The Iraq War: Planting the Seeds of Al Qaeda’s Second Generation

Several points should be highlighted. First, it is difficult to accurately assess the precise military strength and weight of Al Qaeda in Iraq in relation to various components of the Iraqi insurgency. The Iraqi resistance is highly complex, diverse, and decentralized, with a broad spectrum of ideological orientations and perspectives. Although a consesus exists that the overwhelming number of fighters are home-grown Iraqis (more than 90 percent) inspired by nationalist and religious sentiments, foreign fighters reportedly play a bigger role than their miniscule size because of their spectacular suicide bombings against Iraqi security forces, Shiites, and Sunni Kurds. A related point is that while American and Iraqi authorities estimate the number of Arab fighters under Zarqawi around a 1,000, his biographer, who has access to Zarqawi’s inner circle, claim that the latter has built a force of at least 5,000 full-time fighters bolstered by a vigorous network of 20,000 homegrown supporters. The numbers vary wildly and cannot be authenticated accurately but one point must be reiterated: the number of foreign militants represents a small percentage – perhaps one in 10 – of the total indigenous Iraqi fighters. Nonetheless, Al Qaeda in Iraq has proved to be deadly effective and has become a power to be reckoned with.

A related point is that the expansion of the American "war on terror," particularly the invasion and occupation of Iraq, radicalized a large segment of Iraqi society and Arab public opinion and played directly into the hands of Al Qaeda and other militants. "Our policies in the Middle East fuel Islamic resentment," U.S. Vice Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2005. Far from hammering a deadly nail in the coffin of terror, as Bush had stated, Iraq appears to have become a recruiting tool, if not yet a recruiting ground, for militant jihadist causes and anti-American voices. A consensus exists among American, European, and Arab analysts (and the American intelligence community) that Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as the training ground for the next or second generation of "professionalized" jihadis and that it provides them with the opportunity to enhance their technical skills. A new classified assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency says that Iraq may prove to be an even more effective training ground for militants than Afghanistan was in Al Qaeda’s early days, because it is serving as a real-world laboratory for urban combat. A small group of Arab fighters trained in Iraq has already made its violent debut in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Iraq is slowly and gradually replacing other theaters as a forward base for the new jihad. Today, a large concentration of active jihadis exists in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, or Saudi Arabia. According to a 2005 report by the National Intelligence Council, the CIA director’s think tank: "The al-Qa’ida membership that was distinguished by having trained in Afghanistan will gradually dissipate, to be replaced in part by the dispersion of the experienced survivors of the conflict in Iraq." This report took a year to produce and includes the analysis of 1000 U.S. and foreign specialists and represents the conclusion of American intelligence, which cannot be dismissed as politically and ideologically biased and antiwar.

The crisis, including increasing civilian casualties, the horror of the abuse of the Iraqi prisoners, and the cultural clash between occupier and occupied, is a welcome development for bin Laden and his associates, who have exploited it to justify their global jihad against America and its allies. The American war in Iraq was a god-sent opportunity for bin Laden and Zawahiri. America’s imperial endeavor has given them a new opening to make inroads, if not into mainstream Arab hearts and minds, into a large pool of outraged Muslims from the Middle East and elsewhere and uprooted young European-born Muslims and who want to resist what they perceive as the U.S.-British onslaught on their coreligionists.

It is no wonder that Zarqawi has become such a viable asset to bin Laden and Zawahiri, who had previously kept their distance from him. A testament to Zarqawi’s importance is that American military and intelligence commanders now view him as being more operationally dangerous than bin Laden himself. Some European defense analysts claim further that Zarqawi, through senior associates in Syria, Italy, and Spain, has taken over most of Al Qaeda’s remaining European network; they imply that he is Al Qaeda’s de facto. A high-level internal review within the U.S. government has been launched to reassess the nature and character of the threat facing the United States in light of recent developments, particularly in Iraq. Top government officials are increasingly turning their attention to Zarqawi’s Iraq and away from bin Laden’s Al Qaeda to anticipate what one called "the bleed out" of hundreds or thousands of Iraq-trained jihadis back to their home countries throughout the Middle East and Western Europe: "It’s a new piece of a new equation," a former senior Bush administration officials said.

Although it is difficult to assess his real military strength, Zarqawi is not a figment of the American imagination; his terrorist operations have killed thousands of innocent Iraqis. Al Qaeda in Iraq has claimed responsibility for hundreds of attacks, and Zarqawi’s lieutenants have given interviews to Arab newspapers and elucidated their broader goals, which are similar to those of its parent organization – bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. As one of his operatives told an Arab journalist, Zarqawi aims at not just expelling the Americans from Iraq but also using the country as a way station to overthrow impious Arab regimes and reestablish the caliphate; "We are fighting in Iraq but our sights are on other places, like Jerusalem."

Although we know that Zarqawi exists, we know little else about the structure of his organization and its operational capabilities. But we clearly know that homegrown Iraqis represent the overwhelming number of fighters and have led the resistance. The unfolding Iraqi struggle is political because many Iraqis are deeply divided over the future direction of their country and the American military presence. In the end, the future of Zarqawi and his associates will ultimately depend on the Iraqis’ willingness and ability to compromise and establish an inclusive, independent government that is capable of securing the peace, which at the moment does not seem promising.

Finally, it is misleading to say that only militants of the Al Qaeda variety have joined the fight against the American order in Baghdad. More alarming is that throughout Arab lands the U.S. invasion of Iraq has turned into a recruiting device against perceived American imperial policies; it has radicalized both mainstream and militant Arab and Muslim public opinion. Many young Arabs whom I met in cities and villages across the region say they would welcome an opportunity to go to Iraq and resist the Americans. Far from being Al Qaeda-type fanatics, these young men had not been politicized before the American-led invasion and had not joined any Islamist, let alone paramilitary, organization. They viewed the American war and military presence in Iraq as an alien encroachment on the ummah, which, in the eyes of their religious leaders, is not justified.

Based on my field research, I would argue that if it was not for logistical and technical reasons and difficulties, the flow of potential Muslim volunteers from the Middle East and Europe into Iraq would exceed that into Afghanistan under the Russian occupation in the 1980s. Many young men cannot afford to purchase a bus or a taxi or airplane fare to take them to the Syrian border, the most accessible and preferred route into Iraq. Arab local security services keep a close watch on the movements of young men to Iraq’s neighboring countries. Other recruits are traveling through Turkey into Iran and crossing into Iraq – often through unpoliced areas along Iraq’s vast border.

Although the majority of foreign fighters come from countries in the Persian Gulf, mainly Saudi Arabia and Yemen, many others are from North African countries, including Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, and Jordan. Moreover, scores of young Muslims from European countries, mainly France and Britain, have already fought in Iraq, with a larger pool of potential recruits searching for ways to get there. There exists a broad representative sample of recruits from many countries, including both militant Islamists and zealous young men. The problem, however, is that the latter will most likely be ideologically transformed by their experience in Iraq, as their counterparts were in Afghanistan. The baptism of blood and fire, coupled with socialization with hard-core jihadis, will make them vulnerable to militancy. According to emerging evidence, fighters returning from Iraq have already been implicated in violent actions in their native countries.

Will the tragic phenomenon of the Afghan Arabs be replaced by that of the "Iraqi Arabs"? This possibility cannot be disregarded because although the number of Arab fighters is reported to be in the low thousands, it could quadruple if Iraq descends into full sectarian strife or if neighboring countries open a wider crack in their vast porous border with Iraq. A recent assessment by the CIA concluded that since the American invasion, Iraq had in many ways assumed the role played by Afghanistan during the rise of Al Qaeda during the 1980s and 1990s for militants from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries.

Final Thoughts

Instead of acknowledging structural flaws in their decision to invade Iraq and drawing appropriate lessons, President Bush and his senior aides never tire of reminding the American people that Iraq is now "the central front in the war on terror." They also indirectly insinuate that they created more enemies with serious risk to U.S. security. Bush’s current and previous chiefs of intelligence, Porter J. Gross and George Tenet, respectively, have told Congress that radical anti-Americanism and the deadly expertise used by Al Qaeda have spread to other Sunni Muslim extremists, who are behind a "next wave" of terrorism that will endure "for the foreseeable future with or without Al Qaeda in the picture."

Despite all this overwhelming official evidence, there is little recognition, let alone acknowledgment, among Bush administration officials that the expansion of the war against Al Qaeda has damaged America’s image, reputation, and standing in the Muslim world as well as threatened international peace. This is well documented with hundreds of surveys, polls, and reports, and it has given militancy a new lease on life. One of my book’s major findings is that contrary to the received wisdom, the dominant response to Al Qaeda in the Muslim world was very hostile, and few activists, let alone ordinary Muslims, embraced its global jihad. Al Qaeda faced a two-front war, internally and externally, with the interior front threatening its very existence.

On the internal and external fronts, Muslims have played a fundamental role in isolating Al Qaeda and have contributed significantly to the multiple wars being waged against the militant network. Of all these struggles, bin Laden and his transnationalist cohorts have lost the war of ideas – the struggle for Muslim minds. That was a critical achievement overlooked by American commentators and policymakers, who tuned their attention to Al Qaeda and like-minded militants and overlooked the fault lines among jihadis and the vast societal opposition to global jihad. Had they tuned in closely to the internal struggles roiling Muslim lands, they would have had second thoughts about the military expansion of the so-called "war on terror" and would have realized that Al Qaeda is a tiny fringe organization with no viable entrenched constituency. Had they listened carefully to the multiple critiques of Al Qaeda by Muslim scholars and opinion makers, they would have had answers to their often-asked question: where are the Muslim moderates? Had they observed the words and deeds of former jihadis and Islamists, they would have known that the jihadist movement has been torn apart and that Al Qaeda does not speak for or represent religious nationalists – or Muslim public opinion; American commentators and policymakers would also have realized that the internal defeat of Al Qaeda on its home front – the Muslim world – was and is the most effective way to hammer a deadly nail into its coffin.

The United States and the international community could have found intelligent means to nourish and support the internal forces that were opposed to militant ideologies like the bin Laden network. The way to go was not to declare a worldwide war against a nonconventional, paramilitary foe with a tiny or no social base of support and try to settle scores with old regional dictators. That is exactly what bin Laden and his senior associates had hoped the United States would do – lash out militarily against the ummah. As Seif al-Adal, Al Qaeda’s overall military commander recently put it, "The Americans took the bait and fell into our trap."

Copyright © 2005 Fawaz A. Gerges

Author: Fawaz A. Gerges holds the Christian A. Johnson Chair in International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. He was educated at Oxford University and the London School of Economics and has previously been a Research Fellow at Harvard and Princeton universities. He is also a senior analyst and regular commentator for ABC television news. His books include America and Political Islam: Clash of Interests or Clash of Cultures? (Cambridge, 1999) and The Journey of the Jihadis: A Biography of a State of Mind (Harcourt Press, 2006). He has written extensively on Arab and Muslim politics, Islamist movements, American foreign policy, and relations between the world of Islam and the West. His articles have appeared in several of the most prestigious journals and newspapers in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. For more information, visit: