The Other Sons of Iraq

Asked about the growing insurgency in Iraq back in July 2003, then-President George W. Bush responded with a remark that will very likely appear in his obituary: "Bring 'em on." For Bush, it was merely a regrettable quip. For Iraqis, there were very real consequences. Thousands of fighters, many of them radicalized by the Iraq invasion and occupation itself, traveled from countries in the region to "bring it on" in Iraq's cities and neighborhoods, markets and mosques. In addition to the costs in lives to Iraqis and American troops, the conflict enabled al-Qaeda planners to develop and refine a set of practices against the most skilled military in the world -- Iraq became a kind of terrorist boot camp.

As early as 2003, tactics and techniques developed in Iraq -- improvised explosive devices (IEDs), car bombs, suicide vests -- began migrating to other fronts like Afghanistan, where they continue to bedevil our soldiers. RAND analyst Seth Jones, whose book, In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan, will be released in July, told me that "there's no doubt" that Iraq has increased the use of IEDs and suicide operations in Afghanistan. He attributes the increase to knowledge passed via people migrating through Iran into Pakistan as well as to the distribution of "CDs containing tactical level information [on] how to put together IEDs."

Over the past several years, al-Qaeda's fortunes have seriously declined in Iraq. Remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) continue to regularly carry out spectacular attacks, but the Iraq front is no longer seen as the cause celebre that it once was for the global jihad movement. One of the key developments leading to the decline in violence in Iraq was the creation and deputization by U.S. forces of Sunni tribal paramilitaries -- many of them former al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents -- to police their own neighborhoods. Initially referred to as "the Awakening," this phenomenon soon became known as "the Sons of Iraq."

But what of the other "sons of Iraq," namely, the thousands of young men from around the Middle East, South Asia, and Europe radicalized by the Iraq invasion and fed a steady stream of images of U.S. occupation by satellite television channels such as Al Jazeera? Many of these men were inspired to travel to Iraq to join in the fight against the American occupation and the U.S.-supported government -- and others who were unable to go have joined with extremist movements in their home countries.

As the Iraq War wore on, some analysts and historians voiced concern that, in addition to the spread of organizational tactics and technology, which had already begun, the war could give rise to a phenomenon similar to what took place after the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Then, thousands of Arab fighters (who had traveled to Afghanistan with the aid and cooperation of the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan) returned to their homes across the Middle East, bringing with them newly acquired knowledge of warfare and a battle-hardened commitment to an extreme form of Islam. Writing in Small Wars Journal, Clint Watts notes that "this 'First Foreign Fighter Glut' spawned al Qaeda and a decade of increasingly lethal terrorist attacks leading up to September 11, 2001. … Left unchecked, the Second Foreign Fighter Glut will produce the next generation of terrorist organizations and attacks" much as the first fueled al-Qaeda.

There is some evidence that this is happening. In the summer of 2008, Andrew Exum, a former Army ranger, now a research fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), published an article in Democracy, examining the phenomenon of foreign fighters leaving Iraq to carry on the war elsewhere. Exum notes the presence of Iraq returnees in the battles which took place in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in Lebanon in May 2007. In addition to the physical return of fighters, Exum, who writes the popular counterinsurgency blog Abu Muqawama, also stresses the extent to which new technologies have exponentially amplified the effects of the Iraq crucible on the wider jihadist movement. "In a wired world,” he writes, "jihadists can transmit their experiences -- their stories, their training, their anger–across the Internet." In the "virtual space" of the Internet is where jihadist organizations have made some of their most impressive and potentially consequential advances in spreading their ethos of global Islamic resistance.

One country in which all of these elements -- returning fighters, new tactics, and new technologies perfected in Iraq -- have combined is Yemen, where the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh is currently threatened by a growing insurgency, led by what many analysts believe to be among the most formidable affiliates of the global jihad movement.

On Sept. 17 of last year, terrorists attacked the U.S. embassy in Yemen's capital, Sana'a. According to Brian O'Neil, a Yemen analyst and author of the forthcoming book The Last Refuge: Islam and Insurgency in Yemen, the complexity and skill of the embassy attacks, which involved two bomb-laden vehicles -- the first "to breach the perimeter of a compound, a second to drive inside and explode" -- were evidence of techniques developed by al-Qaeda in Iraq. Initial reports indicated that a number of the attackers had actually returned from Iraq, but analyst Gregory Johnsen -- who co-publishes a blog on Yemen along with O'Neil -- says those reports were wrong. While three of the six Sept. 17 attackers "had attempted to go [to Iraq], and one made it as far as Syria," he says, none of them actually made it. They then chose option B: linking up with an extremist cell in their home country.

On March 15, members of Yemeni al-Qaeda attacked a group of South Korean tourists, killing four, along with their Yemeni tour guide. Three days later, another suicide bomber attacked a convoy carrying South Korean investigators and victims' family members but managed to kill only himself. Analyzing these attacks in a recent article for West Point Counterterrorism Center's CTC Sentinel, O'Neil suggests that they reveal a highly adaptive organization, skilled both in physical attacks and in the use of propaganda in the aftermath of those attacks. As recently as a few years ago, al-Qaeda had almost been snuffed out in Yemen but has been resurrected under the leadership of Nasir al-Wahayshi, a former secretary of Osama bin Laden, and merged with its Saudi Arabian affiliate to form Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This group represents a growing challenge to the Yemeni government -- whose security forces, as with those of Pakistan, seem both unwilling and unable to fully confront the threat.

Ironically, one of the key reasons for the eventual failure of al-Qaeda in Iraq was that the Bush administration's pre-war claims about the strength of al-Qaeda in that country were untrue. Al-Qaeda had never existed in Iraq in any substantial way -- its presence there was largely a consequence of the U.S. invasion and occupation -- and even after their arrival, al-Qaeda organizers failed to successfully embed themselves in Iraqi society. They alienated Iraqis both with their brutality and with their grandiose visions of a regional caliphate in which Sunni Iraqi nationalists had little interest.

AQAP seems to have learned from the mistakes of the Iraq branch. One of the key elements of AQAP's progress in Yemen, notes O'Neil, has been the extent to which the movement has successfully latched on to a set of local grievances against the Yemeni government, including claims of torture as well as still-simmering anger over Yemen's brief 1994 civil war – and downplayed, for the moment, global jihadist arguments against "the far enemy," the United States. O'Neil writes that "the real talent of AQAP is to not lost sight of what makes their home terrain unique … by addressing specific government misdeeds, connecting with people on a tribal level [while] not losing sight of their global struggle the reconstituted Al Qaeda has managed to outstrip its predecessors in threat potential." In an interview, O'Neil explained that AQAP has "taken propaganda tactics from Iraq, physical propaganda, turning out videos very quickly" after attacks but always making sure to "tie it into local concerns," such as the growing southern secession movement. "It's a way of saying to the local population, 'We're on your side!'"

Al-Qaeda's assimilation of these lessons from Iraq -- the tactical, as well as the political -- is what leads O'Neil to state that AQAP "is at the forefront of the next wave of jihad." It's worth pointing out that the United States learned a lot from Iraq, too -- the counterinsurgency methods applied there are now being employed in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The costs for the United States in manpower-intensive operations, however, have been and will continue to be enormous and are almost certainly unsustainable over the long term. It's neither politically nor economically feasible for the U.S. to attempt to intervene wherever and whenever some al-Qaeda affiliate gains a foothold. In the event that AQAP is successful in destabilizing the Yemeni republic, we'll need to come up with some other plan.