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.
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.
The Washington Post reports that Central Intelligence Agency director Michael Hayden put Al Qaeda low on his list of concerns over Iraq in a meeting with members of the Iraq Study Group last November.
Hayden catalogued what he saw as the main sources of violence in this order: the insurgency, sectarian strife, criminality, general anarchy and, lastly, al-Qaeda. Though Hayden had listed al-Qaeda as the fifth most pressing threat in Iraq, Bush regularly lists al-Qaeda first.
Mark Lynch, a professor of political science at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. who also writes the influential Abu Aardvark blog, says it's a mistake to characterize the Iraqi Sunni insurgency as largely driven by Al Qaeda.
A lot of bloggers have been complaining about the recent American tendency to describe every insurgent attack in Iraq as "al-Qaeda". They are right to complain, simply on the facts. Al-Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq coalition continues to represent only a minority of attacks against American forces or Iraqi government targets.
The architects of American counter-insurgency strategy know this: this team isn't stupid, and is doing its best to deal with the impossible situation bequeathed it by years of failure. So why the exaggeration of al-Qaeda's role? Most commentators have focused on its role in bamboozling American public opinion; I'll leave it to other to hash that out. There's another side to it, which fits the Petraeus method rather well: the 'al-Qaeda gambit' is part of an information operations strategy aimed at turning Iraqi opinion against the insurgency. By playing up the atrocities committed by the Islamist State of Iraq coalition and attempting to equate anti-US and anti-government violence with the unpopular al-Qaeda, the US (I'd wager) hopes do delegitimize violence which currently enjoys considerable support as "resistance."
Anthony Cordesman, a former senior government official who now holds the Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, agrees with Lynch's assessment in an e-mail to colleagues and reporters.
"Far too much reporting on Iraq focuses almost exclusively in Al Qa'ida in Mesopotamia, and tacticly assumes it somehow is dirtected by Bin Laden and Al Qaida in Pakistan… The fact is, however, that while the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) is something of an Al Qaida led facade, the real structure of the hard-line Sunni Islamist extremist effort in Iraq is far more complex.
Reporting needs to be careful about assuming Al Qa'ida "franchises" like the movement in Iraq are under any form of serious central Al Qa'ida control. (Deceased Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab) Zarqawi was no great supporter of Bin Laden and his movement has a stronger Egyptian and Jordanian foreign influence than one tied to Bin Laden and his group. It also is now generally estimated to be about 95% Iraqi.
To be sure, most analysts and reporters agree that Al Qaeda remains a threat in Iraq, and that the war there has helped strengthen the group overall, by providing training and motivation to new recruits. Newsweek reports that Germany believes Al Qaeda-inspired insurgents are flowing from Iraq to Europe.
In fact, the activities of Al Qaeda's leadership along the Afghan-Pakistani border are only one component of an overall threat environment that is worrying officials both in the United States and Europe. The stepped-up movement of suspected Islamic militants between Iraq and Europe has proven so troubling that the German government recently set up a special interagency team to track the flow of suspected jihadi recruits to and from that worn-torn country, two German sources told NEWSWEEK.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that the Bush administration says that the Iraqi government has made "satisfactory" progress toward about half of the benchmarks the US government has set for them.
The administration officials who provided details of the draft report to The New York Times, insisting on anonymity, did so partly to rebut claims by members of Congress in recent days that almost no progress had been made in Iraq since President Bush altered course by ordering the deployment of about 30,000 additional troops earlier this year.
But the report also acknowledges that some military benchmarks have not been met, including improvements in the ability and political neutrality of the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government. Even in some areas where the report will cite progress, the officials in Washington said the document would acknowledge that the overall goal of political reconciliation remained elusive and would chide the Iraqis for failing to take advantage of the presence of more American troops to take more far-reaching steps.
• Next page: Full text of Anthony Cordesman's e-mail
Source Material: Anthony Cordesman's e-mail regarding terrorism in Iraq
Far too much reporting on Iraq focuses almost exclusively in Al Qa'ida in Mesopotamia, and tacticly assumes it somehow is dirtected by Bin Laden and Al Qaida in Pakistan.
Even Iraqis tend to lump all such attacks as being the result of Al Qaida. The fact is, however, that while the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) is something of an Al Qaida led facade, the real structure of the hardline Sunni Islamist extremist effort in Iraq is far more complex.
Some recent unclassified indicators of how diverse the major insurgent movements are is shown in the charts below:
If the charts, do not come through, the key message is that Al Qaida is not to noisiest movement or the one conducting the majority of attacks, although it may be the bloodiest in terms of horrifying incidents.
The following data come from RFE and show the number of major statements in March 2007, usually attack related, from the 11 most active insurgent groups in Iraq. The ISI, of which Al Qaida is only part, ranks third, with 17%.
Islamist Organization / No of Statements / % of Total
Islamic Army in Iraq / 249 / 26
Ansar al-Sunnah / 196 / 20
Islamic State of Iraq (ISI-Al Qaida) / 162 / 17
Mujahideen Army / 143 /15
Shield of Islam / 89 / 9
Jaysh al Fatihin / 39 / 4
Jash al Rashidin / 33 / 3
Just Recompense Brigades / 26 / 3
Islamic Front of Iraq Resistance (JAMI) / 14 / 1
Jihadist Brigades of Iraq / 12 / 1
1920 Revolution Brigades / 3 / -
Total / 966 / 100
The actual attack indicators are classified and even these are often unreliable, Just as the US tends tTo say most suicide bombers are foreign, often without any forensic or other evidence, Al Qa'ida in Mesopotamia often gets the credit. It is equally difficult to know when US and Iraqi units have attack actual Al Qa'ida affiliates versus other similar movements.
Finally, reporting needs to be careful about assuming Al Qa'ida "franchises" like the movement in Iraq are under any form of serious central Al Qa'ida control. Zarqawi was no great supporter of Bin Laden and his movement has a stronger Egyptian and Jordanian foreign influence than one tied to Bin Laden and his group. It also is now generally estimated to be about 95% Iraqi.