Foreign Involvement in the Iraqi Insurgency

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 16

The Iraqi insurgency spiked again in August 2004 when Muqtada al-Sadr took the offensive against the transitional Iraqi government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the Multi-National Force of U.S. and other foreign troops, as the former coalition is now known. It was optimistically believed that following the return to Iraqi sovereignty at the end of June, the insurgency by both Sunni and Shi’a groups would wither away. It has not, and the issue of foreign involvement with insurgent groups – which has hovered in the background since last year – came to the foreground in the summer of 2004. U.S. General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, highlighted the issue with regard to Syria when he adamantly stated: “We know that the pathway into Iraq for many foreign fighters is through Syria. It’s a fact. We know it. The Syrians know it.” [1] More recently, the claim by the Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Sha‘alan in July that Iran was interfering in Iraqi domestic affairs by allowing or promoting infiltration into Iraq has led to a significant contretemps between the two neighbors.

The question of foreign insurgents in Iraq presents a particularly tangled problem. Layers of complexity beneath a seemingly simple surface make it difficult to untangle fact from fiction when discussing the issue. Though the Bush administration has maintained that attacks are the work of “regime dead-enders” and foreign infiltrators, hard empirical evidence – often from the U.S. military forces – indicates that the foreign element is minuscule. Evidence which shows that of 8,000 suspected insurgents detained in Iraq, only 127 hold foreign passports, supports this latter claim. But a simple head-count does not tell the whole story. The insurgency’s foreign element has had a greater impact than mere numbers would lead us to believe.

Un-sponsored Foreign Insurgents

This insurgency has seen its share of outraged and disgruntled individuals, Arab nationalists, and “un-sponsored” religious extremists make their way into Iraq to fight the foreign occupation. Many Palestinians were recruited to fight in Iraq in 2002, and some joined the regime’s irregular force, the Feda‘yeen Saddam. [2] Similarly, large numbers of Syrian volunteers with close tribal and cultural links to Iraqis across the border felt it was their duty to fight. These individuals received no encouragement from their government. One such fighter, a 26-year-old Syrian named “Abed,” decided to fight in Iraq barely a week after the war began because, as he put it, “there was something inside that made me explode.” Another, a Saudi captured in Iraq named Mohammad Qadir Hussein, was a poor, disgruntled individual who had no military training, but who was motivated by an abiding desire to help other Muslims in distress. [3]

The collapse of Iraqi border controls facilitated the entry of un-sponsored insurgents into Iraq, while Iraqi middlemen or facilitators provided logistical support (i.e. food, directions, and weapons and ammunition) once these individuals had gained entry into the country. Un-sponsored foreign infiltrators are then “passed on” to Sunni imams who became their mentors. Many of these foreign infiltrators entered Iraq before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While poorly trained and ill-equipped, a substantial number of them fought doggedly and to the death in some of the battles between Iraqi irregular forces and the coalition advancing from the south. After the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, some returned home, while others remained and fought in the insurgency. Many of these gravitated towards the more disciplined jihadist insurgents.

Non-State Actors and Organizations

Foreign insurgents who come in as part of a “package” sent into Iraq by non-state actors are a more formidable force than un-sponsored foreign infiltrators. There is growing evidence that Iraq has begun to attract foreign Islamists and anti-American groups such as al-Qaeda and the Tawhid organization of the elusive and enigmatic Jordanian-Palestinian terrorist, Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, for whom Iraq is a new and easily accessible battlefield.

Uncertainty regarding the level or depth of al-Qaeda presence in Iraq remains due to a lack of non-politicized intelligence on its activities in that country. Osama bin Laden and his subordinates did not think much of Saddam Hussein and his regime, with evidence showing that the feelings were mutual. In the early days of the war, when there was an influx of foreign volunteers into Iraq, Hussein apparently warned the Ba‘ath party against close links with outsiders, especially religious extremists. [4] A senior Islamist operative (now deceased) allegedly authored a text entitled “The Future of Iraq and the Peninsula After Baghdad’s Fall: The Religious, Military, Political and Economic Future.” The work argues that the fall of the Ba‘athist regime was “better for the Islamists than the victory of the Iraqi Ba‘athists, because the collapse of Arab Ba‘athism means the collapse of the atheist, pan-Arab slogans that swept the Muslim nation…the demise of the Ba‘ath government in Iraq heralds the hoisting of the Islamic banner over the debris.” [5] Such fighters were attracted to Iraq following the war precisely in order to fight the U.S. presence in that country for the sake of Islam.

Once in Iraq, “sponsored” jihadists needed to create a logistical infrastructure, as infiltrating heavy weapons and explosives across the borders of Iraq’s neighbors is difficult. [6] For this they needed the help of Iraqis. Mutual suspicion between Sunni Islamists and former regime loyalists, secular-minded nationalists, and tribal elements actively opposing the Coalition does not mean that the latter groups are averse to providing logistical support for the former. Attempts by foreign jihadist organizations to operate in Iraq depend on the resources, protection and concealment provided to their fighters by Iraqis. Unable to enter into Iraq with the resources they need or blend in with the local population, these foreign elements would be lost without support from within Iraq.

Salafists in Iraq

The importance of the foreign jihadists who adhere to a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam (known properly as Salafism but popularly as Wahhabism) lies in three distinct areas. Firstly, these foreign jihadists have coupled with local Iraqi Salafists – who emerged into the open following the downfall of the Saddam regime – to successfully introduce a cohesive and extreme ideology to the public. While many of these groups, like the Mujahideen al-Salafiyah in Balad, have even reached out to members of the former Feda‘yeen Saddam as long as the latter drop their allegiance to Saddam.

Secondly, they have increased the prospects for communal violence by waging a campaign of deliberate and focused attacks against leaders of other Muslim communities, promoters of “moral laxity,” and non-Muslims. In the fall of 2003, Islamists were particularly active in Mosul, where they attacked a nunnery, killed a well-known writer, bombed a popular cinema, and torched four liquor stores. The worst atrocity came with the bombings of Christian churches this summer.

Thirdly, they have been responsible for the suicide bombing campaigns in Iraq between early fall 2003 and summer 2004. August 2003 saw three massive car bombings. Some of the most devastating suicide attacks came in mid-November 2003 against Italians in Nasiriyah and in mid-January 2004 outside a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) compound in Baghdad. In March 2004, the Shi‘a religious celebration of Ashura witnessed multiple suicide bombings which killed hundreds. [7]

However, as of summer 2004, it is increasingly evident that the different agendas and modus operandi of the nationalist Iraqi insurgency and their ostensible jihadist allies have caused considerable tensions between these groups. While they admire the motivation and skills of the foreigners, many mainstream Islamist and tribal insurgents resent an ideological agenda which has resulted in the killing of Iraqis simply for not adhering to a strict religious line. The foreign fighter’s apparent blood lust, which has led to indiscriminate attacks and the beheading of abductees, also angers Iraqi nationalists. [8] In early summer 2004, nationalist insurgents in Fallujah were about to assault a group of foreign jihadists based in the Jolan suburb, led by a Saudi with the nom de guerre of Abu Abdullah. Later, insurgent “authorities” in Fallujah – largely made up of former military personnel and Iraqi police and led by clerics – succeeded in evicting a number of non-Iraqi terrorists from the area.

State Support for the Insurgency

The Bush Administration has accused two of Iraq’s neighbors, Syria and Iran, of facilitating or actively encouraging foreign fighters to cross the Iraqi border. The singling out of these two countries, despite the fact that Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey also maintain porous borders with Iraq, reflects the political dynamics at play as the U.S. tries to stabilize the Great Middle East.

Syria and Iran fear the U.S. will succeed in its (unstated) goal of implementing a pro-American “puppet regime” in Baghdad. Such a regime would allow U.S. bases to operate in Iraq, giving U.S. forces the ability to threaten these countries. Both Tehran and Damascus see each other as the next U.S. target for regime change. The logical response is to support anti-US operations in Iraq, thereby ensuring that the hostile Bush Administration remains mired there. However, this is a very risky endeavor on many levels.

Both countries understand that to overtly support anti-US forces in Iraq risks incurring America’s wrath. Not long after the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, warnings from the Bush administration to Syria and Iran not to help the nascent insurgency were issued from a position of strength. Both Syria and Iran bent over backwards to avoid irritating a U.S. that was itching for a fight. Indeed, there were reports that U.S. Special Operations Units undertook actions across the border into Syria and actually clashed with Syrian border guards. Therefore, the growing U.S. problems in Iraq by fall 2003 must have been a source of considerable satisfaction to both Tehran and Damascus.

While neither could overtly support the insurgency, it is not too far-fetched to assume that they did so covertly or turned a blind eye to pro-insurgent activities conducted by elements within their respective countries. Both Syria and Iran have domestic constituencies that are thoroughly hostile to the U.S., and furthermore, alarmed by the belligerent attitude taken by Washington towards their respective countries. Arab nationalists in Syria, for example, are inclined to lend support to the remnants of the Iraqi Ba’ath party. Meanwhile, Iranian groups like the Revolutionary Guards might be inclined to support Shi’a insurgents such as the Mahdist Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr.

But there are attendant risks. Firstly, neither country wants continued instability on their borders. Secondly, neither country is particularly enamored of the leading ideological elements responsible for the violence in Iraq. As a regime dominated by the minority ‘Alawis (thoroughly despised by Sunni extremists), Syria does not want to see the growth of Sunni extremism in Iraq. Nor does secular Damascus wish to see a theocratic Baghdad, despite its sympathy for and traditional alliance with the Shi‘as. For its part, Iran is hardly likely to support Sunni extremists or Arab nationalists. Both are antithetical to Tehran’s agenda. Instead, Iranians continue to support Shi’a groups that are not fighting the U.S., in the plausible and logical expectation that these parties will play a leading role in Iraqi politics once the U.S. has left Iraq.

So, while the restraints of Middle Eastern realpolitik keep states from openly supporting foreign insurgents against the coalition in Iraq, there are many other factors and organizations that contribute to this continuing and complex problem.


1. Quoted in The Washington Times, April 30, 2004.

2. Islamist groups, on the other hand, recruited from among the growing population of disgruntled Islamists in Jordanian cities such as Ma‘an.

3. Personal interviews with the author.

4. New York Times, January 14, 2004, p.1.

5. Quoted in al-Hayat, December 20, 2003, p.4.

6. Cross-border traffic between Iraq and its neighbors by smugglers and tribes existed even in the best of times when Iraq was able to police its borders. Now even though the borders are not effectively policed, foreign infiltrators are unlikely to come into Iraq on their Sports Utility Vehicles – which outrun the two-wheel drives of the border patrols – laden with large quantities of light weaponry or explosives. Nor do they have to since Iraq is one huge ammunition dump.

7. The Independent (London), March 07, 2004.

8. For more see The Daily Star (Beirut) July 16, 2004.