Al-Qaeda and Iraq: Too Soon to Declare Victory

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 34

“Al-Qaeda in Iraq Crippled” was the headline splashed across Western print and electronic media on October 15. The stories accompanying the headline described the number of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leaders who have been killed in recent months, the downward trend in AQI car bombings and the slowing of the infiltration of Islamist fighters from Syria and Jordan [1]. The stories were sourced to both named and unnamed officials of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, and the bottom-line was offered by Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno who claimed that AQI’s capabilities had been “degraded” by 60-70% so far in 2007, and Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal was reported to be urging a U.S. declaration of victory over AQI. Last week’s stories were focused on Anbar province and the Baghdad region, but it was unclear if generals Odierno and McChrystal were limiting their analyses to those areas or all of Iraq.

The foregoing analyses of AQI’s defeat in Iraq are, of course, impossible to assess without access to the full range of intelligence reporting—both classified and open source. The militaries of the U.S.-led coalition may have firm evidence that AQI is done and finished. Yet, if they do, it means that AQI and the central command of al-Qaeda—Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and others—have radically changed their approach to the war in Iraq and, indeed, to their overall approach to fighting the United States and its allies in insurgency situations. Although this would be excellent news for the West, it is too early to accept these assertions completely.

Like most other insurgents, al-Qaeda’s doctrine places first priority on the survival of its forces. The equation is simple: no forces, no insurgency. If the opinions of the above-mentioned generals are correct, al-Qaeda has abandoned its doctrine and decided instead to stand and fight to the death. Yet, the recent media coverage has provided no evidence of that. The claim by the generals that 30 AQI leaders have been killed is impressive—and hopefully true—but after capturing and killing several hundreds of AQI (since 2003) and al-Qaeda leaders (since 1995), 30 dead leaders seems a weak reed on which to hang a claim of overall victory. If AQI stood and fought to the death, there would be verified body counts that are much higher. It is possible, however, that many AQI fighters may have been killed by Iraqi Sunni tribal groups in Anbar, and that their deaths may not be verifiable. That said, open source reporting makes it seem unlikely that the Anbar Sunni leaders will push their war with AQI to the point of eliminating the latter simply because they know they will need the assistance of AQI and its foreign backers when the U.S.-led coalition withdraws from Iraq and their war against the Shiite-led regime intensifies.

Decreases in the number of car bombs, as well as in the numbers of Islamist fighters infiltrating Iraq from Jordan and Syria, are also good news, but they are more signs of insurgent canniness than they are of coalition victory. The decreases have been most noticeable, as the generals said, in Anbar province and around Baghdad. In the former, the U.S. Marine Corps have been operating full-bore for more than a year in both fighting and aiding local Sunni tribes. It should be no surprise that the Marines have had some important successes, and it should be no surprise that al-Qaeda has moved most of its forces to other provinces—or to Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia—to avoid the mayhem the Marines can inflict on them. Al-Qaeda leaders have long said that the U.S. Marines are the only U.S. fighters they respect, and so they have no eagerness to go toe-to-toe with them. In Baghdad, Washington’s 2007 surge of forces in the capital area has brought larger numbers of dead insurgents and an overall slowing of insurgent operations. The surge would have been a failure if such results did not appear, and AQI and the insurgent groups would have been ignorant of their own doctrine had they not gotten out of the way of the more aggressive, numerous and powerful U.S. force. Moving away from, not toward strong enemy conventional forces is standard procedure for insurgents.

While not at all questioning the claims of numerous dead AQI leaders, fewer car bombs detonating and declining infiltrations in Anbar and Baghdad, it probably is too much to take these successes and extrapolate them into an overall, country-wide victory. The West made such an extrapolation soon after driving the Taliban from Afghan cities by claiming total victory, only to soon find itself facing a steadily intensifying insurgency with the very undefeated Taliban (Terrorism Focus, July 3). It is more likely—especially in Anbar—that AQI took some heavy losses from the U.S. Marines and then decided to sidestep their wrath by moving into the Levant, Saudi Arabia and other Iraqi provinces. The same is probably true for the insurgents who were battered at the hands of the reinforced U.S. Army units in and around Baghdad. Again, such bobbing and weaving is integral to AQI and al-Qaeda doctrine, and it must always be recalled that the insurgents are in no hurry (Terrorism Focus, March 14, 2006). If the coalition’s military power is too overwhelming in one or more areas, the insurgents will simply move or stand down and wait until U.S. forces shift locations or begin to draw down their ranks. AQI and al-Qaeda are clearly aware from the international media that the U.S. will to stay in Iraq is dissolving, and that patience on the insurgents’ part may give them victory with far fewer casualties than head-on battles with U.S. forces.

While U.S. generals are discussing whether AQI has been definitively defeated—and the media claims that many believe such a claim is premature—Western commentary is yet again outdoing military leaders in both their claims of victory and in misunderstanding AQI and its strategic doctrine. “Al-Qaeda is on the horns of a dilemma,” syndicated columnist Clifford May wrote on October 21. “Last month, some 30 of its senior members in Iraq were killed or captured. Now, Osama bin Laden faces a tough decision: Send reinforcements to Iraq in an attempt to regain the initiative? That risks losing those combatants, too—and that could seriously diminish his global organization. But the alternative is equally unappealing: accept defeat in Iraq, the battlefield bin Laden has called central to the struggle al-Qaeda is waging against America and its allies.”

Having discussed above the dangers of extrapolating undeniable but probably transitory U.S. military successes in Anbar and around Baghdad, May implicitly argues that the Islamist insurgency in Iraq will ultimately win or lose on the basis of what al-Qaeda and AQI does or does not do. While this analysis is off-base, it is an analytic line that holds sway among many Western experts. First, bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and the rest of the al-Qaeda leadership have described Iraq as “Islam’s” central battlefield in the war against the “Crusaders and Zionists,” not as “al-Qaeda’s” central battlefield (as-Sahab Productions, September 7). Al-Qaeda leaders deliberately describe themselves as only a part of a bigger Islamist struggle, and seldom if ever try to hog the spotlight. This, incidentally, is why there is no sadness among al-Qaeda’s chiefs that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is now a dead hero rather than a live operator; al-Zarqawi was simply too insistent on al-Qaeda playing the lead role in Iraq (Daily Star, April 3, 2006). Al-Qaeda’s doctrine is to be the vanguard of a larger movement, not the movement itself (Terrorism Focus, September 11).

Second, May misses the point that al-Qaeda is welcomed on so many contemporary jihadi battlefields—Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, Mindanao, southern Thailand, Algeria, among others—precisely because it is determined to play a supporting and not a leading role in those insurgencies. Rather than leading insurgencies, al-Qaeda’s fighters have a long record of arriving in the battle zone and playing a subordinate role that is meant to make the local insurgency better and more effective militarily, politically and media-wise. The West would be very fortunate if al-Qaeda were fielding multiple al-Zarqawi clones who caused internal dissension in all the insurgencies which they joined, but such is not the case. Again, al-Qaeda doctrine is to support and guide, not to lead.

Third, and finally, no matter what al-Qaeda doctrine says, the historical reality is that insurgencies win or lose based on their authenticity; national insurgencies, such as the one in Iraq, must be led, supported and overwhelmingly manned by local inhabitants. Outsiders—as were bin Laden and other Arab mujahideen during the Afghan-Soviet war—can assist the locals in valuable ways by providing such things as arms and money, but they can never lead and command an insurgency occurring in a country where they are not natives. Bin Laden made this point explicitly on October 22 (al-Jazeera, October 22). In speaking to the Iraqi insurgent groups, he praised them—and not AQI—”for carrying out one of the greatest duties that few people could carry out; namely, the duty of repelling the enemy…The infidels have become confused and soon will flee.” Looking to the need to govern the country after a U.S. defeat, bin Laden also admonished the “brother amirs of the mujahid [Iraqi] groups” for being slow “in carrying out another duty…namely, the duty of unifying your ranks as God, be He glorified and exalted wants.” The al-Qaeda chief told the Iraqi mujahideen “the Muslims [worldwide] are waiting for you all to be united under one banner to uphold right,” warning them that disunity could yield the squandering of their military victory over the U.S.-led coalition, as it did for the Afghan mujahideen after they defeated the Soviet Union (al-Jazeera, October 22).

Simply put, foreigners cannot win the popular support base indispensable to a durable and ultimately successful insurgency, and al-Qaeda learned that lesson well in Afghanistan in the 1980s and is rehearsing it again there and in Iraq today. The bottom line is that even if AQI is defeated, the Iraq insurgency—because it is authentic—will continue. In this light, current U.S. successes against AQI—while worthwhile and to be applauded—will not be a major factor, let alone determinative, in defeating the Iraqi insurgency.


1. Typically, the unnamed U.S. officials promoting this story did not mention the continuing flow of veteran and would-be mujahideen into Iraq from Saudi Arabia.