Sep 6, 2007
The Continuing AQI Info Op
The deft use of the threat posed by "Al Qaeda in Iraq" in U.S. military Information Operations was made public in April 2006. (See Zarqawi Emphasis in Info-Op Matrix Exposed.)
A new piece takes a look at the hows and whys of the exaggerated role of AQI in the ongoing narrative:
What if official military estimates about the size and impact of al-Qaeda in Iraq are simply wrong? Indeed, interviews with numerous military and intelligence analysts, both inside and outside of government, suggest that the number of strikes the group has directed represent only a fraction of what official estimates claim. Further, al-Qaeda's presumed role in leading the violence through uniquely devastating attacks that catalyze further unrest may also be overstated. ...
The essential questions are: How large is the presence of AQI, in terms of manpower and attacks instigated, and what role does the group play in catalyzing further violence? For the first question, the military has produced an estimate. In a background briefing this July in Baghdad, military officials said that during the first half of this year AQI accounted for 15 percent of attacks in Iraq. That figure was also cited in the military intelligence report during final preparations for a National Intelligence Estimate in July. ...
Yet those who have worked on estimates inside the system take a more circumspect view. Alex Rossmiller, who worked in Iraq as an intelligence officer for the Department of Defense, says that real uncertainties exist in assigning responsibility for attacks. "It was kind of a running joke in our office," he recalls. "We would sarcastically refer to everybody as al-Qaeda."
To describe AQI's presence, intelligence experts cite a spectrum of estimates, ranging from 8 percent to 15 percent. The fact that such "a big window" exists, says Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, indicates that "[those experts] really don't have a very good perception of what is going on."
It's notable that military intelligence reports have opted to cite a figure at the very top of that range. But even the low estimate of 8 percent may be an overstatement, if you consider some of the government's own statistics. ...
The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), which arguably has the best track record for producing accurate intelligence assessments, last year estimated that AQI's membership was in a range of "more than 1,000." When compared with the military's estimate for the total size of the insurgency—between 20,000 and 30,000 full-time fighters—this figure puts AQI forces at around 5 percent. When compared with Iraqi intelligence's much larger estimates of the insurgency—200,000 fighters—INR's estimate would put AQI forces at less than 1 percent. This year, the State Department dropped even its base-level estimate, because, as an official explained, "the information is too disparate to come up with a consensus number."
How big, then, is AQI? The most persuasive estimate I've heard comes from Malcolm Nance, the author of The Terrorists of Iraq and a twenty-year intelligence veteran and Arabic speaker who has worked with military and intelligence units tracking al-Qaeda inside Iraq. He believes AQI includes about 850 full-time fighters, comprising 2 percent to 5 percent of the Sunni insurgency. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq," according to Nance, "is a microscopic terrorist organization."
So how did the military come up with an estimate of 15 percent, when government data and many of the intelligence community's own analysts point to estimates a fraction of that size? ...
With disproportionate resources dedicated to tracking AQI, the search has become a self-reinforcing loop. The Army has a Special Operations task force solely dedicated to tracking al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Defense Intelligence Agency tracks AQI through its Iraq office and its counterterrorism office. The result is more information culled, more PowerPoint slides created, and, ultimately, more attention drawn to AQI, which amplifies its significance in the minds of military and intelligence officers. "Once people look at everything through that lens, al-Qaeda is all they see," said Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer who also worked at the U.S. State Department's Office of Counterterrorism. "It sort of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Ground-level analysts in the field, facing pressures from superiors to document AQI's handiwork, might be able to question such assumptions if they had strong intelligence networks on the ground. Unfortunately, that's rarely the case. The intelligence community's efforts are hobbled by too few Arabic speakers in their ranks and too many unreliable informants in Iraqi communities, rendering a hazy picture that is open to interpretations.
Because uncertainty exists, the bar for labeling an attack the work of al-Qaeda can be very low. The fact that a detainee possesses al-Qaeda pamphlets or a laptop computer with cached jihadist Web sites, for example, is at times enough for analysts to link a detainee to al-Qaeda. "Sometimes it's as simple as an anonymous tip that al-Qaeda is active in a certain village, so they will go out on an operation and whoever they roll up, we call them al-Qaeda," says Alex Rossmiller. "People can get labeled al-Qaeda anywhere along in the chain of events, and it's really hard to unlabel them." Even when the military backs off explicit statements that AQI is responsible, as with the Tal Afar truck bombings, the perception that an attack is the work of al-Qaeda is rarely corrected. ...
Even if the manpower and number of attacks attributed to AQI have been exaggerated—and they have—many observers maintain that what is uniquely dangerous about the group is not its numbers, but the spectacular nature of its strikes. ...
But is this view of AQI's vanguard role in destabilizing Iraq really true? There are three reasons to question that belief.
First, although spectacular attacks were a distinctive AQI hallmark early in the war, the group has since lost its monopoly on bloody fireworks. After five years of shifting alliances, cross-pollination of tactics, and copycat attacks, other insurgent groups now launch equally dramatic and politically charged attacks. For example, a second explosion at the Samara mosque in June 2007, which destroyed the shrine's minarets and sparked a wave of revenge attacks on Sunni mosques nationwide, may have been an inside job. U.S. military officials said fifteen uniformed men from the Shiite-run Iraqi Security Forces were arrested for suspected involvement in the attack.
Second, it remains unclear whether the original Samara bombing was itself the work of AQI. The group never took credit for the attack, as it has many other high-profile incidents. The man who the military believe orchestrated the bombing, an Iraqi named Haitham al-Badri, was both a Samara native and a former high-ranking government official under Saddam Hussein. (His right-hand man, Hamed Jumaa Farid al-Saeedi, was also a former military intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein's army.) Key features of the bombing did not conform to the profile of an AQI attack. For example, the bombers did not target civilians, or even kill the Shiite Iraqi army soldiers guarding the mosque, both of which are trademark tactics of AQI. The planners also employed sophisticated explosive devices, suggesting formal military training common among former regime officers, rather than the more bluntly destructive tactics typical of AQI. Finally, Samara was the heart of Saddam's power base, where former regime fighters keep tight control over the insurgency. Frank "Greg" Ford, a retired counterintelligence agent for the Army Reserves, who worked with the Army in Samara before the 2006 bombing, says that the evidence points away from AQI and toward a different conclusion: "The Baathists directed that attack," says Ford.
Third, while some analysts believe that AQI drafts Baathist insurgents to carry out its attacks, other intelligence experts think it is the other way around. In other words, they see evidence of native insurgent forces coopting the steady stream of delusional extremists seeking martyrdom that AQI brings into Iraq. "Al-Qaeda can't operate anywhere in Iraq without kissing the ring of the former regime," says Nance. "They can't move car bombs full of explosives and foreign suicide bombers through a city without everyone knowing who they are. They need to be facilitated." Thus new foreign fighters "come through and some local Iraqis will say, 'Okay, why don't you go down to the Ministry of Defense building downtown.'" AQI recruits often find themselves taking orders from a network of former regime insurgents, who assemble their car bombs and tell them what to blow up. They become, as Nance says, "puppets for the other insurgent groups."
The view that AQI is neither as big nor as lethal as commonly believed is widespread among working-level analysts and troops on the ground. A majority of those interviewed for this article believe that the military's AQI estimates are overblown to varying degrees. If such misgivings are common, why haven't doubts pricked the public debate? The reason is that alternate views are running up against an echo chamber of powerful players all with an interest in hyping AQI's role.
(Read more from The Myth of AQI by Andrew Tilghman)
Andrew Tilghman was an Iraq correspondent for the Stars and Stripes newspaper in 2005 and 2006.