By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
MOSUL, Iraq -- Abu Nawall, a captured al-Qaeda in Iraq leader, said he didn't join the Sunni insurgent group here to kill Americans or to form a Muslim caliphate. He signed up for the cash.
"I was out of work and needed the money," said Abu Nawall, the nom de guerre of an unemployed metal worker who was paid as much as $1,300 a month as an insurgent. He spoke in a phone interview from an Iraqi military base where he is being detained. "How else could I support my family?"
U.S. military commanders say that insurgents across the country are increasingly motivated more by money than ideology and that a growing number of insurgent cells, struggling to pay recruits, are turning to gangster-style racketeering operations.
U.S. military officials have responded by launching a major campaign to disrupt al-Qaeda in Iraq's financial networks and spread propaganda that portrays its leaders as greedy thugs, an effort the officials describe as a key factor in their recent success beating down the insurgency.
"I tell a lot of my soldiers: A good way to prepare for operations in Iraq is to watch the sixth season of 'The Sopranos,' " said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of U.S. forces in central Iraq, referring to the hit HBO series about the mob. "You're seeing a lot of Mafioso kind of activity."
In Mosul, a northern city of 2 million people that straddles the Tigris River, U.S. officials are also spending money to buoy the Iraqi economy -- including handing out microgrants sometimes as small as several hundred dollars -- to reduce the soaring unemployment that can turn young Iraqi men into insurgents-for-hire.
Col. Stephen Twitty, commander of U.S. forces in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province, said the dismantling of insurgent financing networks is the primary reason that violent attacks here have dropped from about 18 a day last year to about eight a day now.
"We're starting to hear a lot of chatter about the insurgents running out of money," said Twitty, of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. "They are not able to get money to pay people for operations."
In a 30-minute interview, Abu Nawall described his work managing the $6 million or so annual budget of the Mosul branch of the Islamic State of Iraq, an insurgent umbrella group believed to have been formed by al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Iraqi military, which is still interrogating Abu Nawall, agreed to allow a Washington Post reporter to meet him in person after repeated requests for an interview. The interview was canceled at the last moment, but the military later allowed The Post to speak with Abu Nawall by phone as he sat in an Iraqi general's office.
Abu Nawall said he joined the group over the summer because his metalworking business had dried up. The 28-year-old said he was responsible for running the bureaucracy and arranging payments to the 500 or so fighters for the group in the city, who he said try to carry out as many as 30 attacks a day.
"Most of our money comes from payments we receive from places like Syria and from kidnappings," Abu Nawall said, adding that ransoms can reach $50,000 a person. But he denied U.S. claims that attacks in the city had dropped or that the group's funding had stopped. "We still have money," he said.
Much of Abu Nawall's account could not be independently verified, though he said he was speaking freely and without coercion by his detainers. His description of the insurgency's viability was in some cases significantly more upbeat than the one offered by Iraqi and U.S. officials.
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?"