By Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Al-Qaeda in Iraq is the United States' most formidable enemy in that country. But unlike Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization in Pakistan, U.S. intelligence officials and outside experts believe, the Iraqi branch poses little danger to the security of the U.S. homeland.
As the Democratic Congress continues to push for a military withdrawal, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have repeatedly warned that bin Laden plans to turn Iraq into the capital of an Islamic caliphate and a staging ground for attacks on the United States. "If we fail there," Bush said in a February news conference, "the enemy will follow us here."
Attacking the United States clearly remains on bin Laden's agenda. But the likelihood that such an attack would be launched from Iraq, many experts contend, has sharply diminished over the past year as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has undergone dramatic changes. Once believed to include thousands of "foreign fighters," it is now an overwhelmingly Iraqi organization whose aims are likely to remain focused on the struggle against the Shiite majority in Iraq, U.S. intelligence officials said.
Although AQI's top leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, is thought to be Egyptian, most members "are Iraqis, both in terms of leaders and foot soldiers," said one counterterrorism official. He and other officials estimated that Iraqis make up 90 percent of AQI's several thousand fighters.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates last week put the number of foreigners now arriving in Iraq to join the AQI-led Sunni insurgency at "perhaps several dozen a month" from neighboring Syria, most of them volunteers for suicide-bombing missions.
Little more than a year ago, AQI's back was against the wall, its efforts to recruit Iraqi Sunni nationalist and secular groups undermined by its violent tactics against civilians and the fundamentalist doctrine of its founder, Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Its attempt in January 2006 to draw other insurgent groups under the banner of a Shura, or consultative council, was largely unsuccessful.
"When Zarqawi was killed in June," a senior intelligence official said, "a lot of us thought that was going to be a real milestone in our progress against the group." Instead, he said, "al-Masri has succeeded in establishing his own leadership, keeping the operational tempo up and propelling sectarian violence to higher levels." From the February 2006 bombing of the golden dome of a Shiite shrine in Samarra through the huge bombings in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad in November, AQI steadily "pushed the sectarian violence into a new era," the official said.
As Shiite militias unleashed a wave of retaliatory kidnappings and killings, a number of Sunni insurgent groups appeared to change their mind about forming at least a marriage of convenience with AQI. Although some experts credit the U.S. military with recruiting Sunni tribal leaders to the government's side in recent months, the tribal forces have so far made little headway against the insurgency.
"In a year, AQI went from being a major insurgent group, but one of several, to basically being the dominant force in the Sunni insurgency," said terrorism consultant Evan F. Kohlmann. "It managed to convince a lot of large, influential Sunni groups to work together under its banner -- groups that I never would have imagined," Kohlmann said. In November, many of the groups joined AQI in declaring an Islamic State of Iraq.
AQI's new membership and the allied insurgents care far more about what happens within Iraq than they do about bin Laden's plans for an Islamic empire, government and outside experts said. That is likely to remain the case whether U.S. forces stay or leave, they added.
The Sunni extremist movement in Iraq owes its existence to the U.S. invasion, said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and Georgetown University professor. "There were no domestic jihadis in Iraq before we came there. Now there are. . . . But the threat they pose beyond Iraq is not so certain. There will be plenty of fighting to keep them there for years."
In congressional testimony late last month, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell indicated that, despite bin Laden's rhetoric, it isn't necessarily true that al-Qaeda sees its future in Iraq. "I wouldn't go so far as to say al-Qaeda would necessarily believe that," McConnell said. "They want to reestablish their base, and their objective could be in Afghanistan."
Asked by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) whether "al-Qaeda-type elements" would follow U.S. forces as they withdraw from Iraq into Kuwait, McConnell answered with one word: "Unlikely."
Zarqawi adopted the al-Qaeda name for his terrorist organization in 2004. But, under his leadership, AQI was frequently estranged from al-Qaeda, and its separation has increased since his death last year.
Yet bin Laden has continued to reap benefits from the Iraq war. After a lull following his ignominious retreat from Afghanistan in 2001, bin Laden appears to have regained his stature among Muslim extremists and bolstered his ability to draw recruits. "As people around the world sign up to fight jihad," the intelligence official said, "before they were always going to Iraq. Now we see more winding up in Pakistan."
As al-Qaeda recoups its numbers and organizational structure in the lawless and inaccessible territory along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, it is seen as having little need for major bases in western Iraq, where the flat desert topography is ill-suited for concealment from U.S. aerial surveillance.
Al-Qaeda has also learned tactical lessons from AQI, adopting the suicide-bombing and roadside-explosive techniques perfected in Iraq and putting them to use in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"That genie is already out of the bottle," Hoffman said. "The lesson of Iraq," he said, is that "a bunch of guys with garage-door openers and cordless phones can stymie the most advanced military in the history of mankind."
According to the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq released in January, a "rapid withdrawal" of U.S. forces in Iraq could lead to intervention by neighboring countries and an attempt by AQI to "use parts of the country -- particularly Anbar province -- to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq."
But intelligence officials said they have been puzzled by the absence of such attacks since a 2005 bombing attributed to AQI in Amman, Jordan. "We've recently tried to wrestle with that," said one official. "Certainly, Zarqawi had an agenda outside Iraq, and Ayyub has publicly stated that he envisions one day attacking the U.S. . . . [But] I think what we determined was that they're so busy inside Iraq . . . they really are focused on internal things."
"It is very likely that the effects of the current jihad in Iraq will, like the earlier one in Afghanistan, be felt for years to come in the form of inspiration, skills and networking opportunities for a new generation of jihadis," said Paul Pillar, the CIA's former national intelligence officer for the Middle East and author of previous intelligence assessments on Iraq. "That does not mean that a U.S. withdrawal would make AQI more likely to attempt attacks against the United States."