Al Qaeda, Indigenous Sunnis and the Insurgency in Iraq

BY Herschel Smith
16 years, 10 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

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  1. On July 16, 2007 at 12:45 am, Mark Eichenlaub said:

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

  2. On July 16, 2007 at 2:10 am, Gray said:

    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.

  3. On July 18, 2007 at 1:39 pm, TallDave said:

    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.

  4. On July 18, 2007 at 3:18 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    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.

  5. On July 18, 2007 at 6:44 pm, TallDave said:


    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.

  6. On July 18, 2007 at 7:14 pm, Herschel Smith said:


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

  7. On August 13, 2007 at 12:46 pm, Slab said:

    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.

  8. On August 13, 2007 at 1:21 pm, Herschel Smith said:


    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.

  9. On August 16, 2007 at 12:45 pm, Slab said:

    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.

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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.

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