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.

In the wake of setbacks suffered by Al Qaeda in Iraq, Afghanistan is becoming the preferred destination for Muslims, particularly from Arab nations, seeking to wage jihad against the West.

"You can predict that Afghanistan is reemerging as a battlefield," says Nicole Stracke, a security and terrorism researcher at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.

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."

He noted that the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq "has been reduced very substantially," from a peak of 80 to 100 per month to about 20. AQI attacks have dropped since late spring 2007, from more than 120 per month to less than 40 per month during the past three months, according to a Multi-National Forces in Iraq (MNF-I) spokesperson in Baghdad.

The spokesperson said in an e-mail that AQI's networks could no longer take in new recruits as before, "causing a backup or stovepipe of foreign fighters attempting to enter Iraq." The spokesperson added that MNF-I "has no indications" that Al Qaeda's leadership "is making a strategic shift in resources." Instead, it sees "a tactical shift in where these terrorists go to fight, thus allowing these terrorists a better opportunity to enter the fight sooner rather than later."

In Afghanistan, Western and Afghan officials report an increase in foreign fighters in the Taliban's fight. But officials are reluctant to disclose nationalities. "Last week, we arrested a group of fighters in the south and there was not a single Afghan amongst them," says Mohammad Zaher Azimi.

Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, spokesman for NATO'S 40-nation International Security Assistance Force, said that "it is clear that there is an increase in foreign fighters behind the insurgency in Afghanistan, facilitated by the porous border with Pakistan. This has made the current fighting season a tough one."

General Blanchette added that the ISAF "has no evidence to suggest there is increased movement of insurgents from Iraq to Afghanistan as of now."

Williams, who did research in Afghanistan last year, says that "US and Afghan Army troops have found documents on dead Arab fighters on many occasions across Afghanistan." He estimated that "several hundred Arabs" operate in "the most dangerous" Afghan province of Kunar under the leadership of an Egyptian. Others are operating under the patronage of Jalaludin Haqqani, an Arabic-speaking Afghan guerrilla.

The total number of Arabs fighting in Afghanistan is not huge – Williams estimates between 1,000 to 1,500. But he says that they have introduced nefarious tactics such as suicide bombings.

In May, an Al Qaeda-linked website announced the death of two of its fighters in Afghanistan, including one who had played a prominent role in AQI: Abu Suleiman al-Oteibi. Both he and the second man, Abu Dejana al-Qahtani, were later identified as Saudis.

Gen. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, doubts that many Saudis are going to Afghanistan because of "more awareness now among young Saudis that what is going on [in these places] is not real jihad."

• Anand Gopal contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Tom A. Peter from Basra, Iraq.

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