How big, then, is AQI? The most persuasive estimate I've heard comes from Malcolm Nance, the author of The Terrorists of Iraq and a twenty-year intelligence veteran and Arabic speaker who has worked with military and intelligence units tracking al-Qaeda inside Iraq. He believes AQI includes about 850 full-time fighters, comprising 2 percent to 5 percent of the Sunni insurgency. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq," according to Nance, "is a microscopic terrorist organization."
This is not to say that al-Qaeda in Iraq doesn't pose a real danger, both to stability in Iraq and to security in the United States. Today multiple Iraqi insurgent groups target U.S. forces, with the aim of driving out the occupation. But once our troops withdraw, most Sunni resistance fighters will have no impetus to launch strikes on American soil. In that regard, al-Qaeda—and AQI, to the extent it is affiliated with bin Laden's network—is unique. The group's leadership consists largely of foreign fighters, and its ideology and ambitions are global. Al-Qaeda fighters trained in Baghdad may one day use those skills to plot strikes aimed at Boston.
Yet it's not clear that the best way to counter this threat is with military action in Iraq. AQI's presence is tolerated by the country's Sunni Arabs, historically among the most secular in the Middle East, because they have a common enemy in the United States. Absent this shared cause, it's not clear that native insurgents would still welcome AQI forces working to impose strict sharia. In Baghdad, any near-term functioning government will likely be an alliance of Shiites and Kurds, two groups unlikely to accept organized radical Sunni Arab militants within their borders. Yet while precisely predicting future political dynamics in Iraq is uncertain, one thing is clear now: the continued American occupation of Iraq is al-Qaeda's best recruitment tool, the lure to hook new recruits. As RAND's Ali said, "What inspires jihadis today is Iraq."
Friday, September 07, 2007
Andrew Tilghman examines the repeated lies that al-Qaeda is responsible, the biggest threat and in charge of the insurgency in Iraq.