Conflating Al Qaeda in Iraq and Osama bin Laden’s Transnational Network

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, testifying before Congress today, again conflated Al Qaeda in Iraq with the broader transnational Al Qaeda terrorist network run by Osama bin Laden and headquartered thousands of miles away along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Prodded by conservatives on the House Armed Services Committee, Crocker stated: “Al Qaeda is a strategic enemy of the U.S. It was dangerously close to setting down lasting roots in Iraq. If it were to have succeeded or succeed in the future, certainly my judgment is that the threat to the U.S. would rise significantly.”

Aside from obvious cherry-picking as to which strategic questions they will answer, Crocker and Petraeus continue to conflate the very real threat of the broader Al Qaeda network with the local and limited threat posed by Al Qaeda in Iraq. AQI is estimated to make up only 5 percent of the overall Sunni Arab insurgency, with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research estimating AQI’s strength at roughly 1,000.

Indigenous Iraqi fighters are believed to make up 90 to 95 percent of AQI. Foreigners, however, are believed to constitute the bulk of the leadership and suicide bombers. Col. Donald Bacon, a member of Petraeus’ Multinational Force-Iraq command, noted foreign AQI recruits are motivated by conceptions of “religious duty” to serve as “an avenger of abused Iraqis.”

In other words, the majority of foreign and indigenous membership in AQI is motivated by the continued American presence in Iraq. Aside from the fact that there is currently nothing stopping AQI from attacking the United States homeland right now, this motivation makes the “puppy dog” theory of terrorism promulgated by conservatives—that Al Qaeda in Iraq will “follow us home” if we redeploy from Iraq—even less credible.

The conflation of this small and weakened but still dangerous Iraqi extremist group with the global Al Qaeda network responsible for the 9/11 attacks continues to muddy the debate over future policy in Iraq. The most recent National Intelligence Estimate on the terrorist threat to the United States distinguishes between Al Qaeda central and Al Qaeda in Iraq. As the NIE states, Al Qaeda central remains ensconced in its safe-haven along the rugged Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Even Ambassador Crocker was forced to admit in yesterday’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Al Qaeda central was a greater threat to U.S. interests.

In their opening statements, Crocker and Petraeus cite statements from Al Qaeda’s top leaders that Iraq is a “perfect base” and a “central front” as justification for an open-ended military commitment to Iraq. They did not apparently consider that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s top leadership want the United States to remain in Iraq, bleeding itself dry in terms of manpower and money in a long, protracted war.

Moreover, as the intelligence community pointed out a year and a half ago, Iraq remains a “cause celebre” for international jihadists. In short, a continued open-ended military presence in Iraq plays into Al Qaeda’s long-term strategy while providing it with an ideological rallying point.

Supporters of the current course in Iraq will point to the fact that Al Qaeda will declare victory when we leave. ButAl Qaeda is likely to do this regardless of when we leave; the only solution to this problem would be for U.S. forces to never leave Iraq, a solution which is clearly unacceptable to both the American and Iraqi people.

AQI is certainly a “catalyzer” of violence, but it is probably not responsible for the majority of violence in Iraq. Sunni insurgents and Shi’a militias engaging in inter- and intra-sectarian fighting are responsible for the continued high levels of violence.

Nor is it likely that Al Qaeda in Iraq will have a safe-haven in Iraq once U.S. forces depart. As we have seen, local Sunni Arabs do not care for the organization’s harsh ideology and have rebelled against them. Nor will Shi’a Arab and Kurdish militias have any compunction about fighting AQI.

Rather than allowing Osama bin Laden to dictate American strategy, the United States needs to take the fight to Al Qaeda central. America needs a comprehensive strategic reset in order to put its national security priorities straight.