As the US looks forward to withdrawing from Iraq, FIRE's Security Correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett reflects on the implications for the UK's fight against terrorism.

The headlines over the past couple of weeks have been replete with insights into the dynamics of international terrorism. The decision by President Obama to withdraw all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 draws a line under the military deployment in Iraq. For many people who travelled to Iraq from locations across the world to fight the occupier a major change has occurred. Their raison d'etre for making their way to Iraq has been removed. The message that the 'occupier has been thrown out of Iraq' will be one that will no doubt be centre stage in some social network forums in January 2012.

For some they will be able to portray the United States withdrawal as being 'under fire'. The images of the United States chaotic withdrawal from Vietnam will be recalled. The message that the United States was sent packing from Iraq by dedicated fighters committed to the cause celebre that is Al Qaeda, its affiliates and acolytes, is one that many will find hard to resist.

The United States will not be alone in this social media humiliation. The echoes of the United Kingdom's military forces being ejected from Kabul in one of its past failed attempts to govern Afghanistan will no doubt feature in any narrative that tries to encourage Al Qaeda's acolytes to continue their activities. The Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan will also feature, illustrating how small well motivated groups can achieve major changes on the political landscape.


Counter-terrorism in Iraq

The withdrawal of the United States from Iraq, no matter how it is portrayed, does however pose a problem for those involved in terrorism in Iraq. What now is their objective? Is it to bring about the downfall of the Iraqi government? If that is so what tactics should they adopt? If it is not trying to replace the government what are its objectives?

The problem in Iraq is that it is difficult to provide a single coherent set of answers to these questions. A myriad of groups punctuate the landscape, each with their own idea of what they are trying to achieve. Some are called Former Regime Elements (FRE). They clearly are not willing to join the political process. For them, losing power in Iraq is something that they cannot bear. They seek a return to the former non-democratic approach epitomised by Saddam Hussein.

Other groups are backed by elements associated with the Iranian government. Few doubt that Iran seeks to be an external guiding hand in Iraq, seeking to control its political development. Other groups are associated with a resurgent Al Qaeda in Iraq. They are implacably opposed to any form of democracy and seek to create a state governed by their interpretation of Sharia Law. With such a range of agenda's it is little wonder that the situation in Iraq can appear confused.

Whilst the levels of attacks in Iraq have been significantly reduced as terrorist cells have been killed or captured by the Iraqi security forces over the last two years a small irreconcilable group still manages to conduct coordinated attacks. The 15th of August this year was a bloody day in Iraq when 12 synchronised attacks took place across Iraq that killed over 70 people and injured many more. This attack, coming towards the end of the holy month of Ramadan, seemed to be sending a message to the Iraqi government that the terrorists have not been defeated.


Active Cells

Despite the arrests that are made on literally a daily basis in Iraq of those associated with the terrorists groups that remain active a core group of individuals are still able to coordinate their activities across the length and breadth of Iraq. Whilst not being able to mount the frequent attacks that occurred in 2005-2007 when the insurgency was at its height they are still able to conduct a series of attacks on a single day. Whilst the frequency is reduced the impact that can be achieved in a single day still creates fear in the population. That nagging sense of insecurity is one that erodes people's confidence in the political process.

Interestingly the attacks were not directed at the withdrawing Americans. The attacks were mounted against the government and institutions of Iraq. It would appear that the terrorists in Iraq have decided that with the American's gone they need to switch their focus to the Iraqi government. The aim is to undermine their authority as the prime responsibility of any government is to provide a secure situation for its people. Highlight weaknesses in the security environment and you undermine the bond of legitimacy that exists between any government and the people it is supposed to represent.

The attacks were conducted in a number of different ways. Several were based on suicide bombers in the lead, attacking the security forces to create a chaotic situation before gunmen moved in quickly to conduct a follow-up attack. Others involved a suicide bomber activating a device to bring the emergency services into the area before a follow up can bomb detonated to kill and maim those attending the scene.

That no single tactic was adopted across the sites attacked provides an indication of the ability of the terrorists to obtain intelligence on each potential target and adapt to the specific circumstances at each location. The network controlling the terrorists clearly set goals for attacks on a certain day and then delegates the responsibility for deciding what specific locations are targeted to the local groups on the ground. For the Iraqi security services attacking that network remains their most overriding priority. The recently developed adage that it 'takes a network to destroy a network' applies.


Implications for the UK

For the United Kingdom the travails in Iraq have a number of resonances. One concerns the enduring threat from splinter groups that broke away from the Irish Republican Movement. Their enduring ability to plot attacks in Northern Ireland, and their clear intent to return to the mainland, has many similarities with the on-going situation in Iraq.

The arrest and jailing in Lithuania of Michael Campbell from County Louth in Ireland highlights the global problem of eliminating terrorist groups. It is not a purely Iraqi phenomenon. Operating to the south of the border with Northern Ireland individuals like Campbell can reply on a small and close knit group of staunch supporters to help them maintain their specific ideology and desire to conduct terrorist operations. The linkages, and use of social networking, provide the means by which geographically dispersed groups can stay in touch and plan attacks.

The splinter groups of the Irish Republican movement are not alone in using social networking to coordinate activities. The Extreme Right Wing and Islamic extremists also use social networking technologies to motivate vulnerable people to their cause. They create a narrative that appeals to people looking for answers to what they see as grievances that have existed over a number of years. Harnessing the emotional impact this can have on individuals they draw them closer to their ideology. This turns a person from being an interested party looking for answers into an acolyte - ready to resort to violence to achieve their aims.

This process of turning people into acolytes is one that is not unique to the United Kingdom. As United States forces leave Iraq so the narrative being used to recruit people into opposing the Iraqi government is changing. A convergence of the approach towards radicalising people is emerging. Rather than being a process that has specific localised nuances it is one that is now developing more generic elements, such as the desire to create a single Islamic State. The re-unification themes that underlie Irish Republicanism are obvious.

This is a situation that plays to the central strengths and ideology of Al Qaeda. For those that have forecast its demise in the wake of the death of several of its key leaders this is a moment for reflection. The lessons from abroad and from our own back yard are clear. Whilst grievances remain and evil exists in people's hearts, terrorism will continue. Eradicating terrorism is not a short-term project that can be defined in electoral cycles. It is a long-term problem that only concerted action on the international stage can resolve.


Posted November 7th, 2011 at 0940 by Andrew. Comment by emailing: