Al Qaeda, Indigenous Sunnis and the Insurgency in Iraq

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 7 months ago

The insurgency in the Anbar Province, while being called “al Qaeda” in hundreds of press releases, has had a significant part indigenous Sunni fighters.   Before pacification of Anbar could occur, the following two things were necessary: (a) robust kinetic operations to rout al Qaeda and Ansar al Sunna, and (b) settling with erstwhile indigenous insurgents, formerly enemies of U.S. forces, and forthwith allies in Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Sources from Anbar are cited specifying the ‘breakdown’ of the insurgency; the counterinsurgency ‘tour de force’ involved in the pacification of Anbar is discussed, and Shi’a refusal to reconcile is discussed as the largest remaining hurdle to ending OIF.

At the Small Wars Journal blog, Malcolm Nance has a provocative article entitled Al Qaeda in Iraq – Heros, Boogeymen or Puppets?   Nance’s article has been highly criticized as has a recent opinion piece at the New York Times.  These articles are part of a “renewed push by the antiwar crowd to discredit the idea that the war in Iraq has any real connection to the war on terror,” it has been said.

At TCJ we understand The Long War, but believe that motive cannot be ascribed to these articles based on our reading of the content.  The schema presented in them is either right or wrong (or perhaps wrong but containing nuggets of truth), and it is important to ascertain who the enemy is and determine the appropriate strategy based on identification of the enemy.  High strung reactions to probing questions and alternative viewpoints do not significantly add to our understanding, and are thus not very helpful.

We agree with much the core of Nance’s assessment of the insurgency (with qualifications and caveats, and with insurgency differentiated from the terrorists, an important distinction that will be discussed later), while holding that the solution he proffers is a false dilemma.  The entire article is worth reading, but the core of his analysis is contained in these few paragraphs.

It is well documented that the Sunni insurgency is composed of three wings of insurgents. It is composed of the nationalist Former Regime Loyalists (FRLs) and their former military elements (FREs). This force may be upwards to 29,000 active combatants carrying out over 100 unconventional attacks per day using improvised explosive devices, rockets and automatic weapons ambushes. The FRL-originated Jaysh al-Mujahideen is composed of former Saddam Fedayeen, Special Republican Guard intelligence officers, former-Ba’athists, Sunni volunteers and their families. The second wing is the nationalist Iraqi Religious Extremists (IREs). These are forces including the Islamic Army of Iraq, Ansar al-Sunnah and other smaller groups, which may total approximately 5,000 fighters, sprinkled throughout western, central and northern Iraq. On occasion come into the conversation when one of their attacks is particularly daring or when the coalition claims it is negotiating their departure from the battlefront. Inevitably these “lesser? insurgent groups are portrayed as bit players on the sidelines of the epic.

Finally, the foreign fighters of the Al Qaeda in Iraq and its umbrella group the Islamic Emirate of Iraq (aka Islamic State of Iraq) may be as few as 1,500 fighters and supporters and may also have direct links to the two other tiers. Overwhelming evidence exists that that the FRLs have been waging the lion’s share of the insurgency. Until 2004 they were considered a separate part of the insurgency but recently they have been called ‘Al Qaeda-associated’ because AQI was operating in their area of operations … by 2007 it wasn’t hard for Washington to make a semantic and rhetorical leap to refer to all insurgency forces as “Al Qaeda.?

This is an error worth remembering. For over four years the FRLs (especially the paramilitary Saddam Fedayeen and Special Republican Guard) almost exclusively carries out IED, indirect fire (IDF), sniping, aircraft shoot downs and ambush attacks with conventional weapons with alarming regularity which account for the lion share of the US forces’ 3,500 KIAs. The smaller IREs did the same type of attacks but occasionally peppered their missions with Suicide bombings. AQI almost exclusively perform carries out suicide car bombings and suicide vest bombings (SVBIED/SPBIED). They occasionally perform IED, rocket, MANPAD and even a few impressive massed infantry attacks on Iraqi Police and government buildings (such as the symbolic assault on Abu Ghraieb prison in 2005). In fact, AQI’s impact on US forces is actually quite small in comparison to the FRLs and IREs …

AQI (al Qaeda in Iraq) and AAS (Ansar al Sunna) have indeed brought into Iraq funding, experience and religious commitment that at least some of the indigenous Sunni insurgency didn’t have.  Thus they have been involved in a disproportionate level of high profile violence.   However, on the whole TCJ will concur with Nance’s basic thesis.  Based on press reports and discussions with a well informed and strategically placed military contact (in Anbar), the picture of AQI being put out by the Multinational Force web site began to make little sense to us, and In Counterinsurgency Paradigm Shift in Iraq, TCJ offered the following analysis:

There appears to be a paradigm shift in the counterinsurgency strategy being employed by the U.S. forces in Iraq.  This shift goes further than the changes associated with the security plan of which many observers are aware (e.g., deployment out of Forward Operating Bases into the cities to combat operation posts).  The changes point to a fundamental shift in the way the U.S. sees the battle for Iraq.

The schema until now seems to have been focused on the notion that the Iraqi people, separated from the rogue elements in their midst, long for freedom and self-determination, with al Qaeda in Iraq, Ansar al Sunna, and foreign suicide bombers standing in their way.  Defeating the insurgents has primarily been seen as defeating AQI.  One need only to go back through the Multi-National force press releases to see how many references there are to AQI.  But it is becoming increasingly clear that this schema bears little resemblance to the realities on the ground in Iraq.

With AQI and AAS standing only at several thousand, for a country the size of Iraq, there simply aren’t enough to pull off destabilization of a country.  There are more gang members in most medium size American cities than there are al Qaeda in Iraq. Until recently, the Sunni militants were seen in the role of assisting AQI, but the view seems to be changing to one of the disaffected Sunnis (i.e., Fedayeen Saddam, former Iraq security police, former senior Iraqi army leadership and hard line Baathists) being primarily in the lead with AQI and AAS being secondary in their affect and power …

The much-heralded tribal split with al Qaeda is a positive sign in the Anbar Province, but it must be remembered that even if AQI loses in this showdown, the insurgency is not defeated.  One side of the insurgency has merely gained supremacy over the other.  This modified schema of seeing the insurgency as being primarily borne on the shoulders of disaffected Sunnis is supported in this informative and interesting report by Michael Totten from Kirkuk (Patrick Laswell has an equally interesting report from Kirkuk).

“Most, if not all, the terrorists are the old Baath Party members,? Mam Rostam said. “They changed their names and became an Islamist party. But they are the same guys. They have unified with some Sunnis around the Southwest of Kirkuk because they are living in this area. They are making these attacks to make this democratic experiment after Saddam fail.?

This difference in understanding we have of the insurgency in Anbar came as a result more than just of press releases.  Around the time of the worst Ramadi violence, TCJ communicated with a contact in the Anbar Province, who gave the following view of the insurgency (we haven’t divulged the contents of this communication until now; (1) it is somewhat dated and thus less sensitive, and (2) it is still ‘scrubbed down’ to remove remaining sensitive information).

There is Al Qaeda in Iraq, lead by a couple non Iraqis with a few highly place Iraqi leaders as well.  The are situated outside Ramadi (mainly East and North of the city).  They conduct their operations in Ramadi, Habiniyah and Khalidiyah, but for the most part use the Ramadi area as an R and R area.  In fact most attacks in those areas that are Al Qaeda attacks are locals paid to conduct the attacks.  They are one of the two the big dogs in town because of their small but well trained and ruthless core of foreign fighters.  These FF are used to kill competitors, not Americans.

Ansar Al Sunnah is the other big dog in town.  Most of the individuals identified as Al Qaeda in Ramadi were most likely actually AAS.  These guys are lead almost entirely by Iraqis Arabs Sunnis.  (By the way the connectiveness of Ansar Al Sunnah and Ansar Al Islam is more a result of similar name and wishful thinking then reality on the ground … [parts redacted]).  These are the guys that operated in the central part of Ramadi.  The Hospital was controlled by them (as opposed to Al Qaeda).  These guys have excellent access to suicide bombers (not sure if you realize it, but the vast majority of FF in Iraq are only there as suicide bombers.  Organizations (not particularly associated with Al Qaeda) based in Syria and Jordan “sell” them to Iraqi insurgents).  The reason we see these guys as Al Qaeda is because the info we have proving they are Al Qaeda is paid for, and we pay more for info about Al Qaeda.

Local Iraqi Insurgents.  Although they are comprised of a number of groups I think of them as the Islamic Army in Iraq.  The strength is to the North West and South West near Ramadi, North of the River near Khallidiyah and then East towards Fallujah and Bagdad.  We chased these guys before and during the time I was there under the impression they were Al Qaeda associated, even though nearly every time we caught one we found out otherwise (look up Nu’Man Brigade and Muhammad Daham, or the Butcher of Ramadi).

Upon the capture of Muhammad Daham in May of 2005, the Multinational Force – West PAO issued a press release in which they mentioned his possible link to the AMZ network, and upon capture of his successor (and leader of the Nu’man Brigade) in September of 2005, the Multinational Force specifically mentioned capturing an al Qaeda leader, and filled in the end of the press release with the words that would become so common in future press releases: “We are degrading the overall effectiveness of the Al-Qaida in Iraq terror network and its ability to conduct operations in Iraq.”  Continuing with our communication:

Daham turned out to be very anti-Al Qaeda, and although not mentioned the Butcher turned out to be a low level, local insurgent with no ties to Al Qaeda. These guys will actually call American Intel and report other local insurgents as Al Qaeda in order to knock off competitors.  Many of these groups are actually just thieves and thugs looking for a few bucks.  They will at times work with AAS or AQI, or depending on the groups fighting against them.

The last groups is the Iraqi criminal organizations.  They are also very closely linked to many of the local insurgent groups.  Daham was actually one of these guys originally.  The leader of this group currently in Ramadi is … [redacted].  [Other parts redacted].  These groups will sometimes work with AAS or Al Qaeda or locals.  They go back and forth.  They also kidnap people for ransom, or for political reasons if paid to do so [parts redacted].

Al Qaeda isn’t “IN” Ramadi.  They stay out for safety reasons.  AAS is in Ramadi, but some of their leaders live in “Safe” zones (i.e. near the Marines base at Hurricane Point.)  Others have been trained to not fight, but rather pretend to be “good” Iraqis when we came raiding.  IEDs and snipers are their speciality (they have the best sniper in town, an ex-Iraqi special forces sniper). They might pay local kids to attack the Americans during the push, but they will hide and try to stay safe.  The locals are just that, and the more we kill the worse it will get.

Returning to the seminal article at the SWJ Blog, Nance concludes that this mischaracterization of the insurgency as entirely al Qaeda adversely affects the going-forward strategy.

Still some classify any Iraqi insurgent support of AQI objectives, active or passive, is often pointed to as a reason to classify all insurgent groups as Al Qaeda. This reading of the enemy does not take into account the diverse strategies, goals, personalities and political linkages of the other insurgents. It lumps them all into one pot and uses the same hammer to try to smash them. Hammering this particular insurgency is like smashing a ball of mercury with your palm. You may get a little of it under your control (and the toxins that come with it) but the rest will disperse, roll away and reform as they please.

But Nance’s article, his many vocal critics, and this present article may be behind the times.  The going-forward strategy has already been developed and is in stages of implementation.  The so-called “Anbar Awakening” is about more than just enlisting the assistance of the tribal Sheiks.  The magnitude and brilliance of this coup by U.S. forces should not be underestimated.  To assert that AQI was the only enemy in Anbar belittles the scope of the accomplishment and ignores the intricate military, political, religious and anthropological machinations that were involved to pull off this coup.  Regardless of the disposition of OIF, the pacification of Anbar by the United States Marines will go down as the greatest counterinsurgency campaign in history and will be studied in professional war college classrooms for generations to come.  Contrary to Nance’s suggestion, requesting that Syria or Iran fake cooperation with the U.S. is not necessary.

With respect to al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other foreign elements (e.g., suicide bombers and Ansar al Sunna), their members and actions never met the classical definition of insurgency because they were not aiming to govern or provide for the population.  Rather, they brutalized the population with torture, houses of horror, beatings, bombings and other tactics aimed at forcing the population into submission.  They terrorized the population because they are terrorists.  It was not uncustomary to find electric drills used to put holes through each rib in the ribcage of some poor victim.

This terrorization of the population (and competing groups) managed to achieve its goal of keeping the population in submission, at least until the Marines prevailed over the course of several years at hunting down and killing many of the rogue elements.  It has been observed that  “Americans learned a basic lesson of warfare here: that Iraqis, bludgeoned for 24 years by Saddam’s terror, are wary of rising against any force, however brutal, until it is in retreat. In Anbar, Sunni extremists were the dominant force, with near-total popular support or acquiescence, until the offensive broke their power.”

When the population observed that the Marines had no intention of retreat and never lost a military engagement, and also when the tribal leaders saw that the rogue elements were subsuming their role as chieftans and leaders of their people, the storied alliance developed.  This alliance may have been strategic and convenient at first, but is now pivotal and absolutely essential to the success of pacification of Anbar.

The coup is not merely that the tribal chiefs and their people are cooperating with U.S. forces.  It is larger than that.  The coup is that the insurgency, properly defined as indigenous fighters rather than terrorists and foreign fighters – those who were previously pointing a gun towards U.S. troops – are now pointing them at the terrorists.  Not only have many of them made peace with the U.S., but in a development just as important, the U.S. forces have made peace with them.  This has been accomplished with the new difficulty introduced by globalization (foreign fighters), and the new difficulty introduced by religious fanaticism (suicide bombers), and the new difficulty introduced by technology (stand off weapons such as roadside bombs).  This is a counterinsurgency tour de force, and as time judges this victory it will take its rightful place in the great military campaigns of world history.

In Settling with the Enemy, we discussed the reports of U.S. forces making allies of erstwhile enemies.

Shi’ite and Kurdish officials expressed deep reservations yesterday about the new US military strategy to partner with Sunni Arab groups to help defeat the militant organization Al Qaeda in Iraq.

“They are trusting terrorists,? said Ali Al Adeeb, a prominent Shi’ite lawmaker who was among many to question the loyalty of the Sunni groups. “They are trusting people who have previously attacked American forces and innocent people. They are trusting people who are loyal to the regime of Saddam Hussein? …

The collaboration has progressed furthest in the western province of Anbar, where US military commanders enlisted the help of Sunni tribal leaders to funnel their kinsmen into the police force by the thousands. In other areas, Sunnis have not been fully incorporated into the security services and exist as local militias.

Some of these groups, believed to be affiliated with such organizations as the Islamic Army or the 1920 Revolution Brigades, have received weapons and ammunition, usually through the Iraqi military, as well as transportation, food, handcuffs, and direct assistance from US soldiers. In Baghdad’s Amiriyah neighborhood, a local group of Sunnis, the Baghdad Patriots, were driven around earlier this month in American and Iraqi vehicles and given approval by US forces to arrest suspected Al Qaeda in Iraq members.

In Fallujah, Regimental Combat Team 6 is training former insurgents to fight AQI and AAS.

Marine Sgt. Tony Storey doesn’t like to think about what-ifs as he watches the young Iraqis he is helping to train take target practice. He recalls one man who was a natural with his AK47.

“Where’d you learn to shoot like that?? Storey asked.

“Insurgent,? the man said with a smile.

“Was he joking?? Storey asked while surveying the 50 men from the Albu Issa tribe firing their weapons at a distant target. “I don’t know.?

For the men of Regimental Combat Team 6, who are training members of Anbar province tribes to fight Al Qaeda, Storey’s question isn’t simple curiosity. Less than a year ago, the tribes viewed Al Qaeda in Iraq as an ally in their effort to push Americans out of the province.

Now, the tribes see Al Qaeda as a threat to their society and their businesses — many of them dependent on illegal smuggling — and they’ve turned to the U.S. military for help.

An analogous strategy is being implemented in the Diyala Province, where erstwhile enemy fighters are being used to rout the terrorist elements in their midst.

The situation is so desperate that U.S. forces over the last month decided to seek uncomfortable alliances with some of the groups that have killed Americans but now say they hate the group Al Qaeda in Iraq even more, and are willing to fight it.

Members of the 1920 Revolution Brigade, a Sunni resistance group that is dedicated to the expulsion of U.S. forces and takes its name from the revolt that pushed out the British occupation, are among those newly granted the right to patrol with U.S.-supplied uniforms and be exempt from AK-47 weapons seizures, said Lt. Col. James D. George, the acting American commander in the province.

Just a year ago, this region appeared to be nearly pacified. Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed just outside Baqubah, and U.S. commanders decided the province was ripe for the transfer of primary responsibility for security to Iraqi forces.

Instead, Al Qaeda quickly regained a sanctuary in the province and imposed its extremist interpretation of Islam. U.S. and Iraqi security forces scarcely venture into west Baqubah, where smoking is prohibited, as is the sale of women’s clothing by men. Even placing a cucumber next to a tomato in the markets is forbidden because they have been gendered male and female …

U.S. forces in Diyala are looking past the Iraqi police and army for help driving Al Qaeda from the province. Dozens of militia members have been outfitted by American troops with brown T-shirts spray-painted with numbers and will soon be provided with cards identifying them as members of “the Concerned Local Nationals.”

The gunmen are allowed large caches of AK-47s and ammunition, and they are promised eventual positions in the Baqubah police force.

George said the group included members of the 1920 Revolution Brigade and other fighters who have engaged in violent battles with Americans, but he said no one on a “high-value target” list would be able to evade American capture.

“Since we came here, the No. 1 priority has been to drive a wedge between insurgents and terrorists, and this is one of the only ways to do that,” George said.

The delineation that Lt. Col. George makes between “insurgents” and “terrorists” is precise and highly technical, and comports exactly with the understanding we have.  The Maliki administration understands exactly what the U.S. is doing and has done, and has voiced their displeasure.

… one of  Al-Maliki top aides, Hassan al-Suneid, was quoted as saying the U.S. was treating Iraq like “an experiment in an American laboratory.” He sharply criticised the U.S. military, saying it was committing human rights violations, embarassing the Iraqi government with its tactics and cooperating with “gangs of killers” in its campaign against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Al-Suneid, a Shiite lawmaker close to al-Maliki, told The Associated Press that al-Maliki has problems with the top U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus, who works along a “purely American vision.” He criticized U.S. overtures to Sunni groups in Anbar and Diyala, encouraging former “insurgents” to join the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq. “These are gangs of killers,” he said.

Of course they’re gangs of killers.  This was the strategy.  The difference between them and the Shi’ite militias is that they have shown a willingness to reconcile and settle, while the Mahdi army and Sadrists have shown a hardening of their position over the past months.  Because of refusal to reconcile (mainly on the part of the Shi’a), along with lack of oil revenue sharing legislation, Iraqi politics is at a standstill.  Couple this with the U.S. allowing Moqtada al Sadr to go unmolested, free to disrupt Iraqi politics and security, and the result is a witch’s brew of present and future problems.

Here at TCJ, we have chided the Multinational Force for allowing Sadr to go unmolested (and have recommended his ‘strategic disappearance’), as has Omar Fadhil of Iraq the Model.  When recently pressed during a blogger’s interview with Tony Snow about Sadr, laughing, Snow said “we do not engage in assassinations.”  But while America preens and fluffs its moralistic feathers and struts its righteousness in front of the world, there have been and currently are indigenous Iraqi elements who would prevent success in Iraq.  The Sunnis have shown a willingness to reconcile, and are actively helping to rout rogue elements in Anbar.

The hard work has been done with the the Sunnis.  The question remains whether the U.S. will do the hard work and take the hard actions with the Shi’a that will finally be necessary to finish the job in Iraq.  If not, the lives of U.S. troops in OIF will have been to no avail.


On July 16, 2007, the New York Times published an interesting and informative article that clearly substantiates our position, both with respect to the indigenous Sunni fighters, their new cooperation with U.S. forces, and the recalcitrance of the Shi’a army.

Abu Azzam says the 2,300 men in his movement include members of fierce Sunni groups like the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade and the Mujahedeen Army that have fought the American occupation. Now his men patrol alongside the Americans, who want to turn them into a security force that can bring peace to this stretch between Baghdad and Falluja.

A few miles away, in the town of Abu Ghraib, Brig. Gen. Nassir al-Hiti and his brigade of Iraqi Army soldiers also have the support of the American military. But they have a different ambition, some American commanders here say: doing everything they can to undermine Abu Azzam’s men, even using a stolen membership list to single them out for wrongful detention.

General Nassir, a 37-year-old former special forces officer, denies that, but says he has strict orders not to support “unofficial? groups and to arrest armed men, no matter who they are. He says he supports those who join the security forces but objects to “those who have Iraqi blood on their hands and who kill our soldiers.?

The gulf between Abu Azzam’s men and the Iraqi soldiers remains vast, with American troops sometimes having to physically intercede. And it is an unmistakable caution that the full depths of the problems facing Iraq cannot be measured in the statistics about insurgent attacks and sectarian killings that carry so much weight in Washington.

The United States has placed great hope in its deepening ties with Sunni leaders like Abu Azzam who have vowed to fight Islamist militants. But his mostly Sunni group, the Volunteers, is different from the American-allied tribes in the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province, in part because it patrols only 40 minutes from central Baghdad and close to large Shiite districts. So American commanders view this as a crucial test case for whether Shiite leaders will tolerate new alliances with Sunni groups.

If General Nassir’s unit, the Muthanna Brigade, is any indication, the outlook is not promising, said Lt. Col. Kurt Pinkerton, a 41-year-old California native who has spent the past months cultivating his relationship with Abu Azzam.

About a month ago, the Iraqi brigade, which is predominantly Shiite, was assigned a new area and instructed to stay away from Nasr Wa Salam, Colonel Pinkerton said. But he said he believed that the Iraqi soldiers remain intent on preventing Sunni Arabs, a majority here, from controlling the area. He cites a pattern of aggression by Iraqi troops toward Abu Azzam’s men and other Sunnis, who he believes are often detained for no reason.

Recently, and without warning, Colonel Pinkerton said, 80 Iraqi soldiers in armored vehicles charged out of their sector toward Nasr Wa Salam but were blocked by an American platoon. The Iraqis refused to say where they were going and threatened to drive right through the American soldiers, whom they greatly outnumbered.

Eventually, with Apache helicopter gunships circling overhead and American gunners aiming their weapons at them, the Iraqi soldiers retreated. “It hasn’t come to firing bullets yet,? Colonel Pinkerton said.

A few weeks ago, he said, a Sunni detainee was beaten to death while in custody of the Muthanna Brigade. And in the past year, he said, Muthanna soldiers detained two of Abu Azzam’s brothers, both of whom said they were abused, and raided Abu Azzam’s house.

Colonel Pinkerton’s experiences here, he said, have inverted the usual American instincts born of years of hard fighting against Sunni insurgents.

“I could stand among 1,800 Sunnis in Abu Ghraib,? he said, “and feel more comfortable than standing in a formation of Iraqi soldiers.?

He credits the Volunteers for taking on Sunni extremists, including Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown group that claims loyalty to Osama bin Laden’s principles. Abu Azzam’s men, including some local Shiites, have been lining up by the hundreds every day to submit to retina scans and fingerprinting so they can apply to join the Iraqi police. Some already stand guard, with loaded Kalashnikov rifles, alongside American troops.

Read the whole New York Times article.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  • Mark Eichenlaub

    Interesting post. Hope that your son stays safe and you can continue providing us these sorts of reports.

  • Pingback: Cop The Truth()

  • Gray

    The unspoken problem still seems to be: what exactly does victory look like?

    Japan and Germany surrendered unconditionally, and I say this while acknowledging that we spent years mopping up in the post war period.

    Korea ended with a hot truce.

    We left Vietnam after a decade of anti-US collusion between the overt enemy, a well oiled domestic 5th column, and a lack of political resolve to fight war in a war-like manner.(Research General Giap’s words re W. Cronkite.)

    The sinuous, symbiotic relationship of Islam and the combatants of the (greater) war we are now fighting makes it almost impossible, if not improbable to separate the issue. (Although those who fear offending Muslims contort wildly in the attempt.) As we speak, Pakistan is one bullet away from granting AQ a well developed arsenal.

    Back to my initial question; when all is said and done and we are ready to say that we have accomplished the mission, what does that look like.

  • TallDave

    Informative, but clearly wrong on a couple points here.

    With AQI and AAS standing only at several thousand, for a country the size of Iraq, there simply aren’t enough to pull off destabilization of a country. There are more gang members in most medium size American cities than there are al Qaeda in Iraq.

    Obviously untrue. American gangs do not load up dumptrucks with artillery shells and set them off in churches and shopping malls. If a single AQ member can kill 10 – 100 people with a massive bomb, that means several thousand AQ could kill hundreds of thousands, if allowed to do so. In a country of 25 million, that is serious destabilization. Additionally, Iraq has sectarian fault lines which AQ exploits. Even a single spectacular AQ attack (like in Samarra) can spark outsized consequences in a country like Iraq — something AQ takes full advantage of.

    Also, you approvingly cite Nance here:

    by 2007 it wasn’t hard for Washington to make a semantic and rhetorical leap to refer to all insurgency forces as “Al Qaeda.?

    That is simply not true, as any simple Google of either admin statements or MNF-I releases will instantly prove, and that fact goes a long way towards establishing Nance as either incredibly misinformed or a dishonest partisan hack (and not a very bright one at that).

  • Herschel Smith

    Sorry TallDave, but at the risk of starting a scuffle here, you need to go back and read the article again, and this time with a more open mind and with an eye to a bit more nuance in my position. You characterize my position in a hackneyed manner.

    First, I cite Nance in specific regarding the use of al Qaeda as a surrogate (that is my word, not his). I agree with him. I have read a huge number of MNF press releases over time, and AQI has indeed become a surrogate for clearer communication. Nance’s other positions (e.g., invoking the study group recommendation to “talk” to Iran and Syria) I reject for reasons I outline in the article. Regardless whether someone is characterized by you or me as a “right wing partisan” or “left wing partisan,” it is the truth value of their ideas that merits consideration. The debate should be about ideas, not personalities. Invocation of personalities makes the discussion amateurish rather than serious.

    Now to Iraq. Denials to the contrary, a couple of thousand al Qaeda in Mesopotamia fighters cannot destabilize a country (read here, “all on their own”) any more than can a couple of thousand gang members in America, regardless of whether they have explosives. The proof for my position is in what has happened in Anbar.

    The terms insurgency and terrorism have been thrown around in the national conversation, but not with precision. But speaking more precisely, the Marines have been fighting both in Anbar. The gun battles in Heet, Haditha, Ramadi, Fallujah, etc., for the better part of three years, have been with indigenous Sunni fighters. Read here: “insurgents.” This has been the part of the fight that has been a classical insurgency, along with our nonkinetic operations.

    The Marines have also fought al Qaeda: read here “terrorists.” Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia had heretofore convinced the Sunnis in Anbar that there could be a return to power of the Sunnis (including some ex-Ba’athists). While there has been some internecine warfare, the “terrorists” (who were seen in the role of assisting this Sunni return to power) would NOT HAVE BEEN ABLE to pull off the acts of terror (on the Shi’a) without the acquiescence of the “insurgents.” Period. Tacit approval was necessary.

    The proof? Tacit approval is no longer there, the insurgents have turned against the terrorists, and rather than fighting the Marines they are now fighting the terrorists. You will search long to find the last MNF press release of a casualty in Anbar. Bombs are irrelevant when the population doesn’t approve. The population no longer approves, no longer protects, and now they’re gone.

    By far and away, the more powerful of the “tribes” in Anbar (not including the U.S.) has all along been the indigenous Iraqi insurgents. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia will fizzle without the approval of the population. Regarding the sectarian tensions and strife to which you allude, you are correct, and I press that point home in the article. It allowed for there to be the myth of Sunni return to power for so many years following the opening of OIF. But a myth it is, and the Sunnis are figuring that out. Now for the Shi’a. Will they reconcile?

    By the way. Not too many hours after publication of this article, an “intel spec” wrote me to say the following: “anybody who thinks that al Qaeda controls more than 10% of the insurgency in Iraq is crazy.”

    None of this speaks to the justification for OIF, or to the need to rout al Qaeda, or the strategy we adopt to do so, or the so-called “long war.” Calling the insurgency in Anbar (i.e., the indigenous fighters) for what it was is merely accurate and good science. There is nothing wrong with truth-telling. The Marines have won the hardest fought and most complex counterinsurgency in world history in Anbar. This is a powerful and true story that needs to be told. It wasn’t just a fight against terrorists. It was a classical counterinsurgency too.

  • TallDave


    I didn’t characterize, I merely cited. And again, on the whole I found the analysis informative and insightful, with the exceptions I noted.

    I don’t care what his politics are, Nance is just very, very wrong when he says the admin or military ‘refer to all insurgency forces as “Al Qaeda.?’ He has to know better. No one has ever confused Sadrists with Qaedists, or characterized the entire Sunni resistance as AQ. That is such an egregious hyperbole that it casts a lot of doubt on anything Nance says. I agree we need to speak to the facts, but serious, un-amateurish discussion needs serious people doing serious analysis, not taking poorly-aimed political potshots. We do no favors to seriousness by ignoring or excusing such antics.

    “A couple of thousand al Qaeda in Mesopotamia fighters cannot destabilize a country”

    Again, with respect, manifestly they can (and have) if they carry off enough spectacular attacks. You cite the progress in Anbar, but that happened long after the Samarra bombing, widely regarded as the most destabilizing event since the invasion, and the Anbar progress was only cemented with a lot of effort against AQ by US forces.

    Al Qaeda almost certainly does not now control more than 10% of the insurgency, and certainly their ideology is failing among Sunnis, but they’re sill a major factor because they’re the only ones carrying out huge, headline-grabbing bombings with massive civilian casualties. Sadrists and other Shia militias use them as political/recruiting fuel, and U.S. Senators and presidential candidates cite these attacks as failures of U.S. policy and reasons we should withdraw.

  • Herschel Smith


    As best as I can tell and without parsing words too closely, we agree on almost every count, and certainly the most important things.

  • Slab

    Herschel, I’m coming into this a bit late as I was in Louisiana at the time, but do you feel any concern about these Sunni insurgents turning back against Iraqi and Coalition Forces once AQI has been largely dealt with? I’m a bit worried about the risk of something analogous to the classic Latin American “paramilitary” organization such as the AUC.

  • Herschel Smith


    Thanks for the comment. As usual concerning matters military, I bow to your superior knowledge and wisdom. That said, concerning the question “do you feel any concern,” you betcha.

    But maybe not quite in the same way. I see no benefit to the insurgents turning on U.S. forces again. They stand to gain absolutely nothing from doing that. I think that they settled with us because we militarily defeated them. If we can do it once, we can do it again. Perhaps they will see it that way too.

    However, I have noted before that this is a high risk approach. As my most recent post indicates (“The Rise of the JAM”), if we do not have the national will to defeat the JAM and take down Sadr just like we have done it with the Sunnis, then there will be no reconciliation in Iraq – no oil deal – no forgiveness – no peace.

    Then … we will truly be in the middle of an all-out civil war. The Sunnis are badly outnumbered, but I would not expect them to slink away quietly into the night. They see us as their protector from the JAM right now, and so settling with us was the thing to do.

  • Slab

    I’m still a bit nervous about these Sunni groups, especially with proclamations of victory in Anbar going around. Turning insurgent groups is a classic and highly successful COIN strategy, but as you’ve mentioned, it’s also a risky one. I guess all we can do is just be prepared in case these groups turn against the Iraqi government or the Shia population.

You are currently reading "Al Qaeda, Indigenous Sunnis and the Insurgency in Iraq", entry #544 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) al Qaeda,Ansar al Sunna,Fallujah,Iraq,Marine Corps,Small Wars,War & Warfare and was published July 16th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

26th MEU (10)
Abu Muqawama (12)
ACOG (2)
ACOGs (1)
Afghan National Army (36)
Afghan National Police (17)
Afghanistan (677)
Afghanistan SOFA (4)
Agriculture in COIN (3)
AGW (1)
Air Force (31)
Air Power (9)
al Qaeda (83)
Ali al-Sistani (1)
America (7)
Ammunition (26)
Animals in War (4)
Ansar al Sunna (15)
Anthropology (3)
Antonin Scalia (1)
AR-15s (83)
Arghandab River Valley (1)
Arlington Cemetery (2)
Army (48)
Assassinations (2)
Assault Weapon Ban (26)
Australian Army (5)
Azerbaijan (4)
Backpacking (2)
Badr Organization (8)
Baitullah Mehsud (21)
Basra (17)
BATFE (53)
Battle of Bari Alai (2)
Battle of Wanat (17)
Battle Space Weight (3)
Bin Laden (7)
Blogroll (2)
Blogs (7)
Body Armor (17)
Books (2)
Border War (7)
Brady Campaign (1)
Britain (27)
British Army (35)
Camping (4)
Canada (2)
Castle Doctrine (1)
Caucasus (6)
Center For a New American Security (8)
Charity (3)
China (10)
Christmas (8)
CIA (20)
Civilian National Security Force (3)
Col. Gian Gentile (9)
Combat Outposts (3)
Combat Video (2)
Concerned Citizens (6)
Constabulary Actions (3)
Coolness Factor (2)
COP Keating (4)
Corruption in COIN (4)
Council on Foreign Relations (1)
Counterinsurgency (215)
DADT (2)
David Rohde (1)
Defense Contractors (2)
Department of Defense (128)
Department of Homeland Security (16)
Disaster Preparedness (3)
Distributed Operations (5)
Dogs (6)
Donald Trump (1)
Drone Campaign (3)
EFV (3)
Egypt (12)
El Salvador (1)
Embassy Security (1)
Enemy Spotters (1)
Expeditionary Warfare (17)
F-22 (2)
F-35 (1)
Fallujah (17)
Far East (3)
Fathers and Sons (1)
Favorite (1)
Fazlullah (3)
FBI (5)
Featured (177)
Federal Firearms Laws (18)
Financing the Taliban (2)
Firearms (564)
Football (1)
Force Projection (35)
Force Protection (4)
Force Transformation (1)
Foreign Policy (27)
Fukushima Reactor Accident (6)
Ganjgal (1)
Garmsir (1)
general (14)
General Amos (1)
General James Mattis (1)
General McChrystal (40)
General McKiernan (6)
General Rodriguez (3)
General Suleimani (7)
Georgia (19)
Google (1)
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (1)
Gun Control (460)
Guns (1,063)
Guns In National Parks (3)
Haditha Roundup (10)
Haiti (2)
Haqqani Network (9)
Hate Mail (7)
Hekmatyar (1)
Heroism (4)
Hezbollah (12)
High Capacity Magazines (11)
High Value Targets (9)
Homecoming (1)
Homeland Security (1)
Horses (1)
Humor (13)
ICOS (1)
IEDs (7)
Immigration (52)
India (10)
Infantry (3)
Information Warfare (2)
Infrastructure (2)
Intelligence (22)
Intelligence Bulletin (6)
Iran (169)
Iraq (378)
Iraq SOFA (23)
Islamic Facism (42)
Islamists (67)
Israel (18)
Jaish al Mahdi (21)
Jalalabad (1)
Japan (2)
Jihadists (80)
John Nagl (5)
Joint Intelligence Centers (1)
JRTN (1)
Kabul (1)
Kajaki Dam (1)
Kamdesh (9)
Kandahar (12)
Karachi (7)
Kashmir (2)
Khost Province (1)
Khyber (11)
Knife Blogging (2)
Korea (4)
Korengal Valley (3)
Kunar Province (20)
Kurdistan (3)
Language in COIN (5)
Language in Statecraft (1)
Language Interpreters (2)
Lashkar-e-Taiba (2)
Law Enforcement (3)
Lawfare (6)
Leadership (5)
Lebanon (6)
Leon Panetta (2)
Let Them Fight (2)
Libya (14)
Lines of Effort (3)
Littoral Combat (8)
Logistics (49)
Long Guns (1)
Lt. Col. Allen West (2)
Marine Corps (244)
Marines in Bakwa (1)
Marines in Helmand (67)
Marjah (4)
Media (30)
Memorial Day (2)
Mexican Cartels (24)
Mexico (30)
Michael Yon (5)
Micromanaging the Military (7)
Middle East (1)
Military Blogging (26)
Military Contractors (4)
Military Equipment (24)
Militia (4)
Mitt Romney (3)
Monetary Policy (1)
Moqtada al Sadr (2)
Mosul (4)
Mountains (15)
MRAPs (1)
Mullah Baradar (1)
Mullah Fazlullah (1)
Mullah Omar (3)
Musa Qala (4)
Music (16)
Muslim Brotherhood (6)
Nation Building (2)
National Internet IDs (1)
National Rifle Association (17)
NATO (15)
Navy (21)
Navy Corpsman (1)
NCOs (3)
News (1)
NGOs (2)
Nicholas Schmidle (2)
Now Zad (19)
NSA (1)
NSA James L. Jones (6)
Nuclear (53)
Nuristan (8)
Obama Administration (218)
Offshore Balancing (1)
Operation Alljah (7)
Operation Khanjar (14)
Ossetia (7)
Pakistan (165)
Paktya Province (1)
Palestine (5)
Patriotism (6)
Patrolling (1)
Pech River Valley (11)
Personal (33)
Petraeus (14)
Pictures (1)
Piracy (13)
Pistol (2)
Pizzagate (21)
Police (236)
Police in COIN (3)
Policy (15)
Politics (308)
Poppy (2)
PPEs (1)
Prisons in Counterinsurgency (12)
Project Gunrunner (20)
PRTs (1)
Qatar (1)
Quadrennial Defense Review (2)
Quds Force (13)
Quetta Shura (1)
RAND (3)
Recommended Reading (14)
Refueling Tanker (1)
Religion (110)
Religion and Insurgency (19)
Reuters (1)
Rick Perry (4)
Rifles (1)
Roads (4)
Rolling Stone (1)
Ron Paul (1)
ROTC (1)
Rules of Engagement (74)
Rumsfeld (1)
Russia (28)
Sabbatical (1)
Sangin (1)
Saqlawiyah (1)
Satellite Patrols (2)
Saudi Arabia (4)
Scenes from Iraq (1)
Second Amendment (169)
Second Amendment Quick Hits (2)
Secretary Gates (9)
Sharia Law (3)
Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahiden (1)
SIIC (2)
Sirajuddin Haqqani (1)
Small Wars (72)
Snipers (9)
Sniveling Lackeys (2)
Soft Power (4)
Somalia (8)
Sons of Afghanistan (1)
Sons of Iraq (2)
Special Forces (24)
Squad Rushes (1)
State Department (17)
Statistics (1)
Sunni Insurgency (10)
Support to Infantry Ratio (1)
Supreme Court (2)
Survival (13)
SWAT Raids (53)
Syria (38)
Tactical Drills (1)
Tactical Gear (1)
Taliban (167)
Taliban Massing of Forces (4)
Tarmiyah (1)
TBI (1)
Technology (16)
Tehrik-i-Taliban (78)
Terrain in Combat (1)
Terrorism (92)
Thanksgiving (6)
The Anbar Narrative (23)
The Art of War (5)
The Fallen (1)
The Long War (20)
The Surge (3)
The Wounded (13)
Thomas Barnett (1)
Transnational Insurgencies (5)
Tribes (5)
TSA (14)
TSA Ineptitude (11)
TTPs (1)
U.S. Border Patrol (5)
U.S. Border Security (14)
U.S. Sovereignty (17)
UAVs (2)
UBL (4)
Ukraine (3)
Uncategorized (42)
Universal Background Check (3)
Unrestricted Warfare (4)
USS Iwo Jima (2)
USS San Antonio (1)
Uzbekistan (1)
V-22 Osprey (4)
Veterans (2)
Vietnam (1)
War & Warfare (212)
War & Warfare (40)
War Movies (3)
War Reporting (18)
Wardak Province (1)
Warriors (6)
Waziristan (1)
Weapons and Tactics (57)
West Point (1)
Winter Operations (1)
Women in Combat (18)
WTF? (1)
Yemen (1)

February 2017
January 2017
December 2016
November 2016
October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
January 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006

about · archives · contact · register

Copyright © 2006-2017 Captain's Journal. All rights reserved.