Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda fighters are streaming towards Iraq almost as rapidly as the electronic messages whizzing round the globe calling on the faithful to mobilize fully for the battle against the Americans in Iraq.
“Victory over the United States will be far quicker than many think,” say the messages.
Intelligence data and electronic intercepts attest to Al Qaeda operations officers swinging into action worldwide for a general call-up of all resources for a war now declared specifically on the United States presence in Iraq, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report.
Members are instructed to head immediately to “pre-determined assembly points” for transfer to “the decisive Jihad front”. The “Iraq battle” is given precedence even over “the struggle in Palestine”.
Never before, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources, has al Qaeda staged a general mobilization. It is no propaganda exercise. Its impact is already making itself felt.
The light thrown below on the routes taken by this influx of Islamist terrorists into Iraq points the finger most tellingly on the axis of regional powers ranged against the United States and its coalition allies in Iraq.
Our sources find Al Qaeda combatants racing towards Iraq in large numbers along four main routes. The most surprising and most recent is the route from western Saudi Arabia through Iran, about which more hereunder.
The Pakistani-Iranian route: Claims by senior Iranian leaders of having thwarted Al Qaeda attacks inside Iran are nothing but a smokescreen for the mass influx of Osama bin Laden’s men into the Islamic Republic from the east. One group is coming in from the Pakistani border region of Baluchistan and forming up in the Iranian cities of Zabol and Zahedan; a second from the Afghan town of Herat to gather near the north Iranian city of Mashhad.
Special intelligence forces of Iran’s all-powerful Revolutionary Guards conduct “security checks” at both assembly points to establish the terrorists’ real identities and origins. Keeping careful watch alongside the Iranians are al Qaeda veterans in Iran for some time, including men loyal to Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, who is thought to have set up his base in Tehran.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, the al Qaeda men coming through from the direction of Pakistan are not admitted automatically; if they fall down at these security screenings, they are sent packing back to Afghanistan or Pakistan. Even those passed are only allowed to continue on their way to Iraq after agreeing to serve with the Ansar al-Islam group.
Next, they are moved from eastern Iran to way stations in the northwest towns of Mahabad and Oshnoviyeh in Iranian Kurdistan south of Tabriz, their last jumping off points into Iraqi Kurdistan. Once there, they join Ansar al-Islam extremists heading for Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle towns of Ramadi, Tikrit, Balad and Fallujah.
The exact number of al Qaeda infiltrators from Iran is not known. Some intelligence sources put it at thousands. One clue suggests the number is large enough to affect the internal balance of the Ansar al-Islam.
Up until now, this Iraqi al Qaeda affiliate numbered no more than 600 to 800 fighters.
Now, the group, with the help of Al Qaeda operations officers in Iran and Iranian intelligence agents, has set up two new units to absorb recruits. The first is called after the small terrorist group, the Jund al-Allah, or “Soldiers of Allah”, that has operated for years with Ansar al-Islam in northern Kurdistan; the second, al-Usad, or “The Lions”.
Some counter-terrorism experts believe they were created to differentiate between the original hard nucleus of Ansar al-Islam and the new Al Qaeda fighters who have been attached to “The Lions”.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism experts, interpret the name as indicating a Syrian connection. President Bashar Assad’s name is Arabic for lion. It suggests that this particular branch of Ansar has been deployed in two places – the Sunni Triangle in central Iraq and northwestern Iraq along the Syrian border. There, its members join forces with the al Qaeda operatives entering Iraq from Syria with Assad’s permission.
The two groups have already executed joint strikes in the northern Iraqi oil city of Mosul. In one, they attempted to assassinate the local chief of police, but only seriously wounding him.
The Syrian route: At least 1,000 al Qaeda men have traveled along this busiest of all the corridors into Iraq, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources report.
Its logistical hub, as we have revealed in detail in previous issues, is located at Damascus International Airport, which has become a man transit point for Al Qaeda operatives flying in from Central Asia, Chechnya, the Balkans – mainly Kosovo and Bosnia – Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and even Iran.
Many Al Qaeda fighters turned back by Iran for security reasons simply take the alternate route and cross into Iraq from Syria. Once in Damascus, new arrivals often head for its suburbs, where they are shown Islamic hospitality in the teeming medressas, or religious schools. Others make for the Palestinian terrorist training camps operating in Damascus.
Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command receive a large part of their operational funding from Tehran and have a special interest in taking in and training the Al Qaeda fighters. It is highly profitable; a special fee for every Al Qaeda operative trained is paid out to the Palestinian group offering instruction.
It is also sound tactics: All the Syrian-based Palestinian groups have sent gunmen to fight for Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but none wants to be caught red-handed by US forces. By integrating their men with Al Qaeda, the Palestinian organizations hope to escape direct blame and US retribution.
After a short stay in the Damascus area, the Al Qaeda fighters are sent east toward the Iraqi border where they pass through frontier lands dominated by the nomadic Saudi-Syrian Sunni tribesmen. The true measure of the control still exercised by Saddam and his following on both sides of the border was not apparent until the investigation to find out how his sons reached the northern town of Mosul where they met their deaths at the hands of US troops on July 22.
The probe revealed, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and military sources, that for almost a decade, Saddam had been sending monthly stipends to every tribal chief, clan leader and influential merchant and cleric in an area roamed by two million of these tribesmen. Once a year, Saddam resettled several thousand demobilized Iraqi officers and their families in the region with orders to assimilate and set up familial relations with the local tribes. Language was no barrier as the Iraqi Arabic vernacular is current on both sides of the border.
Syrian-administered Irani funds are now disbursed to those tribal leaders since the money dried up from Baghdad.
One of the few intelligence sources knowledgeable about this tribal territory told DEBKA-Net-Weekly: “It is true that guerrilla attacks against the Americans are launched from the Sunni Triangle. However the logistics and the consignment of fighting strength to the Triangle are directed from the tribal territories, where Saddam’s loyalists are in complete control. US intelligence has never managed to penetrate these regions.”
As we reported in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 121, US assistant secretary of state William Burns paid an unscheduled visit to Assad on August 14 to deliver a “final warning” for him to choke off the flow of Syrian and Al Qaeda fighters into Iraq. Assad shot back that the tribal areas were out of his control and ruled by Saddam regime loyalists. He did promise to see what he could do, but never made good on this.
In the last week, meanwhile, the flow of Syrian and Al Qaeda fighters across the frontier into Iraq has doubled.
The Saudi route via Iran: This is the newest channel, first set up in mid-July – but also one of the busiest. Some estimates put the traffic at a total of 2,500; others say as many as 4,000 Saudi al Qaeda combatants have transited Iran on their way to Iraq at the rate of almost a thousand a week.
Not much is known about how it works. Some intelligence evaluations claim that many of its users are on the run from Saudi Arabia ahead of the official hue and cry against al Qaeda terrorists in the kingdom ever since the triple suicide bombings in Riyadh of May 12. Other DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources say this group of Afghan-Pakistani veterans, in unquestioning obedience to the al Qaeda leadership, is carrying out its orders to deploy in Iraq for the big battle against the Americans. A second motive for this group would be the chance of revenge against the Americans for putting them to rout in Afghanistan. An added bonus would be an opportunity to replace their territorial base in Afghanistan with a foothold in the Iraq-Saudi frontier region from which they could try and strike down the Saudi throne.
Whatever the al Qaeda motivations for their new focus on Iraq, the fact remains that for the second time in two years Iran is granting Saudi al Qaeda combatants the benefit of free passage from one anti-American battle arena to another.
In October and November 2001, Iran opened the door to Saudi fugitives in retreat from Afghanistan on their way home. Now Saudi fundamentalists are passing through Iran on their way from western Saudi Arabia to fight Americans in Iraq.
Like Syrian president Bashar Assad, who claims to know nothing of the al Qaeda fighters passing through Damascus, Tehran too says it is powerless to halt their through-passage into Iraq. Iranian officials claim in all innocence that the Saudi extremists fly in as ordinary tourists on valid passports. They go on trips around the country until they reach the western Ilan region on the Iraqi border. They then negotiate their crossing into Iraq with local smugglers and fetch up on the other side at al Kut in the south or Baquba in the center.
The Saudi route via Syria: The same Syrian-Saudi Sunni Muslim tribes who crisscross the Iraqi-Syrian frontier also trek along a north-south route between Syria and Saudi Arabia via Jordan. They are joined en route by Saudi, Yemeni, Sudanese and other al Qaeda fighters heading towards the Iraqi battlefront.
Considering the burgeoning terrorist-cum-guerrilla threat, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington take a skeptical view of the assurances by US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday, August 20, that no more US troops are needed in Iraq in addition to the 140,000 already there.
Our sources report that the US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, and American military commanders have asked the Bush administration for two more divisions at full strength to meet the fresh contingencies. During his trip to Washington in late July, Bremer requested urgent reinforcements. US commanders put in earlier requests when deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and General Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, came to Iraq on visits.
Officials in Washington are doing their utmost to keep the issue off the agenda. But responding to the insistent demands from Iraq, President Bush has promised a decision on reinforcements in early October. US field commanders fear the six-week delay will exact a heavy toll on security in Iraq. They predict –
Intensification of the guerrilla war and the infiltration of Al Qaeda fighters and other anti-American men of violence.
The seizure of strategic parts of Iraq by al Qaeda powered by the unimpeded influx of its personnel.
Intervention by Tehran on the side of the Sunni Muslim campaign against the Americans – and its sponsorship of terrorist attacks like the bombings of the Jordanian embassy and UN HQ in Baghdad – may have the effect of drawing Iraqi Shiites and their leaders from the sidelines of a conflict they view as “purely a Sunni war” into its center.