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Iraq: spinning off Arab terrorists?

Counterterror experts from 50 countries met in Saudi Arabia to discuss how to combat emerging threats.

By Faiza Saleh AmbahCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 8, 2005


The lessons of Afghanistan are not lost on counterterrorism experts and Arab government officials here.

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As the insurgency continues in Iraq, the risk is that the country becomes a regional training ground for terrorists - as Afghanistan was in the 1990s - creating newly radicalized and experienced jihadis who return home to cause trouble in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere.

In fact, there's evidence it's already happened in Kuwait. In the past month, the tiny Gulf state has been rocked by a series of shootouts with Muslim militants, some of whom learned their craft by working alongside Iraqi insurgents.

"We found during the interrogations that about four of the suspects had learned how to make explosives in Iraq," says Col. Khaled al-Isaimi, who heads the Kuwaiti delegation at a four-day global counterterrorism conference which ends Tuesday in Riyadh. Some 40 terror suspects have been handed over to Kuwaiti prosecutors in the past month.

Saudi security expert Nawaf Obaid agrees that Arab fighters returning to Saudi Arabia from Iraq is an issue. "This is a major concern in the sense that some people have gone to Iraq and have been getting training but there's no indication that they've come back [yet]. We know fighters have gone but we don't know how many exactly," says Mr. Obaid, a Saudi security consultant.

At the opening of the conference attended by counterterror experts from more than 50 nations, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullahcalled for the establishment of an counterterrorism center to make it easier for countries to "exchange information instantly in response to the demands of the situation and the need to prevent accidents, God willing, before they occur."

Richard Barrett, United Nations coordinator for the Al Qaeida/Taliban Monitoring Team, agrees that governments are concerned that terrorists are being trained in Iraq. But he notes that Iraq is not Afghanistan. "There was a government [in Afghanistan] actively training, supporting, and arming these fighters," he says. "That's not the case in Iraq."

The other difference is that young men are not being sent to Iraq with unofficial Saudi blessing and subsidized airfare, as was the case in Afghanistan.

Kuwaiti Colonel Isaimi says that the countries bordering Iraq met in Iran last year to take steps to prevent Arab fighters from getting in and out of Iraq. "We're exchanging information with Iraq and Syria, we're monitoring our borders, and we're meeting with all the countries that border Iraq," says Isaimi. But Iraqi and US officials have complained that Iran and Syria are not doing enough to seal their borders.

In late January, US Army Gen. George Casey told reporters in Baghdad that the foreign fighters in Iraq probably number no more than 1,000 - or less than 10 percent of the total insurgents. In November, Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said Iraqi authorities had 167 foreign fighters - including Syrians, Saudis, Egyptians, Afghans, Sudanese, and Moroccans - in custody.

In Riyadh, Iraq's interim Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib said the largest contingent of foreign fighters in Iraq were from Sudan, where Osama bin Laden was based in the early 1990s.