While the presence of significant numbers of foreign terrorists inside Iraq during Saddam’s reign is still a matter of some debate, there is no doubt that hundreds (if not thousands) of such militants have arrived in Iraq since the fall of the “Butcher of Baghdad.” This week, Mohammed Al-Massari, an Islamic dissident considered close to Usama Bin Laden, claimed that as many as 5,000 Saudis alone have crossed the border to fight in the jihad against American forces. They have been joined by like-minded brethren from Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Chechnya, Sudan, and elsewhere—some of whom are already veteran terrorists. The fingerprints of such men have been found on some of the most brutal recent attacks inside Iraq, including the suicide bombings of the Jordanian embassy, the United Nations headquarters, and the International Red Cross complex in Baghdad.
Al-Qaeda has learned its lessons well on how to do battle with America. In the days of the anti-Soviet jihad during the 1980s, Usama Bin Laden and his top advisors studied how a protracted, low-intensity guerilla war can frustrate even the most determined modern military.
Exploiting regional Muslim conflicts is the precise method that the movement has used in the past to organize and recruit future terrorist sleeper cells. The fear now is that, just as in Afghanistan, anti-American militants schooled in Iraq could find a way to eventually direct their aim at targets inside the United States.
Consequently, the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction of gravest concern to our future homeland security are the elementary chem-bio recipes and skills that Al-Qaeda recruits picked up in terrorist training camps run by the Kurdish Ansar Al-Islam group. While the Iraqi and Iranian regimes looked the other way, Islamic extremists based in the mountains of Kurdistan carefully developed biowarfare tactics and chemical weapons for eventual use by Al-Qaeda. Investigators suspect that some of this knowledge can be traced directly to London and Paris, where recipes for and small amounts of the poison Ricin have been found. These are the warning signs of what could happen if we fail in our mission to stabilize Iraq: the linking up of foreign terrorists equipped with WMDs and sympathetic sleeper cells already positioned near strategic targets in Europe and North America.
But it is also important to acknowledge that these admittedly dangerous men are perhaps less capable than they might otherwise appear. Al-Qaeda’s flirtation with weapons of mass destruction has often proven costly, unproductive, and unprofessional. Moreover, by last April, Ansar Al-Islam’s former chem-bio facilities in Kurdistan were mostly obliterated by cluster bombs dropped from American B-52s.
With or without WMDs, unfortunately, the radical extremists who oppose the U.S. will doubtless continue their tit-for-tat war of ambush inside Iraq. Similarly, in retaliation for the destruction of their camps, the leaders of Ansar Al-Islam have promised to drown American forces in a wave of suicidal “martyrdom projects.”
Traditionally, foreign mujahideen fighters only abandon a combat zone when exasperated native residents finally force them out. Thus, winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people will be a critical factor in achieving an overall victory in the global war on terror.
Evan Kohlmann is a Senior Terrorism Consultant for the Washington, D.C.-based Investigative Project and author of the upcoming book, Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe: the Afghano-Bosniak Network, to be released by Berg Publishers in June 2004.