Know Thy Enemies
Who are we fighting, and who is supporting them?
12:00 AM, May 11, 2007 • By KYLE DABRUZZI
SOMETIMES WHAT WE DON'T KNOW can indeed hurt us. This was the case in 2006, when reporters noticed significant fighting between Iraqi insurgent factions. This confused journalists and government analysts, but the prevailing attitude was that if the insurgents were fighting each other, at least they weren't fighting us.
It turned out that the group that bore the brunt of this violence would later develop into the Anbar Salvation Front, which has proved to be one of our most important local allies in Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), was trying to wipe out this fledgling movement. If analysts better understood that situation, timely U.S. intervention could have thwarted Zarqawi and allowed the Anbar Salvation Front to make a difference on the ground sooner.
Similarly, today a critically important debate is raging about whether the United States should set a timeframe for troop withdrawal. While most people seemingly have an opinion on the matter, it's difficult to figure out whether the situation is truly futile without understanding the various factions that we're fighting.
Understanding the Iraqi insurgency is less difficult than most people imagine. A report that the International Crisis Group published last year concludes that the insurgency is "no longer a scattered, erratic, chaotic phenomenon," but that insurgent groups "are well organized, produce regular publications, react rapidly to political developments and appear surprisingly centralized." This article's goal is to paint an accurate picture of the insurgency as it exists today. The insurgency may look different six months or a year from now, but this is a critical time for understanding our foes, as the withdrawal debate reaches a fever pitch.
IN 2004 AND 2005, BAATHIST AND SUNNI nationalist insurgent groups comprised the bulk of the resistance movement in Iraq. These groups weren't necessarily waging a sectarian war, nor did they espouse a particularly radical religious creed. By late 2005, a number of secular and nationalist groups had decided to join the political process--which is traditionally how insurgencies are ended. Some Sunni insurgent groups even provided voters with protection against AQI during the December 2005 constitutional referendum. Alarmed, Zarqawi ordered the February 22, 2006, bombing of the Askariya mosque in Samarra. Askariya's importance to the Shia community was underscored by Iraqi vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi, who likened the mosque attack to 9/11.
This single bombing dramatically reshaped the entire insurgency. Shia reprisals were swift, devastating, and largely indiscriminate. These mass sectarian killings shattered the Baathist and nationalist insurgent factions. For rank-and-file Sunni insurgents, witnessing bloody attacks orchestrated by Shias made al Qaeda's sectarian arguments seem sensible for the first time. Today, the violence caused by the remaining nationalist groups is negligible compared to that caused by AQI: intelligence sources confirm that AQI and its ideological compatriot Ansar al-Sunnah are responsible for the vast majority of violence on the Sunni side. The most significant nationalist faction is the Islamic Army of Iraq--although even that ex-Baathist group now purports to have embraced a radical Islamic ideology.
As the nationalist movement began to splinter after the Askariya bombing, Zarqawi's group consolidated power. The first step was bolstering the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), an umbrella organizations of Sunni insurgent groups that was formed shortly before the mosque bombing.
The MSC serves multiple purposes. Initially, its creation was Zarqawi's response to the orders of two senior al Qaeda leaders. Zarqawi was brutal and divisive, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's top deputy, warned him in a summer 2005 letter that "if the mujahideen are scattered, this leads to the scattering of the people around them." Another 2005 letter, which counterterrorism officials believe was written by senior al Qaeda leader Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, instructed Zarqawi: "You should consult with your mujahidin brothers who are with you in Iraq itself, such as our brothers Ansar al-Sunnah and others." In this manner, the MSC has helped to heal schisms between various Sunni insurgent factions. Moreover, by unifying these factions, the MSC has helped to consolidate their efforts against coalition forces.
After Zarqawi's death, the Egyptian-born Abu Ayyub al-Masri assumed the leadership of AQI. Under his guidance, AQI's roster has become dominated by Iraqis, as it has incorporated former officials from Saddam Hussein's regime who served in the intelligence services and the Republican Guard. Al-Masri has claimed that AQI has 12,000 men in arms and another 10,000 in training; military intelligence sources believe these figures are credible.
While AQI has become a more potent force under al-Masri, it is also experiencing increased resistance from fellow Sunnis. The above-mentioned Anbar Salvation Front, which formed in the traditional al Qaeda stronghold of Anbar province, has proven to be a real thorn in AQI's side. Recently it has provided some stability on the ground in Anbar through the creation of emergency response units that serve a policing function; developed an intelligence network that gives U.S. forces unprecedented access to information about insurgent activities; and has begun to mount a theological challenge to the clerics supporting AQI's jihad.
As Sunni challenges to AQI's dominance gained steam in late 2006, the MSC announced the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq. After the Islamic State of Iraq was established, al-Masri pledged his loyalty to its leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. AQI had previously been seen as a group led by foreign-born jihadists, so an Iraqi's appointment to head the Islamic State of Iraq suggests that AQI is trying to adopt an Iraqi face.
The Islamic State of Iraq is now the new umbrella organization for the Sunni insurgency. Some factions that have joined the Islamic State of Iraq have done so because of al-Masri's policy of reaching out to Sunni tribes. Zarqawi believed tribes themselves to be un-Islamic, but al-Masri is a more pragmatic leader. The Islamic State of Iraq now publishes its own declarations, and has assumed responsibility for a great deal of the violence in Iraq, including the spike in helicopter attacks that kicked off 2007.
Because of AQI's increased effectiveness through such mechanisms as the MSC and the Islamic State of Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus recently identified the group as the most important adversary we face on the Sunni side of the insurgency.
ONE SIGNIFICANT GROUP INCORPORATED by the Islamic State of Iraq is Ansar al-Sunnah. Ansar al-Sunnah grew out of Ansar al-Islam, which was Iraq's original al Qaeda outfit, operating in the Kurdish areas even prior to the U.S. invasion. Michael Rubin notes that Ansar al-Sunnah incorporated not only Ansar al-Islam, but also "foreign al-Qaeda terrorists, and newly mobilized Iraqi Sunnis." As the group transformed from Ansar al-Islam into Ansar al-Sunnah, it morphed from being predominantly Kurdish to predominantly Sunni Arab.
Among Ansar al-Sunnah's notable attacks are a car bombing outside the Turkish embassy in October 2003, a car bombing outside a U.S. military installation in Ramadi in December 2003, parallel suicide bombings in Erbil on February 1, 2004, and the murders of countless Iraqi citizens and coalition forces.
Ansar al-Sunnah originally declined to join with AQI due to disputes with Zarqawi, and tensions between the two groups continue to this day. For example, a January 2007 letter from Ansar al-Sunnah to al-Masri demanded retribution for the killing of Ansar members by AQI fighters--a request to which al-Masri declined to respond. Nonetheless, Ansar al-Sunnah's merger with the Islamic State of Iraq benefits both. Ansar now has a vehicle for extending its influence beyond northern Iraq, while the Islamic State of Iraq has enlisted a formidable ally.
Because Ansar al-Sunnah shares with AQI an adherence to global jihadist ideology, informed intelligence sources believe it will be difficult to draw the group into Iraq's political process.
THE SUNNI INSURGENCY IS ONLY PART of what U.S. forces have to contend with. The Mahdi Army is the militia of Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, and by extension the militia of the Sadrist Movement--a faction that predates Moqtada al-Sadr, and that will be a force in Iraqi life for some time to come. The Mahdi Army's rank and file are largely young, desperate men who have seen no benefits from liberation. A recent Pentagon report declared the Mahdi Army "the most dangerous accelerant" of sectarian violence in Iraq.
Al-Sadr has been described as "one of the most popular leaders in the country" and "its most dangerous." But he has also been described as a less than eloquent speaker, prone to contradiction. Hazem Al-Amin wrote of al-Sadr in Al-Ahram Weekly: "The sentences he utters are awkward and incomplete, and somehow lacking in conviction . . . . The black-turbaned clergymen of Iraq are masters of rhetorical eloquence, yet it would appear that the young Moqtada does not excel in this domain. His turn of phrase is alien to his surroundings, prone to collapse into casual speech and slang. As a public speaker, he fails to rise even to the level of the average literate Iraqi."
After the U.S. invasion, the Madhi Army consolidated its power, largely in southern Iraq. As Ahmed S. Hashim notes in Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, the Mahdi Army "easily rolled over Iraqi security forces in Kufa, Najaf, Nasiriyah, Basra and Sadr City," along the way taking over a number of government offices. The Mahdi Army also did battle with coalition forces--for example, supporting insurgent groups in Fallujah in their April 2004 confrontation with coalition forces. After the Mahdi Army consolidated power, it shifted the focus of its activities to the Baghdad area.
Like many militant factions, the Mahdi Army is not limited to a military wing, but also provides social services and participates in the political system. The Sadrist Movement controlled thirty seats in the United Iraqi Alliance (which held 128 of the 275 seats in Iraq's parliament) until al-Sadr and his allies withdrew from the Iraqi parliament in mid-April. The ability of the Mahdi Army and Sadrist Movement to shift between lethal military operations and serving as a stabilizing force made some observers think that al-Sadr had the U.S. in a catch-22. As Newsweek put it, "[i]f American troops leave Iraq quickly, militia leaders like Sadr will be unleashed as never before, and full-scale civil war could follow. But the longer the American occupation lasts, the less popular America gets--and the more popular Sadr and his ilk become."
But recent events call into question whether the Mahdi Army is really so powerful. Since al-Sadr fled to Iran following the announcement of the U.S. military's "surge," the Mahdi Army has experienced massive splintering. A senior U.S. military intelligence officer who believes that the threat of the Mahdi Army was always overstated said that "support for al-Sadr was always a mile wide but an inch deep." He believes the Mahdi Army has a dedicated core of about 3,000 Iranian-trained operatives, but that most of its members signed on not out of deep commitment, but because "it gave their families and neighborhoods protection."
ANOTHER IMPORTANT SHIA MILITANT FACTION is the Badr Organization of Reconstruction and Development, originally known as the Badr Brigade. The Badr Organization was initially formed in 1983 as the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iranian-backed group that opposed Saddam Hussein's government. The Badr Organization fought as a conventional light infantry unit against Iraq in the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s.
Shortly after Saddam Hussein's government was toppled, SCIRI chairman Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim was killed in a bombing in Najaf. This was devastating to SCIRI's leadership, and precipitated the split between SCIRI and the Badr Organization: today the two are entirely separate entities. Both SCIRI and the Badr Organization participate in Iraq's parliament, and the Badr Organization is part of the United Iraqi Alliance faction.
Today the Badr Organization is believed to have between 10,000 and 20,000 members. At times it was a force for stability, fighting against some Sunni insurgent factions and also the Mahdi Army. The problem is that the Badr Organization augmented sectarian violence. It was accused of brutality against Sunnis even prior to the Askariya bombing. For example, a secret prison uncovered at Badr's headquarters in 2005 reportedly housed over 150 inmates, "many of them malnourished and showing signs of torture; most of them were Sunni Arabs." But the Askariya bombing was the real catalyst for the Badr Organization's increased violence; thereafter the group took part in organized campaigns targeting Sunnis.
Today, Badr is having an identity crisis: according to a senior U.S. military intelligence officer, it is trying to determine whether to align with the Iranian regime or to be accountable to nobody.
THEN THERE ARE THE outside influences that bolster Iraq's instability. Extensive funding for the insurgency has come from private sources, many of which are concentrated in Saudi Arabia. But the insurgency also has its state sponsors.
Syrian support for the insurgency was known in 2004. As Jonathan Schanzer reported in THE WEEKLY STANDARD, a confidential memo produced that year detailing the interrogation of Zarqawi lieutenant Umar Baziyani revealed that Zarqawi's organization (then known as Tawhid and Jihad) had a strong military presence in the town of al-Qaim, located close to the Syrian border. One administration official told Schanzer that Qaim was "the key to understanding how Syria is involved" in sponsoring the insurgency. Baziyani's interrogation revealed that Qaim had become "a depot for weapons, cash, and fighters supplied by Zarqawi's financiers," who generally operated out of Syria. And Baziyani claimed that the military emir of Zarqawi's Baghdad cell had been smuggled into Iraq through Syria.
Anthony Cordesman noted in a report released last summer by the Center for Strategic and International Studies that both U.S. and Iraqi officials believe the Syrians overtly agree to halt support for the insurgency, but in practice "allow Islamic extremist groups to recruit young men, have them come to Syria, and then cross the border into Iraq," where many become suicide bombers. These sources believe that Syria has allowed former Baathists to direct factions of the insurgency from its territory and has allowed funds to reach the insurgency.
Terrorist training camps in Syria have been used by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Hamas in the past. Those camps will operate regardless of who is training in them, and Cordesman notes that when Baghdad television station al-Iraqiya aired taped confessions of insurgents in February 2005, "at least three said they were trained, controlled, and paid by Syrian intelligence officials."
U.S. officials believe Syria does not face a situation analogous to the U.S.'s Mexican border, which is simply unmanageable. Rather, they believe Syria has either deliberately facilitated insurgent movement or else turned a blind eye. One clear reason that Syria has supported the insurgency is that president Bashar Assad views a democratic Iraq as a threat to his own rule. Damascus may also be attempting a power play, similar to how Syria benefited for decades from instability in Lebanon.
FINALLY, IRAN IS THE LARGEST outside player behind the insurgencies in Iraq. It has attempted to garner influence in Iraq in four different ways. First, Iran has been involved in the Iraqi government, supporting such parties as SCIRI and Dawa.
Second, Iran has supported the Shia insurgency. In 2005, Time reported on Iranian operative Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani, who headed an insurgent network created by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Time reported that al-Sheibani's team, which U.S. officials believed to include as many as 280 members, had introduced a new breed of more lethal roadside bombs to the country. Called the explosively formed projectile (EFP), this kind of bomb has been described as uniquely dangerous because "when it detonates, the concave end blows outward and melts into a bullet-shaped fragment that slices through armor and flesh." Al-Sheibani is known to have provided EFPs to Shia insurgent factions. His superior is none other than Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, the commanding officer of Iran's elite Qods Force.
Third, though Iran is a Shia theocracy, the New York Sun reported in January that Iranian documents captured by American forces in Iraq showed that Iran was also supporting Sunni insurgents. Iran seems to be hedging its bets, such that whichever side comes out on top, Iran can claim to have supported it.
Finally, Iran has seemingly carried out at least one direct attack against Americans in Iraq. The only public incident that has been tied to Iran to date is a January 20 attack in Karbala, where 12 men disguised as U.S. soldiers entered the Provincial Joint Coordination Center and mounted an attack that killed five soldiers and wounded three. Military blogger Bill Roggio noted in late January: "Based on the sophisticated nature of the raid, as well as the response, or cryptic non-responses, from multiple military and intelligence sources, this raid appears to have been directed and executed by the Qods Force branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps." Roggio's sources believed that the attack was "far too sophisticated an operation for the Mahdi Army or Badr Corps, while al-Qaeda in Iraq would have a difficult time mounting such an operation in the Shia south." There is currently a debate in analytic circles about whether this was a strategic shift by Iran, or simply retaliation for U.S. raids on Iranian diplomatic missions in Baghdad and Irbil.
Not only can Iran enhance its own influence through instability in Iraq, but it also gains advantage by keeping the United States tied down there. American military overstretch in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters seriously impedes the U.S.'s ability to take effective action to counter Iran's nuclear development.
AS THE DEBATE OVER a timeframe for Iraq withdrawal rages, it is obvious that some of the most prominent debaters lack the bare minimum of knowledge necessary for serious participation. Understanding the various factions opposing us in Iraq does not settle this debate--but it is a first step to serious engagement.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam. Kyle Dabruzzi is a terrorism analyst at the Gartenstein-Ross Group.