Following the invasion of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was in a very weak position. It was isolated, the Muslim Ummah was not supportive of its cause and mainstream Muslim clerics like Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University in Cairo, urged Muslim youth not to heed calls from al-Qaeda to seek martyrdom in Afghanistan. Many of its senior leadership were either killed or captured and it lost the sanctuary of a friendly state while the upper echelons of the organization s hierarchy were on the run. In the process, al-Qaeda s command and control capabilities were severely disrupted.
All this changed on that fateful day in 2003 when US President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq and, in so doing, provided al-Qaeda s leadership with a new lease on life. Most Muslims, indeed most people, knew that there could hardly be a relationship between the brutally secular Baathists of Saddam Hussein and the religious extremists of al-Qaeda. It was at this point that Muslim public opinion felt that the Global War on Terror was not one directed against terrorists but against Muslims. The excesses of the United States in the form of the Abu Ghraibs and Guantanamo Bays also served to radicalize Muslim public opinion. As a result, thousands of foreign jihadists joined to fight in Iraq and all of this served to reinvigorate al-Qaeda, allowing it to recruit a second generation of veterans (the veterans who had fought the Soviet Union were getting older and fewer).
While al-Qaeda has certainly benefited from the US invasion of Iraq, we need to acknowledge four important points. First, the group only constitutes five to 10 percent of insurgent violence in Iraq. Most of the perpetrators of violence remain the various indigenous Sunni and Shi ite militias as well as marauding criminal gangs. Second, despite its problems, the US surge is resulting in the death and capture of more al-Qaeda members. For instance, in July 2007 Haitham al-Badri, the al-Qaeda leader in Salahuddin province was killed by US forces and Iraqi forces captured Talaal al-Baazi, the al-Qaeda leader in Tikrit. Third, the violent and indiscriminate tactics of al-Qaeda in Iraq both during and after the reign of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has resulted in public opinion having turned against the group. Earlier this year in Anbar province, local tribal leaders turned their guns against al-Qaeda. Fourth, the tactics adopted by al-Qaeda in Iraq have also become a source of concern for the al-Qaeda leadership. In July 2005, for example, al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahri wrote a letter to Zarqawi accusing him of alienating Arab public opinion. Zawahri argued that, in the absence of this popular support, the jihadist movement would be crushed in the shadows.
Nevertheless, although al-Qaeda may become an increasingly marginalized bit-player in the Iraqi theatre, its impact may be greater outside Iraq and on two fronts. First, the sectarian strife that al-Qaeda has ignited so successfully in Iraq is already showing signs of spilling over into neighboring countries, engulfing the entire region into a lethal Sunni-Shi ite conflagration. Second, Iraq is increasingly becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism. The June 2005 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assessment report on Iraq points to the fact that the country is increasingly playing the role that Afghanistan played in the 1980s and 1990s–attracting tens of thousands of jihadists from all over the world. Moreover, unlike Afghanistan, Iraq could be a better training ground because it acts as a real-world laboratory for urban combat . We should not be surprised then that tactics learned in Iraq have found their way into Afghanistan and onto the streets of London and Algiers.
Professor Hussein Solomonlectures in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria where he is also director of the Centre for International Political Studies.