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April 18, 2007



I remember reading, maybe in Harper's, a coupla years ago, an Iraqi being quoted, angry that AQ had killed some of his cohorts. It was just a mention, mind you. But it was said.

I'm curious about something, and totally uninformed. This AG State in Iraq. Where is it? And why is the military not going after it? Or have I missed that part of the story?

Nibras Kazimi

Hi Marc,

I see three initial weaknesses in your thesis:

1-How do you explain the Nov. 10, 2006 statement from the Islamic Army of Iraq that they conducted three attacks on American soldiers in reprisal for the Israeli incursion into Beit Hanoun? Plus the 1920 Revolt Brigades has battalions called: "Izzedin al-Qassam", "Abdullah Azzam", and "Ahmad Yassin"? And the Jaish al-Rashidin has a battalion called "Ahmad Yassin"?

If they are limiting themselves to Iraq then why do they keep talking about Israel? And wouldn't their words count? Their doctrinal manifestos hit all the Salafist high notes, including the Salafist take on "Permanent Revolution"...


2-How can you call them "nationalists" when the IAI and the Ansar al-Sunnah have both adopted Al-Qaeda's anti-Shi'a rhetoric?

I've followed this ideological migration on my blog.

3-Why are you certain that these groups can handle the Al-Qaeda problem on their own and clean up the Sunni areas? If I had to bet, I'd bet on Al-Qaeda succeeding in every confrontation with one or all of these other jihadist groups. Clearly Al-Qaeda thinks that it is the Alpha Dog in this equation, and hence Abu Omar al-Baghdadi's challenge to the other groups to produce videos of raiding U.S. bases...(BTW, IAI is promising to put out just such a video these days...)

I'd appreciate your response.




Hi Nibras -
Those are all good questions. I actually have a long post in the works, that I just can't get the time to finish, on exactly the first point. The bottom line is that the groups themselves are drawing this distinction ever more clearly over the question of whether Iraq is the goal or a step on the road to wider jihad. I don't see any contradiction in talking about Israel, that's standard fare for all currents in Arab politics as you know. The real issue is whether they see Iraq as a stepping stone towards global jihad or whether they see ending the occupation as an endpoint.

On the second point, there definitely has been a growing anti-Shia rhetoric in line with the spiraling civil war; I take this as a sign of the pressure towards the extreme characteristic of all ethnic civil wars, but perhaps you're right and there's something deeper to it than that. If so it will make a political reconciliation much harder, obviously.. I suppose we'll just have to find out whether this is the kind of attitude which can be de-escalated at this point.

On the third point, I *don't* know what would happen - that's why I've mentioned in each of these articles that the real balance of power is a mystery. A couple of years ago, AQ was clearly a small minority; now, with the ISI attracting at least some cadres away from the other factions it's hard to tell. You're right that AQ seems quite confident about its prospects, that's a point I've made repeatedly - the question is how much is bluff, and whether the other factions can call their bluff.

One other obvious question that I'm hoping to get to tomorrow is whether Abu Omar al-Baghdadi's tape can stop the spiraling conflict... I don't think it will, but there's a lot of disagreement out there worth seeing. Anyway, thanks for the excellent questions, hopefully I can answer them more substantively tomorrow

Nibras Kazimi

Thanks! I'll wait for the longer post...



PS: My judgement is that the conflict can't be stopped at this stage; once they've gone down that road, it's hard to pretend that bygones are bygones. Now every time an arrest or raid happens, the targeted group may believe that one of its rivals had snitched on it. The amount of actionable and accurate information coming in has spiked in recent weeks.


While I agree that US “withdrawal may be a necessary condition for bringing these groups into the political process,” as that has been their stated position since the beginning, I question if one can really speak of such a political process, esp. one that US policy makers can legitimately shape and influence or have some certainty about where and what forces will serve US interests...as the map of politics seems quite fluid and fragmented. And all forces tend to have the option of exit, or working to delegitimize the political process at any moment they don’t like its results or rules of the game.

Thus I'm not sure you can expect to assuage fears about Iraq coming apart or parts of it becoming a failed state ripe for “globalist” jihadist organization mobilization etc... based on following these trends and ideological debates (even if your reading are highly insightful). Pause for a moment and note how the forces and factions that American policy makers have backed to promote US interests have changed and keep on changing and will change more. Next, consider Lebanese politics from 1975-today... and recall politics only became organized when hegemons, though force, came to dominate the various political sides. Until/unless that happens and there become" less sides" (closer to a bipolar conflict) it will be difficult to really figure out who is (and will be in the future) one’s enemy's enemy with any certainty.

So, if such rational arguments convince more people in Washington to support withdrawal, then sure that’s fine, but with the current state of disorder and the damage done the US only has more to fear while becoming less certain of its knowledge, capacity, and influence.

Rather than making the micro-level, tactical arguments about the implications of withdrawal, it might be useful to spell out the logic at a grand strategy level. There will always be those who point out that withdrawal will decrease US ability to project power, harm credibility etc...the only way to really counter those arguments is to develop a macro-level argument for how withdrawal can serve US interests which must be part of rethinking the American role in the region. It is almost too late, as that role is being redefined and constrained by others in a manner not of American choosing. Is it not denial to not see this?

Benjamin Cook

"What does all this mean for U.S. policy? The most important implication of the Sunni turn against al-Qaeda is not that the "surge" is working, or that the insurgency is losing steam. Rather, the insurgency's turn against al-Qaeda -- if it comes to fruition -- actually strengthens the case for an American withdrawal, by putting to rest fears of Iraq becoming a new base for global jihad. The escalating confrontation we've witnessed between the insurgents and al-Qaeda suggests that they would not afterwards tolerate the kind of al-Qaeda presence that Americans fear..."

And if Iraq lived in a vacuum that would be true. Sadly they do not. Al-Qaeda is not the only outside actor. Insurgents don't come form Al-Qaedia. I follow your basic primise but I think you discount to quickly the goals for Iraq of outside state and non-state actors. Goals that benifit from public time tables for withdrawl.

Benjamin Cook

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