Mustafa Alani is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. Born in Baghdad, Alani left Iraq in 1975. His focus is on the politics and security of the Persian Gulf States, including Iraq and Iran, and he has studied Islamist fundamentalist groups and Islamist terrorist organizations for many years. A self-described Iraqi nationalist and Arab nationalist, Alani is a Sunni Arab. Jamestown Special Correspondent Mahan Abedin conducted this interview on May 7, 2004 in London, UK.
* * *
Mahan Abedin: What kind of long-term impact will the invasion of Iraq have on patterns of Islamic terrorism?
Dr. Alani: It will promote extremism and terrorism in the region. This has already happened. It is difficult to predict the long-term future, but I am saddened to say that the invasion of Iraq has complicated the struggle against terrorism. Even three months before the invasion, al-Qaeda identified Iraq as a major Jihadi field.
MA: On that point, do you think al-Qaeda has a strong presence in Iraq right now?
DA: Certainly. On the first day of Ramadan (December 2003) there were six suicide bombings in Baghdad within 30 minutes. And then there were the Basra bombings, seven attacks in total within a short space of time. This kind of operational capability is beyond any indigenous Iraqi group.
MA: Are you sure they were the works of al-Qaeda?
DA: I can’t say this with certainty, but they are unlikely to have been the works of any Iraqi organization. But more broadly al-Qaeda’s strategy in Iraq has been well planned and quite successful. They want to isolate the U.S. in Iraq and not to force their withdrawal. On the contrary they want the U.S. to sink deeper into Iraq. Therefore, on this point alone al-Qaeda’s strategy in Iraq diverges from the priorities of other groups.
MA: What is al-Qaeda’s ultimate aim in Iraq?
DA: Their aim is to turn Iraq into a major Jihadi field, humiliate the U.S., and basically turn the place into another Vietnam. They failed to do this in Afghanistan, but they think they have a much better chance in Iraq.
MA: Do you think they can succeed?
DA: They have been successful up to date. Judging by mounting American casualties and the aggravation of various crises, their strategy has been reasonably successful. Also the American decision to dismantle the Iraqi army, border guards and security forces enabled these organizations to consolidate their presence.
MA: Okay, let us discuss Iraq and the war on terror; do you see the invasion of Iraq as fitting into the broader war on terrorism?
DA: This was the American aspiration, to subsume this war into the broader struggle against terrorism.
MA: This may have been the publicly stated policy, but privately there is a growing consensus in the States that the war against Islamic terrorism and the destruction of the Baathist regime are not intrinsically linked. My real question is whether the not-so-publicly stated motives, like capturing the most strategic country in the region in order to transform the Middle East, can be reconciled with the broader aims of the war against terrorism?
DA: There is certainly no evidence that Saddam was linked to terrorism and the Americans are well aware of this. But they thought that given the unpredictability of the regime, in the event of an opportunity presenting itself, it might have lent support to international terrorism.
MA: Do you concur with this analysis?
DA: I had discussions with certain people in Washington and London before the war and I came away with the impression that a number of people genuinely believed in this hypothesis.
MA: But do you believe this?
DA: I don’t believe this, because in Iraq terrorism was an instrument in the hands of the regime. Iraqi terrorism was directed against the regime’s opponents and it was directly controlled by the government.
MA: Of course they lent support to some Arab nationalist organizations as well, but I presume the point you are trying to make is that the kind of terrorism employed by the former Baathist regime was wholly different to the kind of terrorism practiced by al-Qaeda.
DA: Indeed, the two are completely different. Iraq had no interest in practicing terrorism against the United States.
MA: Are you adamant that there was no scope for a convergence between Baath-inspired terrorism and al-Qaeda?
DA: If we are talking about Bin Laden and his group, they have always considered Saddam Hussein as an infidel and an agent of the United States. As for Saddam, he had a record of suppressing Islamic organizations in Iraq. The upshot is that there was no common ideological and practical ground between the two.
MA: What about suggestions that the former Iraqi regime sponsored Ramzi Ahmad Yusuf, the mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre?
DA: Ramzi Yusuf was born in Kuwait to a Pakistani Baluch family. The only Iraqi connection he had was an accomplice called Abdel-Rahman Yassin [Editor’s Note: also known as Abboud Yassin]. He was an Iraqi born in the United States and he was arrested in America. After his release, he fled to Iraq and the Iraqis were willing to hand him over. In fact Tariq Aziz expressed the Iraqis’ willingness to hand him over to U.S. intelligence in a public address. But the Americans declined this offer. Therefore there were no links between Ramzi Yususf and the Iraqi regime.
MA: What happened to Abdel-Rahman Yassin?
DA: He remained in prison until the invasion and afterwards he disappeared.
MA: Why did the Iraqis keep him in prison?
DA: Because they wanted to hand him over to the Americans.
MA: But do you agree with the analysis that 9/11, directly or indirectly, propelled the U.S. into a decisive confrontation with Saddam Hussein?
DA: Yes. After the 1979 revolution in Iran, the Americans replaced the Iranians with the Saudis as their allies in the region. After 9/11, this relationship came under real strains and the Americans came to the conclusion that they needed a new ally. They cannot rely on countries like Qatar and Kuwait as they are far too small and insignificant. The only real option is Iraq, as it is big, has plenty of natural resources and its geo-strategic centrality enables anyone who controls the country to exert pressure on a number of key states in the region.
MA: What do you make of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?
DA: He is either a super-man or a myth! But he certainly does exist and used to head a movement called al-Mu’ahidoon in Jordan. They had some associations with al-Qaeda, but in Jordan they have their own separate organization. In fact, one of their members, Ibrahim Qoleilat, was killed near Fallujah recently. We do not know whether Zarqawi is alive or dead. We know that he lost his leg… I think some of the exploits attributed to him are hyped as the Americans need some kind of villain right now.
MA: What about the Zarqawi letter? A researcher recently claimed that, given its vitriolic rhetoric and textual sophistication, the letter was probably written by Baathists-what do you make of this?
DA: It was certainly not written by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. There is a simple reason for this, as in the last part of the letter he asks al-Qaeda for recognition. Now, Zarqawi does not need to request this kind of recognition as he is already affiliated to al-Qaeda. Moreover the language of the letter is the kind employed by Islamists.
MA: So, are you completely discounting a Baathist connection?
DA: I don’t believe Baathists are capable of producing this kind of material.
MA: Why not?
DA: Because it is the language employed by Islamic fundamentalists. But of course, anyone is capable of producing a fake letter, so a Baathist connection-or any other connection-cannot be ruled out completely.
MA: But the problem is that not even the most extreme Salafis refer to Shias as vermin and poison; their term of reference for the Shias is “rafidah” (misguided or aberrant Muslims), whereas the Baathists would be more than happy to denigrate the Shias whom they consider to be fifth columnists of Iran.
DA: Indeed, al-Qaeda has always had good relations with Iran and Shias. Moreover al-Qaeda does not document anything. Furthermore this document was designed to be “public” and does not in any way constitute a confidential military or strategic report. It is a political tract that was intended to be “found” by the Americans-so it is no accident that the Americans came across it. It is primarily designed to exacerbate the divisions in Iraqi society. And as you point out, al-Qaeda supporters do not use this kind of language.
MA: Who wrote it then?
DA: There is a possibility that a group even more extreme than al-Qaeda put the piece together.
MA: Would they be an indigenous group or people coming from outside the country?
DA: I have an open mind here. Firstly Iraqis are unlikely to use this language against their own compatriots. And I don’t think al-Qaeda was behind it….
MA: You seem to be suggesting that the Americans themselves put out the letter.
DA: This is what I mean by being open minded. There is a strong chance that intelligence services were behind this campaign.
MA: Israeli intelligence, perhaps?
DA: I will not rule this out either. I will not rule out intelligence services.
DA: There are a number of western intelligence services who can capitalize on something like this.
MA: What would be their aim in drafting this letter?
DA: Firstly it prevents the emergence of a unified resistance movement by sabotaging Shia-Sunni relations. Secondly it promotes inter-fighting amongst religious groups and deflects pressure away from the occupiers.
MA: Presumably the Americans have an interest in doing something like this?
DA: I cannot say this for sure, but certainly in this business one has to have an open mind.
MA: But the interesting thing is that many Iraqi organizations, in particular the SCIRI, were convinced of the document’s authenticity.
DA: A lot of people have an interest in blaming an external enemy. The Americans have an interest in claiming that Iraqis are not fighting them. Those people in the Governing Council-what we call “imported” politicians-have an interest to blame outsiders for the divisions in society.
MA: Who will benefit most from aggravating divisions in Iraqi society?
DA: Certainly outsiders, including al-Qaeda, will benefit from growing instability and divisions in Iraq. Also the occupiers benefit as it enables them to divide and rule. But there is a danger that a civil war in Iraq will badly hurt the occupiers as they are likely to be attacked by all sides.
MA: Okay, let us discuss Ansar al-Islam, what do you know about them?
DA: There is a long history of Islamic movements in Iraqi Kurdistan. In fact, both Barzani and Talebani hail from religious families. But in the case of Ansar al-Islam, their emergence is rooted in the chaos that prevailed in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s. The absence of the central government enabled two groups, the PUK and the KDP, to carve up the territory amongst them and of course a lot of fighting ensued. Therefore, the dynamics of Ansar al-Islam’s emergence is located in the failure of the traditional Kurdish leadership.
MA: Are you adamant that Ansar is completely indigenous to Iraqi Kurdistan, was there no significant foreign influence?
DA: Ansar al-Islam is wholly indigenous. It grew as a reaction to the corruption and arrogant behaviour of Talebani’s Marxist-inspired organisation.
MA: But there are indications that they are not purely Kurdish. There have been recent arrests of Arabs-particularly from North Africa-in places like Italy, who were later found to have been affiliated to Ansar.
DA: I think these stories are grossly exaggerated and analysed out of context. But nevertheless Ansar al-Islam does have good relations with other Islamist groups.
MA: Presumably you believe that they had no connections to the former Baathist regime?
DA: The Baath regime even offered to destroy them. The problem was that they had no easy access to that region of Iraqi Kurdistan where Ansar operated.
MA: How has Ansar coped with the attack by the United States on their enclave?
DA: The physical destruction of their camps has had an impact, but they are by no means finished. They have a strong ideology which will ensure their presence in the Kurdish scene for some time. There are many indications that they remain operationally active, the bombing of the KDP and PUK headquarters was a good example.
MA: Is Ansar active in the non-Kurdish regions of Iraq?
DA: There is no evidence of this. They seem to be completely based in the Kurdish north.
MA: Okay, let us discuss the kind of terrorism that the Baath regime promoted, in particular the sponsorship of secular Arab nationalist organisations.
DA: They supported these organizations at certain stages, but certainly there was no heavy sponsorship at the time of the invasion.
MA: Indeed, many of the organizations that they had sponsored in the past, in particular Abu Nidal, seem to have become largely obsolete a long time ago.
DA: Exactly, and Saddam would not have hesitated in handing these people over.
MA: Why did the Iraqi regime kill Abu Nidal in August 2002?
DA: As far as I know Abu Nidal committed suicide because he was sure he would be killed anyway.
MA: Why did the Iraqis want to arrest him?
DA: They felt pressurized from outside forces in the countdown towards war. They thought it would be better either to place him in custody or just to eliminate him in order to prove that they have nothing to do with Abu Nidal.
MA: What was Abu Nidal doing in Baghdad at that time?
DA: He was seriously ill and was completely inactive.
MA: What about Iraq’s alleged links to Palestinian militant groups?
DA: Of course the Iraqis had ideological schisms with both Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The only link was that Iraqis channelled money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. This money was distributed by a special Iraqi agent in the occupied territories.
MA: What about the small Palestinian branch of the Baath party?
DA: But this is no longer active, it was destroyed by the Jordanians and the Syrians.
MA: As far as you are concerned then, there were no real links between the former Iraqi regime and any form of international terrorism, let alone al-Qaeda style terrorism?
DA: There were some links until 1990. But from 1990-1991 onwards Saddam decided to sever all these links. Even the assassination of Iraqi opposition figures were carried out by Iraqi intelligence services.
MA: Presumably Iraq’s colossal defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War diminished the regime’s stature amongst its supporters in the region.
DA: Yes. But the fact that the regime managed to survive for another 12 years against the wishes of the United States ensured that they retained some support in the region.
MA: I was speaking to a former Iraqi opposition leader last year, and he told me that publicly the United States advocated regime change in Iraq after 1991, but privately they still entertained the option of rehabilitating the regime at some point in the future. How credible is this?
DA: The U.S. needed to maintain Saddam Hussein primarily as a bulwark against the Iranian regime. You know that they sponsored the Mojahedin-e-Khalq….
MA: Interesting that you point this out. That was surely one of the former Iraqi regime’s links to terrorism.
DA: Yes. But in the wider regional framework, apart from the nuisance that Saddam posed to Iran, he also acted as a counter-weight against both the Syrians and the Saudis. Therefore, the upshot is that there was a strategic need to maintain a contained and caged Saddam Hussein.
MA: What was the primary reason behind the Iraqi sponsorship of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq?
DA: One primary reason of course was the Faylaq al-Badr [the armed wing of SCIRI] which was sponsored by Iran and deployed alongside the border; therefore the Iraqis needed a counter-balance. Secondly, the west, either directly or indirectly, were approving of this policy, as the Mojahedin-e-Khalq had proved to be an effective terrorist force against Iran.
MA: What is going to happen to the Mojahedin-e-Khalq remnants in Iraq?
DA: I believe the new Iraqi state will have a strategic interest in keeping the Mojahedin-e-Khalq as a disarmed, inactive-but certainly not dismantled-force in Iraq.
MA: This is very interesting. But most evidence suggests that the Iraqis want them out as their presence is likely to complicate relations with Iran.
DA: Certainly Iraqi forces sponsored by Iran want them out. But I think the practical Iraqi politicians realize that the Mojahedin-e-Khalq are a useful bargaining chip.
MA: But the rationale for keeping them in Iraq has now completely disappeared. Iran no longer hosts any Iraqi opposition groups or any group for that matter which seeks to undermine Iraq.
DA: There are still a number of unresolved problems between Iraq and Iran. The Algiers agreement of 1975 and the issue of Iraqi deportees count amongst them. Therefore the dismantling of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq will probably take place in the framework of a broader settlement between the two states. I think this is the American view as well. They are telling the Iranians that we are keeping these people disarmed but there is always the possibility of reviving them, therefore if you want them dismantled, you will have to make some concessions.
MA: But you don’t think the MKO [Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization] can be re-armed?
DA: No, I think they will remain neutralized both militarily and politically.
MA: [Going back to al-Qaeda’s operations in Iraq] most of the casualties inflicted on U.S. forces are the results of hit and run attacks that are probably carried out by indigenous groups, would you not agree?
DA: Not necessarily. There have been major operations, like downing helicopters and mortar bombing U.S. military headquarters. Also, al-Qaeda has been successful in targeting U.S. allies in Iraq, in particular the Spanish, whose departure from the arena it facilitated. They have also attacked and ejected international organizations like the U.N. and the ICRC. They have attacked what they call “collaborators,” in particular the police. They are basically targeting all those forces which can help the Americans disengage from Iraq. Therefore their strategy is very well defined and has had remarkable success so far.
MA: But can we attribute all these attacks, dating from the summer of last year, to al-Qaeda?
DA: They are most certainly al-Qaeda associates, if not al-Qaeda itself. For instance Ibrahim Qoleilat who was killed in Fallujah was a Jordanian member of al- Mu’ahidoon, which is an al-Qaeda linked organization.
MA: Where and when was he killed exactly?
DA: He was killed in Khalediyah, south of Fallujah, in March.
MA: Will these foreign al-Qaeda affiliated groups find the local environment receptive in the long-term?
DA: It was difficult for them to begin with, but rising anti-American feeling, fuelled by the Americans’ behavior, has translated into support for the outsiders.
MA: Do you think there is any scope for tactical cooperation between former regime elements and foreign Islamic militants?
DA: The Iraqi regime invited Arab Mujahideen to the country to resist the invasion. Several hundred went to Iraq and took part in the fighting.
MA: But has a nexus developed between these forces–and those that have flooded into Iraq over the past year–and former regime elements?
DA: No, neither trusts the other.
MA: But I was told by a Saudi opposition figure that al-Qaeda sent several hundred operatives into Iraq in the months before the war and instructed them to establish links with non-Baathist elements within the Iraqi government.
DA: I find this questionable. They certainly established links with indigenous Islamists, especially in places like Fallujah and Ramadi. As for links with the regime, anybody who was a non-Baathist is unlikely to have been very important. Moreover it would have proved very difficult for them to access people inside the government as the regime remained in tight control until the very end.
MA: Okay, moving on to the insurgency in the central and northern regions of Iraq, what do you make of the term “Sunni Triangle”, do you think it is an accurate religious-political-geographic definition, or is it an over-simplification?
DA: I think the Americans always love this kind of terminology. But I can assure you there is no such “triangle” in reality! Moreover the Americans always need a public enemy number one, whether it is Khomeini, Castro, Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden. And now of course it is the Sunni Triangle and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
MA: What is the denominational composition of Fallujah?
DA: It is roughly 80% Sunni. Fallujah was always known for its Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism. It has also always retained its tribal traditions. Moreover it is on the cross roads to Damascus and Amman, therefore it is the gateway to two major Arab capitals. Furthermore throughout history Fallujah has been well known for its defiance. The British military Governor in Iraq, Colonel Leachman was killed south of Fallujah in August 1920. Fallujah also fought the Iraqi communist party and ejected it from the western parts of Iraq. It fought Abdul Karim Qasim and of course it challenged Saddam Hussein. The last serious attempted military coup against Saddam in 1997 was masterminded by Mohammad Mazloom Dulaimi. And in retaliation the regime executed 50 army officers from Fallujah in just one night. Therefore Fallujah is not fighting to bring back Saddam Hussein. Also bear in mind that the Americans have seriously misbehaved in Fallujah and completely disrespected its tribal traditions. Back in April last year they killed 15 kids without serious provocation. Amazingly they did not either apologize or pay blood money. In Fallujah you cannot kill people for no good reason and expect to walk free; you just can’t do that.
MA: So, you think that the killings in April 2003 triggered the problems in Fallujah?
DA: It was certainly the trigger.
MA: Would you say the dominant element in this indigenous insurgency has no contacts with foreign fighters in Iraq?
DA: I think this trend has been developing in the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq for the past six months. But on the other hand foreign fighters will not be able to operate in a closed and tribal society like Iraq without significant help from the locals.
MA: Does Syria have any role in the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq?
DA: The Syrians have a long history of crushing Islamic movements; therefore they are unlikely to sponsor Islamic militants. It is very difficult to fully control the Iraqi-Syrian border and this has helped infiltrators. Nevertheless the Syrians are unwilling to invest in protecting the security of the United States in Iraq. But really the upshot is that the Americans have all sorts of ulterior motives for unjustly levelling accusations at Syria-not least because they are desperate to pretend that the insurgency is led by outsiders.
MA: How do the former regime elements fit into the indigenous insurgency?
DA: The former regime is now dead and buried.
MA: It may be dead and buried but there is plenty of scope for many of its remnants, in particular former security personnel, to link up with the broader currents amongst the disaffected Sunni Arab constituency.
DA: No, I believe the principal engine for this indigenous insurgency is radical Sunni Islam.
MA: Do you think the notion that the insurgency in Fallujah, although overwhelmingly indigenous in character and composition, was partly led by foreign fighters is tenable?
DA: Certainly, it is possible.
MA: This has very interesting implications for the way the insurgency evolves and the patterns of interaction between indigenous and imported insurgents, does it not?
DA: The pattern that is emerging is that the better organized resistance groups tend to be a mixture of Iraqi and foreign fighters. By pooling their resources and skills they are better able to resist the occupiers.
MA: The broadest implication of this is that in the Sunni Arab heartlands of Iraq there is a close overlap between Islamic militancy and Arab and Iraqi nationalism, do you concur with this?
DA: Certainly the two elements are linked. But in the context of the anti-occupation insurgency the Islamic sentiment is stronger than Arab or Iraqi nationalism.
MA: Finally on the question of the Sunni insurgency, what implications will the U.S. concession in Fallujah have for the continuing occupation?
DA: The Fallujah scenario could be repeated in other cities. Their failure to take the town might encourage other cities to challenge the Americans.
MA: What advice would you give the Americans?
DA: I’d tell them that security is the key if they want to disengage from Iraq successfully. They need to revive Iraq’s army and other security forces if they wish to gradually diminish their presence in the country.
MA: Would you advise them to postpone the 30 June handover date?
DA: This deadline is linked to the U.S. presidential elections in November and has very little to do with what is going on in Iraq. Therefore powerful forces are determined to stick to this deadline.
MA: Do you think the U.N. could throw the Americans a life line here?
DA: The internationalization of the issue is bound to strengthen the legitimacy of the process. I think Brahimi could play a decisive role here, but he is being challenged at every turn by the “imported” politicians….
MA: Are you referring to Chalabi’s remarks that Brahimi has an Arab nationalist agenda in Iraq?
DA: Partly, yes. If the U.S. is serious about limiting its liability in Iraq it will have to stop listening to people like Chalabi who have no credibility in Iraq.
Mahan Abedin is a financial consultant and analyst of Middle East politics.
To view the complete interview, go to www.jamestown.org/images/pdf/st_002_006.pdf