An Al Qaeda rolodex: a vast treasure trove of captured documents and records provides a unique insight into the foreign jihadis fighting in Iraq, prompting the US military to reassess how it views Al Qaeda.
THE US COMMANDOS, acting on a tip-off, struck just before dawn on 11 September, 2007, shooting their way into a tent camp outside Sinjar, a small dusty town in northwestern Iraq about 16km from the border with Syria. It was a key nerve centre in the insurgent "rat line" from Syria through which foreign fighters made their way to the jihad against the Americans.
The US military said six leaders of the smuggling operation run by Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) were killed in the gun battle. One was a senior commander known as Muthanna. Two other jihadis perished when one of them detonated a suicide vest of explosives.
The Sinjar camp was responsible for smuggling an estimated 90% of the foreign fighters who have entered Iraq along a 300km stretch of desert border running from Qaim, in flashpoint Anbar province, almost to the border with Turkey.
But the real triumph for the Americans was the vast treasure trove of documents and records kept by the meticulous Muthanna found at Sinjar. These provided an unprecedented insight into how the smuggling operation functions, as well as unique snapshots of the kind of men who go to Iraq to join the jihad.
The Sinjar records, including many photos of the incoming volunteers, "are one of the deepest reservoirs of information we've ever obtained of the network going into Iraq," said one US counter-terrorism specialist. Another official dubbed them "an Al Qaeda rolodex".
The documents have prompted the US military in Iraq to reassess its earlier assumptions about AQI, how it functions and how it relates to the wider Al Qaeda network.
"During this operation we also captured multiple documents and electronic files that provided insight into Al Qaeda's foreign terrorist operations, not only in Iraq but throughout the region," said Major General Kevin Bergner, the US military spokesman in Baghdad. "They detailed the larger Al Qaeda effort to organise, coordinate and transport foreign terrorists into Iraq and other places."
The mass of documentation underlined how the jihadist movement has its own bureaucracy, possibly a legacy of Osama bin Laden's propensity for running AI Qaeda like a business corporation.
The Sinjar documents were analysed for weeks by the US Army's Combatting Terrorism Centre at West Point, the US military academy which has issued a 30-page report on its findings.
The records listed the identities of 606 foreigners who entered Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007, and contained background material on about 100 others.
All entrants were required to fill out questionnaires, although some of the responses were more detailed than others, but the details that emerged were highly illuminating for the American analysts.
Brian Fishman, co-author of the West Point report with fellow associate Joseph Felter, said that with AQI having hundreds of foreign volunteers "entering the country with different skill sets and different intentions, you have to build a bureaucracy to use your resources efficiently.
"I think we made a mistake in assuming that Al Qaeda, because it's a terrorist organisation, doesn't need to organise itself the way other large organisations do. They have a human resources problem; they have to manage people."
The Sinjar bonanza included copies of an employment contract that Al Qaeda used in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. As well as containing a pledge of loyalty by recruits and defining their religious duties, it also listed official holidays observed by the movement and members' pay grades. Married men got more than single men, as well as a bonus for every child they produced.
Married volunteers were allowed time off every three weeks and round-trip tickets home every two years, although Al Qaeda reserved the right to block vacation dates "in certain cases". Vacation requests had to be submitted two-and-a-half months in advance.
The Sinjar documents also produced some surprising statistics--244, or 41%, of the jihadis were Saudi and 112, or 18.8%, were Libyan. Previous research found no more than 4% were Libyan.
Libya thus produced--at least in the period covered by the records--more militants per capita than any other country. Overall, Saudi Arabia and Libya, both considered US allies in George Bush's war on terror, provided 60% of the foreign fighters who entered Iraq in the 2006-07 period, and may still be doing so.
This should not strain Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's new relationship with the US. Once branded a key supporter of international terrorism, the mercurial Libyan leader is now back in Washington's good books after turning over a new leaf, renouncing terrorism in 2003 and abandoning his clandestine nuclear programme.
The US removed Libya from its blacklist of states supporting international terrorism in 2006. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even hailed Libya's "commitment to its renunciation of terrorism and the excellent cooperation" it provided for George Bush's war against terror. How Washington squares that with the large number of Libyan jihadis flowing into Iraq to fight the Americans and their Iraqi allies remains to be seen.
The Sinjar documents showed that most of the Libyans hailed from hotbeds of Islamic extremism in northeastern Libya such as the cities of Darnah and Benghazi, and from the towns of Ras Al Helal and Al Qubbah in the mountainous Jebel Al Akhdar region. Darnah provided 50 fighters, the largest number of volunteers from any single city anywhere in the world.
The Libyans got to Iraq through "a well-established smuggling route" to Syria through Egypt, another key US ally in the region. Ayman Al Zawahiri, ostensibly Osama bin Laden's No.2 but who seems to be playing an increasingly important role in running Al Qaeda Central, and other jihadist leaders have gone out of their way of late to praise the Libyan volunteers.
"There is a rising leadership cadre of Libyan in Al Qaeda," said Vahid Brown, an analyst with West Point's Terrorism Centre. "Egyptians have really dominated strategic and military operations. The Egyptians are good at keeping control because of that, because many of them have military training. Now you have Libyan faces appearing in videos."
North Africans now comprise one of the mainstays of the jihadist war in Iraq. The Sinjar documents, bolstered by other intelligence, showed that 291 fighters--about 39% of those listed--came from the Maghreb during the period covered.
That's far higher than earlier estimates of 10-13% and underlines the recent drive by Al Qaeda Central to forge a united jihadist force across the Maghreb built around the battle-hardened veterans in Algeria. Western intelligence agencies fear that the Maghreb groups, which have deep-rooted links with Muslim communities in Western Europe, will be used to carry out major operations there.
Another striking point in the Sinjar material was the small number of volunteers from countries that had been thought to be major suppliers of jihadis. As recently as summer 2007, US officials estimated that 30% came from Syria and Lebanon. But there were no Lebanese listed in the Sinjar papers and only 56 Syrians, or 8% of the total.
The average age of the foreign jihadis listed was 24-25. The oldest fighter was 54, the youngest aged 15. They came from all walks of life--plumbers, police officers, mechanics, labourers, several unemployed. One said he was a "weapons merchant". Another gave his occupation as "massage specialist". There was even a muezzin.
Many were well educated--nearly 43% of the 157 who listed their occupation were students. Others said they were teachers, doctors and engineers.
Mohammed Ayn Al Nas, a 26-year-old Moroccan, arrived in Iraq on 31 January, 2007, after flying from Casablanca to Istanbul and then on to Damascus. He listed his "work" as a student of economics. In answer to what he expected to do in Iraq, he said "martyr".
Mohammed Abdel-Qadir bin Qassem, a 26-year-old Arabic language teacher, travelled from Darnah in Libya to Syria, where he paid a man named Abu Umar 2,000 Syrian pounds to get him across the border with Iraq. He told the AQI official who interviewed him when he arrived on 7 June, 2007, that he was ready to offer his life for the cause.
Abdullah Abed A1 Sulaimani was the baby of the group. He arrived on 23 September, 2006, three months after his 15th birth day. He contributed all his money, $620, his watch and his cellphone to the cause.
The youthfulness of the fighters suggests they were largely first-time volunteers rather than hardened veterans, pointing to an emergent threat to the regimes in their home countries once the fighters, seasoned in Iraq, return to their native lands.
"If there was a major influx of veteran jihadis into Iraq, it may have come earlier in the war," the West Point analysis noted. "The incitement of a new generation of jihadis to join the fight in Iraq, or plan operations elsewhere, is one of the most worrisome aspects of the ongoing fight in Iraq."
Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, another US spokesman in Baghdad, said in January that up to 60% of foreign volunteers ended up becoming suicide bombers. The Sinjar documents showed that of the 389 volunteers who listed their "work" in Iraq in the questionnaires, more than half said they were interested in suicide operations.
Volunteers from Saudi Arabia appear to have carried out more suicide attacks than any other nationality. A recent survey of 124 suicide bombings found that 53 were carried out by Saudis. Volunteers from Italy and Syria both did eight.
Of the other bombers, seven were from Kuwait, four from Jordan, and two each from Belgium, France and Spain. Others came from North and East Africa, South Asia, Europe and other Middle Eastern states. Only 18-15%--of the bombers were Iraqi.
According to the US military, by mid-October 2007 some 1,300 suicide volunteers had entered Iraq from Syria since the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Another apparent consequence of the Sinjar raid was a reduction in the flow of foreign volunteers. At the beginning of 2007, US officials estimated that 80-100 a month were getting into Iraq. That fell to about 60 by mid-year, then slumped to about 40 a month in October. This was due in some degree to greater efforts by Syria and Saudi Arabia to tighten border controls during the year, but as the Sinjar document show, the fighters are still getting through.
How the Syrian 'rat lines' work
US COMMANDERS BELIEVE that 70% of the jihadis who are smuggled into Iraq travel through Syria. The foreigners are met at Damascus International Airport by AI Qaeda facilitators who disperse them in a series of safe houses and mosques in the Syrian capital and in the northern city of Aleppo.
Earlier intelligence lists the names of some of these facilitators Abdul Al Jabar, Mahmour Terad, Mahrnoud Jerala and Hussein Hawawi. Mahmoud Imaz, also known as Khalid AlTurki, was identified as the top smuggler.
Many of the incoming jihadis are given some training and pep talks by radical imams before being given new identities and instructions on how to enter the "rat lines" across the border into Iraq. The Sinjar records shed some light on these operations.
The Syrian role seems to be more entrepreneurial than political: AQI relies heavily on mercenaries and criminal gangs to funnel the volunteers into Iraq, rather than ideologically motivated jihadis. This apparently causes some concern and suspicion within AQI and some US analysts believe this is a weakness that should be exploited.
"if Al Qaeda's Syrian logistics networks are truly run by mercenaries, there are many policy options available to co-opt or manipulate them," a West Point report noted. "it is almost inconceivable that Syrian intelligence has not already tried to penetrate these networks, but that does not preclude American agencies from attempting the same."
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||CURRENT AFFAIRS|
|Publication:||The Middle East|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2008|
|Next Article:||How will the US choices play out in the Middle East? Bruce Macphail reports on the run-up to the US presidential elections in November and what...|