The panel discussion "Post Iraq War Jihadists: Where Next?" took place at the 61st annual conference in October, 2007.
Fawas Gerges, General Ehsan ul Haq, Michael Ware
Paul Pillar: Good afternoon. My name is Paul Pillar, I am with the Security Studies Program of the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. The Institute has asked me to moderate this panel, the title of which is “Post Iraq War Jihadists: Where Next?” I am privileged to be joined by three distinguished panelists: General Ehsan ul Haq, retired from military service in Pakistan and former chief of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate; Professor Fawaz Gerges, the Christian A. Johnson Chair in International and Arab and Muslim Politics at Sarah Lawrence College; and Michael Ware from CNN, best known to you for his reporting from Baghdad. I believe you have biographies of all the speakers in your folders or booklets so we won’t take time with any further biographics.
I am going to take just a few minutes to try to set the scene with some questions – not specific questions but the sorts of issues that arise under the title of “Post Iraq War Jihadists.” Then we will turn in the order in which I mentioned the three speakers and ask them each to speak for about ten to 15 minutes before we open it up to questions.
One of the “coming full circle” thoughts occurred to me when I opened up my New York Times this morning and we saw word of foreign jihadists playing an increasingly bigger role in the current conflict in Afghanistan — stories about Russians and Kazakhs and others. That brought me back to what is my starting point in thinking about and raising questions about what happens next to the jihadists in Iraq. If we look back at the last big jihad, the one in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s against the Soviets, we are seeing today the effects of that.
I would mention three different areas in which the jihadists of Afghanistan had that experience reflected in where they went and what they did after Afghanistan. One was the acquisition of skills – firearms, explosives, all that sort of thing — which could be applied to terrorist as well as insurgent endeavors. Secondly, it was a great extremist networking opportunity, where you had radicals of various nationalities who came to know each other and formed the basis for networks that we see today. Third, it was an inspiration to defeat and contribute in fact to the disintegration in this case of what had been one of the world’s two superpowers.
Now the biggest jihad of the moment is in Iraq and I think it is interesting to think about how many of these parallels may be exhibited with Iraq. What are the similarities? What are the differences? Will the effects be as long-lasting as they were in the case of Afghanistan? What about the impartation of skills? Some have observed, for example, that in Iraq, where you had more of an urban environment in which some of the terrorism has taken place, some of the skills are all the more worryingly applicable to the sort of extremist and terrorist activities that worry us in the West — even more so than the largely rural guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan.
As for inspiration, I suppose that might depend on events yet to unfold in Iraq but I would venture this thought: there are certain things that once you get in them, it is hard to get out without it being perceived as a defeat. Although no one is predicting that the United States is going to disintegrate two years after it withdraws from Iraq, like the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan, one could see ways in which the jihadists of Iraq will portray that as a defeat.
A big mixed bag of people we call jihadists in Iraq today — many of them Iraqis themselves. What are they going to do after US and Coalition forces are no longer there? To what extent will they remain focused on conflict in their home country? To what extent might some of them follow their fellow non-Iraqi jihadists elsewhere? I might again, just to draw the Afghan comparison, remind us that even after the last Soviet commanding general walked across the bridge back into the then-Soviet Union in 1989, it was three more years in which the Najibullah regime clung to power and you had a civil war raging, not to mention the civil war that continued after Najibullah was killed.
Then even bigger questions about the non-Iraqis who have made their way to the Iraqi jihad. To what extent are they going to stay focused on sectarian-based strife in Iraq? To what extent will they find their way to whatever is the next jihad of the moment that might emerge — the Bosnias, the Chechnyas or — as we read in the newspaper this morning — even back to Afghanistan itself? What about the possibility of waging jihad in their home countries, be it Egypt or Saudi Arabia? Not least of all, what about the prospects for some of these individuals joining up to the al-Qa‘ida version of transnational terrorism directed against the far enemy, which of course is most worrisome to us?
Those are some of the questions and issues that I see coming out of the topic of post Iraq War jihadists. I look to my fellow panelists to provide some of their ideas. I am going to stop there and turn the platform over to my first fellow panelist, General Haq.
Ehsan ul Haq: Mr. Pillar, moderator for Panel III, ladies and gentlemen: a-salaam aleikum and a very good afternoon. I would like to thank Ambassador Chamberlin for affording me this opportunity to participate in the 61st Annual Conference of this distinguished institute and I am pleased to be on this panel to discuss a subject which is of vital international interest, more so for us in the immediate neighborhood of Iraq.
As you are well aware, Pakistan has been in the forefront of the so-called international war on terror. We have committed more forces and resources, achieved more successes and offered more sacrifices in supporting this war than most other countries in the world. As a victim of this scourge, we are resolved to oppose terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.
While for the world at large success in the war on terror is vital, for us in Pakistan it is an existential issue. Read moreover, as a predominantly Muslim nation we also consider it our obligation to succeed in this struggle, a struggle for our faith, and to be able to project Islam in its true spirit as a great religion of peace.
In 2003 we faced the brunt of international terror and were committed to stabilize Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban. We were opposed to the invasion of Iraq as we were concerned that it would not only distract us from our focus on the situation in Afghanistan and counterterrorism, but ran the risk of unleashing the forces of ethnic and sectarian fratricide. Read moreover, we all feared this could strengthen bin Laden’s contention of a US crusade against Islam seeking to dominate the Arab and Islamic world and control its resources.
Developments after the fall of Saddam’s regime were to prove our worst fears. Iraq emerged as a base for international terrorism, energizing terrorist forces in the region and the wider world, with the escalating war in Iraq acting as a cause celebre for jihadists and shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operators. With the passage of time, as the international community increasingly focuses on the situation in Iraq, al-Qaeda and the Taliban had the opportunity to survive and reassert their control in Afghanistan, extending to the tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Consequently the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan tended to deteriorate in tandem. In fact, there began to emerge clear symptoms of a linkage as the terrorist organizations projected Iraq and Afghanistan as two fronts of the same struggle.
As the US occupation of Iraq approaches its fifth anniversary and there is little possibility of it realizing the original strategic objectives, the “stay on course” policies become increasingly untenable. However, there are no easy alternatives. Continuation of the current strategy, a phased withdrawal or an immediate withdrawal run catastrophic risks that need careful deliberation. Therefore, the controllers of the new Iraq strategy — success in containing the situation and how the US or Coalition exits or repositions itself both in Iraq and the region as a whole will determine the future options for the terrorist forces that we are here to discuss in this panel.
A Coalition withdrawal from Iraq or any drawdown in forces and operations without the requisite political and strategic safeguards will lead to continued violence, reinforced ethnic and sectarian fault lines and a power vacuum which could be filled by al-Qaeda or terrorists of all hues and colors, giving shape to a new order for Iraq. Additionally, there is a possibility that militants may seize power in Baghdad or in significant parts of Iraqi territories to provide a sanctuary for al-Qaeda or other militants, like pre-9/11 Afghanistan.
In the face of established sectarian and ethnic fault lines, eroded national institutions, the absence of strong central authorities, continued insurgency and civil war, Iraqi national cohesion may be difficult to achieve. The neighboring states, hithertofore committed to Iraq’s territorial integrity, anticipating its disintegration may also be compelled to intervene to protect their strategic interests. Such a scenario will expand the canvas of violence and risks, destabilization over an extended region, as all the regional states have a multiethnic composition and significant sectarian minority communities.
Since the start of the Iraq war the Sunni-Shi’a conflict has undermined stability. The tilt of power balance in favor of either group will further polarize sectarian alignments across the region, extending from Palestine to Pakistan as well as in the wider Muslim world, risking the destabilization of many of these countries. Read more importantly, this has fueled pro-al-Qaeda extremism on the one hand and Shi’a militancy on the other, negatively impacting on the struggle against terrorism and the efforts towards de-radicalization. Due to increasing confrontation between the sects more radical ideas will gain strength in order to justify their actions, resulting in intensification of radicalization and a rise in anti-Western feelings and sentiments.
With Iraq serving as a safe haven for al-Qa‘ida and a greater flow of militants from Iraq across its borders to other neighboring states, the Middle East as a region risks becoming a wider transnational hub for terrorism. For the present and in the immediate future, Iraqi insurgents are likely to focus on the domestic front, defeating foreign occupation (as they call it) and preserving their primacy over their sectarian and ethnic rivals. However, over the last five years Iraq has become a melting pot of militants from all over the region as well as from international terrorist networks. This has radicalized large segments of the indigenous Iraqi insurgents who would be motivated to extend the geographic scope of their struggle into the region and beyond. Zarqawi has been successful in enticing and recruiting youths from the entire Arab world. Recruitment in significant numbers was also made from the rest of the Muslim world, including Muslim communities in the West. These foreign militants returned to their home countries, to the local militancy, invigorating sleeping cells or initiating struggles of their own.
Simultaneously, Iraq has been a laboratory and proving ground for concepts, tactics and technologies of terror. From urban warfare to suicide bombing, mass casualty attacks to targeted assassinations and hostage-taking operations, the Iraqi insurgency has been the trend-setter and tutor. We have witnessed the transfer of this know-how and technology into Afghanistan and our tribal areas, causing a clear upgrade in the sophistication and lethality of terrorist capabilities. The trend is likely to proliferate geographically to other terrorist outfits.
An evaluation of the emerging situation in Iraq must recognize the linkage and interconnection with terrorism in the global context. An Iraq that becomes a safe haven for al-Qa’ida is the worst-case scenario, reversing the gains made so far in the war against terrorism. Iraq with its vast natural resources, located in the heart of the Middle East and the immediate vicinity to some of the most sensitive potential conflict zones, with larger and better educated population, is likely to be far more dangerous than the Taliban’s Afghanistan. The resulting tremors of terrorism will travel from Iraq and Afghanistan to the neighborhood in the Middle East and South Asia and beyond to Southeast Asia, North Africa and further. Combined with the ever-increasing cyber-capability of terrorists, the new generation of Iraqi veterans are likely to impact far beyond the immediate borders of Iraq.
Having survived the counterterrorism efforts of the United States and Coalition forces, these veterans will be more confident, better trained and will transfer their experiences of urban terrorism, IED manufacturing and survival in high-tech counterterrorism operations worldwide. The rejuvenation of the Algerian Salafist Group for Combat as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and its extension into the Sahel countries and evidence of radicalization of Muslim communities in Europe — though there is no evidence yet of the so-called blowback that had been expected so far — are indicative of emerging challenges. There are also reports of a number of Central Asian militants among the ranks of the Iraqi insurgents as well. Their return home may also further reinforce the festering militant track in Central Asia. Although there are no credible reports of any linkages to the militancy in Southeast Asia, an ideological and moral impact is likely.
The perception of al-Qa‘ida in Iraq and Afghanistan successfully surviving the military onslaught of the United States, NATO and the rest of the international coalition highlights two important lessons. Firstly, it brings home the realization that a predominantly military approach to counterterrorism is deeply flawed and may not be taking us anywhere. It can at best achieve tactical effects of affording time and space for the application of a comprehensive strategy aimed at addressing the root causes that drive radicalization of Muslim societies and youths and recruitment into the ranks of the extremists and terrorists. Secondly, it has highlighted the resilience and staying power of al-Qa‘ida and its affiliates. In the face of enormous military pressure and attrition it has been able to readjust and retain its core organizational capabilities, both in terms of propagating its ideological message and planning and conducting significant terrorist operations worldwide. We have yet to see the conduct in recent times.
Consequently, the international war on terror has to be sustained as a long-term struggle not merely to win some immediate military or intelligence objectives but to win the war of ideas. There has to be a sincere attempt to develop bridges of tolerance, trust and peace — a strategic rapprochement between Islam and the West in which institutions like this one where we are today can play an important role.
Ladies and gentlemen, there are no quick fixes. It has indeed been a pleasure to share my thoughts with this august gathering. Thank you very much.
Fawaz Gerges: Let me start by saying we know very little about the jihadist landscape in Iraq – extremely little information and reliable and credible information. The jihadist landscape in general, not just in Iraq, is in very much constant flux and mutation. If history serves as a guide for us, some of us who study fringe social movements, it is that we must refrain from making sweeping generalizations about the jihadist universe, in particular when those generalizations are deeply anchored in time and space. In fact, one of the most important lessons I have learned about the nature and structure of the jihadist movement — what we call the jihadist movement or the jihadist current — fringe and tiny as it is— remember the jihadist movement is a very small and tiny current rather than a social movement in the way that social movements have evolved a social base — that the movement itself, even though it is tiny and fringe, has proven to be highly resourceful and resilient and adaptable to changing conditions.
In fact, a case in point can be made if you look at the various Islamist militant currents or waves since the late 1940s. The militant Islamist movement, the jihadist movement, was born in the late 1940s. Those various waves that have shaken the very nature and structure of Muslim societies have taught us a good lesson about being careful about either dismissing the jihadist movement or making sweeping generalizations about the movement.
Take Iraq, for example. A year ago the consensus among the Iraq specialists, both in the government and the academic community, was that the overwhelming number of jihadists in Iraq were foreign-born, or Arab or Muslim fighters or activists or militants or terrorists who left their homes and their families and traveled to Iraq to join the fight against the Coalition forces and their local allies. This was the consensus a year ago, that 90 percent of jihadists in Iraq were foreign-born as opposed to being indigenous Iraqis. This particular estimate, obsolete as it has become, is still being milked politically for whatever it is worth in the arguments on the war on terror. Yet now, a year later, the consensus within the US intelligence community and also Iraqis in the know is that the overwhelming number of jihadists in Iraq are indigenous Iraqis as opposed to being foreign-born or Arab fighters. Look at this particular fluctuation and shifts — even US intelligence services and not just Iraqis — and the last statement by Harith al-Dari, a prominent cleric in Iraq who is very close to the Iraqi resistance and insurgency, who said 90% of jihadists or al-Qa‘ida’s wing in Iraq are “Iraqi sons.”
There are two points I would like to stress here about what just happened in the last year. We have to be extremely careful about generalizing about the current situation, let alone about ten years from now — that is, what comes in the next ten years. The second critical point is that there is a jihadi infrastructure in Iraq. Our invasion and occupation of Iraq has finally succeeded in creating a jihadi infrastructure in the country, even though a year ago a majority of those jihadis were foreign-born and now the overwhelming number of jihadis are indigenous Iraqis.
Also what this tells us about the jihadi infrastructure in Iraq is that it is extremely resilient and has been able to adjust and adapt to changing conditions. The reason why most jihadis are Iraqi as opposed to foreign-born is because of the pressure put on various Arab and Muslim states by the US government and also because most of the first wave of the foreign-born jihadis were either killed or captured, and also because the late Zarqawi realized that — he was receiving advice — the only way for your movement to sustain itself is to surround yourself with Iraqi indigenous militants as opposed to Arab and Muslim activists and militants.
Here I want to add one point because as you know in the last few months we have heard a great deal and some of us have written about the fact that the jihadist current in Iraq is on the ropes. Somehow it has been dealt a mortal, lethal blow by both the American surge and also Sunni public opinion. Here a qualification: I would say that even though in the last eight months jihadists are weakened and entrapped, I would argue that the jihadist current in Iraq is far from being dead even though we hear some voices about the fact that somehow it is in the last throes of its existence. I would argue that as long as you have preponderant military presence on the part of the United States and as long as the Iraqi government is sectarian-based, the jihadist current is likely to remain a critical even though tiny component in the Iraqi equation.
I also would like to argue that only a broad-based legitimate Iraqi government and the exit of American troops will likely take the wind out of the jihadist sail in Iraq.
As I suggested earlier, I want to make a qualification here. Although there exists a jihadist infrastructure in Iraq, their percentage in the overall insurgency or resistance is really tiny. We are talking about between two and five percent of all fighters in Iraq who tend to be jihadis or part of al-Qa‘ida. There is a relative consensus on how tiny the jihadist current, even though it is very insidious and deadly — they have carried out some of the most lethal attacks against Iraqi civilians and foreigners as well.
I think this is a very small piece of good news because despite the horror of the Iraq war and despite everything that has happened, it seems to me that what we call jihadism has not succeeded in infiltrating the social fabric of the Sunni Arab community. Two percent after everything that has happened — we are not talking about large numbers of jihadis. They are still between two and five percent. Also part of the good news is it seems the Sunni Arab community can tackle this particular threat posed by al-Qa‘ida, as the recent events have shown very clearly in Iraq. Sunni Arab public opinion has turned against al-Qa’ida and one of the major and critical reasons why al-Qa‘ida in Iraq has suffered major catastrophic setbacks is not only because of the American military surge but particularly because Sunni Arab public opinion has turned against the jihadist current.
Here I want to shift now from the micro to the macro level, because I have been talking about Iraq and we are talking about post-Iraq jihadists. I want to share with you some of the research I have been doing in the last year and a half in the Middle East. I want to put some propositions on the table, some tentative conclusions, and I hope you take me to task afterwards.
I think it is accurate to say that the war in Iraq and subsequent developments in the last four years have given birth to what we call a new generation of Iraq jihadists, broadly defined. There is basically a generation in the making, in particular in the last few years. When I say an Iraq generation of jihadists, it is not just in Iraq — I think it has been born mainly as a result of the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. The war and its aftermath, I would argue, have radicalized and militarized critical segments of Muslim public opinion. We are not saying anything new here. As opposed to radical and militant opinion, you have critical segments of Arab and Muslim public opinion who have been radicalized as a result of the war and its aftermath. I keep repeating — in the last year and a half I have interviewed between 200 and 300 Muslim teens who basically say that they are desperately trying to go to Iraq and join the fight against the American occupiers. Most of those teens, who are fourteen or fifteen years old, have neither to do with either Islamist militancy or al-Qa‘ida. They seem to be greatly enraged by what is happening to Iraq and also enraged by the American invasion and occupation of a Muslim country. Most of those kids that I have interviewed — and my findings could be misleading because I am focusing on what I call the urban poverty belts of Arab and Muslim cities. I have focused particularly on these because you have a large pool of potential recruits and also because in the last three or four years we are witnessing that al-Qa‘ida’s ideology is migrating and spreading into the urban poverty belts of Arab and Muslim cities and refugee camps. Most of those kids, who had nothing to do with either Islamist militancy or al-Qa‘ida, have no formal education or even religious education, tell us that they have been told by their local clerics and by their neighborhood leaders that somehow joining the jihad in Iraq is an individual and religious duty.
The reason why I am mentioning those samples of interviews is to show that it is on the level of ideology, it is on the level of dialectics, it is on the level of doctrinal ideas that al-Qa‘ida’s ideology now finds receptive ears among the politically and socially marginalized in several Muslim countries.
I started by saying that operationally al-Qa‘ida’s wing in Iraq and al-Qa‘ida Central appear to be bogged down and have suffered catastrophic military setbacks in the last five or six years. However, what is alarming is that al-Qa‘ida’s big ideological claims about the United States, al-Qa‘ida’s assertions about the United States appear to resonate not only among radical and militant public opinion but even among mainstream Muslim public opinion. In particular I am interested in whether this ideology resonates among the poor and the marginalized in the urban poverty belts in Arab and Muslim cities. What has happened is that al-Qa‘ida’s ideology and worldview seem to be migrating and spreading into these communities in several places in that part of the world. In fact, I would argue that if it were not for logistical and financial reasons, if it were not for the lack of resources — most of those kids I am interviewing do not have $500 to take a bus ride or a plane ride to the Syrian-Iraqi border — if it were not for financial and economic reasons, I would argue that the flow of young Muslim men to Iraq would exceed the flow of Muslim men to Afghanistan in the 1980s and early 1990s. In some of my interviews they tell me that not only do they not have the resources, it is becoming more and more difficult to make it to the Syrian-Iraqi border because the Syrian authorities have really tightened their control. Also various Arab and Muslim governments — the Saudi government, the Yemeni government, the Jordanians and Lebanese — have also tightened security. This partly explains why jihadis in Iraq now are relying on more indigenous Iraqi activists and fighters as opposed to relying on Arab and Muslim fighters.
While tactically the US war on terror has scored major hits against al-Qa‘ida in the last few years, I would argue that it has been dismal on the strategic level — the level of ideas, the level of doctrine, the level of dialectics. This is a very critical point — it is not just a polemical point — because if we are discussing post-Iraq war jihadis, I think we are talking about the long term. It is very short-sighted, I would argue, to advertise and publicize how many jihadis are killed in Iraq and ignore and neglect the deepening and widening ideological infrastructure of jihadism in Iraq and throughout the region. While we might be making some gains against al-Qa‘ida’s wing in Iraq, what we are ignoring and neglecting is that the ideological framework, the doctrinal framework, the dialectical framework has deepened and widened throughout the region.
Really all it takes now is one or two hardened jihadists to basically — take for example Shaker al-Absi, and one of my colleagues here did work on him — one single hardened jihadist and associate of Zawahiri in north Lebanon was able to recruit hundreds of fighters and activists over one or two years and wreck the lives of almost 2,000 Palestinian refugees and a hundred Lebanese. One single hardened jihadist — because you had a large pool of potential recruits and activists because the ideological infrastructure has been expanded as a result of our military invasion and occupation of Iraq and the subsequent developments.
Regardless of how few in numbers those jihadists we are talking about in Iraq — whether they are really 100 or 200 or 3,000, as the consensus is evolving — they will return home and some of them have returned home to their countries — in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Algeria — and find a huge pool of potential recruits that can be tapped in the future. Based on limited interviews that some of us have been doing, many of those hardened jihadists who returned home have been hibernating deeper and deeper underground and waiting for the right opportunities to rise up and take arms again. Some others who we interviewed — I interviewed a Yemeni jihadi who boasted about the fact that the Iraq war has given jihadis a new lease on life after being entrapped and encircled in Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Taliban overthrow.
I want to reiterate this particular point that Iraq has supplied ideological ammunition to al-Qa‘ida, which it has utilized very effectively against the United States and its European and Muslim allies. I do not know really how the United States can deconstruct and dismantle this ideological infrastructure as long as we remain deeply bogged down in Iraq, shifting sand in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world. In this particular sense I would second the general and say that priority must be given to extracting American forces from the heart of the world of Islam in an orderly and timely fashion. Packing and leaving overnight would be disastrous not only for Iraq but also for American strategic interests. Also investing real political and social capital to put out what I call the spreading fires in the Middle East — we have spreading fires now throughout the Middle East and not just Iraq.
At the same time, the United States must find ways and means to build alliances and join ranks with those Muslim opinion-makers and mainstream Islamists — mainstream Islamists as opposed to radical Islamists — and even former militants, former jihadists who have launched a frontal assault against al-Qa‘ida’s ideology in the last few years. I have in mind people and clerics like Salman al-Auda, Yusuf Qaradawi, Karam Zuhdi, Hassan Turabi and many others. Those are not Islamo-fascists, as the conventional wisdom goes now. Those represent the only hope for the Muslim world to deconstruct the ideas that have given rise to al-Qa‘ida’s ideology. Thank you.
Michael Ware: Thank you for having me. Let me say at the outset, in no way do I assume that I have the weight or authority of my fellow panelists. I am nothing more than a witness. That is all I have done and that is all I do: I bear witness, first in Afghanistan and now in Iraq. I try to see it from as many sides as humanly or inhumanly possible for the purpose of not just understanding what is happening now and for deconstructing the myriad of lies but also to perhaps one day help feed discussions like this about what it shall mean and what it shall do. So what I can offer is perhaps less in that I can give you much more of an anecdotal or empirical sense of jihad in Iraq and from that perhaps you can take from it and begin to decide what that will mean after Iraq.
From the outset, let me say that most of what you have been told and most of the information you have been given upon which to form your opinions is wrong — or is indeed outright lies or spin or propaganda. It is a fundamental truth of war that everybody lies — their governments, our governments, the good guys, the bad guys, even the civilian in the street who is inflamed with passion or exaggeration or it is simply Chinese whispers. The trick is distilling the truth and you can only do that when you see it with your own eyes. In the fog of any war that is extraordinarily difficult, as you well know. In Iraq it has become particularly so.
So let me just tell you a little bit about the Iraq that I have seen and that might inform you a little bit about the jihad of Iraq and what the jihad of Iraq has become and may mutate into. I lived in Afghanistan for about a year, which meant I spent some time in Pakistan. I dealt with the Taliban, I dealt with foreign fighters. I moved through Waziristan and North-West Frontier Provinces. Then I shifted into Iraq, and Iraq was an open sketchbook for me. I knew nothing about it.
One of my first encounters was before the invasion. I was in the north, running free with the peshmerga. From the very beginning there were two front lines: one against Saddam but also one against Ansar al-Islam, which was largely an al-Qa‘ida affiliate or came from that broad school. Immediately I thought I was back in Afghanistan, on that battlefield – and it really was a battlefield. It was World War I type stuff — long-running trench lines. It was Tora Bora mountain domains, dug-in positions, unforgiving combatants, suicide bombers. It was murderous and butcherous, and that was my first taste. That was before the onset of the invasion.
Then in 2003 I had the misfortune to all but be there when the first significant car bomb went off, in August 2003, attacking the Jordanian embassy. Then for better or for worse, friends of mine were killed in the United Nations headquarters car bombing as well. I stood in that crater while they were digging out Sergio de Mello.
When I finally arrived in Baghdad after the collapse of the front line, I knew much from what I had absorbed from my colleagues about what had happened on our side of that conflict, of the invasion — what the 3rd ID had done, what the Marines had done, the 101st Airborne Division. I really did not know what had happened on the Iraqi side. So through a number of Iraqi characters — some CIA assets, some assets for other intelligence agencies — and through just people I knew — neighbors, translators, drivers, all of whom had served in the military — I started to seek out the members of Iraq’s military who had fought those battles or had chosen not to fight those battles. I hunted them down.
So when I first met them in the summer of 2003, there were anything from the corporals to the lieutenant generals to the senior cabinet ministers who had all just simply been sent home in disgrace and dishonor and were sitting in their houses. At that point I could talk to them and they were willing to tell me the story of that war. I stayed in touch with these people and then I watched as they started, bit by bit, to pick up their Kalashnikovs and take potshots at American convoys. Then I started to see them gather together and do it more collectively. Then I saw one group begin to coordinate with another group and then I saw hierarchies emerge. Then I was taken to Iraqi insurgent training camps. This is at a time we were being told they were dead-enders and criminals and they would be done by Christmas. I would see it with my eyes.
At that point these men, for want of a better term, were broadly nationalists, or they were men who had been dishonored, or they were just professional soldiers who resented the fact that foreign tanks were in their streets, entering their houses, searching their bedrooms, searching their women and so forth. By and large for the vast majority of the Iraqi insurgency as we first came to know it, the Sunni insurgency, the guerrilla war — that is from whence it came. These were men who even as they were fighting, I could spend time with. Obviously I received much criticism for that, but I just wanted to understand. I felt the responsibility of history upon me to do so. As I said, we were being lied to and we are never going to understand it if we do not know what really happened. We are not going to know what is coming if we do not really know what happened.
So these were men — you could sit, they would smoke cigarettes. Many of them liked whiskey, many of them liked to carouse, for want of a better term. They were very much secularists. Slaughtering me and cutting my head off just was not on their radar – thank God. I could sit with their families and so forth.
It was not until the beginning of 2004 — and by that time Zarqawi was beginning to make his presence felt. Zarqawi was always on the outs though with old-school, classic al-Qa’ida anyway, with these bombings and a few other acts of violence. It was nowhere near the tempo that we have now become so frighteningly accustomed to. It was still then unique. But by the end of 2003, the beginning of 2004, I would be sitting with these same men — professional military officers, professional intelligence officers, Iraq’s version of West Pointers and members of the CIA — these were not religious fanatics. They might have been ideologues or they might have been power-hungry or they may have been selfish bastards, but they were not religious fanatics.
Then over a cup of tea one afternoon, I had to pinch myself to remember I was in Iraq because suddenly I felt like I was back in Afghanistan. The same group that I had known for some time suddenly started pestering me about why I wasn’t a Muslim. They had never done that. Then I watched as they prayed — they had never done that. Then they produced a video. I had seen past videos, and suddenly it was full of religious iconography and rhetoric and had a religious framework. Then there even started to emerge references to bin Laden and jihad. That was not in their vernacular when it began. So I actually witnessed the Islamicization or the radicalization of part — part — of the Sunni insurgency.
As the years went on — 2004, 2005 — this continued but it really just remained at a certain element — very angry young men, or men from generally conservative areas, akin to a Bible Belt, who had been repressed by Saddam and the mullahs in their mosques had always been watching if they got a little bit too out of line religiously. There were sanctions brought upon them. So to some degree there was ripe ground there. But by and large among the Iraqis in general, the Sunnis, and among the Iraqi insurgents there was not the heart for jihad.
From day one in 2003, the hierarchy of Saddam’s military and intelligence and security apparatus offered the Americans a deal. What they said was, “We never liked al-Qa‘ida. We never had them in our country. As a regime, we never tolerated them. We are not al-Qa‘ida. We do not share their agenda for Islamic jihad or global Islamicization. We do not share their methods and tactics.” They also said, “We are deeply opposed to Iran, as were you when you were our allies and we used your satellite imagery to wipe out their divisions.” They said, “We are prepared to host US bases.” The verbatim quote was akin to Germany and Japan. “We are more than happy to normalize diplomatic relations.” They said, “How did we end up on the wrong side of this? Don’t take us down this road.” At that point in the early days of the CPA and Ambassador Bremer, General Sanchez, they were not just rebuffed, they were once more dishonored.
So what emerged was a marriage of inconvenience — the classic case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. You had these professional military officers in Fallujah during those heady days of the summer of 2004, and I was in and out of there a lot. I was also with the US military when they retook Fallujah. These two groups were working side by side but I can tell you, the assassinations that went on, the fights that went on, the turf wars that occurred — it was a very unhappy alliance. But bit by bit, as time went by, through our fault and it must be said through the vision of a man called Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who played the whole situation like a virtuoso on a violin, that changed. Much of it was about money. The jihadists were never short of cash. Plus they had an ideological framework that very readily applied to an angry young man and they gained the momentum.
A classic case, a very simple illustration. There is a central part of Baghdad called Haifa Street. From Haifa Street you can fire mortars on the US Embassy. Haifa Street was the domain of essentially the Ba‘thists, the former military. They owned it, they ran it. They were the ones who battled the Americans in those narrow laneways. They are the ones who would fire mortars and rockets at the embassy, in the Green Zone. Then Ansar al-Islam sent a couple of representatives. Then Tawhid wal-Jihad, Zarqawi’s group, sent a couple of representatives. Then they started to throw money around and then they started to grow. It got to the point where suddenly one day, during one fierce pitched battle with the Americans, at the end of the battle as the smoke cleared — literally with a burning American Abrams in the central avenue of Haifa Street — Zarqawi took over. So much so that some of the Ba‘thists came to me to tell me of this, and they feared the rise of the Islamists. I said, “How do I know this is true? I must see it for myself.” So they took me in there and lo and behold, I drive down that main avenue and it is lined with Tawhid wal-Jihad flags. I was then grabbed by what became Al-Qa‘ida. They were preparing to execute me and it was the Ba’athists who saved me.
But more and more as time went on, the idea, the money, the power, the momentum grew and took root. Yes, Al-Qa‘ida came to dominate much of the Sunni battlefield.
It was after four years, more than 3,000 American deaths, that finally the Americans and the Ba’athists came to an accord. What is dressed up as tribal alliances and civilian volunteers is that America has cut deals with the Ba‘thists that they rejected in 2003. The Ba’athists are doing exactly what they promised. Who do you think knows where Al Qaeda sleeps at night? Who is not bound in knots by rules of engagement and the niceties against assassination and mutilation and torture? They started in Anbar Province in Ramadi, with an American commander I know, and it worked. Then it spread. The surge has not done this, trust me. Sure, the surge has contributed to helping develop an environment in the capital but the success as it may be, limited or not, against al-Qa‘ida has come from the deal with the Ba’athists on the terms they originally offered.
What was the sticking point in 2003 and what is now the binding point between the Americans and the Ba‘thists and the Sunnis at large, and what is also helping to bring America’s pro-Western Arab allies back into alignment, is Iran. What the Ba’athists said in 2003 was, “We are willing to work with you but that government is full of Iran’s men, and we won’t deal with them.” The Americans said, “Any agreement we come to must be tripartite. It must include that government.” The Ba’athists said, “They are our enemy and they are your enemy. If you don’t realize it, come back when you do.” Eventually America did.
So all these tribal councils and these police auxiliaries who are now protecting large chunks of Baghdad, that has brought these death tolls down, are American-backed Sunni militias that in part receive funding and support from neighboring Arab countries and essentially are a counterbalance to the largely Iranian-backed or influenced Shi’a militias that are actually the government.
So the anti-al-Qa‘ida success that we have seen has come with a price. The building blocks for the proxy war are now in place. Maybe that will be the buffer and that will be the balance that remains but that is the legacy we are going to leave. As the highest American officials in the country tell me, Iran is the big winner of this war. America’s Arab allies know that and the Iraqis know that. At the end of the day, the greatest export from Iraq will be that most of the Iraqi jihadis will stay in Iraq and most of the foreigners who go there to fight will die, because that is why they go. There is very little Iraqi leadership at the upper echelons. When Zarqawi was killed he could have been replaced by an Iraqi but he was not. The true power is the idea. What we did not have in Afghanistan, what we did not have before was the internet. They can export this idea with less need for the veterans to come home to do it. It is the inspiration that this new breed of jihadi now represents. Zarqawi forged it in the fire of the war in Iraq. ‘Usama bin Laden was never comfortable with it. Even Zarqawi’s mentor was never comfortable with it. But we now have a new breed that is harder, more brutal and more unforgiving than the Al-Qa‘ida we have ever known. They are spreading through the internet. What helps give them life and what ultimately the West has used to help limit them is the Arab world’s fear of Iran. Thank you.
Question & Answer:
Paul Pillar: Thanks to all of our panelists. I have got a stack of questions here but I want to start with a question of my own, which could be referred to as the 800-pound gorilla that is maybe not in this room but outside this room. I am referring to the ongoing debate about the future of the US military involvement in Iraq and all the discussion in Congress and elsewhere about troop withdrawal schedules – do we have one, do we have deadlines? So my question I want to pose to all three panelists, just to get a brief comment — and a couple of you touched on this, but only touched on it – to what extent do US decisions about the future of the US troop presence — staying longer, getting out faster, having more or less troops, the various scenarios we can think of over the next couple of years — to what extent does any of that make a difference and what will be the difference on everything you have said about the future of the jihadist threat?
Ehsan ul Haq: I did refer to this particular dilemma that the US will face. I did refer to the term “political-strategic safeguards.” If you do not put in place political-strategic safeguards and decide to make a precipitate withdrawal, whether in a short time or a long time, and create a perception that the terrorism in Iraq has succeeded or has outlasted the US or Coalition military capability or military presence, then I am afraid we will suffer the consequences that I have highlighted in my script.
Fawaz Gerges: I did mention that the American military presence has not only undermined America’s credibility and status in the Arab and Muslim world, but it has also supplied al-Qa‘ida with ideological ammunition and it seems to give birth to a new generation of activists and militants who had no prior relationship with other Islamist militancy or al-Qa‘ida.
Michael Ware: Referring to what a panelist in the earlier session said — obviously it is hard for me to keep as attuned to the domestic political current here as I would like, given that I live in Baghdad. The bottom line is: it does not matter whether you are for or against this war, whether you agree with the way it has been executed or not. You are stuck. I’m sorry. You have really screwed it.
Withdrawal now — even a phased withdrawal — will bear such consequence, not for us but for our children and their children. I cannot even begin to imagine it. That is not to mention what I call the moral dilemma for liberal America. “We want our boys and girls home” — who doesn’t? They want us out; you can understand that. It ain’t going to be Rwanda, but it is going to be Bosnia. That is what the top war planners tell me. You are going to leave a vacuum and take a wild guess who is going to fill it, and just think about the proxy war that will be fought.
The previous panelists said there will not be a regional war. That’s right. Saudi tanks are not going to roll across the border — but everyone is already playing in Iraq. Everyone is already backing their horse, arming, funding, politically supporting. The minute you drop down to 100,000, 75,000 troops — that is only enough to keep your boys and girls alive. They will not be able to affect a thing. They can barely affect anything now. It is the horrid reality of our time. Until we come up with a solution, we are stuck there.
Fawaz Gerges: The argument has always been, on the part of the administration, that if we do leave Iraq, al-Qa‘ida will succeed in establishing a major base of operations in Iraq. The counterargument has been that only Iraqis are qualified to dismantle the al-Qa‘ida infrastructure in Iraq. According to the administration’s own words and new evidence, it seems to me Iraqis have finally succeeded in scoring major hits against al-Qa‘ida in Iraq and this tells us that somehow if we disengage, if we empower the Iraqis, if we find ways to fill the security vacuum after the American exit, I think Iraqis will be able to deal with al-Qa‘ida on their own, with the support of the international community.
Paul Pillar: That could be a segue into one of the questions, and I’d invite comment by anyone. The question is: how related is the Anbar awakening — arming and empowering of Sunni tribes — to the shift from foreign al-Qa‘ida fighters to almost all Iraqis? Could the arming of Sunni tribes lead to radicalization of the usually more secular Sunnis?
Fawaz Gerges: You know the view of the Iraqi government. The Maliki government is extremely displeased with arming Sunni tribes and Sunni communities. The Maliki government argues that by arming Sunni tribes and communities you are creating multiple centers of power that might undermine the stability and legitimacy of the Iraqi government. But this tells you the strategic predicament of the United States. The United States has come to the conclusion that only Sunni Arab public opinion can deal with al-Qa‘ida and the radical jihadi fringe. Also on the question of Iran, you are absolutely correct. Now it seems to me Iran, not al-Qa‘ida, is the most lethal threat to American interests and thus an alliance with the Sunni communities helps to bring the Sunnis into the political process and in an alliance against the radical Shi’as and by definition Iran.
Ehsan ul Haq: Our experience in Afghanistan tells us that arming any group of people or raising any sort of militias can be extremely dangerous and counterproductive. You can arm them but you have no control over them. The solution lies in regular centralized authorities which have responsibility along with a capability. I think that is very important and must be realized. We must act with that sense of responsibility toward the people of Iraq instead of making some immediate tactical military or intelligence gains. I think that is the game going on — we should not do that. We should look at it from a strategic perspective of bringing peace to the people of Iraq. It cannot come by arming small groups of people there.
Michael Ware: General Haq is right. Arming groups is extraordinarily dangerous, but that is what the American administration has done with this government. Even the senior officials on the ground do not call the Iraqi government their ally. The arming of the Sunni tribes has a twofold purpose. The most immediate is to put pressure on al-Qa‘ida — not wipe them out, you never will. But it returns them to their natural order — a constant cancer that one must live with.
But the second and more significant element, the broader element of the embracing of these Sunni tribes, is this is America turning on the government it created. Don’t forget, American agencies recommended the complete disbandment of the Iraqi national police. Why? Because the Americans have no control over it and they are death squads in uniforms.
The reason why the civilian deaths in Baghdad are down are threefold. One, anyone who can leave has left. Anyone left behind is now in segregated enclaves. For a long time the Sunnis were vulnerable, they were naked. US-backed government death squads would come in and slaughter them — drill bits, all sorts of business — and dump their bodies. Now these neighborhoods have their own militias to protect them. As American soldiers, as General Petraeus, as Ambassador Crocker will tell you, they are the men two weeks ago we were fighting against. But we give them air support and now their neighborhoods are safe. So it makes the numbers look good for now and maybe it is the only way you get your boys and girls home, but it is going to have long-term consequences.
Paul Pillar: The next is a question directed to General Haq. To what extent do the Taliban continue to find sympathy, solidarity and even support in Pakistan? To the extent that they do, why?
Ehsan ul Haq: We are away from Iraq, for a change. One can expect that with me sitting on the stage.
First of all, we must understand Taliban. “Taliban” means students. It is a very extensively misused term in the media and in the West. Anybody who would oppose the foreign presence in Afghanistan was put into the box and labeled Taliban. So we must understand the various issues and problems that were related to the term Taliban and is misused in defining the resistance to foreign presence in Afghanistan.
As far as support to the phenomenon of the Taliban, as we understand it broadly, in Pakistan is concerned, let me tell you that the people of Pakistan are far more different when it comes to their standard of education, their standard of development, their understanding of their religion, as compared to the people of Afghanistan. So to expect that there would be some sort of broad sympathy for what is happening in Afghanistan or for the Taliban is misplaced information.
But there is another aspect which we must understand and that is the feelings of the people of Pakistan about their faith, about what is happening to Muslims everywhere. It is not only Afghanistan or the Taliban, it is what is happening in Palestine, what is happening in Kashmir, what happened in Bosnia, what is now happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cumulatively it creates a strong feeling of unhappiness in Muslims everywhere and the people of Pakistan are no exception to those feelings. We have the same feelings in Pakistan that the Muslims are on the receiving end. That is why when I was concluding I talked of a strategic rapprochement between Islam and the West based on trust, tolerance and peace. That is my message.
Paul Pillar: We are here in the National Press Club and so it is appropriate to ask a question about the role of the media. Michael Ware, I will direct this to you although ask others for comment. Two clear differences between the Afghan war and Iraq are found in the media environment. For one thing, we are almost two decades along in the twenty-four-hour news cycle and there are competing news outlets distributed worldwide in that cycle, like Al-Jazeera, that we did not have before. Do these factors actually make events more combustible or do they shorten the story arc and cut short the impact of any given set of events?
Michael Ware: I think they do all those things. One, it helps inform much quicker, much more readily. Goodness gracious, I have been in combat with US soldiers and we have learned things off the radio or off CNN in the [indiscernible] before we have received it from orders from above. So there is a certain sense of real time that helps inform all of us.
Yes, it can also be inflammatory — even if it is true, the way it is handled or the timing of its release. Nonetheless, overshadowing all of these is the internet. If you want your kind of news, you don’t have to watch CNN or even Al-Jazeera. You know the website to go to, you know where you download your videos, you know where you can get what you want. These are markets and the markets know what they want and they know where to go and get it.
Don’t forget, there is a lot of criticism of the media about Iraq in terms of good news, bad news, etc. Unlike any conflict I have ever been in, where I have never been hunted, there is no sense of journalistic objectivity or neutrality. You are not an observer. The guidelines of every insurgent or militia group — and I have been with all of them. I have dealt with the Quds Force of Iran, Jaish al Mahdi, the Badr Brigade. I have dealt with Al-Qa‘ida in Iraq, Ansar al-Islam, Ansar al-Sunna. I have dealt with the Brigades of 1920 Revolution. Under all of their targeting guidelines journalists fit fairly and squarely as legitimate targets — either because we are part of the problem or because our propaganda value is so great that it outweighs all else. At the end of the day none of the actors in these things need us anymore. They don’t need us to get their message out — they think we distort it. Whether it is the US public affairs officer who goes nuts because he does not think that the general was shown in the right light or you showed his bad side, or whether it is al-Qa‘ida who doesn’t think that you were damning enough of the Americans or that you downplayed their casualties. They have their own delivery systems. The world has changed.
Paul Pillar: The next question is directed at Professor Gerges but I invite other comments. Do you think decision-makers in the United States and elsewhere in the West are well informed about what is political Islam or Islamism and radical Islamism or jihadists? Do scholars fulfill well their responsibilities to teach and inform those Western decision-makers?
Fawaz Gerges: This particular question goes to the very heart of what we are talking about today, about how and why we find ourselves bogged down in the heart of the world of Islam. I want to take one minute, if you allow me.
After 9/11 there were two narratives advanced in the United States. One narrative says that 9/11 and al-Qa’ida was basically a monstrous mutation of a very tiny fringe Islamist movement; that far from 9/11 and far from al-Qa‘ida representing a major social and political force in the Muslim world, al-Qa‘ida itself was a monstrous mutation of a very tiny militant Islamist movement. This was a narrative that did not gain traction in the United States. We did not debate this particular question. Another narrative says: on the contrary, al-Qa‘ida represented a greater threat to American vital interests and the West. Al-Qa‘ida was an extension of a greater ideological social movement in the Muslim world and al-Qa‘ida, instead of being a tiny fringe movement, was part of what they called Islamo-fascism.
The reason why this goes to the very heart of the debate is because if we really paid close attention to the great debate that raged in the Muslim world after 9/11 — I do not need to tell you that 9/11 and al-Qa‘ida were denounced and renounced by not only the mainstream clerical establishment but even by decommissioned former militants and jihadis. The question after 9/11 was: where were the Muslim moderates? We did not take the time to follow the debate that was raging in the Muslim world, truly — from Yusuf Qaradawi to Tantawi to Hassan Fadlallah to Hassan Turabi, it was a universal — and I am using my words very precisely — universal reaction by mainstream and radical Muslim public opinion of 9/11 and al-Qa‘ida. In fact, al-Qa‘ida was internally encircled and entrapped after 9/11 because it met with universal rejection.
Instead of trying to build alliances with Muslim public opinion, instead relying on military force; instead of trying to internally encircle and strangle the beast that is al-Qa’ida, what did we do after 9/11? We plunged head-on into Iraq. We over-relied on military force. We declared all-out war against a tiny fringe, unconventional current. We not only lumped all former militants and al-Qa‘ida together, we lumped mainstream Islamists — remember, mainstream Islamists who renounced the use of force since the late 1960s — together with al-Qa‘ida and that is why we are here. We are here because we did not have a great debate on 9/11, al-Qa‘ida and political Islam.
Paul Pillar: Fawaz, what is your reaction to the word “Islamo-fascism”?
Fawaz Gerges: My question to you is: how many American citizens make distinctions between Islamo-fascism and Islam and fascism? This is question one. In the minds of American citizens on the streets, how many American citizens make a distinction between those two terms?
Secondly, how do we lump this tiny fringe which perpetrated a great crime against the United States and Muslim societies on 9/11 with the bulk of mainstream Islamists who renounce the use of force in the service of politics since the late 1960s and who universally condemned and denounced 9/11 and al-Qa‘ida? Of course it does not make sense. What has happened by lumping mainstream Islamists with militant jihadis like al-Qa‘ida, we played directly into the hands of al-Qa‘ida. Mainstream public opinion realized this is not a war against al-Qa‘ida; this is a war against Islam and Muslims. This is a war against mainstream political Islamists who do not subscribe to the use of force in the service of politics.
Ehsan ul Haq: My comment is related to both the preceding questions, one on the media and the other related to knowledge about Islam and the perception that the leadership has and society in general in the West.
Immediately after 9/11, I was center stage in some of these issues at that point in time. We thought what was happening — yes, there was a post-9/11 trauma in the United States, particularly in the West in general and the world at large. But what happened was that there was this attempt in the immediate wake of 9/11 trying to glorify and make something very unrealistic out of what al-Qa‘ida was. Frankly speaking, I was heading the ISI and I did not know what was al-Qa‘ida. I am telling you very frankly here in this room. I did not know what is al-Qa‘ida — they are telling us al-Qa‘ida. We had to quickly try and educate ourselves on what is al-Qa‘ida. But we were bombarded by this being a multinational with franchises in each country, whether it is happening in Bali or in Morocco or in Islamabad it is one network. Orders are being issued and somebody is implementing those orders. We kept on saying: for god’s sake, it is not like that. You are only going to make it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I want to tell you that two or three years down the line, this is exactly what we have made out of it. We thought: yes, there was an overall unhappiness in the Muslim world even preceding 9/11, in the context of issues that I referred to. At the same time there were these fringe elements who were out to do something or the other in terms of terrorist acts. But to link the two and come out with concepts or start a debate that the professor has referred to, I thought was very unfair. It confused the issues which could have been dealt with very effectively if we had remained focused on what had happened.
Fawaz Gerges: In terms of post-Iraq war jihadists — look at what we are discussing today. We are not discussing the so-called Afghan Arab generation, we are discussing the Iraq generation. Did Iraq ever welcome foreign jihadis and al-Qa‘ida’s ideology? Of course it was a very brutal place before the American-led invasion. Iraq now, in the last five years or so, more than 1,000 suicide bombings have taken place in Iraq in the last four years — more than all the bombings combined together, whether by Hamas or Jihad or Tamil or even Hizballah. Iraq now, as you suggested, exports suicide bombing techniques to Afghanistan, Afghanistan being itself the exporter of global jihad in the late 1980s and 1990s.
This tells you a great deal about the strategic predicament of the United States and the great debate that we failed to have after 9/11 because the questions were not really put on the table. We were not really allowed to flesh out the debate and all its implications.
Paul Pillar: Representative of a number of questions that people have submitted about other places to which the conflict that we are talking about or the individuals we are talking about could go, let me choose this one. It concerns Lebanon; I’ll ask for comments from anyone. If jihadists in Iraq look to replicate the “success” of sparking conflict between sectarian groups to undermine a weak Western-backed central government, it seems like Lebanon would be the obvious place to try. There is now an increasing jihadist presence in northern Lebanon, including fighters returning from Iraq. Could you comment on the threat of jihadists sparking civil war in Lebanon?
Fawaz Gerges: I was born in Lebanon and I know Lebanon a bit. I have never seen Lebanon as polarized along Sunni-Shi’a lines as it is today. Lebanon today stands on the brink of another major conflict, not between Christians and Muslims but between Sunnis and Shi’a. I am not talking about an ideological fault line. The reverberations of the Iraq war have spilled over into various countries, including Lebanon. I would also venture the opinion that now we have a few thousand, between 2,000 and 3,000 potential jihadis and active jihadis in Lebanon. The various battles that rage in north Lebanon over the last few months tells you a great deal about the gravity of the situation in Lebanon and how the situation in Iraq now spills over, and how the Sunni-Shi’a divide really threatens the very foundation of regional order and stability and global stability as well.
Paul Pillar: This panel has expired. Would you please join me in thanking our three panelists.
About this Transcript:
The panel discussion was held at MEI's 61st Annual Conference in the National Press Club, Washington, DC.