Al Qaeda’s Role in Iraq

Michael Gordon and Jim Rutenberg argue in today’s NYT that the Bush administration has consistently exaggerated the role of al Qaeda in Iraq for propaganda purposes. That’s undeniably true. “Al Qaeda” is a powerful buzz word and both the terrorists and politicians play it up for effect.

In the case of the administration, they made too much of some rather tenuous ties between al Qaeda leaders and Saddam Hussein in making the case for the invasion. Subsequently, they pretended that foreign jihadists in general and al Qaeda in particular were much more important in the insurgency than they actually were. Perhaps more critically, they are over emphasizing al Qaeda in their strategic plans for achieving our goals in Iraq, making it even less likely that they will be achieved.

That’s pretty damning stuff. Nonetheless, Gordon and Rutenberg have managed to vasty overstate their case, making numerous critical errors in the process.

Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia did not exist before the Sept. 11 attacks. The Sunni group thrived as a magnet for recruiting and a force for violence largely because of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which brought an American occupying force of more than 100,000 troops to the heart of the Middle East, and led to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

Not exactly. It’s true the the group didn’t take the name “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia” until after the insurgency got underway. They did so to take advantage of the propaganda value of the name. It’s also true that the presence of American troops served as a major recruiting magnet and made the group vastly more significant than it was previously.

But Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was operating in Iraq long before the war. Indeed, his presence in Iraq was cited by Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in his now infamous UN speech laying out the rationale for the war.

Further, while the group did not call itself al Qaeda, al-Zarqawi was trained by Osama bin Laden and has ties with him going back to their days together in Afghanistan at the end of the Soviet occupation there in 1989. They met up again during the post-9/11 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

[W]hile American intelligence agencies have pointed to links between leaders of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the top leadership of the broader Qaeda group, the militant group is in many respects an Iraqi phenomenon. They believe the membership of the group is overwhelmingly Iraqi. Its financing is derived largely indigenously from kidnappings and other criminal activities. And many of its most ardent foes are close at home, namely the Shiite militias and the Iranians who are deemed to support them.

That’s all true but irrelevant. It’s organizing leader, al-Zarqawi, was Jordanian and part of the global jihadi movement. More importantly, al Qaeda has always been an umbrella organization which organized existing state-based terrorist groups together in a loose affiliation to achieve common goals. That was the genius of bin Laden’s plan: leveraging existing animosities and resources while avoiding the vulnerabilities that come from a hierarchical structure. See Michael Scheuer ‘s books, especially Through Our Enemies’ Eyes, for a detailed history.

“The president wants to play on Al Qaeda because he thinks Americans understand the threat Al Qaeda poses,” said Bruce Riedel, an expert at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and a former C.I.A. official. “But I don’t think he demonstrates that fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq precludes Al Qaeda from attacking America here tomorrow. Al Qaeda, both in Iraq and globally, thrives on the American occupation.”

Indeed, if Michael Chertoff’s gut is any indication, it won’t. Bush and the neo-conservatives believe that victory in Iraq and establishing a democratic foothold there will ultimately get to the root causes of jihadist sympathy. It doesn’t look like we’ll find out whether they were right, unfortunately, since their vision for Iraq’s future seems exceedingly unlikely.

Mr. Zarqawi did have support from senior Qaeda leaders, American intelligence agencies believe, and his organization grew in the chaos of post-Hussein Iraq.

“There has been an intimate relationship between them from the beginning,” Mr. Riedel said of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the senior leaders of the broader Qaeda group.

That seems right. While there was significant reason to suspect that Saddam was harboring Zarqawi in 2003, mostly on the assumption that nothing of consequence was going on in Baghdad without his allowing it, there’s no evidence of active support. But, rather clearly, Zarqawi and al Qaeda were intertwined before the war.

But the precise relationship between the Al Qaeda of Osama bin Laden and other groups that claim inspiration or affiliation with it is murky and opaque. While the groups share a common ideology, the Iraq-based group has enjoyed considerable autonomy. Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, questioned Mr. Zarqawi’s strategy of organizing attacks against Shiites, according to captured materials. But Mr. Zarqawi clung to his strategy of mounting sectarian attacks in an effort to foment a civil war and make the American occupation untenable.

Again, though, that’s the nature of al Qaeda. Indeed, as John Robb argues persuasively in Brave New War, that’s the nature of the global guerrilla phenomenon generally.

The heated debate over Iraq has spilled over to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia as well. Mr. Bush has played up the group, talking about it as if it is on a par with the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks. War critics have often played down the significance of the group despite its gruesome record of suicide attacks and its widely suspected role in destroying a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 that set Iraq on the road to civil war.

Exactly right. It seems undeniable that AQM/AQI is “on par” with the cell that perpetrated 9/11 in terms of its present danger to the U.S. Just as obviously, though, that’s entirely a consequence of our invasion of Iraq. That we enabled the monster’s creation, though, doesn’t change the reality that it’s a monster.

The broader issue is whether Iraq is a central front in the war against Al Qaeda, as Mr. Bush maintains, or a distraction that has diverted the United States from focusing on the Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan while providing Qaeda leaders with a cause for rallying support.

This is a false dichotomy. While it’s true that our desire for support in waging the war in Iraq has limited our leverage in Pakistan, it strikes me as incredibly unlikely that critics of the war — including the vast majority of congressional Democrats — would sanction going to war in Pakistan to root out al Qaeda, given the consequences that it would entail. Remember: Pakistan is a nuclear state.

Military intelligence officials said that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s leaders wanted to expand their attacks to other countries. They noted that Mr. Zarqawi claimed a role in a 2005 terrorist attack in Jordan. But Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, said that if American forces were to withdraw from Iraq, the vast majority of the group’s members would likely be more focused on battling Shiite militias in the struggle for dominance in Iraq than on trying to follow the Americans home. “Al-Masri may have more grandiose expectations, but that does not mean he could turn Al Qaeda of Iraq into a transnational terrorist entity,” he said.

My guess is that Hoffman’s right on that score, although an expert guess is still a guess. Presumably, however, the removal of American troops from the picture would create a vacuum that others — Iran, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and others — would be tempted to fill. As bad as things are in Iraq now, they could quite easily get worse if we leave.

Regardless, Gordon and Ruttenberg have hit on the right question. The debate should focus on the future rather than the past: Given where we are now, what are our options? What’s the best path toward maximizing American security interests in the region? And, frankly, what are our moral obligations to the Iraqi people given that we created the situation that allowed the current chaos to be created?

That’s not to say that there should be no political recriminations for the past, simply that we can not run a foreign policy as part of a never-ending political campaign. There is plenty of room for points scoring on the campaign trail, where it’s fair game. But that should take place alongside an honest dialog about the best way forward.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor 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.

Comments

  1. spencer says:

    I have no reason to disagree with what you have said.

    But in his press conference yesterday Bush repeated something he has said numerous times. He said” we are there because they attacked us”.

    As far as I am concerned when he says that he is lying to the American people.

    I would like to see you defend Bush’s repeated use of that exact phrase.

  2. Triumph says:

    The debate should focus on the future rather than the past: Given where we are now, what are our options?

    If one thing is clear, it is that Bush is EXTREMELY inept at providing needed leadership to deal with the threat.

    His basic argument–“I got us into this mess, and I need to get us out”–is nothing but a recipe for further disaster.

    Congress has the mechanisms to influence executive actions. There are plenty of bi-partisan proposals on the Hill to manage Bush’s disaster. What needs to occur first, is for Senate Republicans to cease protecting Bush through their extensive use of the fillibuster.

  3. yetanotherjohn says:

    Is there somewhere other than Iraq and Afghanistan that has more AQ members?

    Is there some part of the US government better suited to ‘render harmless’ the AQ members in Iraq and Afghanistan than what we have deployed there?

    While reasonable people may differ on the emphasis to be placed on this, it is hardly a case of ‘bloody Huns bayoneting Belgian nuns’.

    Of course the NYT’s editorial position is in favor of genocide in Iraq, so you need to take what they say with a grain of salt.

  4. James,

    The ties between Saddam and al Qaeda weren’t very tenuous to the past three CIA directors.

    What is it that makes you think you know more about the subject than Tenet, Woolsey and Goss. Two of whom said that safehaven, weapons and poison training took place and more?

    I’ve studied this topic obsessively for four years and when you look at the HUNDREDS of members of Saddam’s regime caught working with al Qaeda since 2002 (I’ll be posting the list soon at http://www.regimeofterror.com) it gets a little tiresome to hear people try and squash the links between the two, particularly knowing that their knowledge of the subject is limited to headlines and filtered media reports.

    I’d be more than happy to discuss this issue with you James and I can assure you it would be much more substantial than just reciting the same old pre-packaged answers. Let me know if you are interested.

  5. legion says:

    But Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was operating in Iraq long before the war. Indeed, his presence in Iraq was cited by Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in his now infamous UN speech laying out the rationale for the war.

    Yeah, because all the things Powell said to the UN turned out to be completely true & reliable, rather than utter bullshit.

    there’s no evidence of active support. But, rather clearly, Zarqawi and al Qaeda were intertwined before the war.

    Of course, but im rather convoluted ways. Our own support of the Saud family could just as easily be used to claim the US is “intertwined” with the Wahhabists who fostered AQ to begin with…

    But to be fair, I’ll also defend James when he’s on the right track:

    What is it that makes you think you know more about the subject than Tenet, Woolsey and Goss. Two of whom said that safehaven, weapons and poison training took place and more?

    Perhaps the fact that Tenet and Goss, at least, have shown themselves to be completely incompetent at running the CIA?

    Also, a word of advice: using anything from Ed Morrissey or Powerline as a supporting argument is rather like using Wikipedia in the citations list for a major thesis – it tends to get you laughed at.

  6. madmatt says:

    So zarqawi was operating in a part of Iraq that WAS NOT UNDER SADDAMS CONTROL…why didn’t we do anything about him when he was in a camp we could bomb before the war? Colin Powell has admitted his speech was BS from the word GO!

  7. Bithead says:

    Of necessity , it would seem to me that any “open and honest” dialog, would include the Democrats “vision” of Iraq. In other words, how would they handle it? What would they do? So far, that’s the one thing we haven’t had from them… A realistic assessment, of what they would do.

  8. Bithead says:

    Also, a word of advice: using anything from Ed Morrissey or Powerline as a supporting argument is rather like using Wikipedia in the citations list for a major thesis – it tends to get you laughed at.

    Only from the far left.

  9. Hmmm. Now let me get this straight. Al Qaeda existed in Afghanistan before the war. Al Qaeda existed in Saudi Arabia and Yemen before the war. Al Qaeda existed in Egypt before the war. Al Qaeda existed in Turkey. They were in Morocco, Algeria, and Sudan. They existed in Indonesia and the Philippines before the war. They were in Spain and Canada. They were in London and France. They were jailed by Janet Reno on “secret evidence” in the 1990s. Al Qaeda was in Hallandale Beach, Florida before the war.

    But somehow Iraq managed to wholly cleanse itself of Al Qaeda and be a moojie-free zone. (Ansar al Islam notwithstanding, somehow, to the New York Times.)

    Got it.

    I credit Saddam Hussein’s robust policy of gun control.

    Dolts.

  10. G.A.Phillips says:

    Jason, well said.

  11. James Joyner says:

    somehow Iraq managed to wholly cleanse itself of Al Qaeda and be a moojie-free zone.

    Who’s arguing that?

  12. M1EK says:

    But that should take place alongside an honest dialog about the best way forward.

    And part of that dialog should be whether we should trust the batch that got us into this mess in the first place. You still are, of course, because they’re on your team.

  13. James Joyner says:

    And part of that dialog should be whether we should trust the batch that got us into this mess in the first place. You still are, of course, because they’re on your team.

    Well, no. But the fact of the matter is that the president was elected and will serve as the president until January 2009. You propose that we should just stop having a foreign policy until then?

  14. Ugh says:

    You propose that we should just stop having a foreign policy until then?

    Don’t tempt me.

  15. James,

    Who’s arguing that? Michael Gordon and Jim Rutenberg. To wit: “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia did not exist before the September 11th attacks.”

    That’s like saying Hillary Clinton did not exist before she married Bill.

  16. M1EK says:

    You propose that we should just stop having a foreign policy until then?

    I propose that we shouldn’t take his word on anything; that the Congress should re-assert its constitutional authority wrt warmaking (and revoke the bogus not-really-a-war-declaration ‘authorization’, and start the clock ticking on the War Powers Act); and that bloggers who keep wanting to have it both ways should be forced to lay it on the line: why, on earth, should we trust you guys again when you lied the last time around with such drastic consequences.

  17. What, precisely, was the “lie?”

  18. Legion,
    Do some reading. When I say SOMEONE ELSE is talking about a story as well that isn’t using them as a source.

  19. Legion,
    Don’t know who you are quoting with the Powell stuff but a broken clock is even right twice a day. Taking the default position that anything and everything said by the Bush administration CANT be true is not a good way to base an argument.

    Let’s just talk about what’s actually been found in Iraq instead of what beltway politicians have said on the topic.

  20. M1EK says:

    JVS,

    I’ll give you one very very recent example: What Scooter perjured himself to protect.

  21. legion says:

    Mark,
    I was mixing my metaphors, so to speak. James brought up that Powell cited al-Zarqawi’s working in Iraq in his UN speech & took the easy shot at it – that citing Powell’s speech wasn’t really helpful to giving that concept credibility – what with the mobile CW labs, drones that can hit us from Iraq, centrifuge tubes, etc. (and yes, I know Powell didn’t cite all of that crap himself, but I want to underline that when the US gov’t says “we have evidence that…,” it’s simply not enough).

    As for using other blogs as a source, well, when one links to another’s blog post (as opposed to the straight news feed that blog uses), especially one with a known POV/bias/reputation/whatever, it tends to imply a certain support. If I were to hook a link to, say, Weekly World News, and say “look – these guys are talking about Bat Boy too!”, I would expect certain… reactions.

  22. Legion,
    You are still aren’t getting my point. I am linking to other people discussing a topic. Not sure how that discredits a topic. If the NYTimes is discussing Hamas’s takeover of Gaza does that somehow diminish the subject being discussed? I don’t follow your reasoning on this.

    Also, I personally don’t give a damn what the government says on this topic, pro or con. I am quite distrustful of what governnments do regardless of their party affiliation I looked at Saddam’s links from beginning to end with an open mind in AP stories, Washington Post stories, NYTimes, captured documents, speeches they’ve made and interviews these guys have done with foreign media outlets. The story I’ve got on the subject is absolutely out of touch with what our incurious American press has concluded with far less attempt to understand.

    I’ll ask you this, when Izzat al Douri tells TIME magazine and other press outlets that he considers Zarqawi his brother in arms and had sworn fealty to him, what does it make you think? This is an abberation of the “rule” that secularists won’t work with Islamists? When you start seeing a pattern of this sort of thing going on in Iraq since 2002 you start to realize that the “rule” is a rule that needs to be thrown out and the whole thing needs to be looked at anew. If you’d really like to discuss this and see some stuff I’ve found on my own drop me an email through my site. I’d be happy to talk to you about it.

  23. M1EK –

    You’re hilarious. A blackhead pimple on the body politic.

    Wanna try a serious response?

  24. Bithead says:

    You are still aren’t getting my point. I am linking to other people discussing a topic. Not sure how that discredits a topic.

    I should think that point blindingly obvious. He’s not interested in the truth, he’s more interested in whether or not his myopic view of the situation is validated. Your sources don’t do that.

  25. Bithead,
    He is NOT my source. Read my site. Not hard to figure out the difference between commentary on something and a source.

    I guess when the very Baathists in question admit they worked with al Qaeda pre and post invasion they aren’t too believe either because they are just “schilling for Republicans” or are “biased.” Are those sources no good too?