Jihadis shift attention to war in Afghanistan
Afghan and NATO officials are seeing a rise in numbers of foreign fighters in Afghanistan at the same time US officials say attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq have sharply dropped.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
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At the same time, jihadi websites affiliated with Al Qaeda have been giving renewed emphasis to the war in Afghanistan, especially in recruitment advertisements, after years of highlighting the battle against US forces in Iraq, says Brian Glyn Williams, associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.
"The perception on many Al Qaeda websites is that the momentum has come around to the side of the insurgency and that Afghanistan is winnable" as opposed to the war in Iraq, which is "no longer seen as a sure thing," says Mr. Williams.
That is a big change from four years ago, he adds, when "all the interest was in Iraq." Afghanistan "might be forgotten by the West but Al Qaeda never took their eye off the ball," he says. "They're biding their time." Both he and Stracke say that the refocus on Afghanistan began in mid-2007 with the weakening of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Coincidentally, they noted, Al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan increased.
"By 2007, jihadist websites from Chechnya to Turkey to the Arab world began to feature recruitment ads calling on the 'Lions of Islam' to come fight in Afghanistan," Williams wrote in the February 2008 issue of CTC Sentinel, the online journal of West Point's Combating Terrorism Center. "It appears that many heeded the call. This was especially true after the Anbar Awakening of anti-Al Qaeda tribal leaders and General David Petraeus' 'surge strategy' made Iraq less hospitable for foreign volunteers."
Stracke added that in the past six months, AQI "has lost a lot of fighters," especially ones in its "second layer of leadership, the ones who recruit and plan operations." As a result, she says, many new recruits are going instead to Afghanistan.
But the commander of US forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, offered a cautious judgment of the new trend in an interview last month with the Associated Press. "We do think that there is some assessment ongoing as to the continued viability of Al Qaeda's fight in Iraq."
While Al Qaeda is "not going to abandon" Iraq or "write it off," General Petraeus added, "what they certainly may do is start to provide some of those resources that would have come to Iraq to Pakistan, possibly Afghanistan."