Jamestown Hosts Conference on the Iraqi Insurgency and the Future of Jihad in the Region

For Immediate Release

4/15/2005, Washington DC — The Jamestown Foundation was proud to host "Insurgency and Jihad: The Iraqi Theater and Beyond" on April 11, 2005. The conference brought together some of the leading experts on Iraq and Terrorism, including Michael Scheuer, Harlan Ullman, Phebe Marr, Pat Lang, Stephen Ulph and Mahan Abedin and moderated by Jamestown President Glen Howard.

The first session covered recent developments in Iraq, featured Colonel Pat Lang (Ret.), who provided an assessment of the challenges currently facing coalition forces in Iraq. Col. Lang emphasized that since the elections there has been a profound change in the insurgents’ strategy. Through highly decentralized command and control nodes, they are seeking to cripple the government’s capabilities, leaving the country ungovernable. He explained that while there has been a reported downturn in the levels of the insurgency in the media, this actually reflects the insurgents’ strategy of targeting Iraqi government facilities more frequently than American and British targets. Col. Lang concluded by noting that 12,000 active insurgents require a support base of 200,000 people, a figure easily achievable in Iraq today.

Mahan Abedin, editor of Terrorism Monitor, provided an analysis of some of the various elements of the insurgency, essentially divided into Baathist and Islamist components. He discussed Jaish Ansar al-Sunna, Jaish Muhammad, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s organization and the Baathist remnants and the Islamization process they underwent following the first Gulf War. Abedin stated that Zarqawi’s group has received undue attention as the only organization with a substantial number of non-Iraqi Arabs at its core. Towards understanding the disparate parts of the insurgency, he suggested that the role of Saudi Arabia has been overlooked, citing the estimated 2000 Saudi youth fighting in the insurgency as well as 500 members of the Saudi National Guard, some of whom have links to al-Qaeda and are under orders to attack the royal family upon their return to Saudi Arabia. He also noted the role of the Cypriote city of Limassol as a support and logistics hub, the supposed meeting place between Iraqi intelligence officers and the founding members of Jaish Muhammad.

In the first panel, Stephen Ulph, Jamestown Senior Fellow and editor of Terrorism Focus, discussed recent Islamist web publications devoted to Iraq, primarily Dhurwat al-Sanam. He emphasized the role these publications, along with Islamist web forums, have had in the propaganda war in Iraq, often serving as the source on events, even in the Western media, when other sources are not available. This is supported by the recent emergence of the "Information Jihad Brigade", which was formed to boost information operations of the mujahideen. In the second panel, Ulph drew an outline of the growing culture of Jihad on the Internet which provides a medium for communication, networking, recruiting, establishing future targets, and boosting the morale of the Mujahideen. Recent attacks in Kuwait and Qatar were examples of the jihadi activities expanding outside Iraq. He also described the effect of online jihadi publications in motivating the ‘armchair’ mujahid into action.

Phebe Marr, Senior Fellow of the U.S. Institute of Peace, stated that she is cautiously optimistic about the future of Iraq and that since the elections on January 30, the new Iraqi government could prove to be secular and non-sectarian. However, she went on to argue that through the gradual weakening of Iraqi identity, and the political vacuum that is emerging in the country, Iraq is undergoing a process of "Lebanonization" with the emergence of new blocks. Among these are the so-called Shiite alliance, the Kurdish block, a centrist group headed by Allawi, and the Sunnis, who have largely been more engaged in the insurgency than the political process. Dr. Marr predicted a weak central government for some time to come – one with a weak capacity to maintain and deliver security – as the struggle for political power, as well as that for identity, is played out. She also noted a geopolitical shift has occurred, that while under Saddam Sunni Arab nationalism prevailed, the new government may have a tendency to turn away from the Arab world and look toward Turkey and/or Iran.

The second session was begun by Michael Scheuer, former Chief of the Bin Laden Unit at the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA, and anonymous author of Imperial Hubris. He stated that the invasion of Iraq has created the classic conditions for a defensive Jihad, which, in Dr. Scheuer’s view, could create a situation in Iraq similar to Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion, but that the Iraq magnet could be a stronger one than was that of Afghanistan. He looked at Jordan as a case in which bin Laden is actively seeking to expand Jihad and that in the aftermath of the Iraq war, that country, along with others in the region, are more vulnerable to al-Qaeda’s influence. In conclusion, he warned that by ignoring the lessons of past experiences, Iraq is being transformed into a base for jihadi movements at the heart of the Middle East.

Harlan Ullman discussed the dynamics of the Syrian element to the ongoing insurgency in Iraq and the costs for continued U.S. involvement in Iraq and in the region. He posited that Syria could be the ultimate exit for American forces out of Iraq, as senior U.S. officials assert that the insurgency is being extensively supported from within Syria, to sever the Syrian connection would allow the Iraqis to deal with the insurgency themselves. Dr. Ullman stated that the United States remains terribly unprepared to handle the tasks at hand in waging ‘the global war on terror.’ He also remarked that the global system is far more fragile and vulnerable today than in the past, and that by focusing on Iraq, we are ignoring dangerous situations in China and North Korea.

For an audio recording and transcript of the conference, please visit the EventsSection.

Founded in 1984, The Jamestown Foundation is an independent, non-partisan research institution dedicated to providing timely information concerning critical political and strategic developments in China, Russia, and Eurasia. Jamestown’s research and analysis is available to the public free-of-charge via Jamestown’s website, www.jamestown.org.