Reorganizations and Defections Within the Insurgency in Iraq

BY Herschel Smith
7 years ago

In Iraq: al Qaeda’s Quagmire, we noted that al Qaeda in Iraq had lost one of its few remaining allies in Iraq, Asaeb al-Iraq al-Jihadiya, or “the Iraqi Jihad Union,” due to pointless violence perpetrated on them by elements affiliated with al Qaeda in the Diyala province.  These jihadists are similar in nature to Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia in that violence doesn’t have to be directed or meaningful, per se.  It only has to intimidate.  Those who suffer in its wake are fodder for a power grab.  But it always has unintended consequences, and has never won the long term struggle for the soul of a population.

There are reorganizations within both the indigenous insurgency and foreign terrorists, partly to avoid the appearance of affiliation with al Qaeda, and partly because the typical response to a losing strategy is usually to reorganize.

Six main Iraqi insurgent groups announced the formation of a “political council” aimed at “liberating” Iraq from U.S. occupation in a video aired Thursday on Al-Jazeera television.

The council appeared to be a new attempt to assert the leadership of the groups, which have moved to distance themselves from another coalition of insurgent factions led by al-Qaida in Iraq.

In the video aired on Al-Jazeera, a man identified as the council’s spokesman — wearing traditional Iraqi garb, with his face blacked out — announced the council’s formation and a “political program to liberate Iraq.”

He said the program was based on two principles.

“First, the occupation is an oppression and aggression, rejected by Islamic Sharia law and tradition. Resistance of occupation is a right guaranteed by all religions and laws,” he said. “Second, the armed resistance … is the legitimate representative of Iraq. It is the one that bears responsibility for the leadership of the people to achieve its legitimate hope.”

The groups forming the council include the Islamic Army of Iraq, the Mujahideen Army, Ansar al-Sunna, the Fatiheen Army, the Islamic Front for the Iraqi Resistance (Jami) and the Islamic Movement of Hamas-Iraq.

The step could be a bid by the insurgents for a more cohesive political voice at a time of considerable rearrangement among Sunni insurgent groups and Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority.

Splinter factions of two insurgent groups, the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Mujahideen Army, have cooperated with U.S. forces in fighting insurgents allied to al-Qaida in Iraq.

Earlier this year, other groups — the Islamic Army of Iraq, the main faction of the Mujahideen Army, a branch of Ansar al-Sunna and the Fatiheen Army — formed a coalition called the Jihad and Reform Front opposed to al-Qaida in Iraq, though they have continued attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.

The context of this reorganization is complicated.  In Al Qaeda, Indigenous Sunnis and the Insurgency in Iraq, I argued that while foreign terrorists were a signficant force within Iraq, they didn’t constitute the majority of insurgents; rather indigenous Iraqis constituted the majority of the insurgency (albeit some of which was under the leadership of foreign elements).  I further argued that U.S. forces were waging a double war: (1) a war of counterterrorism against foreign elements (partly led by al Qaeda), and (2) a classical counterinsurgency.

Bill Ardolino was recently in Fallujah, and used the opportunity to interview a Fallujan translator for the U.S. forces.

INDC: When I speak to Fallujans, many say that it was all outsiders causing the insurgency, but a lot of it was certainly driven by locals. What portion of the insurgency was really local? Most of it?

Leo: Yes.

INDC: So why are people afraid to say, “Yeah, we used to fight the Americans??

Leo: No, not everyone. Many people you miss who will say, frankly, “Yes, we fought you.? But maybe he will say, “I didn’t [personally] fight you, but [the Fallujan people] fought you. [Resistance] is a normal thing, and a right for everyone.

INDC: Right. And so when al Qaeda came in, and by “al Qaeda? I really mean all of the outside jihadists, the Fallujans welcomed them to help fight the Americans?

Leo: Yes …

The war has been complex, with dozens of competing insurgent and terrorist groups, some acting as allies with each other, while still others wage war upon other groups in a power struggle.  Common to all groups, however, has been war on U.S. forces - that is, up until about a year ago.  The tribal “awakening” began in or around Ramadi, with tribal leaders one by one turning against the foreign terrorists due to violence perpetrated on the Anbari people, started by Shiekh Abdul Sattar Abu Reesha.

But even this “awakening” had a context.  Shiekh Sattar didn’t turn on al Qaeda and the other foreign elements until his own smuggling line was shut down by kinetic operations of U.S. troops.  This was all quickly followed up by other measures in other areas of Anbar.  The storied city of Haditha, suffering from a terrorist problem from being close to the Syrian border, was isolated from these foreign fighters with sand berms.  Intense force projection, a robust Iraqi police presence and kinetic operations by U.S. troops managed to turn Haditha around.

Ramadi and Haditha being too difficult for major operations, many insurgents and terrorists fled to Fallujah.  From this point, an important account is brought to us by Damien McElroy of the Telegraph that sheds even more light on the relationship between indigenous insurgents, foreign terrorists, and where the most recent hot spots in Anbar have been.

A unique tribal reconciliation process is allowing repentant former al-Qa’eda loyalists to return to homes and families free from the threat of arrest by coalition forces.

The voluntary scheme has gained the backing of American commanders but is being run by local chieftains to rehabilitate sons of the region who no longer follow the path of violence.

Al-Qaim, a district in the far west of Anbar province, has reported dramatic gains against al-Qa’eda cells in the area but now faces a dilemma over the return of ex-residents who had joined the ranks of radical Islamic fighters after the American invasion in 2003.

In the fight against al-Qa’eda which has raged since last year, hundreds of residents of the region were forced out by fighting but have since signalled a wish to go home.

Sheikh Kurdi Rafi al-Shurayji, who as factor for the paramount sheikh acts as a chief representative of the tribes in the area, revealed a formal system had been established to rehabilitate ex-residents that renounced al-Qa’eda.

“Many of our people want to come back to their families,” he said. “If they are young, they can’t get married or get a job outside their own people. The older ones who worked with al-Qa’eda want to get back to resume their lives.”

Sheikh Kurdi has forged a deal with the American coalition that gives US commanders a supervisory role in the rehabilitation process.

An applicant’s first point of contact is his own sheikh, who must agree to sponsor his plea and vouch that he will not resume insurgent activity.

“We conduct background checks on the individuals to ensure that they do not have Iraqi blood on their hands,” said Sheikh Kurdi. “If they are clean we ask them to reveal all they know about insurgent activity. In this way we have found weapons caches and even discovered unknown cells.”

Before American Marines regained control of the area, which lies on the Syrian border, al-Qaim was a popular ‘rat-run’ for foreign fighters travelling to Iraq for jihad. Since the inception of the rehabilitation programme almost 50 residents have applied and 40 individuals have been accepted.

One of the successful returnees was Eid Mehlif Alab, a school friend of Sheikh Kurdi who had operated safe houses and gathered intelligence for terrorist groups.

“When the Americans took control Fallujah was the only place to seek safety,” he said. “But it was tiring to be away from home, family and friends. When it became clear that al-Qa’eda were not in Iraq for holy war but terrorism, the option of returning back in peace was there.”

In Fallujah, Marines with 2nd Battalion, 6th Regiment, conducted intense kinetic operations in the second quarter of this year, and in Operation Alljah, implemented gated communities, biometrics, and high visibility force projection with the Iraqi Police (see also Bill Ardolino’s important article on Operation Alljah).  The city has turned around, the Iraqi Police are taking over city security, and a Marine hasn’t been killed in months.  With the last safe haven being taken away from the insurgents and terrorists, the indigenous fighters are returning home – at least, those who would make peace.  There is no point in fighting forces (U.S. Marines) who will not be beaten and who will not go away.  But Fallujans befriending U.S. Marines has brought peace to a once war-torn city.

The reorganization of groups discussed earlier is a mixed bag (with Ansar al-Sunna being foreign and the Islamic Front for Iraqi Resistance being indigenous), but is not a sign of strength.  Rather, like corporate America, when the strategy fails, the typical solution is to cut losses, reorganize and regroup.  This is what is happening in Iraq at the moment.  Al Qaeda is the big loser, and no one wants to be affiliated with this savage group, even among other foreign elements.  What is left of the die hard fighters (ex-Ba’athists, Afghan fighters with Ansar al-Sunna, other foreign jihadists) will slowly dissipate and diminish.

In the mean time, they will be able to pull off some spectacular suicide bombings using rogue foreign elements who wish to die due to religious motivation, but they will not be able to pull off any major joint military operations.  They are no longer a major force in the Anbar Province.  Transporting this model to the balance of Iraq will be the subject of future articles.

  • Brian H

    And the mayor of Baquba said to the LTC there that if he had truly expelled AQI from Baquba, it was finished in all of Iraq; that was the last “fall-back” capital/control point for them.


You are currently reading "Reorganizations and Defections Within the Insurgency in Iraq", entry #650 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) al Qaeda,Ansar al Sunna,Fallujah,Force Projection,Iraq,Jihadists,Operation Alljah,War & Warfare and was published October 15th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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