Papers Paint New Portrait of Iraq's Foreign Insurgents

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008

Muhammad Ayn-al-Nas, a 26-year-old Moroccan, started his journey in Casablanca. After flying to Turkey and then to Damascus, he reached his destination in a small Iraqi border town on Jan. 31, 2007. He was an economics student back home, he told the al-Qaeda clerk who interviewed him on arrival. Asked what sort of work he hoped to do in Iraq, Nas replied: "Martyr."

Algerian Watsef Mussab, 29, who arrived in Iraq via Saudi Arabia and Syria, said he had come for combat. He complained that the Syrian smugglers who brought him to the border took his money, but he contributed what he had left to the insurgent cause -- a watch, a ring and an MP3 player.

Hanni al-Sagheer, a computer technician from Yemen and aspiring suicide volunteer, gave the clerk his home telephone number and also that of his brother.

Their stories are among the individual records of 606 foreign fighters who entered Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007. The cache of documents was discovered last fall by U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar.

Some include pictures -- bearded men in a turban or kaffiyeh, some smiling and some scowling -- in addition to names and aliases, home countries, birthdays and dates of entry into Iraq. Many list their occupations at home, whether plumber, laborer, policeman, lawyer, soldier or teacher. There is a "massage specialist," a "weapons merchant," a few "unemployed" and many students.

The youngest was 16 when he crossed into Iraq; the oldest was 54. Most expressed interest in a suicide mission.

The records are "one of the deepest reservoirs of information we've ever obtained of the network going into Iraq," according to a U.S. official closely familiar with intelligence on the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Analyzed and made public last month by the Army's Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the documents have led the U.S. military in Iraq to reassess some of its earlier assumptions about the insurgent group and those who carry out most of the suicide missions that are its signature method of attack.

Suicide attacks by the Sunni group against Shiite targets sparked the sectarian violence that swept Iraq in 2006 and the first half of last year. Al-Qaeda in Iraq carried out more than 4,500 attacks against civilians in 2007, killing 3,870 and wounding nearly 18,000, the military announced yesterday.

Based on the Sinjar records, U.S. military officials in Iraq said they now think that nine out of 10 suicide bombers have been foreigners, compared with earlier estimates of 75 percent. Similarly, they assess that 90 percent of foreign fighters entering Iraq during the one-year period ending in August came via Syria, a greater proportion than previously believed.

Although there is no way of knowing how many of the total entrants the 606 recorded individuals represent, officials said Sinjar was a primary entrance point. Its importance increased as Iraq's Anbar province -- farther south and bordering Saudi Arabia and Jordan -- became more difficult for foreigners to cross.

"We also adjusted our analysis [to say that] more North Africans were foreign terrorists than previously assessed," said Col. Steven A. Boylan, spokesman for Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

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