President Bush claimed on Thursday that U.S. forces and Iraqi tribesman have "systematically dismantled" the terrorist group Al Qaeda in Iraq in the long-troubled Anbar Province. And indeed, while Al Qaeda in Iraq remains dangerous and active, particularly in parts of northern Iraq, the terrorist group is having increasing difficulty pulling off its signature type of attack, deadly car bombings.
But terrorism experts are warning that defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq could bring a whole new set of risks.
For one thing, as U.S. intelligence agencies have told Congress, its operatives could shift their efforts to plotting outside the country if it becomes significantly more dangerous for Al Qaeda in Iraq to stage attacks in Iraq.
"Defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq could actually lead to the spread of violence to other places because those guys could be leaving to find other safe havens to continue their fight," says Mohammed Hafez, the author of Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom. "They are likely to go to places where there are existing conflicts."
The two most obvious destinations are Afghanistan or Pakistan, where they could potentially link up with other jihadists who have been carrying out a growing number of suicide attacks. Fighters could be drawn to the relative lawlessness of Yemen, the total anarchy of Somalia, or to Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
Writing in the current issue of CTC Sentinel, the monthly journal of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Hafez analyzes the experiences of Arab jihadists who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s to the fight the Soviet Union and later formed the backbone of al Qaeda, the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden.
Thousands of Arab volunteers were trained to fight the Soviets, but when the conflict ended, many migrated to other conflict zones around the world to continue the fight. They also had forged close ties with each other, helping them to put together a global jihadi network that allowed al Qaeda to spread its tentacles into Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Today's jihadists in Iraq are getting even more hands-on combat experience than their predecessors in Afghanistan. "What's just as important as the fighting skills are the logistical skills—the back administration office work that needs to be done for terrorism to take place," says Hafez. He is talking about skills like raising money for operations, forging documents, and smuggling fighters across international borders.
It is unclear how much U.S. officials or Iraq's neighbors have done to prepare for this threat. Hafez says that border controls must be strengthened and that American and Iraqi officials need to share intelligence on these militants with all of Iraq's neighbors to prevent them from escaping Iraq.
Of particular concern is Syria, through which the bulk of foreign fighters entered Iraq. "But they won't be willing to host the jihadis in the way Pakistan did" in the 1990s, says Hafez. "They will probably have to cross multiple borders, which increases their chances of being caught."
One other key factor could also limit how many Al Qaeda in Iraq members end up fighting elsewhere in the future. The bulk of these foreign fighters came to Iraq to be suicide bombers. "That means," says Hafez," many won't be around."
This discussion, of course, could be premature. Al Qaeda in Iraq has not yet been defeated and could still regroup successfully.
Iraq is also experiencing a new surge of violence in several Shiite cities and in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad. For now, most of the fighting appears to be between Shiite factions, but if it spreads, it has the potential to reignite some of the Sunni-Shiite sectarian bloodletting that paralyzed the country last year.