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Iraqis Joining Insurgency Less for Cause Than Cash
But Abu Nawall and his captors agreed that Iraqis were joining the insurgency out of economic necessity. "Of course we hate the Americans and want them gone immediately," Abu Nawall said. "But the reason I and many others joined the Islamic State of Iraq is to support our families."
Abu Nawall described himself as a middle-management accountant for the insurgency, but he acknowledged killing four Iraqi police officers because he viewed them as collaborators with the U.S. military. He said he was not primarily involved in ordering violent attacks.
Brig. Gen. Moutaa Habeeb Jassim, commander of the 2nd Division of the Iraqi army, which has been holding Abu Nawall since his capture earlier this fall, said he suspected the detainee was responsible for far more deaths and had been involved with the insurgency since last year. "Abu Nawall is not always telling the truth," Habeeb said.
The U.S. military has launched a propaganda effort to describe Abu Nawall and other insurgents as greedy in order to undermine support for al-Qaeda in Iraq and create infighting among insurgent groups.
In a memo to the provincial police chief, U.S. military officials provided him with a list of "talking points" that they asked him to repeat on local television. "We want these talking points to raise suspicion that higher level [al-Qaeda in Iraq] leaders are greedy and placing personal financial gain over the mission," the memo said.
The memo also said that Abu Nawall admitted that the group's leader in northern Iraq, known as Mohammed al Nada or Abu Basha'ir, had told fighters to attack civilians "to keep them in fear" of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The memo said he also confessed that the group "gets a lot of money through extortion and kidnapping of Iraqi citizens."
"He stated that most of this money stays with the higher level leaders while the fighters on the street get paid only a small amount," the memo said. Two leaders, identified as Mohammed Bazouna and Fuad, "are growing rich through these activities without paying their fighters salaries and giving them the resources to conduct effective attacks."
In the interview, however, Abu Nawall denied making the statements described in the memo. The document also referred to Abu Nawall as the group's emir, or leader, in Mosul, even though U.S. and Iraqi officials said in interviews that he was the deputy emir in the city.
American officials said that Abu Nawall is just the latest Sunni financier detained as part of a campaign this year to disrupt the group's funding networks. Twitty, the brigade commander in Mosul, said their effort started in April when they realized raids on low-level figures weren't as effective as they had hoped.
"We're killing a bunch of insurgents and capturing a bunch of insurgents, but we weren't really cutting the head of the snake," he said. "We said: How can we better conduct operations to cut the head off the snake? So we looked at finances. And we went after them hard."
The racketeering operations extended to nearly every type of business in the city, including a Pepsi plant, cement manufacturers and a cellphone company, which paid the insurgents $200,000 a month, Twitty said.
One of the biggest sources of income was a real estate scam, in which insurgents stole 26 ledgers that contained the deeds to at least $88 million worth of property and then resold them, according to Lt. Col. Eric Welsh, commander of the battalion responsible for Mosul.
Mosul is the central hub in Iraq for wiring money to the insurgency from Syria and other countries, Welsh said, with three of the largest banks in the country that transfer money operating branches in the city. He said U.S. forces have shut down several such money exchanges in Mosul.
U.S. forces detained a major al-Qaeda in Iraq financier Sept. 25 with a passport that showed he had been to Syria 30 times, according to a military summary of his capture.
Another man, captured by the Iraqi army Sept. 3, is thought to be the No. 1 al-Qaeda in Iraq financier in Nineveh province, responsible for negotiating the release of kidnapping victims, according to another military summary. It said he was found with checks totaling 775 million dinars, or $600,000.
Welsh said he thinks all the money that flowed into the al-Qaeda in Iraq network corrupted some of its leaders and drove them further away from the modest lifestyle that their religious ideology promotes.
"If what they are truly migrating into is money, money, money," he said, "then that means they are disenfranchised from what al-Qaeda stands for. What you end up getting is al-Qaeda being ineffective and diluted and being almost something else."
The challenge for U.S. troops is how to break the racketeering operations controlled by al-Qaeda in Iraq without destroying the legitimate business needed to rebuild the country. "It's just like gardening," Welsh said, "I could spray herbicide everywhere and easily kill all the weeds. But what's the point if I kill all the flowers, too?"