Iraq a Sinking Ship for al-Qaeda, Afghanistan the Lifeboat

Earlier this week, I noted that members of the Hesbah forum are increasingly pessimistic about Iraq. And in May I wrote about the death of Sulayman al-`Utaybi, an al-Qaeda leader in Iraq who had left for Afghanistan after his dismissal from his post. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

That he headed straight for Afghanistan makes me wonder if this is a sign of things to come as AQ gets squeezed out of Iraq.

Now the Washington Post gives us further evidence that Iraq is a sinking ship for al-Qaeda and Afghanistan is the lifeboat, at least for the senior leadership. Amit Paley has written a well-sourced article on the departure of Abu Ayyub al-Masri (aka Abu Hamza al-Muhajer), the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, for Afghanistan. Here’s what we learn from the article (sources in parentheses):

Foreign fighters

  • AQ is diverting new recruits to Afghanistan and Iraq. (U.S. officials)
  • The number of foreign fighters going to Iraq a year ago was 110/mo. Earlier this year it was 50/mo. Now it is 20/mo. (senior U.S. intel analyst)
  • The flow of most of AQI’s foreign fighters, money, and weapons is controlled by Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidih (aka Abu Ghadiya), a Mosul native who is based in Syria. (U.S. intel officials)

AQI Leadership

  • Masri designated Abu Khalil al-Souri to run AQI when he left for Afghanistan. Souri came to Iraq in 2003. (Ansari, AQI leader in Fallujah)
  • Souri is one of 33 fighters, known as “the first line,” who came with Zarqawi in 2003. (Milehmi, senior AQI leader north of Fallujah)
  • Souri’s name is attached to a July 10 AQI communique, a document usually signed by Masri.
  • Masri has gone to Afghanistan twice before to meet with Jihadis and come back. (Milehmi, senior AQI leader north of Fallujah)
  • Masri went to Afghanistan to review situation of AQI with Bin Laden. (Qaisi, commander of AQI recruitment unit)

Route to Afghanistan

  • Masri went to Afghanistan through Iran (Ansari, AQI leader in Fallujah)
  • Masri and two others went into Iran on June 12 through border town of Zorbatia (Col. Abdullah, Iraqi intel official in Ramadi)
  • Masri went through Iran with 15 leaders (captured AQI member Abu Abeer al-Muhajer via an Iraqi police officer)

AQ Splinter Group

  • Abu Taha al-Lihebi is leader of an AQI group in eastern Anbar. He and his group split from AQI because Masri condoned attacks on the Awakening movement and on civilians, which lost the group support. (Abu Taha al-Lihebi)
  • Lihebi’s group disavows suicide ops to distinguish itself from AQI. (Abu Taha al-Lihebi)

It’s not surprising that Iran is a transit point to Afghanistan (see my previous posts on the Harbi group from Kuwait) or that Masri is consulting with al-Qaeda Central (another nail in the “leaderless jihad” coffin).  It’s also not surprising that AQI is losing support because its senior leadership decided to shit where it slept.

I am surprised that most of AQI’s material and human resources are so tightly coordinated by an AQ operative in Syria.  The Sinjar data suggests that the flow is more decentralized.

What also stands out to me is that the AQI splinter group renounced suicide ops to distinguish itself from AQI, an interesting turn for those who see the adoption of suicide bombings as either a natural result of being a devout Muslim or the result of militant groups competing to outdo each other.  In this case, competition is a factor, but it’s going the opposite direction.

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8 Responses

  1. I don’t recall Sageman holding up AQI as an example of leaderless jihad. The _issue_ of Iraq is perhaps a motivation for self-organizing, so-called “homegrown” jihadis, but that’s not the same thing.

  2. Or,

    Sageman argues in Leaderless Jihad that AQ Central is not calling the shots outside of Afghanistan/Pakistan. The fact that Masri, the head of AQI, has made three trips to consult with AQ Central in Waziristan poses considerable problems for Sageman’s thesis.

  3. AQI is just a fight against America. At no point, in my admittedly limited knowledge, have they ever put themselves forward as a new government of the country.

    In Afghanistan, by contrast, the government-in-exile (a tendentious but possibly legitimate title for the Taliban) exists and, by existing, present a possible , alternative future for the country, even for those with little imagination.

    Is there any sort of “political” leadership of AQI? Do the Egyptian or al-Souri represent an actual potential future “President?” I suppose their political platform would be pretty simple… shari’a, but have they said if they have any plans for the Shi’a?

  4. Josh,

    The Islamic State of Iraq, AQI’s umbrella organization, has put itself forward as the legitimate government of Iraq. Its head, Abu `Umar al-Baghdadi, is spoken of as a caliph in waiting. That doesn’t mean the ISI is viable in the longterm, but it has controlled small areas from time to time.

    The reason the ISI and AQI are having such problems today is precisely because they stopped attacking Americans and started attacking fellow insurgents and recalcitrant Sunnis.

    As for the Shia, the idea is that ISI members should only kill those who collaborate. Of course, that eventually ends up including any Shia who don’t want to be ruled by the ISI.

  5. Regarding Iraq Sageman says “…al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq has been independent of al Qaeda Central, although since the death of Zarqawi, there has been an attempt to combine the two organizations.” And that is all that he says. (See page 130 of Leaderless Jihad).

    Nowhere does Sageman cite AQI as an example of leaderless jihad.

    Sageman, at least in my reading, is more than a little equivocal regarding AQ Central’s ability to exercise something like command and control outside of it’s immediate surroundings.

    I would caution against making a strawman of Sageman, or trying to ascribe to him categorical opinions. I believe some have done this, and it weakens their own, often strong, case.

  6. Or,

    The passage you quoted says that even though attempts have been made to combine AQI and AQ Central, AQI remains independent of AQ Central. This is incorrect, but fits with Sageman’s larger argument that AQ Central does not have operational pull outside Afghanistan-Pakistan.

    You make a good point about being fair to Sageman. I’ll find the relevant quotes tomorrow so I don’t continue to beat the stuffing out of strawmen.

  7. Or,

    As promised, I’ve pulled together some quotes from Sageman’s Leaderless Jihad so we can discuss their merits rather than my summaries of them.

    Most of the stuff I disagree with in the book is on pages 126-133 (where your quote came from). It’s not a lot, but it’s the core of Sageman’s argument that AQ Central is not directing operations or groups outside of Af-Pak border area.

    To begin, here is the position Sageman is against: “In mid-2007, several commentators on global Islamist terrorism argue that we are seeing a resurgence of al Qaeda Central. One went so far as to claim that ‘Al Qaeda is a more dangerous enemy today than it was ever before.'” (p.126)

    Sageman then lays out his own thesis: “While I would reject the notion that al Qaeda is resurgent…I would agree that at this juncture al Qaeda leadership is regrouping and consolidating in Waziristan.” (p.127)

    “Since 2004, al Qaeda seems to have been less active in Pakistan outside of Waziristan.” (p. 130-31)

    “Al Qaeda Central is of course not dead, but it is still contained operationally. It puts out inspirational guidance on the Internet, but does not have the means to exert command and control over the al Qaeda social movement. The surviving leaders of al-Qaeda are undoubtedly still plotting to do harm to various countries in the world and have the expertise to do so, but they are hampered by the global security measures that have been put in place. They remain in hiding, but seem to have consolidated in Waziristan since the Pakistani military relaxed its efforts against them. So far al Qaeda Central has been confined to that area, but the increase in wannabes coming for training and its renewed ability to communicate with followers are disturbing developments. However, the long-term trend does not favor al Qaeda. The number of the trained global Islamist terrorists continues to dwindle along the Afghan-Pakistani border, and there is no sign that they are being replenished with competent new recruits.”

    As for the AQ affiliates, you’ve already cited the relevant quote about al-Qaeda in Iraq.

    Regarding the al-Qaeda affiliate in Algeria, Sageman writes, “In terms of the new al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, little ‘al Qaedas’ have sprung up everywhere in the world. They are just al Qaeda in name, trying to acquire the reputation of al Qaeda by using its name.” (p.129) Later in the same paragraph, he says, “It is unlikely that al Qaeda Central will be able to dictate anything to these groups.” (p.130)

    You say that “Sageman, at least in my reading, is more than a little equivocal regarding AQ Central’s ability to exercise something like command and control outside of it’s immediate surroundings.” Where is the equivocation?

  8. How long have forum members been pessimistic over Iraq? Is the pessimism widespread or just a few members in one forum? Is pessimism over Iraq matched by increased optimism over Afghanistan or are these independent? Thanks.

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