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A jewel for al-Qaida's crown

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
10 August 2005

Washington sources have indicated in the past week that it might prove possible to reduce United States military deployments in Iraq, perhaps by 20,000 troops in early 2006. As with earlier such suggestions, the timing is singularly unfortunate, for the first ten days of August have been one of the most deadly periods for American forces since the war began in March 2003: forty-four troops have been killed and many more have sustained serious injuries.

A particularly damaging and worrying development is the increase in attacks on US convoys by insurgents whose military capabilities are becoming more and more sophisticated. On 10 August, for example, a well-planned attack by a substantial number of insurgents using rocket-propelled grenades on troops in two armoured Humvees and an armoured Bradley fighting vehicle killed four US soldiers and injured six in the northern town of Beiji.

The insurgents are also becoming more daring and innovative in their use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs, or “roadside bombs”). Three weeks ago, they detonated a massive IED laid beneath a road southwest of Baghdad airport under another Humvee, killing the four US soldiers inside it instantly. The IED had been constructed from a 250-kilogram bomb normally carried by aircraft; it produced a crater two metres deep and nearly six metres wide.

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On 3 August, an attack on a large (twenty-five-ton) marine corps amphibious assault vehicle near Haditha used an IED so powerful that the entire vehicle was blown into the air, killing fourteen marines and an interpreter travelling with them (see David S Cloud "Insurgents Using Bigger, More Lethal Bombs, US Officers Say", New York Times, 4 August 2005).

Such major attacks are reported in the US domestic media and help to fuel growing doubts about the war, though the killing of far more Iraqis every day receives little or no coverage outside the region except in a few specialist web sites like Iraq Body Count and Juan Cole's Informed Comment.

As the insurgency continues, it is becoming apparent that Iraq is developing into a training-ground for paramilitaries that will have a significance far beyond Iraq, and on a timescale that could be measured in decades.

This raises two issues: the evolving structure of the insurgency, and the way that events in Iraq are being integrated into the wider propaganda efforts of the loose network of affiliates labelled "al-Qaida".

A different insurgency

A remarkable account of the current development of the Iraqi insurgency, by far the most detailed assessment to appear in the open defence literature, has been published in the Washington-based Defense News (Greg Grant, "Inside Iraqi Insurgent Cells", 1 August 2005 [subscription only]). It finds that an average of forty IEDs are currently being deployed each day in Iraq. The head of the US army's IED Defeat Task Force, Brigadier-General Joseph Votel, says: "The enemy is evolving and constantly innovating. If there were any thoughts that this is a rudimentary and unsophisticated enemy, those thoughts have been replaced."

Most insurgencies around the world have a highly structured organisation whose key leaders coordinate attacks and communicate down a chain of command. But in Iraq, according to Defense News, large numbers of small, autonomous insurgent cells operate with only the loosest of coordination. The cells engaging in bombing activities may number only a handful of people; each is likely to concentrate on a particular area, keeping a close watch on US patrols and even using hoax IEDs to see how the US troops react.

As well as US military convoys, insurgent cells are also likely to target convoys of civilian SUVs, as these often carry US personnel and intelligence officials. Tankers are also favourite targets because of the spectacular effects of burning fuel. The insurgents routinely video the majority of their attacks in order to study the effectiveness, train new recruits, and provide raw footage to satellite TV channels for propaganda purposes.

Some insurgent cells operate on what amounts to a freelance basis, developing particular skills and then hiring themselves out to al-Qaida associates like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or the Ansar-al-Sunna group, using video footage as evidence of their abilities.

The Defense News analysis confirms other reports that the insurgents are continually seeking to improve their capacities and diversify their tactics. For example, US forces’ long-range observation technology can make planting a roadside bomb dangerous, so insurgents have begun to place bombs in cars with large holes cut in the floor; the bomb can then be dropped into position without the car even stopping.

At the other end of the scale, the insurgents are now using much larger bombs, as well as modified explosives designed to penetrate armoured vehicles. The device used in the devastating assault near Haditha may have involved three landmines exploding simultaneously.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

The insurgents are able – often using hidden workshops and relatively unsophisticated equipment – to develop armour-piercing “shaped-charge” explosives. One form consists of a concave-shaped ingot of metal (perhaps copper) placed on an explosive charge so that when the latter is detonated, much of the energy is absorbed by the copper, turning it into a high-velocity "slug" of molten metal that goes right through the armour-plating of a vehicle travelling above it.

The great majority of the insurgents carrying out bombing attacks are Iraqis. Many of them belonged to the Saddam-era armed forces, including the elite Special Republican Guard. The bomb-making operatives receive training, but the actual bombers tend to be instructed only in target acquisition and device detonation.

Most of the suicide-bombers, however, are from outside Iraq, particularly Saudi Arabia. The suicide missions are carefully planned and executed, according to to Defense News, which quotes a captured suicide bomber:

"Two vehicles are commonly used. The first transports the bomber to the location of the prepositioned car bomb and then follows behind to guide the bomber along the route and videotape the attack. The captured car bomber said it would be easy to drive around Baghdad and pick out up to 20 soft targets."

An information war

The frequency and intensity of insurgent attacks, backed by this cellular organisation, indicates the depth of the problems facing United States and Iraqi security forces. It seems likely that a campaign on this scale must have significant community support across the large areas of central Iraq where the conflict is most endemic.

An additional weapon in the insurgent armoury is the publicising of combat operations among target audiences in the international arena, especially by groups allied to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (see Susan B Glasser and Steve Coll, "The Web as Weapon", Washington Post, 9 August 2005). The production of videos by insurgent groups has precedents in Chechnya in the 1990s, but the Zarqawi group has taken it to new levels since its initial recording of the beheading of hostages in early 2004.

One of the group’s first major video productions was an hour-long film, distributed in 2004, that started with the US bombing raids on Baghdad in March 2003 and went on to show graphic footage of civilian victims. Because of its length, it was distributed via the net in a series of “chapters”. More recent productions use more advanced distribution techniques.

A July 2005 “release” is a professional forty-six-minute video, All Religion Will be for Allah, distributed worldwide with (according to the Washington Post):

" a specially designed Web page with dozens of links to the video, so users could choose which version to download. There were large-scale file editions that consumed 150 megabytes for viewers with high-speed Internet and a scaled-down four-megabyte version for those with limited dial-up access. Viewers could choose Windows Media or RealPlayer. They could even download 'All Religions Will Be for Allah' to play on a cell phone."

A school for insurgency

The combination of an increasingly effective insurgency and the use of innovative worldwide information distribution techniques must be seen in the context of the tough measures and heavy firepower that the US forces believe necessary to subdue the insurgency. The propaganda videos distributed by the insurgents make extensive use of the effects of US actions. As a result, the victims of American firepower and insurgent "successes" are circulating widely in sympathetic communities across the world in the attempt to garner support for the Iraqi insurgency and the wider campaigns of al-Qaida affiliates.

The real significance of what is happening in Iraq is apparent here. As mentioned in earlier columns in this series, the “lessons” of the Iraqi “school” are spreading: young Saudi radicals are travelling to Iraq to gain combat experience before returning home, and there is even evidence of tactics learned in Iraq being applied in Afghanistan (an immensely ironic development, as this was the previous combat training-zone for al-Qaida supporters). There are also reports that paramilitary recruits from countries beyond the region – including western Europe and Australia – are beginning to enter Iraq.

The principal aims of al-Qaida and its affiliates – the expulsion of "crusaders and Zionists" from the Islamic world, destruction of its corrupt and elitist regimes, and the re-establishment of an Islamic caliphate – are all measured in decades. To achieve these goals, tens of thousands of paramilitaries will be required. Afghanistan remains an important field of activity, but it has been replaced by Iraq as the foremost combat training-ground.

Indeed, Iraq – where more than 150,000 "crusader" troops are occupying the historic home of the Abbasid caliphate – is an absolute "gift" to Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and their comrades. Moreover, the insurgency is primarily an urban conflict that provides a training environment whose relevance to future "anti-elite" actions is greater than the largely rural civil war in Afghanistan a decade ago.

This favourable background is underpinned by the United States’s strategic objectives in the region, especially its driving motive to ensure access to its oil supplies for many years to come. The US determination to maintain control of Iraq and the wider Gulf region is undimmed. From the perspective of Osama bin Laden and the wider al-Qaida network, conditions could scarcely be better.

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