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America, Iraq, and al-Qaida: no success like failure

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
12 October 2005

Major attacks aimed at United States and local security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan this week are a stark reminder of the intensity of the conflicts in the two countries.

In Iraq, the third recent major suicide bombing in Tal Afar, on 12 October, killed at least thirty people and injured forty-five in an attack on an army recruitment centre. This is particularly worrying for the US military, which had mounted a major anti-insurgency operation in the town in September. The coordinated attacks in Baghdad on 11-12 October further demonstrated the extent of insurgent capabilities: they included three roadside bombs, four drive-by shootings, and two vehicle suicide-bombs (one of which killed eight Iraqi soldiers and wounded twelve).

In Afghanistan, around sixty guerrillas staged one of the largest insurgent attacks for many months on 10 October, using heavy machine guns to ambush a convoy of 150 police – headed for Dishoy district to appoint a successor to an assassinated police chief – at a river crossing in Helmand province. A fight lasting several hours left nineteen police officers dead (including the province’s deputy police chief) and five missing, before the assailants withdrew, mainly on motorbikes. The attack comes amid deteriorating security in Afghanistan following the resignation of Ali Ahmad Jalali, President Hamid Karzai's interior minister, announced on 27 September.

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Iran and “the little Satan”

A third area of regional tension this week is the deterioration in British-Iranian relations after the statement from a senior British foreign office source alleging an Iranian role in the provision of the sophisticated shaped-charge explosives now regularly used against British troops in the Basra area. This was followed by a more direct accusation from a ministry of defence source implicating Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in such operations.

Iranian sources strongly deny such charges and sections of the Iranian media have vituperatively repudiated them. It may be that any Iranian involvement is not authorised at the highest level of the Iranian government, and that elements of the Revolutionary Guards (for example) are acting as free agents. The decision of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Khamenei, to allow the defeated presidential candidate Hashemi Rafsanjani to retain leadership of the influential expediency council is relevant here, as a signal that wily pragmatism rather than revolutionary zeal is seen as valuable at the highest levels of government (see Karl Vick, "Iran Move to Curb Hard-Liners", Washington Post, 8 October 2005).

The flurry of accusations against Iran from two British ministries within a few days will not help progress on the much greater issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions. But in any case, could this hardening of the British attitude be connected to the development of a more belligerent stance towards Iran in Washington? London may reject this, but many observers will recall the 2002-03 period, when Downing Street’s denials that war with Iraq was impending contrasted with its longer-standing private agreement with the Bush administration that regime termination was the only way forward.

At the same time, it is possible that Britain’s diplomatic frankness derives from military frustration over developments in southeast Iraq. British forces there have been severely bruised by local insurgents’ recent road-bombing tactics, and have adjusted their military tactics accordingly.

The principal change has been to greatly reduce vehicle patrols, and to increase – by 20% in the last two months – the use of helicopter airlift to deploy troops. This creates its own problems: only four Lynx helicopters, six of the new Merlins, and nine of the much older Sea Kings are available in the region. The Sea Kings’ age and the tough operating environment have meant that only 50% of the fleet have been maintained at a high operational level on some occasions. Moreover, many helicopters have been targets for small-arms fire and one Lynx crew has already been injured (see Douglas Barry, “Rotary Relief”, AviationWeek, 3 October 2005 [subscription only]).

All this is a far cry from the earlier and widely claimed view that the Brits knew how to handle their part of Iraq, in marked contrast to American operations elsewhere. But the wider problem is that the failure of British and US forces alike to contain the Iraqi insurgency, to the extent that insecurity in the Baghdad region and in urban areas north and west of the capital is actually increasing, signal a slippage even of the limited degree of control the coalition had claimed.

The remit of the Ibrahim al-Jaafari administration does not run much beyond the green zone in Baghdad, even as Iraqis across the country are being asked to vote on a new constitution for the country on 15 October. A further worry for the Americans is that, even as they and their British allies assert close links between Iran and the insurgency, Iraq’s Shi'a-dominated government is happy to forge good relations with Iran.

The al-Qaida dimension

It is in this unsettled context, reinforced by falling domestic support, that President Bush delivered a speech on 6 October at the National Endowment for Democracy designed to shore up popular support for his global “war on terror”. Bush claimed substantial recent successes against al-Qaida and its associates, including the prevention of ten major al-Qaida operations, three of these aimed at the continental United States.

This was part of a wider effort to demonstrate that the war was going better than many Americans believed, and to reaffirm the centrality of Iraq: “the central front in the war on terror”. By reminding people of 9/11, and of plans for further such attacks, Bush’s speech sought to strengthen backing for current policies rather than announce any change of policy (see Jim Lobe, “Bush raises terror stakes”, Asia Times, 9 October 2005).

Researchers soon discovered the targets of the three apparently foiled operations against the US itself: air hijackings aimed at east and west coast targets (the latter being the US Bank Tower in Los Angeles, the city’s tallest building), and the familiar radiological weapon or “dirty bomb” involving Jose Padilla. In addition, there have apparently been other “scouting” operations targeting the Brooklyn Bridge and multiple attacks on petrol stations.

The seven other al-Qaida operations Bush referred to included the use of hijacked planes against London’s Heathrow Airport, the disruption of shipping in the Persian Gulf, and attacks on western targets in Karachi (see Peter Baker and Susan B Glasser, “Bush Says 10 Plots by Al Qaeda Were Folied”, Washington Post, 7 October 2005).

George W Bush’s list could be extended. The months following 9/11 were replete with assaults planned or averted on warships in the western Mediterranean, against the US embassies in Rome and Paris, and using multiple truck bombings to devastate the business district and diplomatic missions in Singapore.

This litany suggests that in an important sense, the claims in the president’s speech could be seen as evidence for conclusions directly opposite to his own. The existence of so many planned operations, after all, is an indication of the extent of al-Qaida ambitions and coordinating abilities. When they are put alongside the twenty-three attacks the movement and its affiliates have succeeded in carrying out in the last forty-four months, the picture for the United States may look less favourable than Bush proclaims (see box at the foot of this column).

This series of incidents does not include the multiple smaller-scale events of the insurgency in southern Thailand, the southern Philippines, and elsewhere; nor the thousands of attacks in what have become the major areas of jihadist activity since 2002-03, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although not every incident can be attributed directly to al-Qaida, the list makes sobering reading in the light of Bush’s 6 October speech. A key fact is that the level of paramilitary activity revealed here is substantially higher than in a similar period before the 9/11 attacks.

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 London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has published a particularly incisive assessment of the current state of the “war on terror” (see “The Jihad – change and continuation”, Strategic Comments, 11/7, September 2005). It analyses the metamorphosis of the relatively narrow jihadist movement of 2000 into an operation with a more global agenda alongside numerous regional variants (Pakistan, Iraq, Chechnya, southeast Asia, and others); the report describes “the evolution of militant Islam into an all-purpose language of protest (that) has brought converts into the fold – individuals far less susceptible to identification and interdiction than typical Islamic militants.”

The combination of the two elements identified here – the broadening and, to an extent, mainstreaming of the al-Qaida paradigm, and the sheer level of militant paramilitary activity evidenced in the range of attacks perpetrated and foiled – provides a stark illustration of the extent of the problem George W Bush, his administration, and his coalition partners now face.

The intercepted letter released on 12 October, apparently from al-Qaida’s deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, is further evidence of the connections underpinning the jihadist movement. The United States occupation of Iraq is indeed becoming central to this wider conflict – but it is strengthening, not weakening, the al-Qaida worldview.

Al-Qaida and associates: major attacks, March 2002-October 2005

March 2002: Islamabad, Pakistan - an attack on church worshippers, killing five people and injuring forty-six

April 2002: Djerba, Tunisia – the bombing of a synagogue, killing fourteen German tourists and seven local people, and injuring twenty-four

May 2002: Karachi, Pakistan – an attack that killed eleven French naval technicians and three Pakistanis, and injured twenty-three people

June 2002: Karachi – a bomb attack on the US consulate, killing eleven people and injuring at least forty-five

October 2002: Philippines – the killing of a US soldier, amid frequent bomb attacks in the country

October 2002: off the Yemeni coast – a bomb attack on the French tanker, the Limburg

October 2002: Bali, Indonesia – a bomb attack on the Sari nightclub, killing 202 people, including eighty-eight Australians and thirty-eight Indonesians, and injuring 300 people

November 2002: Sana’a, Yemen – an attack on a US oil company’s helicopter as it took off from the city’s airport

November 2002: Mombasa, Kenya – an attempt to shoot down an Israeli tourist jet as it left the city’s airport

November 2002: Kikambala, Kenya – the bombing of the Paradise Hotel, killing eleven people and injuring fifty

May 2003: Casablanca, Morocco – the multiple bombing of western targets, killing thirty-nine people and injuring sixty

May 2003: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – the multiple bombing of western compounds, killing twenty-nine people and injuring 200

August 2003: Jakarta, Indonesia – the bombing of the Marriott Hotel, killing thirteen and injuring 149

November 2003: Istanbul, Turkey – the bombing of two synagogues killing twenty-four people and injuring 255, followed five days later by the bombing of the British consulate and the HSBC bank building, killing twenty-seven people and injuring 400

March 2004: Madrid, Spain – multiple bombings of commuter trains, killing 191 people and injuring more than 1,000

March 2004: Tashkent, Uzbekistan – two bomb attacks, killing nineteen people and injuring twenty-six, including many police officers (followed in July by attacks on the Israeli and American embassies)

September 2004: Jakarta, Indonesia – a bomb attack on the Australian embassy, killing eleven people and injuring 161

October 2004: Sinai, Egypt – the bombing of the Taba Hilton and a camp site at Nueiba, directed at Israeli tourists, killing twenty-seven people and injuring 122

July 2005: London, UK – multiple bombings on the city’s transport system, killing fifty-six people and injuring more than 200 (followed two weeks later by further coordinated attempted bombings)

July 2005: Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt – multiple bombings of two hotels and a marketplace, killing eighty-eight people and injuring over 200

August 2005: Aqaba, Jordan – attempted missile attack on the USS Kersage in harbour, killing a guard

October 2005: Bali, Indonesia – bomb attacks in the Kuta resort, killing twenty-two people and injuring more than ninety

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