A Morphing al-Qaeda

Greg Bruno
Council on Foreign Relations
Thursday, August 21, 2008 10:49 AM

There's a consensus in post-Saddam Iraq that after five years of conflict, violence is tapering off. U.S. combat deaths are at their lowest levels in months (AFP), and attacks on Iraqi civilians are on the wane. These "still fragile security gains," as the top U.S. commander in Iraq calls them, are attributable to many factors, including political progress and extra U.S. troops. But among the most celebrated has been the taming of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. The group is linked to the attack on UN headquarters in Baghdad five years ago (NYT) this summer and many high-profile suicide bombings since then.

To be sure, the group can still be lethal -- U.S. military officials blamed al-Qaeda in Iraq for an early August suicide car bombing in Tal Afar that killed dozens (AP). But recent reports that the group's leaders have fled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region -- and may be taking new recruits (WashPost) with them -- have bolstered a sense that the current peace in Iraq may hold.

At the same time, analysts are now studying how much of an Iraq-to-Afghanistan migration is really taking place. In May, when a former al-Qaeda in Iraq leader turned up dead in Afghanistan, West Point terrorism expert William McCants pondered on his blog, Jihadica.com, whether "this is a sign of things to come." It remains a matter of debate. Earlier this year, in his annual threat assessment, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell told lawmakers less than one hundred al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters had moved on to form cells elsewhere (PDF). And according to captured documents (PDF) analyzed by McCants' colleagues at West Point, some departing Iraqi fighters have signed contracts (PDF) vowing "not to join any [al-Qaeda] organization outside of Iraq."

Yet some analysts still see reason for concern. Coordination between what is now considered al-Qaeda's leadership base in Pakistan's tribal areas and leaders in Iraq has increased since 2006, they say. The addition of Iraq-trained fighters to the lawless border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan would only add to an already toxic mix of militants there. Peter Bergen, a terrorism analyst and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, wrote in August 2008 that the border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan, "where jihadists operate with something close to impunity, has become a magnet for foreign fighters" (WashPost).

Al-Qaeda-inspired tactics are already being deployed in and around Kabul. A UN report found that suicide bombings surged (PDF) in 2007, as did assassination, abductions, and targeting of civilian aid workers. Mid-way through 2008, security remained tenuous (CDI).

Even if fighters departing Iraq "join established Jihadi groups in areas of weak government control, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Lebanon," as the West Point study suggests, experts disagree on the cohesiveness of the al-Qaeda they will find. Reports of al-Qaeda founders renouncing violence (New Yorker) and the killing of top officials -- including al-Qaeda's top commander in Afghanistan, Abu Saeed al-Masri -- have added to the speculation. The old guard is still around, but the radicals looking to fill their shoes "are hoodlums putting the [al-Qaeda] label on themselves," terrorism expert Marc Sageman told Newsweek in July. But a senior U.S. government counterterrorism official, Ted Gistaro, sees a different picture. Speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on August 12, Gistaro said al-Qaeda has strengthened its ties with Pakistani militants in the last year; replenished its mid-level lieutenants; and remains "the most serious terrorist threat to the United States."

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