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The author has specialized in the study of terrorist groups worldwide for the past twenty years. This essay, originally appearing on in November 2003, remains relevant to a continuing problem in Iraq—the suicide bombings.— Ed.

The Enemy in Iraq

On October 27, 2003, four suicide bombers in Iraq killed over 40 people, mostly Iraqis. The targets were the Red Cross headquarters and Iraqi police stations. The suicide bombings continue to target Iraqis or international organizations such as the UN or the Red Cross and to occur in the “Sunni triangle”—the Sunni areas of Baghdad and north/northeast of the city. What does this pattern tell us about the nature of the enemies that the U.S. troops in Iraq face? A lot. But judging from the administration’s and the military’s statements, the nature of the enemies remains obscure in Washington—and among Democratic would-be presidents, complete confusion reigns.

We are being told, repeatedly, by sources ranging from the president to military spokesmen in Baghdad and the Pentagon, that there are three basic types of enemies engaged in violence in Iraq: Saddam’s Baath Party stalwarts, criminals, and foreign terrorists. This is correct enough, but it misses significant differences and similarities among the three groups, as well as their relationships to each other.

The first enemy identified by Washington, Baath stalwarts, are largely Sunni. They seek a return to power and the perks associated with it, are secular to the extent they have a clear ideology, and enjoy support among the 20 percent of the Iraqi population that is Arab Sunni, a minority used to dominating the other 80 percent ever since Iraq was invented by the British in 1921. While not all Sunnis are Baathists and vice versa, both have a lot to lose in a new Iraq, even a remotely democratic one (which actually is the best of the possible outcomes of the U.S. intervention). The Saddam stalwarts have a number of tactical advantages. They are native; they possess a strong collective motivation to hate any post-Saddam regime; and (for now) they still have a leader to motivate and finance them. But they also have a number of serious disadvantages, beyond just being a minority. Their region is flat semi-desert or urban, unlike Kurdistan, which is the only region in Iraq that offers a friendly terrain to guerrillas (and is also the most friendly to the U.S. and hostile to Saddam). The Sunnis/Baathists are dependent upon a leader whose future survival is doubtful at best, and they are disliked by everyone else. Suicide bombing would not help the Baathists, especially since their goal is to recover political and economic power. Unlike fundamentalists, they do not seek Paradise but ministries and oil deals. If Saddam ever did a good thing, it was to cut down and prevent the growth of Islamism in the country, which he did far more effectively than the leaders of most other Arab states. It helped that Iraq’s political culture was also resistant to fundamentalism, whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafi/Wahhabi version.

The second identified enemy, the criminal element, includes the some 100,000 inmates—few, if any, were political prisoners—Saddam released prior to the latest war. This group has contributed to the current instability, especially since the end of the war. They played the largest part in the massive looting that took place after the end of the conventional stage of the war, and have been known to place bombs and mines and serve as snipers against coalition forces (for a price). But criminals seek fortunes, not Paradise. They do not normally blow themselves up in order to get rich. And Iraq’s criminals have their own problems. Saddam’s people are running out of money to pay them, as the new diners replace the old and as other funds inevitably dry up.

So, which of the three identified enemies has the motivation required for suicide bombings? The Islamists, some belonging to the few and small Iraqi groups such as Ansar al-Islam, but most connected to organizations belonging to the Al Qaeda nebula: the Algerian GIA and GSPC, the Sudanese and Yemeni organizations that are still semi-legal at home. They include the usual Saudi fanatics, assorted Syrians, Pakistanis, European Muslims, and others in search of jihad, excitement, Paradise, and a utopian purity of the umma (the Muslim community worldwide). In short, people whose motivation is religious. The goal of their recruiters and manipulators is global, anti-Western, anti-U.S., and anti-Judeo-Christian.

The suicide attacks in Iraq are quite similar in technique and pattern to Al Qaeda attacks in, among other countries, the U.S., Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia. Whether one likes it or not, the Al Qaeda nebula has now decided that Iraq is now the best place—politically, strategically, and tactically—to continue their battle against “Crusaders and Jews.”

What the U.S.-led forces, which include more and more Iraqis, face in Iraq is less (and less every day) the remnants of Saddam’s system than the present phase of Al Qaeda’s war against the world. The world? Yes, when one considers the growing list of bin Laden’s enemies—from the jahiliyya (pagan supporters) in power in just about every Muslim country to the U.S., EU, India, China, and Russia.

Foreigners (who are not hard for even ordinary citizens to detect) murdering Iraqis are bound, sooner or later, to make even Sunni Iraqis, who did the same to Shiias and Kurds, resentful. Al Qaeda’s grasp will once again exceed its reach, and it will accumulate more enemies than it can reasonably handle. But are Americans in Peoria prepared to accept the present rate of U.S. casualties and costs, for and in a country few could locate on a map? That—not the military balance or the success of Iraqi recruitment for the police and military—is the real bet. Here, and only here, might the Vietnam analogy apply. Which leads to the key element of Al Qaeda’s strategy in Iraq and elsewhere in the umma—Americans, because they are democratic and have no staying power: kill enough of them, regularly and sufficiently far away, and, “just like in Vietnam,” political dissension within the U.S. will result in retreat and thus strategic defeat. When Al Qaeda hears some Democratic presidential candidates—even marginal ones like Dennis Kucinich, Carol Moseley Brown, and Al Sharpton—promising retreat, they hear capitulation and have all the more reason to murder American GIs and cooperating Iraqis and to scare away the very international organizations that American politicians are offering as the alternative to the Marines. What is happening in Iraq is more and more directly linked to what happened on September 11th, and the Administration must continue to emphasize that clearly to the public if support is to be sustained. Iraq is now a battle in the general war against terrorists, regardless of the specific reasons that led to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

November 10, 2003

Republished by permission of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), Philadelphia, PA, USA.


Michael Radu, Ph.D., is a contributing editor of Orbis, a senior fellow at FPRI, and director of the Institute’s new Center on Terrorism and Political Violence.


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