At Large

Al Qaeda in Iraq

A growing Sunni presence.

By 4.23.07

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In the past American policy has characterized al Qaeda in Iraq as primarily consisting of non-Iraqis -- foreign fighters smuggled in to disrupt the nation building plans of the coalition. There are indications that this order of battle evaluation has now been changed.

The surge operation created by Gen. David Petraeus has, among other things, shaken up the field intelligence and as a result there are reports of a revision of the military assessment of the make-up of al Qaeda-related forces in Iraq. A consensus appears to have evolved recently that these elements are now staffed substantially with Sunni ex-Saddam military and intelligence personnel along with certain of their tribal brethren organized into the traditional terrorist cell structure.

While there has been in the past the view that strong support for the Wahhabist form of Islam was a cohesive characteristic of al Qaeda recruits, more and more such a requirement appears to have a lessened priority. The strategic objective of proselytizing this radical form of Islamic teaching has been subordinated to the tactically more important anti-Western, anti-U.S./Israel ethos.

In the case of Iraq an additional anti-Shia element also has been added as a motivating force. Evidence that al Qaeda has been cooperating with Shia Iran in smuggling operations from Pakistan's Baluchi territories in the east simply shows pragmatism also has its place.

One of the operational reasons for al Qaeda to lean toward indigenous Sunni operatives in Iraq was that foreign fighters were too easily differentiated from local Iraqis -- even though they may have seemed the same to Americans. An Iraqi Arabic speaker has a breadth of accent and dialect as different from Saudis, Egyptians, etc. as a New Yorker does from a denizen of New Orleans.

Another important operational factor is the need for each al Qaeda cell to be able to operate with trustworthy local support and cover. For a clandestine activity to remain effective, it must not merely remain hidden within the local environment, but also gain active support in intelligence gathering from the community within which its members are seeking to blend.

There is an interesting additional factor that encourages the use of former Saddam specialized military cadre beyond their obvious technical competence. Operational access, discipline, and innovation among these individuals are higher than among foreign fighters deployed in an environment with which they do not have an instinctive relationship. These are basic rules of insurgency, well advised on from T.E. Lawrence to Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara, among others.

There are of course disadvantages to having al Qaeda operations lean heavily toward Iraqi Sunni personnel rather than foreign fighters. The first weakness evolves from one of its strengths; namely the tribal connections that supply such an advantage as a support mechanism conversely also can encourage internal conflict.

The tribal structure in Iraq often harbors great traditional inter-group animosity. Crossing tribally perceived areas of influence holds considerable danger of destroying operational cohesion and security. It is in this arena that an unaffiliated foreign al Qaeda presence as mediator could be of particular value.

Another problem for al Qaeda in Iraq is in the area of financial management. Funding for al Qaeda operations has tended to come largely from external sources. Such a mechanism provides a principal control instrument on operations. As Iraqi Sunnis come to dominate the local al Qaeda, the financial administration passes into their hands and reduces external leverage.

Clearly there is a potential for Iraqi Sunni loyalty to al Qaeda to diminish in proportion to the growth of Sunni military independence of organization. As the nation of Iraq more and more tends toward a tripartite confederation, the potential increases for the evolution of a separate Sunni regular military force similar to the only partially nationalized Kurdish Pesh Merga.

None of these problems, however, outweigh the advantages of al Qaeda in Iraq currently moving toward a predominant Iraqi Sunni personnel structure. It appears clear that they may have already recognized this fact and have taken steps in that direction.

As with all such groups, the strength of al Qaeda as an international terrorist organization is its adaptability. Concomitantly this is also the greatest challenge in countering its operations.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.