How Al Qaeda Failed

MICHAEL BAUER — Al Qaeda failed to establish its caliphate in Iraq. For European counterterrorist experts, that was never the point of the war. 


In the article in Deutsche Welle, Bin Laden Leaves Behind a Thin Legacy, you note that Al Qaeda’s bloody campaign of terror inside Iraq created enemies from many potential allies amongst Sunni tribes, ultimately leading to a loss of strategic alliances with many elements of the Iraqi insurgency. What role has Al-Qaeda played in Iraq since 2003, and has their contribution to the resistance been overemphasized? 

 It is difficult to assess Al Qaeda’s true impact on the insurgency in Iraq. It is an important observation, that there is a tendency in western media to regard every kind of violent resistance movement — in Iraq or Afghanistan — as Al Qaeda. This misses reality.

For example, in Iraq, there were some Sunni tribes who were resisting the US occupation, not because they are affiliated with Al Qaeda but rather because they had a strong stake in Sunni Iraq during Saddam’s regime. Saddam belonged to a Sunni tribe and he ensured that at least his tribe — and many other Sunni tribes — had a strong footing in the regime. Clearly these groups existed in much more favorable conditions under Saddam, and an important factor contributing to their resistance today was power interest. They are not friends of Al Qaeda.

On the other hand, Al Qaeda tried to hijack the resistance against the US in Iraq for its own purposes, and tried to present itself as a legitimate force of opposition against foreign oppression. There are similar situations in, for example, Chechnya, where there are local resistance movements — in this case against Russia — and foreign actors who enter the scene. In Afghanistan too, when the Soviets occupied the country, there were some Arab fighters who took up arms, but their role was limited and often ignored. The role Al Qaeda has played in all these conflicts must be assessed critically. In Iraq, they found a solid basis for their propaganda campaign, but their actual material gains within the resistance movement is difficult to assess. And this difficulty could shed light on the lesser extent to which they did succeed militarily. The US eventually also engaged Sunnis and gave them a stake in the new Iraq, which also contributed to their split with Al Qaeda.

Some analysts suggest that a lack of Sunni-Shiite reconciliation in Iraq may push the country into becoming a failed state, a process recently accelerated by the Sunni-dominated AQI through sectarian-based attacks. Keeping its turbulent history with Iraqi Sunnis in mind, could Iraq’s leadership marginalize the threat from an extremist Sunni insurgency or Al Qaeda?

Iraq is still in many respects a post-civil war society. In this situation there is always a high danger that there will be spoilers to the stabilization process. Moreover, there seems to be at the moment a great deal of uncertainty about Iraq’s future political system. There is heated debate between more secular voices and religious groups, between Sunni and Shia. There is a fear on the Sunni side that the role that has been offered to them will be taken away. There are many reasons for political instability in Iraq, and the reemergence of Sunni-Shia violence is very high on this list. It is nearly impossible to say at this point whether the government can counter this threat.

Many analysts note that bin Laden’s legacy is ideological rather than based on concrete military or political victories. Although Al-Qaeda may have failed in Iraq to establish its envisaged caliphate, has the broader Iraqi resistance movement to the US-led occupation taken up its Jihadist ideology?

In the initial phases of the occupation the resistance movements were less about ideology and more about political and strategic interests. The question asked by all groups of “what role will we play in the new Iraq” was very important and divisive. The groups today even are not so much followers of Al Qaeda’s ideology but rather use ideology in some cases for their purposes: For example, religious justifications might be used by political leaders for policy, although this is not a situation unique to Iraq.

 In many ways, the subsequent Iraq War has blurred the lines between war and counterterrorism operations, at least for the US. How has Germany, and perhaps more broadly, noninvolved EU countries, perceived its role in the fight against terrorism since 2003? 

It is important to make a distinction between terrorism abroad and at home. The European view of Iraq was that the insurgency existed only to oppose the US occupation forces there. The fight against terrorism is seen in Europe to be an issue of domestic and inner-European security. The Europeans do not consider what is going on in Iraq as a campaign against terrorism. The main focus of European counterterrorism efforts is domestic. There are thus several common security institutions like Europol and various databases that are being used jointly between national police forces. There are a number of framework decisions by the European Union on legal issues relating to terrorism.

What remains more important for Europeans — more important than Iraq — are the terrorist attacks in Madrid (2004) and London (2005). These attacks seemed to be the kinds of scenarios with which Europe would be faced in the foreseeable future. Europeans, unlike US leaders, thought that there was not much anyone could do about these kinds of attacks in Iraq. Instead the focus of counterterrorism efforts would have to be in Europe. This change in perception regarding terrorism took place over a number of years, and not least because of the 2004 and 2005 attacks. The insurgency in Iraq was not seen so much as an element of a global counterterrorist campaign but more as a problem that the US had created themselves through their intervention.

In the interview with Sir Lawrence Freedman, he described how the British decision to go to war in Iraq was most about whether or not to follow the Americans. Was this debate about the American alliance manifest in Germany? 

Even in the UK, there were strong protest movements against the Iraq War, but amongst the political elites the US alliance was more important. Tony Blair was very supportive of the campaign, and the British intelligence came up with some information regarding Iraqi WMD.

A similar debate amongst the political elite also took place in Eastern European countries. Leaders in these countries did not know exactly what Saddam was doing regarding WMD, and were not too concerned about terrorism. Yet they believed wholeheartedly that the US was the only country that could protect them against the Russians. There is an old hierarchy of threats in Eastern Europe, at the top of which is Russia. These countries need the US as their ally, and were thus more willing to follow them into Iraq even if they were not convinced.

In Germany there was debate about whether the country should follow the US regardless of the unconvincing evidence. The Social Democratic government at the time led by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and foreign minister Joschka Fischer were more critical in their international outlook of the US than the Conservative Party. The argument that Germany should follow the US in order to preserve the transatlantic alliance and regardless of justification for war was put forward mainly by the opposition movement, and not those running the government at the time.

Germans were very surprised about the alliance that was forged in this context. Germany and France cooperating? That seemed alright. But more surprising was the confluence of Russian and German reactions against the war. The reasons why Russia opposed the intervention in Iraq were very different from those in Germany or France, though; Russians would have opposed the invasion regardless of any kind of credible evidence. Had there been proof that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, or evidence of WMD, Germany and France would have likely taken part in the operations.


MICHAEL BAUER is a Senior Researcher in the Research Group on European Affairs and head of the Project on Europe and the Middle East at the Center for Applied Policy Research at the University of Munich.

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