Michael's Dispatches

Al-Qaeda on the Run: Feasting on the Moveable Beast

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“No al Qaeda Zone”: Hefty Buhriz Policeman smoking in public.

The last major mission I did while in Baqubah in early 2005 was into Buhriz. That mission had begun with our artillery firing some 155mm shots into a palm grove on the banks of the Diyala River. The enemy in Buhriz, consisting partly of the 1920s Revolution Brigades, was tough and proficient at killing our people.

A current leader in Burhiz and member of the 1920s Revolution Brigades (1920s) goes by the name Abu Ali. On Monday 9 July, I drove in the back of a Stryker and talked on the streets of Buhriz with Abu Ali. Just months ago our forces would have shot Abu Ali on sight, and he surely would have done the same to us. Today we are allies, for now.

An AP report filed recently entitled “Al-Qaida’s No. 2 asks support of Muslims” says:

Al-Qaida’s deputy leader sought to bolster the terror network’s main arm in Iraq in a new video released Thursday, calling on Muslims to rally behind it at a time when the group is on the defensive, faced with U.S. offensives and splits with other insurgent groups.

The AP report goes on:

Several large Iraqi insurgent groups publicly denounced al-Qaida, saying its fighters were killing theirs and pressuring them to join the Islamic State. One group, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, has begun overtly cooperating with U.S. forces and Sunni tribal leaders to attack al-Qaida.

The words were true: I was standing there with Abu Ali, with American soldiers and 1920s people milling all around. We had certainly killed a lot of his people, and the 1920s certainly had killed many American soldiers. During severe fighting with al Qaeda in April 2007, the 1920s reached out to American soldiers, and together they have been dismantling al Qaeda here in Baqubah and other places. If we had to fight an allied force of 1920s and al Qaeda, there is no telling how many soldiers we would have lost.

Al Qaeda’s ultimate failure in much of Anbar and now in parts of Diyala relates back to one of the pillars of success—or failure—in this war: Values. People who understand how to tamp down this war realize the critical pillar that values can play into success or failure in counterinsurgency, or COIN.

In appearance, few might suspect that Abu Ali would stand up to the American military. In talking with the soft-spoken Abu Ali, his manner is similar to that of experienced American combat leaders. He is direct and clear in his speech (through an interpreter), and his intelligence is evident. An intelligent enemy who knows the dangers—who is not part of an insane death-cult promising 72 virgins and eternity with God to martyrs—and yet stands his ground against Americans over a long period, must possess great courage and annealed strength. Even among enemies, those qualities command grudging respect. I told one man in the back of the Stryker that after standing his ground with the Americans and surviving this long, al Qaeda was hopeless when Abu Ali and the 1920s shifted their martial attentions.

While we were driving in the belly of the Stryker into Buhriz, I asked Abu Ali, “What did you do to al Qaeda?”

Abu Ali said that on 1 April 2007, he and his people attacked al Qaeda in Buhriz for their crimes against Islam. He also said something that many Muslims have said to me: al Qaeda are not Muslims. (Both Sunni and Shia have said nearly the exact same words, at times on video.) Abu Ali said they fought hard against al Qaeda, and on 10 April, they asked the Americans to join the attack. It worked.

The Stryker stopped in Buhriz. The ramp dropped and Abu Ali, LT David Wallach and LTC Fred Johnson dismounted, along with Talal, the courageous AP stringer. I asked Abu Ali if I could videotape him for Americans to see. On camera, he demonstrated the media savvy of a NASCAR driver, and managed to effect the same dynamic mix of confidence and humility. Through moral corruption, al Qaeda lost support then alienated a persuasive, courageous communicator, who can directly inhibit their ability to survive another day.

Before the tape was running, I asked Abu Ali why he and the 1920s turned against al Qaeda in Buhriz. Speaking through LT David Wallach, a native Arabic speaker, Abu Ali said that “al Qaeda is an abomination of Islam: cutting off heads, stealing people’s money, kidnapping . . . every type of torture they have done.”

The recent stories of baked children came to mind. I asked if Abu Ali had heard about children being baked. Ali said no, he had not heard such a story, but he would not be surprised if it were true because al Qaeda had done so many crimes, such as cutting off a man’s head, putting it up on a stick and parading it around town.

Ali said people had been afraid in their own homes because of al Qaeda. I asked if he had fought Americans and Ali laughed and said through Wallach, “What kind of question is that?” I chuckled. Unfortunately, we had to go to other meetings, so the time for taping was short. In closing, I asked Abu Ali if there was something he would like to say to Americans. The markets that had been closed under al Qaeda were bustling around us.

Ali thought for a moment as some local people tried to interrupt him with greetings, and he said, “I ask one thing,” and now I paraphrase Ali’s words: “After the Iraqi Army and Police take hold and the security forces are ready, we want a schedule for the leaving of the American forces.”

“I will tell the Americans this,” I said. Ali seemed satisfied as he went off with another American unit. We loaded back into the Stryker and headed to other interesting meetings on other interesting matters, all dealing with the grinding gears of winning or losing this war, and with catching and killing al Qaeda.

Watch the interview here:

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The focus on al Qaeda makes sense here, where local officials have gone on record acknowledging that most of the perhaps one thousand al Qaeda fighters in Baqubah were young men and boys who called the city home. This may clash with the perception in US and other media that only a small percentage of the enemy in Iraq is al Qaeda, which in turn leads to false conclusions that the massive offensive campaign underway across Iraq is a lot of shock and awe aimed at a straw enemy. But as more Sunni tribal leaders renounce former ties with al Qaeda, it’s becoming clearer just how heavily AQ relied on local talent, and how disruptive they have been here in fomenting the civil war.

Al Qaeda’s recruiting efforts in Baqubah were not much different than what they used in Mosul as 2004 changed into 2005 and Iraq’s first elections loomed. (I was in Baqubah at that time.) I wrote about how thugs and gangs and fugitive fundamentalists on the run from Fallujah flooded into Mosul and murdered people by the hundreds. Al Qaeda had excellent publicity and media teams and a sales pitch that worked effectively for a long time. But the reason for Zawahiri’s recent desperate recruiting drive is the fact that AQ values in action have turned local people against them. We are not always fighting AQ on the battlefield because they can be so difficult to find, but month by month, year by year, we can destroy them on the moral battlefield; they are savages and most people can see it.

Over here, the fact of al Qaeda murdering children is just that: it’s a fact. How they chose to commit the murders is a variable that changes from incident to incident. I’ve written often about how Iraqis, as a rule, love and greatly value their children. This makes the children especially vulnerable as targets for terrorists. That is a brutal fact.

Al Qaeda drinks and uses drugs here. This is not propaganda. This is not even news, it’s a fact that I wrote about back in 2005. Zarqawi, the now-dead former leader of AQI, was best known for causing the deaths of thousands or tens of thousands of Iraqis, and raping women all over the land and over in Jordan. Whether Zarqawi raped women from village to village, or one woman from each village, I do not know. But Zarqawi cultivated his image like a pro. Rape and murder were his trademarks.

The same Zawahiri who issued al Qaeda’s latest call for recruits sent a letter to Zarqawi back in 2005, warning him to stop cutting off people’s heads and broadcasting it. Zawahiri’s version of a “Values Message” cautioned Zarqawi that these grostesqueries were losing al Qaeda the support of Muslims. He was right. Al Qaeda is no longer welcome in Baqubah.


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