Terrorism And Complex Warfare In Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 12

Few observers of the post-Saddam Iraqi scene expected an insurgency to break out in Iraq so shortly after conventional combat operations were officially declared to be over. When the insurgency erupted in May 2003, there was little concern on the part of senior U.S. strategic planners or the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). In the early days, insurgents, often amateurish and clumsy, were described as former regime “dead-enders” who would be soundly defeated. Instead, the violence escalated over the course of the summer, and by fall 2003 a series of spectacular and bloody attacks on coalition forces, non-governmental organizations and others had captured the attention of the administration, the military and the media. These deadly attacks included the assassination of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, and the destruction of the Jordanian Embassy, the United Nations headquarters, and the Red Cross building. By October 2003, administration officials began admitting that they were surprised by the intensity and resilience of the insurgency. [1] In early November, dire prognostications began to appear, especially from U.S. intelligence agencies, arguing that the insurgency was gaining support among the populace. [2] By the end of November, understanding the insurgency and dealing with it had risen to the top of the U.S. agenda.

Now a year old, the insurgency in Iraq has derailed U.S. political goals and continues to threaten the stability of a new sovereign political entity after June 30, 2004. Moreover, the tenuous security situation in the country since May 2003 has contributed enormously to the slow pace of reconstruction and reconciliation.

The Onset of the Insurgency

The insurgency began in May 2003 with the outbreak of violence by the Sunni Arab population in what has come to be known as the “Sunni Triangle.” The grievances of that minority group, including the threat to their identity in the new post-Sunni Iraq, fanned the flames of violence. [3] Challenged by the total collapse of an already ineffective police force, law and order in Iraq also faced the rise of vicious criminal gangs that terrorized the Iraqi populace and engaged in massive smuggling across the country’s unguarded borders. Saddam Hussein had let out of his prisons over 200,000 hardened and petty criminals. Coalition forces simply did not have enough manpower to police Iraq, while at the same time fully engage in combating the insurgency.

The impact of the situation on the Sunni Arab commercial class aroused the fears of middle-class Sunni Arabs. Both classes would have been an invaluable asset to the coalition if their grievances had been addressed from the outset. As one Sunni observer put it: “If the Americans came and developed our general services, brought work for our people and transferred their technology to us, then we would not have been so disappointed. But it is not acceptable to us as human beings that, after one year, America is still not able to bring us electricity.” [4] The CPA initially made little effort to reach out to Sunni Arabs. This indifference to the community that had held the reins of power for over 70 years was seen as a calculated step by leading Sunnis to fully marginalize that community in the new Iraq. [5]

But what do the insurgents want? At a basic level they want a redress of their grievances, both material and non-material. At a more complex level, they want the U.S. to leave Iraq, because only then, do they feel, that these grievances can be redressed. While many of the groups have articulated these issues in writings and statements, almost none have articulated a vision of a free, post-U.S. Iraq. The insurgency is not a monolithic or united movement directed by a leadership with a unitary and disciplined ideological vision. Moreover, some insurgents may have calculated that at this stage they do not need an elaborate political and socioeconomic vision for a “free” Iraq; that is to say, it is enough to articulate a desire to be free of foreign occupation to gain the support of the people. Furthermore, it is likely that these myriad groups who cooperate with one another and coordinate attacks at the operational level have profound political differences, and wish to avoid fratricidal conflicts; as one insurgent leader put it: “We first want to expel the infidel invaders before anything else.”

Social Composition of the Sunni Insurgency

The insurgency does not have the support of all Sunni Arabs, but its range encompasses all classes, both urban and rural. Its ranks include students, intellectuals, former soldiers, tribal youths, farmers, and Islamists. It also has the tacit support of many within the Sunni Arab community. While many Sunni Arabs may not actively support the insurgents, they are not reticent about expressing their admiration for insurgents’ activities. For example, a member of the Fallujah administrative council openly stated that insurgents are “Mujahideen” or holy warriors. “We don’t know them,” he said, but then ventured to add, “Al Anbar (the province where Fallujah is located) has a bigger nationalist consciousness than the rest of Iraq. We are also more religious. We consider this resistance a religious duty and a nationalist one as well.” [6] Similarly, some members of the Iraqi security forces have expressed sympathy and support for the insurgents. An Iraqi police officer, who works closely with U.S. forces during the day and at night turns intelligence about his day-time colleagues over to the resistance, had the following to say: “I have good relations with the American soldiers in my work, but I live in a different situation. The Americans have given us nothing – no jobs and no hopes. They are thieves. They break into our houses without warning and stand on our heads. This is why the people are getting more hurt and more angry. This is why we want revenge. The resistance here is growing stronger every day, first, because the American are occupiers and we will fight them until they leave the country, and second we fight to return Saddam Hussein to power because he is the only man who can return Iraq back to safety within an hour.” [7]

Evolution of the Insurgency

Professional groups undertook some of the insurgent attacks in the early summer of 2003. [8] However, for the most part, these hit-and-run attacks were undertaken by amateurs and individuals hired by former regime loyalists. By fall/winter 2003, matters had gotten worse. The insurgents became more proficient. While U.S. forces had killed most of the amateurs, the Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) of the surviving insurgents became more lethal as a result of experience. [9] Their proficiency also increased as former professional military personnel increasingly opted for the path of violence out of nationalistic and religious reasons. Disgruntled military personnel, with no profound sympathy for the defunct regime, but outraged over the loss of status and privilege as a result of the disbanding of the armed forces, were increasingly active in the ranks of the insurgency by the fall. Senior or mid-ranking officers would often mentor or advise novice but enthusiastic insurgent cells. Following the terrible losses of November 2003, U.S. forces targeted the former regime insurgents with greater vigor. [10]

The decline in importance and fortune of former regime loyalists allowed for an Islamo-nationalist element to gain prominence within the insurgency. Made up of former military personnel and motivated by the preaching of the Sunni clergy, the insurgency has benefited tremendously from a fusion between nationalist and Islamist sentiments among Sunnis. This transition has been bolstered by the Sunni clergy, who have begun to shed their traditionally insignificant role in community affairs in favor of more active participation.

The Role of the Mosques and the Sunni Clergy in the Insurgency

Insurgent organization and political indoctrination is not transparent. This is not surprising, as Sunni mosques increasingly have become centers of opposition to the coalition. Traditionally, the Sunni clergy has not been as politically active as their Shi’a counterparts in mobilization of the populace against perceived injustices or inequities. This has begun to change both in Iraq and in the rest of the Arab world. Iraq has witnessed a rising tide of political activism among the mainstream clerical establishment and the emergence of younger politically active clergymen (Imams) with clear-cut Salafist tendencies. Friday sermons have been a traditional way of channeling political and social discontent in Muslim societies. In Iraq, the Friday sermons by both Sunni and Shi’a clerics resonate with a population that has no notable or charismatic politician or lay leadership to turn to in this time of stress and humiliation.

In this context, the statement of an insurgent leader that the “most prominent resistance is the Islamic resistance” should not be doubted. The pro-Saddam group lost considerable power and legitimacy with the apprehension of the former Iraqi leader in mid-December 2003. Moreover, many Islamic-nationalist insurgents blame the Baathists and the former regime for the disasters that have befallen the country. These Islamo-nationalist insurgents showed greater motivation and dedication than the free-lance insurgents of the early months of the insurgency. More ominously, new insurgents showed a dramatic improvement in small-unit fighting skills during the bloody outbreak of fighting in April 2004. They have shown an ability to stand and fight (rather than merely to “shoot and scoot” or “pray and spray” as in the past), to conduct coordinated small unit ambushes and attacks against U.S. forces, and to target on supply convoys.

Young men from the various Sunni Arab tribes have also begun to swell the ranks of the insurgency. Infuriated by what they saw as outrageous behavior by U.S. forces, tribes such as the 50,000-strong Albueissas have played a prominent role in the tribal-based insurgency; its members claimed that their fighters shot down the U.S. Army Chinook which resulted in the deaths of 17 U.S. troops in early November 2003.

While this analysis has detailed much of the Sunni components of the insurgency, it is important to keep in mind the rise of the Shi’a resistance as well. By the end of March 2004 – and to everyone’s surprise – significant elements of the Shi’a community rose in open rebellion against the coalition, when the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr unleashed his so-called Mahdi’s Army against the coalition. Suddenly, the coalition was faced with the unsavory prospect of a two-front war. The precipitating factors of the Shi’a insurgency were again the mistakes and failed policies of the CPA, but as with all conflicts there were underlying causes for the Shi’a uprising. [11] Understanding this aspect of the insurgency would require a detailed and comprehensive look at Iraq’s Shi’a population, its composition, and the goals of its leaders and people.

From Low-Level Insurgency to International Jihad

There is growing evidence that the insurgency in Iraq has begun to attract foreign Islamists and anti-American groups, such as al-Qaeda, for whom Iraq is a new and easily accessible battlefield. Foreign Islamists infiltrating into Iraq would be expected to make common cause with local Sunni Arab Salafis who have emerged in cities such as Ramadi, Fallujah, and Khaldiya and Rutba. One insurgent leader in Rutba – a former conscript in the Iraqi Army – told a Western journalist that his group is Islamic and has learned from al-Qaeda, although it had no direct contact with that organization: “The resistance is Islamic, we are ordered by God, we have no relation to that party…al-Qaeda is an Islamic group and we’ve learnt from them, and we learnt much from Osama bin Laden. He is our sheikh also.” [12]

However, the mutual suspicion between Sunni Islamists on the one hand and former regime loyalists, secular-minded nationalists, and tribal elements who are actively opposing the Coalition on the other hand does not mean that the latter groups would be averse to providing logistical support for the former. [13] The attempts by “free-lance” jihadists itching to fight the U.S. and by al-Qaeda elements to infiltrate Iraq can only be successful if such foreign volunteers are provided with the resources and protection needed to undertake their missions. Jihadists do not cross the border into Iraq with the provisions they need, nor can they easily blend into the local population without local support.

The number of foreign infiltrators is small and will continue to be dwarfed by local members of the insurgency. However, the infiltrators may have an impact beyond their numbers. The importance of the Salafis/foreign jihadists lies in two distinct areas. First, they have contributed to increasing the prospects for communal violence or complex war by waging a campaign of terror deliberately focused on leaders of other communities, promoters of “moral laxity,” and non-Muslims. They have derided the Shi’as and their rituals and have even attacked and defaced posters of Shi’a religious figures. In fall 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.

Secondly, the rise of Iraqi Salafism and the infiltration of foreign Salafis and al-Qaeda operatives may explain the rise of massive suicide bombing campaigns in Iraq between early fall 2003 and late January 2004. The month of August 2003 saw three massive car bombings and the numbers grew in the fall. Some of the most devastating suicide bombings came in mid-November 2003 against the Italians in Nasiriyah and in mid-January 2004 outside one of the gates of the CPA compound in Baghdad. The summer of 2004 has witnessed a revival of the suicide-bombing phenomenon and an increase in kidnappings and targeted assassinations. These are all tactics associated with foreign extremist groups.


The Iraqi Interim Government which will take over on July 1, simply has no way of dealing effectively with the ongoing crisis within the country. This puts the burden on U.S. and other coalition forces. It is likely that as Iraq staggers uncertainly towards a qualified sovereignty, the security situation will deteriorate; indeed, it could worsen dramatically. Following the hand-over, coalition forces may possibly witness the emergence of “complex warfare patterns.” National resistance, politico-economic violence by organized criminal gangs, and incipient civil war pitting ethnic and religious groups against one another in a massive fight over “who gets what, when and how” could become the norm rather than an all-out war of national liberation. Should this occur, the prospects for U.S. success in Iraq in bringing about security as a stepping-stone towards reconstruction and political stability will be non-existent.


1. See Brian Knowlton, “U.S. Surprised in Iraq by Insurgents’ Fight,” International Herald Tribune, October 27, 2003, p.1.

2. See Jonathan Landay, “CIA Has Bleak Analysis of Iraq,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 12, 2003, p.1.

3. See “Iraq’s Sunnis seethe over loss of prestige,” Houston Chronicle, June 06, 2003 (accessed on-line).

4. Quoted in Rory McCarthy, “False dawn of peace lost in violent storm,” The Guardian, April 08, 2004.

5. Interviews in Karrada, Baghdad, November 2003.

6. Quoted in Charles Glover, “Smiles and Shrugs Speak Volumes About Nature of Attacks On American Troops,” The Financial Times, September 25, 2003, (accessed on-line).

7. For the story and quotes see Damien McElroy, “This is Jabir: Policeman By Day, Terrorist By Night,” Sunday Telegraph, October 19, 2003.

8. See William Booth and Daniel Williams, “U.S. Soldiers Face Persistent Resistance,” Washington Post, June 10, 2003, p.1.

9. Interviews in Baghdad, Ramadi, Balad, Tikrit, and Mosul, November 2003.

10. Only April 2004 has been worse in terms of U.S. casualties.

11. For an extensive and authoritative analysis of CPA missteps – simply one of many made by that organization over the course of its existence – vis-à-vis Muqtada see Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Anthony Shadid, “U.S. Targeted Fiery Cleric In Risky Move,” Washington Post, April 11, 2004, p.1.

12. See James Hider, “We follow Usama, Not Saddam, Say Desert Guerillas,” The Times, December 27, 2003, p.1.

13. For an analysis of growing cooperation between Iraqi insurgents and foreign Islamists see “Die irakische Guerilla wird immer schlagkraftiger,” Neue Zurcher Zeitung, October 23, 2003 (accessed on-line).

The views expressed here are those of the author and not of the institution with which he is affiliated.