Al Qaeda is embarking on a fresh offensive to disrupt US military and civilian air activity and highway traffic in and around Baghdad and West Iraq.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-intelligence sources report that easily-procured shoulder-launched Strela anti-air missiles will be used to shoot down warplanes, cargo aircraft, surveillance drones and helicopters, while on the highways below speeding pickup trucks or live gunmen shoot machineguns and lob bombs at US and coalition road convoys.
Al Qaeda has adopted the new tactic of hurling explosive charges on the fly after discovering that roadside bombs fall short, ever since the Americans, learning from Israel’s experience in Lebanon, started fitting their armored personnel carriers, jeeps, helicopters and drones with electronic equipment that sends out a signal which detects or detonates roadside bombs before they do any harm.
The targeted areas are around Baghdad and Habaniya, the western bank of the Tigris and the al Anbar region of western Iraq up to the Jordanian border. Airbases used to launch air strikes against the Sunni Triangle, the Tigris bank, and western Iraq along the Jordanian and Syrian borders and at the point that the Iraqi, Jordanian and Saudi Arabian frontiers converge.
One high strategic objective is to paralyze the Amman-Baghdad highway 12 to 24 hours in order to choke off the main US military and supply route to Baghdad.
The airbases listed for attack, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources are:
Baghdad International Airport and the military airbase in Rasheed, east of the capital.
The US military command has provided special security measures for helicopter routes ferrying US and coalition VIPs in and out of Baghdad’s Green Zone headquarters.
West of Baghdad:
The sprawling Al Habaniyah air base, which is home to US air forces operating in central Iraq and, to the northwest, the large al-Muhammadi air base, where US aircraft provide cover for American troops operating in the Ramadi and Fallujah districts and along the northwestern banks of the Tigris.
North of Baghdad:
The giant Khan Al Baghdadi air base, situated midway on the route from Ramadi to Al Hadithah. Besides the long-range US reconnaissance planes, aircraft stationed at this base provide aerial support for US forces operating east of Lake Tharthar – once Saddam Hussein’s favorite fishing site – and in the Samarra and Tikrit regions.
Aircraft from Khan Al Baghdadi also keep an eye on the oil pipeline in western Iraq and operate in the Al Qaim region along the Syrian and Jordanian frontiers and in the southern expanses of the Al Jazirah desert — home to the Arab tribes that cover the entry of Arab and al Qaeda fighters pouring in from Syria to the Sunni Triangle and Baghdad.
Al Qaeda also plans to cripple the airbases around the western city of Al Rutbah near the border with Jordan and put out of commission squadrons deployed at the H2 airbase and at the three airfields and landing pads at H3 along Iraq’s border with Syria and Jordan. The theater of operation includes the problematic Al Qaim region, where weapons that include surface-to-air missiles are still being smuggled in from Syria more than a year after the US-led invasion. It also covers the meeting-point of the Iraqi, Jordanian and Saudi frontiers.
The latest intelligence update placed before President George W. Bush on al Qaeda’s plans was troubling. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report exclusively that US intelligence estimates that between 600 and 700 al Qaeda fighters are now present in Iraq. This figure does not count the 600 to 800 Ansar al Islam fighters and smaller groups of locals and foreigners linked to al Qaeda or identifying with its aims. All in all, Al Qaeda can field 1,800-2,000 fighters at the present time, although from mid-March, the Americans managed to capture or kill around 80 fundamentalist fighters.
Most of the al Qaeda operatives are coming in from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but there is also a South African contingent whose members transit Saudi Arabia or make their way to Iraq via Jordan, Syria and Iran. Since the second half of February, a new wave of recruits has joined the terrorist force in Iraq in response to a special drive, run mainly by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards al Quds Brigade, to muster combatants from among the Iranian Sunni Muslims. The recruitment campaign is still underway.
The Iranians picked up fast on the rising frictions between Sunnis and Shiites in Osama bin Laden’s network (as reported in our last issue, DNW 151). Without wasting a moment, they began training Iranian Sunnis to fight for al Qaeda in a bid to preserve Tehran’s influence within the key Islamic terrorist group fighting Big Satan. Getting the Sunni fighters into Iraq poses no problem. At any given time, there are between 50,000 and 60,000 Iranians in Iraq, visiting family or on pilgrimages to the courts of Shiite religious leaders or the tombs of Shiite holy men.
The al Qaeda recruits simply tag along for the journey.
Joining the influx from another direction are black Muslim radicals from East Africa. According to the intelligence report, they began entering Iraq in mid-March via Egypt, Saudi Arabia or the Persian Gulf. Most hail from Zanzibar, an archipelago 7 miles (27 km) off the East African coast. A semi-autonomous part of Tanzania, Zanzibar is a popular deep-sea diving tourist destination also known as Clove Island for its primary crop. Al Qaeda’s fresh African intake gathers in the island capital for shipment to Iraq, indicating that the organization has relocated its East African recruitment center from the Comoro islands and Somalia to Tanzania.
A special section of the intelligence report highlights the state of morale in Qaeda’s Iraq command. Radiating confidence, they have told supreme headquarters not to bother to send any more fighting manpower as they have enough for their assignments.
Last month, the Yemeni contingent, some 100 to 150 men, returned home, replaced by the recruits streaming into the country. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources reveal that for the first time, US intelligence monitors witnessed an orderly rotation of units in Al Qaeda as a new group took over from the retiring Yemenis under the direction of the organization’s operational headquarters. The Yemeni combatants were shipped home to bolster terrorist ranks buffeted by Yemeni military strikes backed by US special forces officers.
Yet another challenge to US intelligence was diagnosed in the report: Many of the conscripts rallying to al Qaeda’s flag in Iraq are foot soldiers or low-ranking officers, or Afghan campaign veterans who were largely ignored by US and foreign intelligence agencies who kept tabs on al Qaeda’s top echelons. Now all the intelligence work in Iraq has to start from scratch.