Al-Qaeda in Iraq Records Shed Light on Foreign Recruits

Twenty-six-year-old Muhammad ‘Abd-al-Qadir bil-Qasim began his journey in Darnah, Libya. He traveled to Egypt and arrived in Syria, where he paid a man named Abu Umar 2,000 Syrian pounds to smuggle him across the Iraqi border.

Qasim was an Arabic language teacher and a weapons expert back home, he told the al-Qaeda clerk who interviewed him on Jun. 7, 2007. He had no possessions to contribute, but he would offer his life. "Suicide" would be his work.

Tawfiq Muhammad al-Akhdar al-Rayhami, a 24-year-old university student from Bin Arus, Tunisia, said he came to Iraq to become a fighter. After paying a Syrian "coordinator" 200 dollars to smuggle him across the border, he arrived at his final destination in late January 2007, where he contributed 500 euro and an MP3 player to the insurgency.

Abdullah ‘Abid al-Sulaymani was the youngest. He arrived in Syria on Sep. 23, 2006, just three months after turning 15 years old. He gave his cell phone, 620 dollars, four riyals and a watch to the cause.

The snapshot narratives are among the individual records of 606 foreign fighters who were recruited by al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliates and who entered the war-torn country, via Syria, between August 2006 and August 2007.

The documents were originally collected by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and its predecessor, the Mujahadeen Shura Council, both of which served as umbrella organizations to unify Sunni insurgents in Iraq. The cache was captured by coalition forces last fall in a raid near Sinjar, a small town in northwestern Iraq approximately 16 kilometers from the Syrian border.

Analyzed and released publicly last month by the Army’s Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the records only offer a random sample of al-Qaeda’s foreign recruits. But the profiles and partially completed questionnaires do shed light on the origin and route of fighters, and offer clues into how al-Qaeda smuggles them through Syria.

Some profiles of fighters contain substantially greater detail than others: aliases, home countries, professions, birthdays, Syrian contacts, telephone numbers of friends, mothers, fathers, and brothers, and even space for a last will and testament. Many recruits indicated they were students. One fighter listed "massage specialist" as his previous occupation.

Suleymani was the youngest recruit, only 16 when he crossed into Iraq; the oldest was 54. Of the 389 fighters that listed their "work" in Iraq, more than half expressed interest in suicide bombing. The other 43 percent were designated as traditional fighters. Several recruits listed specializations: pathologist, legal skills, business science, mechanics, veterinary study, English, Muezzin (announcer to prayer).

Some records include pictures – young men smiling, others stone-faced, some with beards, others wearing red-checkered keffiyas.

Occasionally, a fresh-faced teen appears; Hamzza Abu Hammdah A’ayash was born in 1988 in Tetouan, Morocco, and by age 19 had already chosen his life’s course. He listed a home phone number, contributed 50 euro, a watch, and his passport. He wouldn’t need identification. For work, he responded Istishhadi – martyrdom.

The report also cites some of primary weaknesses of al-Qaeda’s operations in Iraq – the difficulty of trying to link the terrorist network’s global goals to the immediate context of insurgency in Iraq. Recently, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) fabricated an imaginary emir for the creation of ISI, replacing the AQI "brand name" to appeal to different constituencies – Sunni insurgents inside Iraq (the vast majority of whom do not support al-Qaeda’s doctrine), as well as jihadi scholars abroad and potential foreign recruits.

"The Sinjar Records exemplify al-Qaeda’s fundamental strategic challenge in Iraq: melding the ideological demands of its global constituency with the practical concerns of relatively secular Iraqis," said the report.

Al-Qaeda also relies heavily on Syrian mercenaries, freelancers, and criminal smuggling networks rather than loyal group members, a weakness the U.S. should exploit, according to the report. Of the 606 total records, nearly 42 percent listed at least one contact in Syria, and many listed multiple contacts.

The recruitment questionnaire asks recruits for the name of their "coordinator" (i.e. smuggler), as well as how much money they asked to move them across the border, suggesting that al-Qaeda does not trust its Syrian network.

"If al-Qaeda’s Syrian logistics networks are truly run by mercenaries, there are many policy options available to co-opt or manipulate them. It is almost inconceivable that Syrian intelligence has not already tried to penetrate these networks, but that does not preclude American agencies from attempting the same," said the report.

The report also suggests that there are more foreign fighters originating from North Africa – specifically Libya, a U.S. ally in the "war on terror" – than previously thought.

More than 40 percent of the fighters indicated they were Saudi Arabian nationals, a figure that appears consistent with military figures made available to the Los Angeles Times by senior military officers in July 2007. Saudi Arabia has largely deflected U.S. criticism, as the White House focuses much of its ire towards Iran and Syria.

Nearly 19 percent of recruits said they were from Libya. Syria, Yemen, and Algeria each accounted for around 8 percent of the records. Moroccans accounted for 6.1 percent.

"The vast majority (82.4 percent) of Libyans that recorded their route to Iraq arrived via the same pathway running through Egypt and then by air to Syria," said the report. "This recruiting and logistics network is likely tied to LIFG, which has long ties (not all positive) with Egyptian and Algerian Islamist groups."

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) emerged in 1995 among Libyans who had fought as Mujahedeen against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Initially organized to overthrow the Gadhafi regime and install a Shari’a-based government, the LIFG embraced the global agenda of al-Qaeda.

Analysts suggest that the Libyan connection reflects a possible upsurge of fighters coming from North African states, as well as a strengthening of al-Qaeda-affiliated regional networks.

Algeria’s main Islamist militant group, the Salafist-inspired Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), exploited the al-Qaeda brand in 2007 by renaming itself al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghrib.

"Ideologically, the GSPC has affinities with al-Qaeda because it is a Salafist group. In the late 1980s and 1990s, its leadership spent time in Afghanistan," said Noureddine Jebnoun, a Georgetown University professor who recently published a paper on the radicalization of the Algerian Salafi Jihadist movements.

"GSPC is the epicenter of the jihadism in this region. This group recruits youth, gives them basic training, and after that, they send them to Iraq through Europe, Sudan, or Syria," he said.

Jebnoun noted that poverty, cultural alienation, and authoritarianism continue to fuel violence, and that the Salafist movement "remains a very attractive choice for disenfranchised and disillusioned North African youth."

It appears the U.S. has done little to support some North African governments who are dealing with al-Qaeda affiliated groups, while pouring aid to others. For example, Jordan – with a population of 5.5 million – receives 456.2 million dollars in U.S. aid, while Algeria (population 32.3 million) receives 1.9 million dollars, and Morocco (population 30.2) receives 43.9 million dollars.

Read more by Khody Akhavi