The panel discussion "Post Iraq War Jihadists: Where Next?" took place at the 61st annual conference in October, 2007.
Fawaz Gerges, General Ehsan ul Haq, Michael Ware, Paul Pillar
The panel discussed the prospective legacy of the jihadists fighting in Iraq. The speakers focused on the military and ideological influence of the new generation of jihadists in Iraq. They emphasized the importance of working to undermine the jihadist ideology as much as combating terrorism by military means.
Dr. Paul Pillar moderated the discussion and opened the panel with a comparison of the mujahidin who fought in the Soviet-Afghan War and the jihadists currently fighting in Iraq. He identified three lasting effects that the Afghan war had on the jihadist movement: the acquisition of skills and arms, the jihadist global networking opportunity, and the belief that the jihadists could defeat a superpower.
General Ehsan ul Huq, the first of the panel’s speakers, argued that the war in Iraq has distracted the world’s attention from Afghanistan where ‘Usama bin Laden and al-Qa‘ida have begun to regroup. Ul Huq cautioned against even a phased withdrawal from Iraq without first putting in place political safeguards. Without political safeguards, increasing sectarian violence would become inevitable and al-Qa‘ida could fill the ensuing power vacuum.
He cited two lessons learned from Iraq: that a predominantly military approach is deeply flawed and a comprehensive strategy addressing the root causes of radicalization is necessary, and that al-Qa‘ida as a physical and ideological threat is highly resilient and still capable of distributing its extremist message and conducting attacks worldwide.
Fawaz Gerges, the panel’s second speaker, cautioned against generalizing the legacy of the Afghan Arabs and pointed to the constant fluctuation characterizing the Iraqi jihadists as reason for resisting sweeping generalizations of the movement. He argued that the jihadist movement is weakened and entrapped in Iraq, but far from dead. Gerges asserted that the movement will last as long as the US military continues to occupy the country and the Iraqi government remains based on sectarian divisions.
He said that more than 3,000 foreign jihadists would return to their home countries, some of whom would wait underground for next opportunity to wage jihad, while others would actively recruit from masses of discontented youth.
Gerges conceded that he did not know how to dismantle the jihadist ideology while the US continued to occupy Iraq, and echoed the belief of General ul Huq that the US must withdraw in an orderly fashion to ensure regional stability. The solution he offered is for the US to ally with mainstream Islamists and even former jihadists to fight extremist Islamic ideology.
Michael Ware, the panel’s final speaker, offered a more anecdotal account of the jihadists in Iraq in order to deconstruct what he termed the myriad of lies propagated by every party involved. He stated that much of the insurgency in its early phases was composed of former Ba‘thists and secularists. However by early 2004, Ware witnessed the gradual Islamization of the insurgency, facilitated by the vast financial resources of the jihadist movement as well as its ability to recruit Iraqi youth. Ware asserted the Ba‘thists had offered the US a deal from the beginning to band together in order to fight the influence of al-Qa‘ida type extremism and Iran, but were rebuffed. Only after four years did the Americans and the Ba‘thists finally come to an accord under the original terms offered by the Ba‘thists; this deal has been disguised as alliances with Sunni tribal leaders.
Ware said the building blocks of a proxy war are now in place with American-backed Sunni militias and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias. He cautioned that the resulting war will not be like Rwanda, but will reach the scale of Bosnia. He said the true power of the Iraqi jihadists is their ability to project their ideology through the internet. Journalists are therefore no longer an asset to terrorists, but are instead seen as legitimate targets that are spreading the wrong message to the world.
About this Event
The panel discussion took place during MEI's 61st Annual Conference at the National Press Club, Washington DC
Cole Bockenfeld prepared this event summary. He will complete a Bachelor of Arts in Middle East Studies – Political Science this May at the University of Arkansas, where he is focusing on studies of Islam and politics. He serves as an intern with the Development Department at the Middle East Institute.
Disclaimer: Assertions and opinions in this Summary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not reflect necessarily the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.