November 22, 2007
Foreign Fighters in Iraq Are Tied to Allies of U.S.
By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
BAGHDAD — Saudi Arabia and Libya, both considered allies by the United States in its fight against terrorism, were the source of about 60 percent of the foreign fighters who came to Iraq in the past year to serve as suicide bombers or to facilitate other attacks, according to senior American military officials.
The data come largely from a trove of documents and computers discovered in September, when American forces raided a tent camp in the desert near Sinjar, close to the Syrian border. The raid’s target was an insurgent cell believed to be responsible for smuggling the vast majority of foreign fighters into Iraq.
The most significant discovery was a collection of biographical sketches that listed hometowns and other details for more than 700 fighters brought into Iraq since August 2006.
The records also underscore how the insurgency in Iraq remains both overwhelmingly Iraqi and Sunni. American officials now estimate that the flow of foreign fighters was 80 to 110 per month during the first half of this year and about 60 per month during the summer. The numbers fell sharply in October to no more than 40, partly as a result of the Sinjar raid, the American officials say.
Saudis accounted for the largest number of fighters listed on the records by far — 305, or 41 percent — American intelligence officers found as they combed through documents and computers in the weeks after the raid. The data show that despite increased efforts by Saudi Arabia to clamp down on would-be terrorists since Sept. 11, 2001, when 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, some Saudi fighters are still getting through.
Libyans accounted for 137 foreign fighters, or 18 percent of the total, the senior American military officials said. They discussed the raid with the stipulation that they not be named because of the delicate nature of the issue.
United States officials have previously offered only rough estimates of the breakdown of foreign fighters inside Iraq. But the trove found in Sinjar is so vast and detailed that American officials believe that the patterns and percentages revealed by it offer for the first time a far more precise account of the personal circumstances of foreign fighters throughout the country.
In contrast to the comparatively small number of foreigners, more than 25,000 inmates are in American detention centers in Iraq. Of those, only about 290, or some 1.2 percent, are foreigners, military officials say.
They contend that all of the detainees either are suspected of insurgent activity or are an “imperative threat” to security. Some American officials also believe that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a homegrown insurgent group that claims a loose allegiance to Osama bin Laden, may by itself have as many as 10,000 members in Iraq.
About four out of every five detainees in American detention centers are Sunni Arab, even though Sunni Arabs make up just one-fifth of Iraq’s population. All of the foreign fighters listed on the materials found near Sinjar, excluding two from France, also came from countries that are predominantly Sunni.
Over the years, the Syrian border has been the principal entry point into Iraq for foreign insurgents, officials say. Many had come through Anbar Province, in west-central Iraq. But with the Sunni tribal revolt against extremist militants that began last year in Anbar, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other jihadists concentrated their smuggling efforts on the area north of the Euphrates River along the Syrian border, the officials said.
The officials added that, based on the captured documents and other intelligence, they believe that the Sinjar cell that was raided in September was responsible for the smuggling of foreign fighters along a stretch of the border from Qaim, in Anbar, almost to the border with Turkey, a length of nearly 200 miles. They said that was why they were confident that the cell was responsible for such a large portion of the incoming foreign fighters.
American military and diplomatic officials who discussed the flow of fighters from Saudi Arabia were careful to draw a distinction between the Saudi government and the charities and individuals who they said encouraged young Saudi men to fight in Iraq. After United States officials put pressure on Saudi leaders in the summer, the Saudi government took some steps that have begun to curb the flow of fighters, the officials said.
Yet the senior American military officials said they also believed that Saudi citizens provided the majority of financing for Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. “They don’t want to see the Shias come to dominate in Iraq,” one American official said.
The Sinjar materials showed that 291 fighters, or about 39 percent, came from North African nations during the period beginning in August 2006. That is far higher than previous military estimates of 10 to 13 percent from North Africa. The largest foreign fighter hometown was Darnah, Libya, which supplied 50 fighters.
For years American officials included Libya on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. But last year the United States removed it from that list and re-established full diplomatic relations, citing what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described as Libya’s “continued commitment to its renunciation of terrorism and the excellent cooperation” it has provided in the antiterrorism fight.
Also striking among the Sinjar materials were the smaller numbers from other countries that had been thought to be major suppliers of foreign fighters. As recently as the summer, American officials estimated that 20 percent came from Syria and Lebanon. But there were no Lebanese listed among the Sinjar trove, and only 56 Syrians, or 8 percent of the total.
American officials have accused Iran, the largest Shiite nation in the Middle East, of sending powerful bombs to Iraq and of supporting and financing Shiite militias that attack American troops. They also contend that top Iranian leaders support efforts to arm Shiite fighters.
But whatever aid Iran provides to militias inside Iraq does not seem to extend to supplying actual combatants: Only 11 Iranians are in American detention, United States officials say.
After the raid on the Sinjar cell, the number of suicide bombings in Iraq fell to 16 in October — half the number seen during the summer months and down sharply from a peak of 59 in March. American military officials believe that perhaps 90 percent of such bombings are carried out by foreign fighters. They also believe that about half of the foreign fighters who come to Iraq become suicide bombers.
“We cut the head off, but the tail is still left,” warned one of the senior American military officials, discussing the aftermath of the Sinjar raid. “Regeneration is completely within the realm of possibility.”
The documents indicate that each foreigner brought about $1,000 with him, used mostly to finance operations of the smuggling cell. Saudis brought more money per person than fighters from other nations, the American officials said.
Among the Saudi fighters described in the materials, 45 had come from Riyadh, 38 from Mecca, 20 from Buraidah and the surrounding area, 15 from Jawf and Sakakah, 13 from Jidda, and 12 from Medina.
American officials publicly expressed anger over the summer at Saudi policies that were destabilizing Iraq. Sunni tribal sheiks in Iraq who risked their lives to fight extremist militants also faulted Saudi clerics.
“The bad imams tell the young people to go to Iraq and fight the American Army, because if you kill them or they kill you, you will go to paradise,” Sheik Adnan Khames Jamiel, a leader of the Albu Alwan tribe in Ramadi, said in an interview...
We sympathize, Sheik Jamiel. In America, it is much the same...