Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The story of the Sunni Salafist insurgency in Iraq, 1999-2010

I just returned from Iraq, where I was privileged to hear the whole story of the Sunni insurgency, from beginning to end; everything from the name on the ID card Abu Musa’ab al-Zarqawi was carrying when he first came to Baghdad in November 2002, to who paid how much for what. I cannot share the details of all this stuff, of which I took copious notes, since it is not my story to tell. That will be the task of those who told me, when the time is right. At least one is in negotiation to sell the material to an important U.S. paper. But rest assured, the right people in the Iraqi government, and the U.S. government, now know the narrative and are acting on it.

A lot of the details, in terms of who’s who, that I had written down here along the years were inaccurate. However, I was gratified to learn that the over-arching analysis culled from open sources, such as the speeches and communiqués of the jihadists and insurgents, in terms of the anti-Shia and caliphalist trends, I got right. Other matters, like how the insurgents deliberately infiltrated foreign and Arab news bureaus to feed the news cycle strategic disinformation, and how this disinformation filtered back into Western intelligence reports and analyses, I also managed to nail.

Operationally, I went wrong by trying to understand the network of the non-Al-Qaeda actors as having their origins in the Saddam regime, as former officers, security officials and Ba’athists. What I missed was that there was a supra-network of young Salafists and other assortment of young Sunni Islamists who came to age during the 1990s—many of whom spent time in Saddam’s prisons and who all know each other—whose alumnae went on to become Al-Qaeda, the Islamic Army, the Ansar al-Sunna, the Army of the Mujaheddin and the 1920 Revolt Brigades. This supra-network led the insurgency, and recruited the ex-regime officers and Ba’athists as sub-contractors of the jihad; the Saddamists worked for the Salafists from the very beginning, not the other way around.

(Note: It is interesting that their first violent act, the opening salvo of the Sunni Salafist insurgency, occurred on January 1, 2000, targeting Ba'athists congregating at a liquor store in the Waziriyeh neighborhood of Baghdad, way before any American soldiers appeared on the scene.)

Other current schools of thought among insurgency-watchers, especially on matters such as the Awakenings and the role of the tribes, are very, very off mark.

Another blind spot for me was how much involvement regional actors had in the jihad, and how much their money mattered. America’s allies are directly implicated, as financiers, ideologues, orchestrators and managers, in the deaths of American soldiers. I hope this is not glossed over by those now privy to this information. Without this money, it seems to me, the insurgency would have been crippled early on, even with Sunni resentment at fever-pitch. The money made the nightmare of the last eight years possible. It was also eye-opening for me to realize that squabbles over money, as it began to peter out, had a very big deal to do why the insurgency could never coalesce into a whole.

Again, I was privileged to hear this fascinating story, and it kills me, being the pamphleteer that I am, not to be able to publish all this for you. But I gave my word. As it is, this information rests with a very limited number of people who may have an interest in making it public. If one dies, then the material is lost. I was told this story so that I would safeguard its eventual release, if the others don’t make it to tell the tale.

I am conflicted about those who shared this with me. They are, after all, my enemies, on every level. They seem sincere is their efforts to undo some of the wrongs they have wrought on our country, and on our friends. Is it enough to redeem them? I don’t know. I simply don’t know. But the many successes Iraq has had recently in rolling up the bad guys are coming from sources such as these. The ethics of whether the prevention of future misery outweighs the crimes of the past is something too heavy for me to consider at this stage. I suspect that it doesn’t, which makes it all that much more tragic.

PS: I at least got permission to say that the post below is not correct: the current leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Husseini al-Baghdadi, is Sheikh (______________redacted) al-Mashhadani, while Al-Nassir li Din Allah Suleiman, the Minister of War, is (_______________redacted), "Abu Jihad", a Palestinian, and formerly one of Osama bin Laden's bodyguards in the Al-Farouq Camp in Afghanistan.