The Iraq insurgency for beginners
- A leading expert on the insurgency clarifies who is shooting whom in
Iraq, the growing power of al-Qaida, the influence of Iran, and the
only thing left for the U.S. to do.
The Iraq insurgency for beginners
By Kevin Berger
March 2, 2007 | For somebody in America, Evan Kohlmann has a
remarkably intimate view of the Iraq insurgency. In 2004, he founded
GlobalTerrorAlert.com, a clearinghouse of virtually every communiqué
-- video, audio, Internet, printed -- issued by insurgent groups in
Iraq. For three years, Kohlmann has pored through every one of them,
with the help of Arabic translators, and emerged with a clear-eyed
view of who is fighting whom in Iraq and why. Given his insights,
Kohlmann has been put to work as a consultant by the U.S. Department
of Defense, the Department of Justice, the FBI and the CIA.
Spending time in Kohlmann's archives is an extraordinary experience.
It strips away the cloudy myths of the insurgency steamed up by U.S.
politicians and pundits and leaves you with a bracing portrait of
roving insurgent groups, more like neighborhood gangs, with their own
identities and insignias, progressively growing more violent. I wanted
to talk to Kohlmann for the simple reason that as much as I follow the
news about the Iraq war, I have always felt slightly frustrated at not
knowing who the enemy really is. Kohlmann says I'm far from alone. And
he's talking about people way over my head. "I find it tragic that
people in Washington, D.C., who are the heads of major congressional
committees, and deciding things about Iraq, don't know the difference
between Sunnis and Shiites," he says. Kohlmann insists he is
nonpartisan. He spoke from his office in New York.
Every day you look at Iraq through the lens of insurgent videos and
Internet postings. What do you see?
A picture of fundamentalism. Shiite fundamentalism clashing with Sunni
fundamentalism clashing with American fundamentalism. We have tried
imposing things upon Iraq that are totally foreign to it. Now each
side is unwilling to acknowledge the right of the other to have a
voice in what's going on. It's a disaster.
Describe the insurgency.
You have to be careful when you say "insurgency." You have to
distinguish between the Shiite militias and the actual insurgency,
which is the Sunni groups. Most of the Shiite militia activity is not
directed at the U.S., it's directed at the Sunnis. The Sunni
insurgency, meanwhile, is directed at everyone -- the U.S., the Iraqi
government, the militias.
The best way to divide it up is into three camps. You have Sunni
nationalists, initially a large portion of the insurgency; the
moderate Sunni Islamists, who use Islamic terminology and talk about
establishing a government based on Sharia law; and you have the
Salafists, like the group Al-Qaida in Iraq. To them, the fight is not
about preserving the borders of Iraq, it's about revolution, about
rebuilding something completely new on the basis of some kind of
idyllic Muslim empire.
What drives people to join the insurgency?
I've called up families of fighters and when I ask that question, the
response is always the same: Wouldn't you? They are extremely upset
about what's going on in Iraq. Some of them have a burning hatred for
the U.S. They see the U.S. as imposing its will on their countries.
Some of them have a burning desire to be a missionary and martyr for
Islam. You have people who have broken out of prison and gone to fight
in Iraq. It's now a vacuum sucking in every disaffected voice in the
How has the insurgency evolved?
When the U.S. invasion began in 2003, it was mainly Baathists,
ex-Iraqi military, and Saddam loyalists. They were Iraqi nationalists,
opposed to foreign occupation, who saw Iraq as a competitor with Egypt
for the control of the Arab world. It was an issue of national pride.
Video recordings and communiquÃ©s were coming out from everybody who
had an AK-47. But as the war dragged on, some of these groups started
coalescing; others were destroyed. Only the strongest, the most
hardcore, the best financed, the people with the most training,
survived, despite airstrikes and the arrest of their senior leaders by
the U.S. military.
Do you call the insurgents "terrorists"?
No. The nationalist insurgents have done a lot of really brutal
things. But in general they are people opposed to foreign occupation.
If foreign occupation were removed, they wouldn't necessarily sit down
and shake hands with Shiites. But at the end of the day, they would
like to see a peaceful Iraq where Sunnis and Shiites can at least
coexist with each other. Terrorists are people who set off bombs in
marketplaces and deliberately kill innocent civilians for no good
reason. Any suicide bombing is a terrorist act. It's not an insurgent
act. There is no military objective in it. The vast majority of
suicide bombings that take place in Iraq are either the work of
al-Qaida or al-Qaida-linked groups. Al-Qaida are the terrorists.
Who constitutes al-Qaida in Iraq now?
It includes everyone from past conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia and
Chechnya to people from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, North Africa, Syria and
Jordan. A growing number of Iraqis continue to join its ranks every
day. The people in the nationalist groups feel intensely hurt to see
Iraq being torn apart. This is their homeland. And now their groups
are taking on an Islamic tinge or else becoming straight-up jihadist
groups controlled by al-Qaida. A lot of people joining the jihadist
groups are now convinced there is no future left for Iraq, that the
only future left is with al-Qaida, the only people who can protect
them is al-Qaida.
David Kilcullen, an astute counterinsurgency expert, told George
Packer in the New Yorker that what drives a lot of young men to become
jihadists is a "sense of adventure, wanting to be in the big movement
of history that's happening right now." Do you agree?
Oh, yeah. For some of these guys, it's like a safari. They see
themselves as knights of the round table. In fact, that's how al-Qaida
now sells the insurgency to them: Are you a chivalrous knight or a
Has the U.S. invasion, in fact, strengthened al-Qaida?
Definitely. And this is the depressing thing. The hardcore true
believers of al-Qaida at one time were probably 10 percent of the
insurgent groups. Now they're 50 percent. Al-Qaida is growing in
places it shouldn't. You have groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq
that have transitioned from being traditional insurgents to extremist
ones. Or take a popular insurgent group called the 1920 Revolution
Brigades. The very name of the group has a nationalist, not Islamist
meaning. And yet very recently, the head of al-Qaida's Islamic State
in Iraq issued a statement in which he said that people from the 1920
Revolution Brigade were now fighting alongside al-Qaida. The U.S. is
failing miserably at containing the spread of al-Qaida.
Why are the more moderate Muslim groups siding with al-Qaida?
They have no choice. There's a group called the Iraqi Islamic
Resistance Front. They are far from angels. They recently released a
video of supposedly a chemical rocket attack on a U.S. base in
Samarra. But they were also the subject of a flier that was being
posted around in Ramadi. The flier was signed by al-Qaida and said the
Front was working with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi government,
and so is no longer a legitimate group. The Front was furious. They
issued a statement saying, "We're not working with the government,
we're with you guys, so don't issue these kinds of accusations." So
there's a lot of pressure to work with al-Qaida or be targeted by it.
Does that message go out to people on the streets too?
Yeah, sure. That's the sad thing. If you work with the U.S. or the
Iraqi government, you are targeted by al-Qaida. If you work with
anyone else, you are targeted by the Shiites. It's a lose-lose
situation. And what's amazing is this slide has all happened over the
past 12 months. It's pegged to one singular event, the spark, which is
the 2006 bombing of the Askariya Mosque in Samarra. Al-Qaida never
claimed direct responsibility for it but they did call the mosque the
heretical idol and mocked the fact that the Shiites were upset about
it. Afterward, it was saying, "We've been fighting Shiite militias all
along." To broaden its appeal, it said, "We're declaring the formation
of an Islamic state in Iraq. This is no longer just an insurgent
movement. We now have a state that we're fighting for, so come and
join our cause. You're either with us or against us." Sure enough, we
started seeing more groups edging toward al-Qaida's jihadists umbrella
Would al-Qaida have blown up the mosque if the U.S. wasn't in Iraq?
There wouldn't be an al-Qaida in Iraq if the U.S. wasn't there. The
story of al-Qaida in Iraq begins in 2003. We handed al-Qaida exactly
what it was looking for, a real war in the Middle East where it could
lead the way. Al-Qaida is like a virus. It goes for weak victims and
it uses conflicts to breed. Iraq gives al-Qaida a training ground, a
place to put recruits in combat. If they come back from battle, you
have people who have fought together, trained together, you have a
military unit. As Richard Clarke has said, it was almost like Osama
bin Laden was trying to vibe into George Bush the idea: "Invade Iraq,
invade Iraq." This was an opportunity they seized with amazing
alacrity. As brutal and terrifying as what they've done is, you have
to acknowledge they capitalized on an opportunity that we handed them.
What happened to the U.S. message of democracy?
It totally failed. The idea of Western-style democracy in Iraq doesn't
appeal to anyone. It was our own myth. We thought that if we get rid
of Saddam Hussein, people would come together and celebrate and
democracy would reign throughout the Middle East. The people who
thought that up are people who think Iraq is like Texas. Iraq is not
Texas. To Iraqis, tribal affiliations, religion and family mean a lot
more than saying, "I'm from Iraq." You know we're doing a bad job of
communicating our own message when we're losing the propaganda war to
people who cut other people's heads off on camera. Think about it:
People in one of the most Westernized countries in the Middle East
would rather trust al-Qaida than the United States. That's a terrible
sign of things to come.
How many total insurgents are there?
Somewhere in the tens of thousands. I would say al-Qaida, including
the various groups in its alliance, has about 15,000 people, probably
more. To give you an idea of its strength, consider that it has
sacrificed 800 of its own members in suicide bombings. We know that
through direct evidence because al-Qaida has videotaped and recorded
many of the bombings. And remember, those 15,000 are just on the Sunni
side, and constitute just one group out 10 or more.
The U.S. is fighting both the insurgency and Shiite militias, right?
Right. But the Shiites aren't a simple group either. They have divided
themselves into two factions: the pro-Arab Shiites who are Iraqi
nationalists and the pro-Iranian Shiites. There have been some
incidences involving the Shiite Mahdi Army and the U.S. and British
military. But the scope of activity between the Mahdi Army and the
U.S. military is minute. The militias pose less of a day-to-day
insurgent problem and more of a problem in the way they have
infiltrated the Iraqi police force and other Iraqi government
services, particularly the Interior Ministry, and how they arranging
the murder of Sunnis through those agencies. They are creating
instability, and that's the main reason we're going after them. It's
also the No. 1 reason why Sunnis fight and are upset: The Shiite
militias have essentially taken over the law enforcement and are using
it to murder Sunnis.
We invaded Iraq to rectify crimes by Saddam Hussein against the
Shiites, right? We wanted to bring him to justice. What the Sunni
groups are saying is, "How come there's no justice to people who are
drilling holes in people heads right now? Never mind 20 years ago."
They have a point. Dozens of bodies turn up every day in Baghdad but
nobody is paying heed to them. So the Sunnis are saying to the U.S.,
"If you guys are not going to prosecute the people responsible for
this, then we're going to take matters into our own hands." And the
Shiites are saying the same thing. They're saying, "You can't protect
us from al-Qaida's suicide bombers. Your idea of strengthening
security is to crack down on the Mahdi Army, who are the only ones
preventing suicide bombers from coming into Sadr City. Why should we
trust you? We should rely on ourselves. You can't trust anyone but
your own people." It's an arms race. It just builds up and up.
How do the militias stack up against the insurgents in number of
There are probably fairly equal numbers of militiamen to Sunni
insurgents, if not more. Given that they're waging open war with each
other, and neither one seems to be winning outright, the answer is
that one doesn't outnumber the other to create an imbalance.
Is a surge of 21,000 new U.S. troops going to help?
I don't think any number of new troops is going to help unless we're
going to station troops on every single corner of every single street
in every single city in Iraq. The problem is the insurgents are not
just a foreign force. You're talking about such a diverse organization
and network, where even major groups, when their leaders are killed or
captured, still persist. They're self-sustaining operations.
Look at Fallujah. In late 2004, we pumped that place full of
overwhelming military force. We went block by block, street by street,
and liquidated the place. We got rid of all the insurgents. We chased
al-Qaida out of there. That was undoubtedly a military victory. But
was that the end of al-Qaida? No, it moved to other cities,
established bases in Ramadi, Samarra and Mosul. And Fallujah itself?
It was relatively stable but in the past year has started to fall
apart. And once again, insurgents are attacking Fallujah.
What do you make of the recent furor over the New Yorker that the U.S.
is taking part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and Syria and
that a "by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of
Sunni extremist groups"?
The idea that the U.S. is bolstering Sunni extremist groups in Iraq
deliberately is pretty ridiculous and sounds awfully conspiratorial to
me. Most of the Sunni groups consider themselves to be antithetical to
the very idea of the United States. Even if we were to offer to help
them for some strange reason, they would never knowingly work with us.
But I can't say the same for Saudi Arabia and other supposed U.S.
allies in the Gulf region, who don't have any soldiers in Iraq at risk
from Sunni insurgents, and who would do just about anything to curb
the expansion of Iran.
Contrary to what U.S. leaders are always saying, do you think the
insurgency, and militias, have, ultimately, won the hearts and minds
of the Iraqi people?
Unfortunately, I do. But I tell you this: Between August and December
of 2005, there was a dramatic loss of influence of al-Qaida in Iraq.
People associated with groups like the Islamic Army in Iraq,
mainstream Sunni insurgent groups, were not so sure about killing
people at a polling station. Al-Qaida was threatening to kill anyone,
Sunni or Shiite, who tried voting. But the Sunni insurgents were
saying, "No, we're not going to let the Shiites take power willingly.
We're going to try and beat them anyway we can." At the time, I could
see the various Iraq tribes saying, "Forget this, al-Qaida, maybe we
can achieve reconciliation with the Shiites." The U.S. could have
capitalized on that friction. But it didn't. A month went by, there
was bickering about the makeup of the government and the results of
the election, and we weren't hands-on enough in trying to broker out
some kind of truce. Then came the bombing of the mosque in Samarra and
it was too late.
What should the U.S. have done to capitalize on the friction at the
time after the elections?
We needed to make sure that the Shiite militias were kept in check.
And that's exactly what we didn't do. Following the bombing of the
mosque, there should have been a serious clampdown. It was a matter of
trying to stop the cycle of reprisals. But we did nothing while the
Shiites went on a rampage.
Do you think the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq?
I'm afraid not. If we withdraw from Iraq right now, there's no doubt
what will happen. First there's going to be a war for control of
Baghdad and then once Baghdad is ripped to the ground, the battle is
going to spread across Iraq. It could potentially be like Rwanda.
Right now, hundreds of people are being killed each month, which is
awful and horrifying in itself. Imagine if that figure was 100 times
bigger. Also, if we withdraw, a widespread war is going to be entirely
our responsibility. It's easy to say it's Iraqis killing Iraqis. But
nobody else is going to see it that way. Everyone is going to affix
blame to us. We will ultimately cause a situation that forces us to
reinvade Iraq and create even more casualties. It's an awful Catch 22.
I take it you have little faith in the Iraqi government.
The Iraqi government is a joke. A very sad joke. It's beset on all
sides. It's been thoroughly infiltrated by militia groups and has no
sway whatsover among Sunnis, even moderate Sunnis. It is completely
incapable of defending itself, despite whatever bizarre claims Prime
Minister Maliki may make. If we were to withdraw, it would collapse.
An Iraqi government would only work if it included both Shiites and
Sunnis, and there are precious few Sunnis who are working in Iraqi
government, and even the ones who do are under constant threat.
So what's the solution?
We have to give people a reason to stop supporting al-Qaida. And the
only way to do that is to punish the people who are harming them. We
have to show that democratic forces can also hold up justice. Right
now, democracy for Iraqis amounts to Shiites in control of the police
force and running everything. The things that might convince Sunnis to
move back in the other direction would be a real step at trying to
reform the Iraqi police force, the Interior Ministry, and try and
bring some of the individuals in those places, which have committed
gross crimes, including crimes on the scale of Saddam Hussein, to
Does the Bush administration have the smarts to figure that out?
I'm not sure they do. I thought perhaps, in invading Iraq, they had
some long-term view that nobody else could see. But that hope faded
very quickly. The Bush administration didn't reach out to anyone
credible when they were asking about, for instance, the connections
between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Anybody with any real knowledge
of the region would have told them there are no connections between
Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. The only people who believed that
nonsense were lunatics.
If I was going to invade Iraq, the first thing I would do is
commission the top history experts, top geographical experts, top
cultural experts, and sit them down at a table and say, "This is what
I'm thinking about doing. Is this feasible?" That was never done.
Nobody in their right mind would have taken a look at Bush's plan and
said, "Oh, yeah, that's going to work." It's not possible that it
could work. Every historic precedent works directly against Bush's
plan. I know it's easy to say, but the best solution is not to have
invaded at all.
WORLD VIEW NEWS SERVICE
To subscribe to this group, send an email to:
NEWS ARCHIVE IS OPEN TO PUBLIC VIEW