Al Qaeda Running Out of Volunteers?

Donald Sensing has a long, well sourced essay arguing that al Qaeda is having trouble finding volunteers, especially for suicide bombings and attacks on hard targets.

The trend on the ground in Iraq is that al Qaeda has almost given up attacking US forces directly because they lose badly every time. They have turned instead to attacking Iraqi Security Forces, which are a softer target. Bit the ISF troops are increasing in number and competence week by week. In fact, the ISF performed very well in rooting al Qaeda out of Tal Afar recently in conjunction with US Army units. This operation has been basically concluded now.


Five hundred jihadis killed or captured puts a big dent in al Qaeda’s personnel status. As one Army briefer said last week, the quality and skill of the terrorist fighters Iraqi-American troops faced in Tal Afar was very significantly lower than have been heretofore encountered.


The apparent low quality of newly-recruited jihadis and the open-battle incapacity of the jihadist fighters led al Qaeda’s Iraq “mastermind” (hardly a term to apply to one leading the losing side) Abu Musab al Zarqawi to declare war against Iraqi Shiites, then quickly backtrack when he apparently realized that was a losing proposition in a country that is 80 percent Shia. It didn’t really play well across much of the Arab world, either, even among some other Islamists. . . .


The Iraqis are indeed increasingly closing ranks and “uniting against foreign occupation,” except they are comprehending in rapidly increasing numbers that the foreign occupiers are not the Americans, but al Zarqawi and cohort.


Al Qaeda in Iraq is unable to launch effective attacks against US or Iraqi forces, which are punishing al Qaeda more and more effectively. (It needs be noted that insurgents in Iraq, whether Baathists or al Qaeda, have never been able to do this.) While many attacks have been deadly, sad to say, they have not been effective. The loss of Tal Afar to al Qaeda and Zarqawi’s frantic rhetoric afterward show that he is unable now to mount even a minimally effective defense.

So all he can do is what he has been doing in recent days: blow people up, a capability that he still has in spades. But it is the only capability he has. The great majority of his victims have and continue to be Iraqis. It is not a tactic that can win hearts and minds. But al Qaeda has never really be interested in gaining a popular mandate, anyway. Because it cannot give effective battle, it’s only resort is to try to incite fighting between Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Turkomens, heck, anybody who will fight each other. But that’s not working, either. Zarqawi is lashing out brutally and bloodily, but he can’t hide the fact that al Qaeda in Iraq is steadily being boxed in and losing strength day by day. The otherwise-unemployable, driftless young Saudi men like Alhamedi profiled can’t plug the gaps.

Of course, al Qaeda doesn’t have to defeat the American military–or even the Iraqi military and security forces–on the battlefield. Terrorists, insurgents, and guerillas win by breaking their opponent’s hostile will, not their physical capacity to carry on the fight.

There’s not much chance of breaking our soldiers’ will anytime soon but public opinion has turned against the war. In Vietnam, the American military never lost a major battle. Even the infamous Tet Offensive was ultimately a rout of the enemy. In the end, that didn’t matter. Perception often trumps reality. The perception is that we are losing.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. spencer says:

    They are not attacking US forces.

    Then why does the trend line of US casualties still have such a strong upward slope?

  2. ken says:

    Just another ‘last throes’ propanganda piece to keep conservatives from thinking for themselves.

  3. McGehee says:

    Seeing as how I’ve never seen evidence that Ken has had an original thought in his life, his comment just pegged the irony meter.

    As for “the trend line of US casualties” — Spencer, you got a link to that graph? If it’s the one I think it is, it’s one of those that can’t ever have a downward slope until we learn the art of resurrection.

  4. Jim Henley says: – your friend for actual Iraq-related numbers. As to US military deaths, in the short term, the monthly rate oscillates on 3-4-month half-cycles. In the longer term, it slowly creeps upward. See the graph and toss out the 100-plus spike months – because they correspond to major US offensives – and the trend is still clear.

  5. anjin-san says:

    They are running out of voulenteers? Sounds like our army under Bush…

  6. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Some of the above posts are reminicent of the past. For those, I have some questions. What lands have the islamofascist conquered? What territory have they been able to secure in Iraq? Would it have been easier to remove Saddam after he had united the Middle East under his dictatorship and having developed nuclear weapons and a delivery system, sometime in the future, because history has taught us that hungry dictators are not satisfied with just a little. Remember Hitler? He only wanted to unify greater Germany, first. Anyone stupid enough to think Saddam was not a serious threat to the World has not studied history. If there is no connection between Iraq and al-Qeada, why are they there, and what was al-Zarqawi doint there before operation Iraqi Freedom? To those liberals who are to anti-american to fight for anything, I suggest you save yourselves by converting to Islam and moving to a country ruled by islamofascists. Hard to find one, is it not. Without George W. Bush, it would not have been.

  7. ken says:

    Jack, After ten years of bombings and sanctions Saddam Hussain was left with an army that couldn’t fight its way out of a wet paper bag. He was no threat to anyone. Your fearmongering is groundless but typical of conservatives.

    Meanwhile by denying our soldiers the manpower they need to win his senseless war on Iraq our troops cannot even control the road between the airport and the capital.

    I know you hate american values but we cannot allow you to destroy our country any longer. I suggest you move to Texas.

  8. Herb says:

    The one thing one can say about anjin san is that he is not prejudiced


  9. jimbo says:

    No question that the public no longer supports the war in Iraq. The lesson of this and Vietnam is that the public in a democracy will not support a significant war effort against an enemy that does not pose an immediate strategic threat to the nation. This is a problem for the world community. The EU has played good cop and the US has played bad cop. The EU/UN method of dealing with bad guys works only when they can point to a snarling, bellicose US waiting for action and willing to clean the bad guy’s clock. Take that away and the bad guys will rule. Prudent nations are going to take their own action. The Iranians, not good guys themselves, are surrounded by hostile Sunnis. Pakistan has nukes and is just inches away from falling to the Islamofascists. The US is likely to pull out of Iraq and trigger a n Islamic civil war. If the Russians and Chinese don’t disarm North Korea, Japan will acquire nukes because they know that American voters will not support any sustained action against the North.