, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LaurenceB says:

    “…Hitchens takes on the tired but not dead argument that al Qaeda in Iraq (Mesopotamia) is not really part of al Qaeda proper… This is well trod ground but, alas, apparently there are still plenty of doubters

    Dr. Joyner,

    Just a thought: Before you get hammered with commenters accusing you of setting up a strawman, it might be a good idea to update the post with an example or two of folks who have actually stated that they believe that AQ in Irag is not part of AQ.

    Assuming those folks exist. I don’t know any personally. Ward Churchill might come in handy here.

  2. jpe says:

    The real question for our purposes is whether there’s an operational link – we know AQI are bad, bad people, and we know that some of the AQI folks have spoken to the AQ folks. However, that degree of connection could have sufficed to bolster the argument that Soviet Russia was the same entity as Cuba or China.

    The real question for policy purposes is whether, but for the Iraq war, the members of AQI would be targeting the US homeland.

    Everything else (Hitchens’s column, for example) is a red herring.

  3. jpe says:

    To expand on that last comment a bit: while it would nice to kill people who are terrorists and have communicated w/ OBL & AQ, it shouldn’t be a top priority. For instance, while it would be nice to destroy the Tamil Tigers, it isn’t a top priority because we’re not really worried about the TT attacking U.S. targets. The same logic should be applied to AQI (which is all that Kerry etalia are asking): if AQI wouldn’t attack U.S. targets if it weren’t for the occupation, then their activity in Iraq is an insufficient reason for staying.

  4. LaurenceB says:

    Thanks Dr. Joyner. Very much appreciated!

    I’ve been scouring over your examples (I’m reading as fast as I can) and I have yet to find a direct quote from any of the people you are referencing where they state unequivocally that they don’t believe that AQ in Iraq is affiliated with Al Queda. Would you mind pointing us to the specific quote(s)?

    Thanks again

  5. James Joyner says:

    yet to find a direct quote from any of the people you are referencing where they state unequivocally that they don’t believe that AQ in Iraq is affiliated with Al Queda

    The Media Matters one is the most direct. The others are arguing that AQI is peripheral to the main fight against AQ.

    The debate started with President Bush’s assertion that we’re fighting the people behind 9/11, which was widely criticized. Yet, if AQI = AQ, then they are the same.

  6. LaurenceB says:


    Well, I guess my position is that I agree with Hitchens that we disagree with anyone who says that AQI is not part of AQ. If anyone says that. Which I have yet to see.

    Meanwhile I agree with jpe and the Democrats that the battle with AQI is (or should be) subordinate to the main fight against AQ.

    And I technically agree with Bush’s statement about AQI and 9/11, although I understand and empathize with Democrats who find it to be misleading. Because it is.

  7. Anjin-San says:

    So what is your point? That Bush has been sucessful at turning Iraq into a terrorist state? Most folks conceed that…

  8. Rick DeMent says:

    Frankly I don’t really give a wit about any terrorist organization that dosen’t explicitly seek to take the fight on to US soil.

    I have seen no evidence that AQI seeks to do that, nor has there been any substantial link other then ideology and tactics that link AQI to Bin Laden or the financing pipeline that could make AQI a credible threat to US soil.

    So whether or not there is any link at all between AQI an AQ is irrelevant unless you part of the fear mongering wing of the pro-war set. But hey If you have some information that says other wise I am all ears.

  9. MarkT says:

    I think you should considering remove the link to the Glenn Greewald post.

    I just read it thoroughly and it doesn’t appear to support your key point.

    It does not say that anything close to “AQI isn’t really AQ and therefore we should leave”.

    Editor’s note: Done.

    I found Greenwald’s post via the same search terms as the others but, reading more closely, what he’s saying is two orders removed from “AQI not equal to AQ.” He’s making the more nuanced argument that “All insurgents not equal to AQI,” with which I agree.

  10. cian says:

    Al Qaeda couldn’t care less whether America stays or goes. They’ve already achieved victory and it looks like this- America bogged down in a war they cannot win, a war that is costing the country enormous amounts both in lives and national treasure, has alienated us from our historical allies, divided the nation, is breaking the army, and diverting attention away from their training camps.

    Al Qaeda is now stronger than at any other time since defeat in Afghanistan, America, by which ever metric you wish to use, is weaker.

    And the irony of all this is, if US troops pulled out, the Iraqi people themselves would deal with Al Qaeda pretty damn quick, as has been shown in the Anbar province.

    The truth is, had we not invaded Iraq, all that Christopher wishes for would have been achieved long ago- a decisive defeat of Al Qaeda.

  11. C.Wagener says:


    Here are a few metrics: the U.S. economy has been growing reasonably well since 2003, tax receipts are at an all time high with defense spending lower as a percent of GDP than the average of post WW II; thousands of AQ related terrorists have been killed, their philosophy has been discredited by their killing of Muslims and general nihilism; Germany, France and Canada have elected pro-American heads of state, we have lost roughly 170,000 Americans in car accidents during the time we’ve lost 3,700 in Iraq.

    And we have no idea what threat Iraq would pose right now if we hadn’t invaded.

    Cheer up.

  12. Andy says:

    Shorter C. Wagener: 4000 dead mostly young Americans, a trillion dollars down the drain, loss of national credibility and letting bin Laden escape are totally worth it. Sarkozy got elected and the rich got tax cuts!

  13. C.Wagener says:

    We lost national credibility? I must have missed that. Perhaps it was in The New Republic.

    Tax cuts for the rich? As opposed to the half of Americans that don’t pay taxes? The rich pay a higher percentage of tax than they ever have.

    And couldn’t we have gotten Bin Laden on an airport tarmac pre 9/11 without invading nuclear armed Pakistan?

    But I agree with the waste of money, a trillion bucks (paid for by those evil rich – or $600 billion if you want to use real numbers) is a total waste for stinkin’ freedom. Man that whole spending binge in the 40’s was sure a waste.

  14. Andy says:

    C. Wag, since you apparently don’t understand the difference between income versus payroll and real total taxation, I’m not surprised that you feel that spending hundreds of billions on “freedom” is an awesome idea.

    America would have never gone to war if we had been told the truth about the costs and possible benefits.

  15. spencer says:

    You have supported a President who has completely failed to implement his policy objectives. So quit trying to blame others for the failure of the policy you supported. Your arguments are getting to be like the ones over Viet Nam. If we had listened to people like you we would not be in Iraq because we would still be bogged down in Viet Nam.

    Yes, AQ in Iraq is tied to Ben Laden. So what?
    It does not make any difference. Foreign fighters just account for a very few percentage points of the people fighting the US and if they were completely removed it would not make any difference. What some democrats says about it does
    not make any difference. The only thing that matters is that Bush and Co. are completely failing to destroy AQ in Iraq.

    The point is the Republican party and right Wing is losing two wars and massively weakening the US.

    It is not the democrats fault. For years they have given this President everything he asked for and he is still losing the war. Why should we continue to do the same thing that has obviously failed time and time again?

    At a minimum we need to increase the US force level in Iraq several fold. Guess what, Bush & Co. has refused to do that for years. This is completely his fault and the fault of people like you who have blindly supported his failed policy.

    Quit trying to pass the buck. You are the political party that claims to be the party of personal responsibility. Well, be men enough to admit your failure and take responsibility for your actions..

  16. G.A.Phillips says:

    Shorter C. Wagener: 4000 dead mostly young Americans, a trillion dollars down the drain, loss of national credibility and letting bin Laden escape are totally worth it. Sarkozy got elected and the rich got tax cuts!

    I thought you libs said we would need hundreds of the thousands of body bags, so with your standards what we have here is a great success.

    And how many times do I have to remind you that its worth staying in Iraq at all cost because we have Iran surrounded, Dude if you and your liberal friends cant get this concept you need to stop commenting on war strategies.

    And the only time we lose credibility with any one that matters or our enemies, is when stupid liberals vote other stupid liberals into high office.

    Triumph, I hope you don’t mind me using your catchphrase.

  17. Andy says:

    And how many times do I have to remind you that its worth staying in Iraq at all cost because we have Iran surrounded,

    Come out with your hands up, Iran!

    (Actually, this sounds a lot like the Bush administration’s actual Iran policy.)

  18. C.Wagener says:

    Andy – reasonable point regarding payroll taxes, I’m guilty of some hyperbole. I would say it’s just a little over the top, however. Folks paying 14% on a $50,000 a year pay check aren’t exactly paying for the F-22’s.

    Spenser – Dem, Repub, whatever. Ever think of yourself as an American? The Republicans had congress until the last election so Bush could get the money from them. Meanwhile liberals were busy rewriting history and trying to grant constitutional rights to our enemies.

    As far as losing two wars, well how does it look like from AQ’s perspective? Think they’re happy that the native population is turning against them? See it from your enemies side occasionally and your blood pressure may drop a bit.

  19. Andy says:

    As far as losing two wars, well how does it look like from AQ’s perspective?

    It looks like a massive strategic victory. We fell directly into bin Laden’s predicted trap, where we have been bogged down in an insurgency in the middle east that has created thousands of terrorists, to say nothing of our failure to bring al qaeda’s figurehead to justice.

  20. C.Wagener says:

    Andy – folks who criticize Bush for shifting reasons for Iraq (in reality changes in emphasis, given pre-invasion speeches) should also apply the same rules to Bin Laden. Bin Laden thought he was going to have to dodge a few cruise missiles. He assured his underlings that is all they would face. AQ’s been spinning worse than the Soviets in the 70’s and 80’s.

    As for more terrorists, the ME population is turning against radicalism, so I disagree with your view on this. Blowing up fellow Muslims don’t make them stronger. If you were a ME Muslim would you be inclined to think AQ has improved your life? If your enemy is eating their young, that’s a good thing.

    Finally, why do you think Bin Ladin is alive? Why no AQ videos in four years? If you have a charismatic leader why no use him? If he is alive he just comes off as a coward.

    At any rate what’s your approach to taking out AQ?