Thursday, April 23, 2009 

Iraq, the insurgency, and the capture of Omar al-Baghdadi.

There have been many false dawns in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, none more so than the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, although the group was more properly known as the Mujahideen Shura Council at the time. Although the insurgency in Iraq was always far more varied than just involving Zarqawi's group, which was renamed al-Qaida in Iraq after he pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden, having formerly dreamt of building his own rival terror organisation, over-the-top media coverage and Zarqawi's brutal tactics, especially the beheading of foreign hostages, some of which he supposedly carried out himself, meant that his death was given far more significance than it was probably due. Reports of the capture of al-Zarqawi's self-proclaimed successor, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, do little other than suggest that there will still be life in the Iraqi insurgency for some time yet.

Like with Zarqawi and with the other man who may well be the real leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, Baghdadi has been presumed both dead and captured before, but for now it does seem as if he has been arrested. This itself may come as a surprise to some within the US army, who have claimed repeatedly that Baghdadi does not actually exist, instead a phantom that gives an Iraqi leadership to a group which has always been regarded by others in the insurgency as being of foreign origin, but photographs of the man have supposedly previously emerged, showing someone who looks to be suffering from pattern baldness.

How much influence or control Baghdadi actually had over the organisation is impossible to know. Apart from irregular audio messages issued as videos, none of which Baghdadi has formally appeared in, unlike the gregarious al-Zarqawi, all of which give credence to the idea that he is simply a puppet to the formal "Minister for War" al-Muhajir, he doesn't seem to have done anything other than contribute to the war of words which ultimately led to the split between the insurgent groups and with it the rise of the Awakening councils, almost completely composed of former insurgents, although few were members of al-Qaida, or the ISI. The recent rise in violence in the country, although nowhere near the levels of 2004 to mid-2007, attributed by some to the dissolution of the Awakening councils in certain areas, reflects the difficulty with which those who have been ostensibly fighting for the last six years will be reintegrated into Iraqi society. Contributing to the problems is that a Shia government is simply not trusted by the Sunni fighters; their sudden dissolution threatens to be a repeat of the disbanding of the Iraqi army, almost certainly the biggest factor behind the rise of the insurgency.

From controlling almost all of the so-called "Sunni Triangle" at one point, the Islamic State of Iraq has been pushed back into the provinces of Diyala and Mosul, where the Salafist jihadist groups, which also includes Ansar al-Islam, are still reasonably strong. It's difficult to know just how much of an effect al-Baghdadi's arrest might have on the groups and their supporters, especially considering how unknown his power has been, and while al-Zarqawi's death was actively mourned by jihadists, it will still be some sort of a setback to the group. The suicide bombings today, which are almost certainly coincidences rather than the group striking back, show that the ISI still has the capability to carry out devastating attacks, but on a far reduced scale. The insurgency in general, which has been in decline since its high point at the heighth of the civil war which al-Qaida in Iraq did much to foment, seems to be shifting up a gear, if the number of videos released by the groups is a measure to go by. The real problem in Iraq though remains reconciliation between the Sunni and Shia, which despite some reasonably encouraging results in the recent elections, where secularists appeared to win out against the religious parties, seems as far away as ever. Al-Baghdadi's arrest will do nothing whatsoever to alter that.

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Friday, September 26, 2008 

On the jihad in Iraq and online.

By almost all accounts, the extreme-Salafist takfiri jihad in Iraq is not going well. Down mainly to the Awakening movement, which started when the Sunni tribes tired of the sectarian bloodshed, indiscriminate murder and imposition of the most harsh and ridiculous interpretation of Sharia law rose against the Islamic State of Iraq (formerly al-Qaida in Iraq and the Mujahideen Shura Council) and its allies, over time attracting other former insurgents, and to on a much lesser level, the US troop surge, the few remaining sanctuaries are Mosul in the north and Diyala province in the centre of the country. Along with the continuing ceasefire by the Mahdi army (and its eventual dissolution), which for a time had been the main cause of casualties to US troops in and around Baghdad, combined with the effective ghettoisation of the capital into sectarian enclaves, the drop in violence has resulted in the number of troop deaths falling to its lowest since the start of the war, with just 13 killed in July. Civilian deaths are still though rarely below three figures a week, even if the suicide bombings which were once a daily occurrence in the capital have fallen significantly.

Away from the real war, the online propaganda war is also, if you listen to some of the hyperbolic jihad watchers, in trouble. The most prominent jihadi forum,, has been down for almost two weeks, and its front page currently resolves to a domain bought place holder. Also down, or at least were, were three of the main four forum sites, with only the most exclusive, al-Hesbah, remaining up, but even that at the moment appears to be down. Why they are down, or rather, who is responsible is equally unclear; those who have formerly and continue to involve themselves in removing jihadi material from the web have refused to comment or denied it. The main point of taking down the forums was to deny as-Sahab, al-Qaida's media arm, from being able to distribute their yearly video marking September the 11th. Not only was this successful, but when the video was eventually posted for distribution and mirrored across the net, the password to the archive was wrong, further delaying and disillusioning those waiting for it.

The Islamic State of Iraq would still presumably prefer to be in as-Sahab's position. As it becomes apparent even to the most deluded and dedicated of its supporters that it faces a battle for its very survival, even if still clinging on in Diyala and Mosul, its media releases are increasingly being derided. Their "Two Years with an Islamic State" video claimed that they had chemical warheads capable of reaching Israel, something which not even the most die-hard supporter of the group or most swivel-eyed jihad watcher could possibly believe.

For as ISI declines, a group that had existed in Iraq long before al-Zarqawi's organisation pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden continues to punch well above its apparent weight. Ansar al-Islam, first formed in 2001 and active in the autonomous Kurdish north, and which may well have sheltered Zarqawi before he moved south and established the forerunners of the ISI, continues to impress (if that's the right word) both those in the "online jihadi community" and observers of it. While sharing almost exactly the same ideology as the ISI, the same brand of extreme Salafi Islam which led it to carry out one of the most notorious atrocities of the insurgency, the execution of 12 Nepalese hostages, it has never allied with the group, even if they have often carried out operations together. More recently the group, previously known as Ansar al-Sunnah, reverted to its original name, and with it established a media arm based on both As-Sahab and al-Furqan, al-Ansar. Their latest video, The Earth Rain, is even by the high production standards of those two "media organisations" especially ambitious: featuring a host, translated, apparently non-Googlish English subtitles and credits at the end, it attempts to document last year's American "Arrowhead Ripper" operation in Diyala province. Whether Ansar al-Islam with this new approach intends to become a rival to al-Qaida in general remains to be seen, but the aspiration appears to be there.

The bringing down of the jihadi forums though, however satisfying for those in the short-term who seem to imagine that doing so is striking a blow against the movement in its entirety, is by no means necessarily a good thing. Putting matters of censorship aside, it not only makes things more difficult for those on them, but also for those with the equally important task of monitoring the forums. Whilst doubtless the intelligence agencies have moles on the inside and at probably the very highest levels of the administration on them, not every activity on them can be monitored by the security services, which is why civilian organisations that do so have sprung up. While these tend to be rabid and completely overstate the level of threat from takfirist jihadists, their role is still a noble one. It isn't just the monitoring of them for potential threats though which is important, they're also a goldmine for the also vital research into who exactly it is that is most likely to become a jihadi sympathiser. As the leaked document from MI5 showed, this is an area in which the stereotypes generally don't apply. Only through delving into more backgrounds and the lives of those on these forums might we improve our ways of targeting and stopping radicalisation before it takes place. Just knocking the suppliers down while not targeting the source itself will do nothing to help in that.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008 

Propaganda, children and war in Iraq.

Children can often be the most visible and silent of the victims of war. Visible in that when they are killed, the outrage and mourning is all the more apparent, the young cut down in their prime and before they had even so much as experienced life as adults will; silent in that the mental scars conflict leaves behind are beyond ordinary perception, and only later manifest themselves fully, creating damaged individuals that often never recover.

The effects then that videos such as those captured by the US and Iraqi forces that apparently showchildren between around 10 and 12 years old running around with guns and rocket propelled grenades while masked, conducting mock hostage taking and practicing raiding houses then is manifold. One is that they're being corrupted, making adult decisions before their time. Another is shock: that adults are apparently prepared to use children in such a way, anathema to our proud Western values. Then there's the realisation that when children are involved in such actions, it's intuitive to think that a new low has been reached, or that those training the children are themselves resorting to desperate measures.

All of the above is probably to some extent true in this case. It still pays however to pay closer detail to actually what has been filmed, what's been presented and the agenda of both sides, those who originally recorded it, and those who are releasing it now that it's been captured.

On one point, the video certainly does look numerous productions released by various jihadist/nationalist insurgent groups in Iraq, except with the adult fighters featured in those replaced by children. Because it's been captured in its raw form before it was cleaned up, edited and presented with the relevant logo of the group behind it, it's impossible to know exactly who did film it. The US army has naturally said that it's the work of al-Qaida in Iraq, or as the group is now known, the Islamic State of Iraq, but there's nothing in the video to suggest this is most definitely the case. The flag which the children are standing in front of at one point is not the Islamic State's standard; rather a simple black flag. They might have decided not to have used it, or didn't have one to hand, but most of the groups when using their flag at least have some sort of Arabic script on them that identifies them. The one image released that certainly does show evidence of the involvement of the ISI is an apparently separate image (shown above) that clearly shows the al-Furqan logo, ISI's media production arm. That image is apparently taken from one of their major releases from last year, "The Astray Arrow", which did feature children, although not in the way that these captured tapes do.

Indeed, this is hardly really anything new, although there hasn't been much on the scale of this previously released to my knowledge. Children have been featured a number of insurgent videos, not just by the Sunni jihadist/nationalist groupings, but also by the main Sufi armed group in the country. There have been allegations made in the past that the Shiite Mahdi army, helmed by Moqtada al-Sadr, but also to a degree autonomous of his command, has made use of children as young as 13.

The propaganda agenda of the video, and of both who made it and the US decision to release it to the media at large are obvious. While the army claims that it was designed at attracting new recruits, that seems highly unlikely. Rather, whoever or whomever made the video's main point was to say that even if you kill all of us adults, the children themselves, whether now or later, will continue to fight. The US army's point is also clear: that it both shows the desperation of al-Qaida and the moral depths to which the movement is willing to plunge, as if massacring Shias in markets with suicide attacks wasn't low enough.

Intelligence officials, loud-mouthed bloggers and some politicians often speak alarmingly of how we're losing the propaganda war, and on the evidence of this they might have a point, not because the video is especially effective, but because the US's argument is so weak. To begin with, the footage was shot in the summer of last year, not now when the Americans and others are daring to start to crow again that the insurgency has been broken and that the surge has worked, with last week's suicide attacks allegedly carried out by women with Down's Syndrome the mark of how desperate they were. We still haven't had confirmation that was in actual fact the case, with conflicting coverage since. If you can stomach it, footage supposedly showing the severed head of one of the bombers has been leaked onto the net, and it's as inconclusive as the reports were.

Secondly, we don't know what these children themselves have been through. The Guardian reported at the beginning of last year of how so many were showing signs of major psychological stress, and that of the others many had a favourite game: playing out mock executions, splitting off into groups and taking on the roles of al-Qaida and the Mahdi army, Sunni and Shia, reliving their own experiences of the sectarian warfare which was dominating and dividing their country. These children might have lost their parents, or had older siblings who had joined the insurgency killed, or even been killed accidentally by coalition forces; to pretend that they're definitely being manipulated by al-Qaida or even being used as anything other than pawns in a game is to make a series of assumptions based on your own prejudices. The same is the case when women carry out suicide bombings; they're not regarded as usually those most susceptible to join jihadists or kill in such a way. This ignores how the overwhelming number of suicide attacks by women have taken part in Chechnya and Russia, where they were members of a special brigade called the Black Widows. All had their husbands or relatives killed by Russian forces, and even if they had been manipulated, driven by their grief or just simply thirsty for revenge, you can at least understand why, if not even start to accept the reasoning behind what they did.

It goes without saying that use of child soldiers, which isn't potentially what was depicted here, is abhorrent and illegal under international law. It's hardly a new occurrence though: their use across Africa has been endemic, while some others have pointed to how the Hitler Youth were conscripted in the dying days of Nazi Germany to pretend the fatherland from the marauding and fast encroaching Soviets, but this also seems to be influenced by those who want to believe that the war in Iraq, if not over, is reaching some sort of conclusion, and that the insurgents are getting desperate. They might have been beaten back to their strongholds, but we all know what happened with Fallujah: those who wanted to fight stayed behind and mostly died, while everyone else got out and dispersed across the country. History could certainly yet repeat. Moreover, the Americans have the Awakening councils, mostly made out of the tribes and insurgents which previously welcomed and worked alongside al-Qaida before they decided that the Americans were the lesser of the two evils, to thank more than anything else. They themselves are fragile coalitions, and they've been armed and paid by the Americans. What happens if they break apart, or if they later again decide to turn on the Shia? The ceasefire the Mahdi army has been observing over the last six months, which has also helped bring down the violence levels, is also weak. The passing of the very limited reversal of the de-Ba'athification laws originally signed by Viceroy Bremer is also only the start of the efforts towards reconciliation that Washington has demanded be acceded to. As sad as it is, the disaster that we set in motion is still going to be playing out for years to come, and the children of Iraq are unlikely once they reach adulthood to thank us for the intervention that only the most optimistic believed would result in a quickly established beacon of democracy in a region we've been manipulating for decades.

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