Al Qaeda's New Failures

This column was written by James S. Robbins.
"Terrorists are clever. It's part of their job description, they have to make up for their weakness with guile. That is what makes them so dangerous, their constant drive for innovation. Take for example a recent al Qaeda operation in Iraq. They murdered an Iraqi Defense Force officer, and then placed his family under surveillance. The terrorists found out where the family was setting up a pavilion to accept condolences for the murdered man and laid a series of mines along the approaches. After all, any friend of the officer they killed would probably be worth targeting too. In the resulting ambush, they claimed to have taken out three vehicles and killed a Colonel named Karim. There is no easy way to confirm that, but whatever the outcome the plan showed a noteworthy degree of cunning.

The recent al Qaeda attacks on Abu Ghraib prison got a lot more attention. Of course, anything having to do with Abu Ghraib is going to flash on the media radar screen, but in this case, the story was a terrorist attempt to free prisoners and to take the war to an American camp. The raids led some to speculate that this might signal a change in terrorist tactics. An alleged former Iraqi General named Abu Jalal was quoted as saying that in the future the insurgents would use "the same method that [the Coalition] used when they attacked Iraq." But if so they are not being very clever, and it may be a sign of desperation.

Last Saturday's attack on Abu Ghraib in particular is a case study in how not to conduct guerilla warfare. Al Qaeda assaulted the prison complex from several directions with rockets, mortars, car bombs and small arms. The battle raged for two hours. No Americans were killed; 16 were slightly wounded, seven others hurt more seriously. Between 40 and 60 terrorists took part, and they admitted to ten killed, a KIA rate of 17-25 percent. The overall enemy casualty rate including wounded was probably over 50 percent. No prisoners were freed. Al Qaeda claimed the raid was a success, but a few more victories like this and their insurgency will be over.

Terrorists and guerillas have a hard time with stand-up fights. The reason they are unconventional warriors in the first place is that their relative weakness prevents them from fighting symmetrical, force-on-force engagements. If they could place effective armies in the field, they would. But for various reasons — small numbers, lack of popular support, no significant heavy weapons, and no possibility of air support to name a few — they lack the capacity to engage in pitched battles. They have to fight hit and run actions, in which running is as important as hitting, if not more so. When insurgents group together, they lose their mobility and present attractive targets. When they attack well-armed troops in strong defensive positions, they risk annihilation. All the guerillas have going for them at that point is the element of surprise, and they can only make these types of attacks a few times before Coalition forces begin searching for signs of preparation and mounting preemptive strikes.

However, al Qaeda might well change its strategy, since the previous one has clearly failed. The civil war they sought to foment in Iraq has not broken out; the election they sought to disrupt has become a symbol of freedom and resistance to violence and intimidation. A new Iraqi government is forming with a Shia prime minister, a Kurdish president, and a Sunni vice president. Meanwhile 64 influential Sunni clerics have urged their followers to become active in the Iraqi defense forces and police. The overall level of violence in Iraq has plunged back to levels of February 2004 after peaking just before the election, and the foreign terrorists led by Zarqawi will soon be the only ones left fighting. Al Qaeda has failed to achieve any of its strategic objectives in Iraq, and Osama bin Laden has allegedly counseled Zarqawi to shift more of his attacks towards Coalition forces, and to hit the American homeland for good measure. But Zarqawi has noted the shortage of "willing martyrs" for such an operation, and an editorial in his online magazine complained about the "lack of enthusiasm for jihad." Small wonder under the circumstances.

James S. Robbins is a senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.
By James S. Robbins
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online
  • Dick Meyer

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