As U.S. forces battle the remainder of the Republican Guard and continue to encircle and move into Baghdad, a new threat to their safety is swiftly developing. According to a steady stream of news reports coming from the Arab and Western media, hundreds of volunteers from across the region are arriving daily along Iraq’s borders eager to join in a jihad against America, with or without Saddam Hussein. Many of these men are simple street thugs of various shapes and sizes who have been recruited by remaining Iraqi embassies and interest sections abroad, posing little threat to American soldiers. However, a smaller minority exists within these “Arab-Iraqis” of men with advanced terrorist training, from the vicious ranks of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Hezbollah, and al Qaeda. This international coalition of militant mujahedeen (“holy warriors”) is now plotting deadly guerilla ambushes against U.S. troops active in Iraq, including through the use of “martyrdom” — read suicide — bombers.
Indeed, a cadre of these men are acting on orders issued by senior terrorist commanders across the Middle East, who have publicly called upon their forces to prepare for combat in Iraq. Former University of South Florida professor and secretary general of PIJ, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, announced to his men in an interview last week:
A door to jihad and martyrdom is being opened to the Islamic nation… we tell them — all mujahideen, jihad advocates, our entire nation and people everywhere — that whoever manages to reach Iraq, Baghdad and Al-Najaf to blow himself up against the new Tatar forces amid this US invasion will be practicing the highest manifestations of jihad and martyrdom.
PIJ is best known for its cruel use of “martyrdom operations,” such as one horrific attack in Israel last October when an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber murdered 14 people after ramming an explosives-laden SUV into a bus packed with civilian passengers during rush hour. PIJ already claims to have special martyrdom units pre-positioned in Baghdad who are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Coalition soldiers and their expected future in Paradise.
Shallah’s words have been largely echoed by the secretary general of Hezbollah, an equally hostile Lebanese Shiite group already responsible for the deaths of over 250 American citizens. Shaykh Abbas al-Musawi, a top leader of that organization, has in the past referred to the devastating 1983 suicide attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut as “the [greatest] achievement of the Hezbollah.”
In northern Iraq, the remnants of Ansar Al-Islam, a Kurdish group allied with al Qaeda, are claiming to be mobilizing their own “martyrdom” squads, including a number of foreign “mujahedeen” with prior military training in Afghanistan and Chechnya. The fighters of Ansar Al-Islam have a deadly expertise in the realm of suicide bombing, and their resolve to sacrifice their own lives in order to strike at America should not be taken lightly.
Without surprise, a number of Iraq’s neighbors have stepped forward to receive these jihadi volunteers, including Syria and Iran. Until just a few days ago, buses carrying these recruits reportedly ran back and forth regularly from Damascus to Baghdad. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks at Central Command in Qatar told a news briefing, “We do have reports that there is certainly an interest in people from Syria contributing in a way that is not in the interest of the coalition inside of Iraq.”
Likewise, when U.S. B-52 bombers and Kurdish peshmerga guerillas drove Ansar Al-Islam from their training camps south of Halabja, they fled directly across the mountains into Iran. Iranian authorities, plainly aware of Ansar’s presence, have done nothing publicly to curtail their activities or movement. Moreover, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami took to the airwaves on Thursday with a frank and unapologetic warning to the Bush administration that “[w]ith this war you are giving a green light to extremist movements and violence-seekers to answer back your violence with violence.”
Thus, the problem of growing numbers of irregular soldiers in Iraq is a serious one indeed. While the suicide squads of PIJ, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda may not present a serious conventional military threat to our troops on the ground, their unpredictable acts of bloodshed and mayhem could certainly upset the delicate peace that we seek to bring to Iraq. In the past, in war zones such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya, the world has allowed the problem of militant irregulars to balloon out of control; many of these shell-shocked fanatics have gone on to take key positions within various international anti-American terrorist groups, including al Qaeda. This time, U.S. military planners would be wise to take care of the problem quickly and decisively.
— Evan Kohlmann is a senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project, a Washington D.C.-based counterterrorism think tank established in 1995. He is currently writing a book,The Martyrs of Bosnia: Al-Qaida’s War of Terror in Europe.