Where are the Jihadists Coming From?
I just received a note from an Oklahoman working in Iraq who doesn't buy my argument about the Syrians putting the breaks on the Jihadist flow over the Syrian border. I copy the note here and post my reply.
I’m an OU alum (’90) working in Iraq, and have recently begun reading your mailing list. Nice work.
Curious… if Jihadists are not coming through Syria, where are the major transit points?
Dear Steven, Nice to hear from you. I don’t doubt that there is leakage at Abu Kamal and other points along the Syrian border. I have published rather long articles trying to give a time line for how I think Syrian policy has changed on the border and Jihadist issues from full support to Jihadists during the first weeks of the war to a hands off attitude months later and eventually to taking active measures to limit the flow beginning in 2004 and pretty good coverage by mid 2005. The mukhabarat in Syria are notoriously corrupt and there are doubtlessly many independent actors who work for money and some who work with the opposition in Iraq out of ideological commitment.
But bassed on several accounts, the S.Gov has loaded up the region with extra security to oversee those normally assigned to the region. The people of the region are living under a very tight regime of security and secret police observation. That does not mean there doesn’t continue to be smuggling. I have spoken with quite a few Syrians from the region who explained to me that their families have lived off of smuggling for generations. This is a problem at all of the borders. We know that the Turks cannot keep PPK terrorists from infiltrating back and forth across their border with Iraq, where Kurds on both sides of the border sympathize with the PKK. I don’t know how successful the Jordanians and Saudis have been. We have heard nothing about these borders, but both countries are allies of the US. The United States would make any of their complaints about infiltration to the respective governments in private and not in the press.
Sunni Arab tribesmen on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border work together to smuggle. The only way to really stop this traffic will be if the US is successful in its present negotiations with the Sunni tribal leaders of Anbar. If they break from the Jihadist crowd, as they seem to be doing, and begin to work with the national government to suppress the Jihadists, they will be able to stop them because the smugglers will turn against them under pressure from their tribal leaders. This will not stop smuggling of sheep, cigarettes, etc., but it will stop the smuggling of Jihadists and foreigners.
I must confess, I do not know where Jihadists come from. I do not know how many Jihadists are working in Iraq, what their nationalities are or when they infiltrated into the country. Do you know if they have been adding to their numbers significantly over the last year or since Syria has made a concerted effort to stem the flow over the border? Are you sure most suicide bombers are foreign? These are all questions I cannot answer. Perhaps as someone serving in Iraq you can get some hard statistics on numbers of Syrians, Jihadists, and when they came to Iraq?
US forces must have statistics like this from the Jihadists they arrest, I would think. I have not read or seen any good statistics on any of these questions from Iraqi sources or US sources even though there must be considerable effort and money being spent to amass them. The operations this fall and winter along the Euphrates valley and up and down the Syrian border must have generated some good intelligence statistics on all these things. I would suspect that if there were hard evidence to condemn the Syrian government of complicity or to prove that significant numbers of Jihadists are making it across the border, US authorities would published them. They haven’t. In fact the anecdotal evidence from the recent campaigns seems to suggest that the foreign component in the region, killed or captured, was not great. I would be happy to change my tune on this. But all the anecdotal and statistical evidence I could gather in Syria last year, suggested that the government was working hard to arrest Jihadists, condemn al-Qaida types, Salafists, those who returned from fighting in Iraq and other Islamist-types, who are the vast majority of those being condemned by the State Security Courts.
My hunch is that the Jihadist force in Iraq has put down roots, many having married Iraqi women. Perhaps the numbers have stabilized over time. Perhaps they do get some reinforcements and fresh recruits. But I suspect they are not growing significantly. The fact seems to remain, that we don’t know much about the Jihadists, their numbers over time, or where they are coming from, if indeed, they are still coming into Iraq in large numbers.
In such a situation, it is very easy to repeat that Syria is running a Ho Chi Min trail for any number of political reasons. It just isn’t easy to prove or disprove it. Having tried to keep track of US claims about the Syrian border over the past few years, it has become clear that the US frequently comes up with accusations that are conjecture and then repeats them frequently, even when they have been disproved or brought into doubt. A few of these are – hiding Iraq’s WMD, hiding Saddam, providing night vision goggles to the Iraqis. Running training camps. Being part of the Pakistan nuclear network, revving up their nuclear program, etc.
Given this record, Washington’s claims about the Syrian border with Iraq need to be taken with a grain of salt and need to be measured against the available evidence. I will be happy to be disproved and will publish any good counter to this argument I have been harping on.
Very best, Joshua