Al Qaeda has reconquered parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, and Iraqi security forces are battling to reclaim them.
The bin Ladenist resurgence in Iraq may be but a blip. It could also be just the beginning of yet another Middle East horror story. I spent more time than I ever wanted hanging out with American and Iraqi soldiers in Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad during the war, and I spoke to dozens if not hundreds of people there during that time, and the salient features of the Iraqi army back then were extraordinary incompetence alongside extraordinary improvement. We’re about to find out which trait wins out.
Let’s be perfectly clear about one thing, however: The hatred in Iraq for Al Qaeda is incandescent, even in the Sunni areas that theoretically make up its base. This should not be hard to believe. Bin Laden’s Mesopotamian enforcers butchered far more Iraqis than they even dreamed of killing in New York and Washington.
They shot people for smoking. They tortured people to death. They threatened to execute vegetable vendors who displayed cucumbers and tomatoes next to each other. (The vegetables are supposedly different genders.) But that was back when the stores were still open. Just a few months before I showed up in Ramadi in 2007, Al Qaeda so thoroughly ravaged the city that the economy ceased to exist. It was at zero. Nothing worked, nothing was open. Electrical wires ran cold. Water didn’t come out of the sink. Garbage collection was a thing of the past. Life itself was nearly a thing of the past. Al Qaeda did not even try to govern the places they seized. They were just psychopaths running amok during a local apocalypse.
Political Islam may always have at least a small natural constituency, if not a large one, in the Muslim world, but Al Qaeda’s totalitarianism is in a dimension beyond. It is at war not only with the West and the region’s Shia minority, but also with the Sunni Arab society that produced it.
An Iraqi police officer in the Fallujah area explained it to me this way four years ago: “When you join the Al Qaeda organization, the first thing you have to do is get your parents far away from your mind. Your father and mother have to be away from your thinking. There can be nothing else. Only the Al Qaeda organization. Your kids, your wife, your family, your parents, your beliefs, all have to be out. Only then can you enroll in the Al Qaeda organization. If an Al Qaeda officer gives you an order to kill your father, you have to do it. Your father, your mother, your neighbor, no matter who it might be. It's a matter of ideological indoctrination from the organization itself.”
Al Qaeda isn’t so much a faith-based movement as a totalitarian political cult. It’s an extreme offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it has more in common operationally with the deranged Shining Path in Peru than with its parent organization.
The Sunnis in and around Fallujah and Ramadi initially welcomed Al Qaeda as liberators from the American occupiers, but the overwhelming majority whipsawed to the American side after the mask came off.
The story of Sheikh Jassim, who helped forge the Iraqi-American alliance in Ramadi and was punished for it severely, is typical.
“Al Qaeda said they would mess him up if he got in their way,” an American army lieutenant told me back then. “He called their bluff and they seriously fucked him up. They launched a massive attack on his area. All hell broke loose. They set houses on fire. They dragged people through the streets behind pickup trucks. A kid from his area went into town and Al Qaeda kidnapped him, tortured him, and delivered his head to the outpost in a box. The dead kid was only sixteen years old. The Iraqis then sent out even nine year-old kids to act as neighborhood watchmen. They painted their faces and everything.”
And yet Al Qaeda has taken Fallujah three times—twice under the noses of the American military, and again this month after boosting their regional strength in the Syrian war.
This is an old story. Ideological minorities have managed to violently seize power all over the world and impose tyrannical rule on the majority. It happened during the 20th century in Russia, Iran, Germany, Cambodia, Syria, Cuba, and in so many other places. And it is happening in the 21st century in parts of the Middle East and North Africa now at the hands of Al Qaeda. The Taliban are doing the same thing in Afghanistan.
Those of us raised in democratic societies have a hard time believing this is even possible, but it happens, and there’s only so much we can do about it. Sure, the US military can drive Al Qaeda from a given location, no problem. I witnessed it myself and wrote about it extensively in my book, In the Wake of the Surge.
Yet guerrilla and terrorist war saps so many advantages even from conventional superpowers that victory is always costly and occasionally only temporary. Al Qaeda has such a wide theater to operate in that counterinsurgency is a game of planet-wide whack-a-mole. Booted out of Afghanistan? Go to Iraq! Defeated in Iraq by the Americans? Move to Mali! Kicked out of Mali by the French? Go to Libya! It’s like using radiation and chemotherapy against a cancer that won’t stop metastasizing.
I’d love to be able to say we should do x, y, and z and Al Qaeda will eventually cease to exist, but there are no x, y, and z. The world may have to wait for this scourge to extinguish itself like communism did in Europe. That hardly implies we should do nothing in the meantime—we did not sit passively by until the Soviets self-destructed—but our options are limited and it will likely take decades.