Iraq’s Foreign Fighters: Few But Deadly
Dan Murphy passes on word of a report by Anthony Cordesman and the Center for Strategic and International Studies which says that much of what has generally been though about foreign jihadists in Iraq is wrong.
Iraq’s Foreign Fighters: Few But Deadly (CSM, p. 1)
Much of the US effort in Iraq in recent months has been aimed at stopping the inflow of foreign jihadis. US warplanes have blown up bridges to deny insurgent infiltration routes, troops have occupied small towns thought to be crossing points for foreigners into bigger cities, and spy drones continuously buzz the Syrian border.
Even if the US can seal Iraq’s borders, stopping the flow of foreign fighters would do little to eliminate most of the country’s insurgents. Only 4 to 10 percent of the country’s combatants are foreign fighters, according to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies released last week. But while they are a minority, says the report, they are a potent segment largely from Algeria and Syria.
“The fact that there are 3,000 foreign fighters in Iraq is cause for alarm, particularly because they play so large a role in the most violent bombings and in the efforts to provoke a major and intense civil war,” write coauthors Anthony Cordesman, a former director of defense intelligence assessment for the secretary of Defense, and Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi national and security analyst. Based mostly on Saudi intelligence, they estimate that active members of the insurgency number about 30,000.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the report says, Iraq has become one of the global centers for the recruiting and training of what Mr. Cordesman and Mr. Obaid term “neo-Salafi” terrorists. These are essentially Islamist fighters that share Al Qaeda’s extreme rejection of non-Muslim “infidels” and seek to create Islamic states patterned after the Arabian peninsula of the 7th and 8th centuries.
Also, the large numbers of foreign fighters who may survive the conflict are likely to return to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Algeria carrying terrorism skills and highly radicalized world views with them, they write. “They are also a threat because they give bin Laden and other neo-Salafi extremist movements publicity and credibility among the angry and alienated in the Islamic world, and because many are likely to survive and be the source of violence,” in other countries. Most of Iraq’s fighters, they say, are Sunni Arab “nationalists” who distrust Shiites now in power. Foreign fighters, the report claims, are seeking to manipulate this distrust into a wider civil war.
The authors also point out that the “fly paper” theory about the Iraq war – that a limited global number of Islamic militants would be lured to Iraq and destroyed – is probably incorrect. Instead, they estimate that many of the foreigners fighting in Iraq were peaceful before the US invasion.
Damning, if true. One wonders about the “many” jihadists who were formerly peaceful, though. What percentage would that be, exactly?
As for the question of the composition and the size of the foreign volunteers in the Iraqi insurgency, the study estimates that there are 3,000 fighters. Those fighters come from all around the Arab and Islamic worlds. The largest component of these fighters come from Algeria (600 or 20%), followed by Syria (550 or 18%), Yemen (500 or 17%), Sudan (450 or 15%), Saudi Arabia (350 or 12%), Egypt (400 or 5%), and other countries (150 or 5%).
The Saudi involvement in the Iraqi insurgency is overestimated, but does have an impact that goes beyond the number of insurgents involved: Ã¢€œUnlike the foreign fighters from poor countries such as Yemen and Egypt, Saudis entering Iraq often bring in money to support the cause, arriving with personal funds between $10,000-$15,000. Saudis are the most sought after militants; not only because of their cash contributions, but also because of the media attention their deaths as Ã¢€œmartyrsÃ¢€ bring to the cause. This is a powerful recruiting tool. Because of the wealth of Saudi Arabia, and its well developed press, there also tends to be much more coverage of Saudi deaths in Iraq than of those from poorer countries.Ã¢€
I agree with this conclusion:
[T]he outcome in Iraq is going to be determined by how well IraqÃ¢€™s political process can find an inclusive solution to bringing Arab Sunnis, Arab Shiites, Kurds, and Iraqi minorities into a state that all are willing to support. Military action, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism cannot unite or build a country. They cannot put an end to Iraqi insurgency or creating the climate of popular support that neo-Salafi movements and foreign volunteers can operate it.
That doesn’t make military action unnecessary, 0f course. Indeed, creating security is an essential prerequisite to establishing effective governance. It is not, however, sufficient.