Bombers, Bank Accounts, and Bleedout: al-Qa`ida’s Road In and Out of Iraq

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The Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) has made available the latest in its series of Harmony Reports, entitled Bombers, Bank Accounts, and Bleedout: al-Qa`ida’s Road In and Out of Iraq.

Based on analysis of primary source material in the form of captured Al-Qaeda documents (which are made available, translated, in the Harmony Project’s document database), previous reports in the series have provided an authoritative and invaluable insight into Al-Qaeda’s operations and organisation. This latest report builds upon the analysis of the Sinjar documents begun in the previous report.

The following are the key findings from the Executive Summary:

Saudi Arabia and Libya supplied the most fighters in the Sinjar Records.
Saudi Arabia contributed the highest number of foreign fighters to al‐Qa`ida’s fight in Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007, followed by Libya. Of the 576 fighters in the Sinjar Records that listed their nationality, 41 percent (237) were of Saudi Arabian origin, and 19.2 percent (111) were Libyan. Syria, Yemen, and Algeria were the next most common countries of origin with 8 percent (46), 8.1 percent (44), and 7.1 percent (41), respectively. Moroccans accounted for 6.1 percent (36) of the fighters and Jordanians 1.9 percent (11). Nearly all of the home countries listed were in the Middle East or North Africa, although the sample also includes individuals from France (2), Great Britain (1), and Sweden (1). On a per capita basis, Libyan fighters (18.55/1 million) entered Iraq at a much higher rate than Saudi Arabia (8.84/1 million).

Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt were the source of most of the foreign fighters detained in Camp Bucca, Iraq.
As of April 7, 2008, the United States was holding 251 foreign fighters at Camp Bucca, Iraq. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria each contributed 19 percent of those fighters. Libyans comprise only 3 percent of foreign fighters held at Camp Bucca. Saudi Arabia and Libya contribute a relatively smaller percentage of the detainees held in Camp Bucca than were listed in the Sinjar Records.

Foreign Fighters contributed approximately 75 Percent of suicide bombers between August 2006 and August 2007.
Of the 376 fighters in the Sinjar Records that designated their “work” in Iraq, 212 (56.4 percent) were listed as suicide bombers. Assuming that this rate holds for all Jihadis listed in the Sinjar Records—and that the records are an accurate indicator of future behavior—foreign fighters accounted for approximately 75 percent of suicide bombings in Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007.

Many of AQI’s foreign fighters sign suicide contracts before entering Iraq to guarantee they will commit a suicide attack, which suggests AQI must convince and compel many incoming fighters to commit suicide attacks. The contracts suggest that would‐be bombers who renege will not be allowed to fight in Iraq; some state that break the contract immediately divorce their wife.

The plurality of suicide bombers entering Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007 were Saudi. However, the Sinjar Records challenge the notion that Saudi foreign fighters are more likely than fighters from other locations to become suicide bombers, as Libyan and Moroccan nationals registered as “suicide bombers” at a higher rate than their Saudi counterparts.

AQI is a wounded organization.
Tribal disaffection, the surge in Coalition and Iraqi Forces in 2007‐2008, and AQIs self‐destructive penchant for violence have all contributed to the organization’s decline. The number of foreign fighters entering Iraq every month has declined to between 40 and 50, and many foreign fighters are now trying to leave the country. AQI is largely concentrated in and around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. AQI still desires and is capable of generating large‐scale asymmetric attacks, but is unable to control territory with impunity as it could two years ago.

There Syrian foreign fighter network is effective, but not uniform.
The amount of money fighters in the Sinjar Records paid to their Syrian Coordinators varied dramatically depending on the Syrian Coordinator. Likewise, some Syrian Coordinators worked almost exclusively with fighters from specific countries, and likely with specific Coordinators in fighters’ home countries. In other words, there is not one network in Syria for ushering fighters into Iraq, there are many. Despite the structural incongruities, AQI’s network provided a regular, predictable flow of fighters into Iraq.

There is a strong risk of blowback from Iraq. Relatively small numbers of Jihadis will “bleedout” to fight elsewhere, but they will likely be very dangerous individuals.
The Iraq war has increased Jihadi radicalization in the Muslim world and the number of al‐Qa`ida recruits. Foreign fighters in Iraq have also acquired a number of useful skills that can be used in future terrorist operations, including massive use of suicide tactics, organizational skills, propaganda, covert communication, and innovative improvised explosive device (IED) tactics. Some AQI fighters that have already trickled out of Iraq have bolstered violent movements in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. This trend will likely continue. Although the threat to Europe and North America is real—French officials have tracked 24 fighters from France that have traveled to Iraq—fighters are most likely to join established Jihadi groups in areas of weak government control, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Lebanon.

Not all AQI fighters leaving Iraq will remain militant. AQI requires some exiting fighters to sign contracts demanding they not join other Jihadi groups. It is unclear whether the provision is designed to protect the Jihadi organizations in case the exiting fighters are under surveillance, ensure the fighters do not join AQ’s Jihadi competitors, or if these fighters have angered their AQI hosts.

US withdrawal from Iraq may not end the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq. A withdrawal that leaves swaths of Iraq ungoverned may provoke a resurgence of foreign fighter travel to Iraq. If Jihadis believe Iraq remains a viable arena for Jihad, or they sense an opportunity to humiliate the US, they will travel to Iraq even after a withdrawal, much as an earlier generation of fighters arrived in Afghanistan long after the Soviet Union withdrew.

Smuggling across the Syrian/Iraqi border has tribal roots.
AQI capitalizes on the extensive tribal smuggling networks across the Syrian/Iraqi border, much of which has traditionally received explicit or tacit support from Syrian and Iraqi officials. The smuggling takes a number of forms, each of which requires unique expertise. Livestock smuggling is the most prevalent, and usually takes place on unmarked trails away from established border crossings. Cigarettes and other bulk items are often moved in trucks through border crossings, which requires bribing border guards. High‐value items such as electronics require larger bribes and better intelligence about border officials. Human smuggling often takes place on the same trails as livestock smuggling. There is ample evidence that AQI uses criminal smugglers, who they do not fully trust, to cross the border. AQIs effort to monopolize smuggling networks, which impeded Sunni tribal leaders from much of their traditional livelihood, was an important element convincing Iraqi tribes to cooperate with US forces.

Foreign Fighters contribute large sums of money to AQI, including a majority of its Border Sector 1 funding.
Financial reports show that AQI’s Border Sector 1 relied on three sources of funding: transfers from other leaders in AQI; fundraising from local Iraqis; and money brought by foreign suicide bombers. In AQI’s Border Sector 1, near Sinjar, incoming foreign fighters contributed more than 70 percent of the group’s operating budget. In that sector, 38 percent of AQI’s budget was used to purchase weapons and another 38 percent to import and sustain its personnel. Other AQI sectors likely had very different fundraising dynamics.

Saudi Arabian Jihadis contribute far more money to AQI than fighters from other countries.
Fighters from several nations contributed money to AQI, though Saudi Arabian nationals contributed a disproportionately large amount, totaling 46 percent of the overall funds received from foreign fighters. Furthermore, the mean contribution of Saudi fighters was $1,088, far higher than that of other nationalities. Of the 23 fighters that contributed more than $1,000, 22 were from Saudi Arabia.

AQI is highly bureaucratized, which may be a sign of operational failure and internal mistrust within the organization.
AQI is highly bureaucratized, forcing its agents to provide detailed accounting of inlays and expenditures, urging both incoming suicide bombers and fighters leaving Iraq to sign contracts, and auditing its various sub‐units. AQI, like al‐Qa`ida in general, is plagued by “agents” and intermediaries whose preferences diverge from those of the Jihadi “principals.” Despite the security costs of increasing its paper trail, AQI’s leaders were compelled required regular accounting reports from their underlings, likely because of graft and criminality.

Jihadis headed to Iraq were recruited predominately through local networks, rather than through the Internet.
As noted in the CTCs first Sinjar Report, foreign fighters who ended up in Iraq appear overwhelmingly to have joined the Jihad through local Jihadi sympathizers (33.5%) and personal social networks (29%). Only a few Jihadis appear to have met their local coordinators directly through the Internet. There is also a high likelihood that many foreign fighters traveled to Iraq in groups, and may have made the decision to travel there collectively.

AQI has produced fewer, but far more skilled, fighters than the “Arab‐Afghans” did in the 1980s.
The foreign fighters in Iraq share important similarities—such as country of origin and ideology—with the so‐called “Afghan Arabs” that traveled to Afghanistan to fight Soviet and Afghan‐communist forces in the 1980s. But there are important differences as well. Foreign fighters in Iraq have seen more combat than their predecessors in Afghanistan. In addition, they have shown greater ability to innovate critical tactical skills, such as IED development and suicide bombings.

Although the overall military impact of the foreign fighters for the Jihad in Afghanistan was minimal, the presence of Afghan Arabs had important consequences. Most importantly, the Afghanistan experience helped radicalize thousands of Jihadist activists from all over the world. The recruitment networks attracted volunteers, while training camps radicalized foreign fighters. Similar problems may bedevil the United States and its allies who face a growing body of alumni of the Iraqi Jihad.

The Afghan experience also had some negative implications for al‐Qa`ida that may apply to the current “Jihad” in Iraq. Foreign fighters in Afghanistan alienated local Afghans due to their extremist tactics and by preaching a puritanical ideology. At times, such disputes erupted into violence, especially when splinter groups of highly radicalized Afghan Arabs operated independently of their organizational leadership.

AQI’s permanent Border Sector personnel are vulnerable to coercion.
Family men with property dominate the Border Sector’s permanent establishment. Many are motivated by financial gain more than ideology. To the extent that they can be identified, such individuals are highly vulnerable to pressure, and may be susceptible to being turned and used as agents.

AQI is increasingly linked to al‐Qa`ida’s senior leaders.
AQI did not exist before the US invasion, but the organization has grown progressively more integrated with al‐Qa`ida Central, especially following Abu Mus’ab al‐Zarqawi’s death.

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Get the report here [PDF].

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