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New portrait of Iraq’s foreign fighters emerges

The U.S. military has discovered a cache of 606 individual insurgent records, leading to a reassessment of assumptions about al-Qaida in Iraq.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Muhammad Ayn-al-Nas, a 26-year-old Moroccan, started his journey in Casablanca. After flying to Turkey and then to Damascus, he reached his destination in a small Iraqi border town on Jan. 31, 2007. He was an economics student back home, he told the al-Qaeda clerk who interviewed him on arrival. Asked what sort of work he hoped to do in Iraq, Nas replied: "Martyr."

Algerian Watsef Mussab, 29, who arrived in Iraq via Saudi Arabia and Syria, said he had come for combat. He complained that the Syrian smugglers who brought him to the border took his money, but he contributed what he had left to the insurgent cause -- a watch, a ring and an MP3 player.

Hanni al-Sagheer, a computer technician from Yemen and aspiring suicide volunteer, gave the clerk his home telephone number and also that of his brother.

Their stories are among the individual records of 606 foreign fighters who entered Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007. The cache of documents was discovered last fall by U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar.

Some include pictures -- bearded men in a turban or kaffiyeh, some smiling and some scowling -- in addition to names and aliases, home countries, birthdays and dates of entry into Iraq. Many list their occupations at home, whether plumber, laborer, policeman, lawyer, soldier or teacher. There is a "massage specialist," a "weapons merchant," a few "unemployed" and many students.

The youngest was 16 when he crossed into Iraq; the oldest was 54. Most expressed interest in a suicide mission.

The records are "one of the deepest reservoirs of information we've ever obtained of the network going into Iraq," according to a U.S. official closely familiar with intelligence on the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Analyzed and made public last month by the Army's Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the documents have led the U.S. military in Iraq to reassess some of its earlier assumptions about the insurgent group and those who carry out most of the suicide missions that are its signature method of attack.

Suicide attacks by the Sunni group against Shiite targets sparked the sectarian violence that swept Iraq in 2006 and the first half of last year. Al-Qaeda in Iraq carried out more than 4,500 attacks against civilians in 2007, killing 3,870 and wounding nearly 18,000, the military announced yesterday.

Based on the Sinjar records, U.S. military officials in Iraq said they now think that nine out of 10 suicide bombers have been foreigners, compared with earlier estimates of 75 percent. Similarly, they assess that 90 percent of foreign fighters entering Iraq during the one-year period ending in August came via Syria, a greater proportion than previously believed.

Although there is no way of knowing how many of the total entrants the 606 recorded individuals represent, officials said Sinjar was a primary entrance point. Its importance increased as Iraq's Anbar province -- farther south and bordering Saudi Arabia and Jordan -- became more difficult for foreigners to cross.

"We also adjusted our analysis [to say that] more North Africans were foreign terrorists than previously assessed," said Col. Steven A. Boylan, spokesman for Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Although Saudi Arabia was by far the most common country of origin of foreign fighters, with about 40 percent of the total, a surprising share -- 19 percent -- came from Libya. Overall, about 40 percent were North African.

Petraeus has said that the number of foreign fighters traveling through Syria to Iraq has dropped by as much as half since the summer, to as few as 50 each month. Military officials describe the Sunni insurgents as on the run. But based on the Sinjar documents, Boylan said, the military has concluded that its baseline of foreign entrees, beginning in August 2006, was about 10 percent too low.

The State Department's counterterrorism chief, retired Army Lt. Gen. Dell L. Dailey, has referred to the Sinjar documents in ongoing conversations with Arab and North African governments about their efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters going to Iraq.

The West Point center's analysis notes that the home towns and regions listed by many fighters correlate with areas of high insurgent activity in the Arab world. More than half the Libyans came from in or around the coastal cities of Darnah and Benghazi. Both are long associated with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which in November officially affiliated itself with the global al-Qaeda network headed by Osama bin Laden.

Most of the Libyans traveled through Egypt on their way to Syria, and further analysis is being done on places of origin and travel routes.

‘Foreign terrorist nexus’
The records are also a bonanza for the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, which maintains the nation's massive database on individuals with a "foreign terrorist nexus." Russ Travers, the NCTC's deputy director, declined to discuss specific data but said that "there is no question that the more information we get, the more we can pull the thread on who is connected to whom."

Beyond their importance in understanding the big picture, the documents -- now posted in Arabic and English on the Combating Terrorism Center's Web site -- provide a riveting portrait of the people behind the numbers, and a window into the personnel practices of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"These documents tell us more about AQI than they do about Iraq," said Brian Fishman, an associate at the West Point center and co-author of its Sinjar analysis. "When you've got hundreds . . . entering the country with different skill sets and different intentions, you have to build a bureaucracy to use your resources efficiently.

"I think we made a mistake in assuming that al-Qaeda, because it's a terrorist organization, doesn't need to organize itself the way other large organizations do. They have a human resources problem; they have to manage people."

Al-Qaeda's holidays, salary grades
Al-Qaeda has a track record of good documentation, he said, adding that "Osama bin Laden was a businessman before he was a terrorist."

Fishman offered an example from among the many captured al-Qaeda documents in the center's database -- an employment contract between the group and terrorist recruits in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. In addition to a definition of the organization, religious duties and a loyalty pledge, it includes a list of official "company" holidays and salary grades.

Married fighters were to be allotted time off every three weeks and round-trip tickets to their country of origin every two years, although al-Qaeda retained the right to deny vacation dates "in certain cases." Vacation requests were to be submitted 2 1/2 months in advance. Married fighters received higher salaries than bachelors -- including a bonus for every newborn -- but unmarried fighters were entitled to more vacation time.

The extent of al-Qaeda in Iraq's ties to the wider al-Qaeda network has long been a subject of debate within the U.S. intelligence community and military. Although its membership is overwhelmingly Iraqi, it has been led by foreigners with direct ties to al-Qaeda central, which has been based in Pakistan since being driven from Afghanistan in 2001.

Some of the early Sinjar documents carry the seal of the Mujaheddin Shura Council, an umbrella organization for Sunni insurgent organizations in Iraq created in January 2006 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a bin Laden associate who was then leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Most of the later records are imprinted with the insignia of the Islamic State of Iraq, declared in October 2006 after Zarqawi's death. Those documents provide far more comprehensive information.

Diverse responses
There is no indication of individual motives, but recruits were asked how they had made initial contact with travel "coordinators." Responses ranged from friends and family members to someone "in the mosque" or "a brother who came back from Iraq."

Although answers to many questions were left blank, most recruits said they carried identification -- a passport, birth certificate or driver's license. Some helpfully noted that their documents were "clean" or "not burnt," indicating they did not appear on any watch list. Contributions to the insurgency, including funds that totaled several thousand dollars in some cases, were duly recorded.

Based on information solicited in the longer Islamic State of Iraq forms, the Syrian role in the traffic appeared more that of entrepreneur than ideological partner and seemed to be a source of concern and suspicion for al-Qaeda in Iraq. Entrants were asked for names and descriptions of Syrians they had come into contact with, and were asked how they were treated. Many responded that the Syrians had demanded exorbitant sums of money, often exactly the amount the entrants were carrying.

Many of the forms include telephone numbers. According to Fishman, "we called a lot of them and they didn't work" or "just rang and rang." But a Swedish newspaper noticed on the center's Web site that one man, a Tunisian who gave only an alias, listed his country of residence as Sweden and supplied a telephone number in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby. A government registry indicated that he was married, with two children.

When a reporter from Svenska Dagbladet called the number, the newspaper reported early this month, a man who identified himself as a cousin said that Abu Mua'az was not there. He, his wife and older brother, the man said, "were currently overseas and unavailable."