Jun 12, 2008

Al Qaeda in Iraq: Leaderless Jihad or Well-Organized Insurgency?

In a great journalistic coup, Michael Ware and the CNN team in Iraq have unearthed the largest collection of al Qaeda in Iraq material outside the hands of the US military. What they found in this collection of videos and memos underlines a key aspect of the al Qaeda organization in Iraq; it is highly organized, and not simply a loosely-knit collection of jihadists. A debate has recently erupted in the pages of Foreign Affairs, the leading American journal of international relations, between two scholars of terrorism. On one side is former CIA case officer, Marc Sageman, the author of Leaderless Jihad, who contends that al Qaeda as an organization is largely over and the new threat comes from “a multitude of informal groups trying to emulate their predecessors by conceiving and executing plans from the bottom up. These ‘homegrown' wannabes form a scattered global network, a leaderless jihad.” Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman, by contrast, argues that the al Qaeda organization, headquartered on the Afghan-Pakistan border, remains the most important threat to American national security. The thousands of pages of documents and scores of videos obtained by CNN will help to move the Sageman-Hoffman debate forward. They show that al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has, in fact, for years been a highly bureaucratized top-down organization with an attention to detail suggestive of the IRS. AQI recorded detailed battle plans for attacks that would take place over the course of three months; its members filled out application forms; the organization maintained pay sheets for brigade-size units of hundreds of men; it recorded the detailed minutes of meetings, kept prisoner rosters, maintained death lists of enemies, and kept the records of vehicles in its motor pool. Most chillingly AQI’s Anbar province branch videotaped 80 executions, which were not used for propaganda purposes, but simply as a record of having down the job. The AQI documents recovered by CNN are similar to documents discovered by the US military at Sinjar on the Iraqi/Syrian border in the fall of 2007 and subsequently released by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. In the Sinjar documents, AQI’s ‘emirate” on the Iraqi/Syrian border required its non-Iraqi recruits to fill out forms that asked for their counties and cities of origin, real names, aliases, date of birth, who their jihadist ‘coordinator’ was, how they were referred to the al Qaeda in the first place, their occupation, how they entered from Syria, who in Syria had facilitated their travel, an assessment of how they had been treated in Syria, what cash and ID cards they had with them when they arrived in Iraq, any relevant knowledge-- such as computer skills--they might have, and whether they were volunteering to be a fighters or suicide attackers. Of the 606 foreign fighters who filled out the documents found at Sinjar few filled out all of this information, but all filled out at least some of it. The CNN and Sinjar documents together show that AQI is not a ‘leaderless jihad’, but rather an insurgent/terrorist organization that prized order, discipline, and top-down direction.