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Al Qaeda stronger, but is it the major factor in Iraq?

Although Al Qaeda has regrouped to pre-9/11 strength, it will probably not affect the fight in Iraq.

By / July 12, 2007

A new assessment by US intelligence analysts finds that Al Qaeda is at its strongest point since shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. But Al Qaeda's refound strength may not translate into a more effective Iraqi insurgency.

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Quoting an unnamed US official who has seen a five-page summary of the new assessment titled "Al Qaeda better positioned to strike the West," the Associated Press says that Al Qaeda has found safe haven on the lawless Pakistani frontier, restoring training camps and building a new cadre of operatives.

Al Qaeda is "considerably operationally stronger than a year ago" and has "regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001," the counterterrorism official said, paraphrasing the report's conclusions. "They are showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the United States."
The group also has created "the most robust training program since 2001, with an interest in using European operatives," the official quoted the report as saying.
At the same time, this official said, the report speaks of "significant gaps in intelligence" so U.S. authorities may be ignorant of potential or planned attacks.

But while the US intelligence establishment is declaring the stated goal of America's war in Afghanistan – the destruction of Al Qaeda's operational capacity – a failure so far, analysts and news reports are also warning that the group's role is frequently overstated in the war in Iraq.

There, while Al Qaeda continues to be involved in serious attacks, an intriguing analysis of propaganda claims made by insurgent groups inside the country finds Sunni groups not directly affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq make far more claims of attacks. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a US-government funded news operation, undertook the book-length report.

A table on page 10 of the report tracks claims made by insurgents in March of this year. It finds that the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI) claimed 240 attacks in the month and the Mujahideen Army claimed 136. Neither of these groups is an Al Qaeda affiliate. Meanwhile, the Islamic State of Iraq, the main umbrella group for Al Qaeda in the country, claimed 71 attacks for the month. Ansar al-Sunnah, which has at times been described as close to Al Qaeda but whose composition and alliances are murky, claimed 180 attacks.

The authors of the report caution against drawing too many conclusions from what are, after all, propaganda claims whose truth is difficult to determine, but also point out that most Iraqi insurgents are fighting for nationalist or local reasons, not ideological ones close to Al Qaeda's. They also point out the differences between Al Qaeda in Iraq and major insurgent groups like the IAI.

Foreign jihadists have flocked to Iraq, but it should be recalled that Iraq has never had a robust Islamist, let alone jihadist, movement. Moreover there is no evidence that jihadist ideas hold any great appeal for Iraq's Sunni population, which provides the bulk of the insurgency's rank-and-file fighters.
An April 5 statement by the IAI illustrates both the intermingling of insurgent and jihadist media, and a sharp polemic between two leading insurgent groups.
The IAI statement…. Criticized ISI/Al Qaeda for inflexible extremism, outright banditry, against civilians and attacks on insurgent groups that refuse to swear allegiance to the putative state.