12:13 p.m. July 26, 2013

The War Nerd: George Vs. Al Qaeda

The Jihadis thought they’d figured out every angle. They’d been watching Abu Ghraib for months, timing the guards’ shifts, bringing in mortars, RPG launchers, suicide vests, volunteers. But there was one thing they hadn’t counted on: Kate Middleton’s sluggish gestation clock.

Midnight, Sunday, July 21: Al Qaeda Iraq blasts open the walls of Abu Ghraib Prison in Western suburbs of Baghdad.

4:24 pm, Monday, July 22: One K. Middleton, an otherwise undistinguished human female, produces a future ribbon-cutter and smiler-at-receptions.

You’ll notice I can give an exact time for the arrival of little George but only an approximate time for the start of the Abu Ghraib raid. That’s because the world press was much more interested in making it easy for astrology freaks to chart out the Little Prince’s future than tracking the magnificent Abu Ghraib raid.

It must’ve been a nasty shock to the men who put together the prison break to find that in global news terms, little George wiped Al Qaeda right off the front page, no contest.

Right now, somewhere in a safe house in Baghdad’s Sunni districts, the man who calls himself Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, leader of Al Qaeda Iraq, is cursing the infidel media for preferring Kate Middleton to a great action story like the Abu Ghraib escape he and his lieutenants pulled off. And he’s got a right to be pissed off, because this prison break was a masterpiece.

What you have to understand is how incredibly difficult urban guerrilla warfare really is. Nobody in the first world really appreciates this, because it’s so long since we ever had to do it ourselves. We’re used to thinking of the way a conventional army works. An army like that can do its logistics in daylight. Its warehouses have official insignia, its vehicles have army stencils on them, there’s no need to sneak around. That makes it all very easy. Now imagine putting together a big military operation—and this breakout was a big one by any standards—without being able to do any of that logistical work openly. Every round of ammunition has to be smuggled in somehow. So do all the men required for the operation—and this one probably took at least a hundred men, all of them strangers to the neighborhood, easily noticed, very hard to hide. Above all, imagine the terror you’d feel every minute, because if a cop or snitch notices what you’re doing, you and your whole family won’t just die, but suffer the kind of torture that makes you beg to die. Comparing logistics for a conventional army and an urban guerrilla force is like the old comparison between walking across a board on bricks, a few inches off the floor, and walking the same board over the Grand Canyon.

Every single step can be the one that gets you caught. How do you bring in all your materiel? A mortar is a big object, hard to hide. So is an RPG launcher. So is the quantity of ammunition needed for suppressing fire once the wall is blown open. Imagine assembling all that bulky, clunky, unmistakably military gear in a neighborhood full of regime troops, cops, quasi-cops, and just plain snitches. The snitches are the most dangerous of all, because they come from your people—in this case the Sunnis of Baghdad. And you never really know who those snitches are, because it’s what you might call a high-turnover job. On the one hand, your group, like all urban guerrilla armies, devotes a lot of manpower to finding and killing the snitches in your community—and on the other, the regime is constantly breaking someone new, finding the weak point to get them to cough up the latest gossip in Sunni-Iraqi circles. There are lots of ways of breaking someone, even if he’s not weak himself. Maybe he’s got a druggie brother who’s facing a firing squad; maybe he doesn’t want to see his wife or sister or daughter raped in front of him; maybe he has an old grudge against his neighbor who now heads the local AQI brigade, something as simple as that. There’s always a way. It only takes one soft side to his character to turn him. He might’ve been the loudest Shi’a hater in the neighborhood for years, but that can change overnight—now he’s going to Maliki’s all-Shia police to tell them that there are a suspicious lotta trucks and guys with big beards and shaved heads laying low in the neighborhood, like they’re waiting for something big.

That’s all it would take to wreck the whole operation. And this was a big, big operation. Abu Ghraib is a hard target by any standards. It’d be a tough place to take down even with air power, armor, APCs. Yet Al Qaeda managed to hit that target last Sunday night with none of those things. Respect. You may not like these guys, I may not like ’em (and I’ve lived under Wahhabism, so I’ve got reason)—but these were fine soldiers and they did something pretty amazing. Just think how badly the huge, expensive, high-tech US operations to free POWs have gone, most of the time: the Son Tay Raid in 1970, where more than 100 aircraft were used to attack a POW camp that turned out to be empty, or Operation Eagle Claw in 1980, Carter’s attempt to free the Tehran hostages without actually offending the Iranians holding them ( I’m not gonna talk about that raid, it’s just too painful).

You could even go back to April 1864, and one of the few failures of Sherman’s Georgia campaign, when he sent Stoneman’s cavalry to free the POWs being systematically starved to death at Andersonville (yes, that’s what I said and I meant every word of it, you neo-Confederate bastards) only to find they’d been moved.

Raids to free POWs are one of the most difficult operations any army can try to pull off, and when you imagine the difficulties for urban guerrillas trying it, you just have to shake your head in awe. If nothing else, Al Qaeda Iraq either has the tightest operational security of any guerrilla force around, or it’s got major collaboration from dissident Shia factions within the security forces. Or both.

The accounts of the raid aren’t totally clear yet and probably never will be, because a big embarrassment like this gives everybody the chance to blame their pet hate. So right now Maliki is blaming Moqtada al Sadr, his biggest Shia rival, claiming that Moqtada’s militia somehow colluded with the Sunni attackers. They might have; Sadr’s always been an interesting, creative player in Iraq’s sectarian war, sometimes pushing a Shia agenda, sometimes stressing Sunni/Shia solidarity against the Crusaders.

But even if Moqtada’s men among the guards looked the other way, it wasn’t Moqtada’s guys who blasted open the walls of the prison. Those blasts came from VBIEDs driven right at the walls by Al Qaeda kamikazes. And, once they’d opened the walls, other suicide squads started firing RPGs and mortars to suppress the tower guards’ fire, and still other volunteers rushed in with suicide-vest wearing kamikazes to take out the inner walls. It worked.

Of course, getting your guys out is just part of an effective POW break. A lot of these operations fall apart a few hours, or days, after the men scramble over the rubble of the walls. To go back to the Civil War again, 109 Union officers escaped from Libby Prison in downtown Richmond in Feb. 1864, but only 59 made it to Union lines. The big Maze Prison escape of 1983 had about the same ratio of recaptures, roughly half, with 19 out of 38 IRA prisoners caught within a few days.

So far, though, we’re not hearing much about Al Qaeda prisoners from Abu Ghraib being recaptured—one more indication that this was a very well-run operation. Again, you have to put yourself in an AQI planner’s mind to realize how scary the difficulties are here: How do you somehow hide hundreds of guys in prison gear and Salafist beards, who suddenly show up on a street full of prying eyes?

Somebody did some intense post-break planning, and the question they had to deal with is the same one Shia officers in Iraq Security are trying to answer now: Where did all these guys go?

There are two clear possibilities. Either they went into hiding in Sunni safe houses around Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle, or they headed for Syria, via Anbar Province, as fast as trucks could carry them. That’s the issue now: Do you use this sudden infusion of jihad manpower in Iraq, or do you ship it over to Syria, where Sunni jihadists actually control territory, especially around Raqqah and Aleppo?

To make a reasonable guess about this, you have to know a little about the guy running Al Qaeda Iraq, the man who calls himself Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. First of all, that ain’t his name. Names are shifty in guerrilla circles, for all kinds of reasons, starting with making it hard to trace your family so they can’t be used against you. But this name, “Abu Bakr al Baghdadi,” wasn’t just chosen for security purposes. It’s a declaration of war on the Shi’ites running Iraq now.

Names are still way more fluid in the Arabic world than they are here. We have this idea that everybody has a first and last name, which wasn’t even true in the West until fairly recently. Arabic names work more like Icelandic or Russian names: first your given name, then your father’s name, then your grandfather’s name, and after that any nickname—usually the place you’re connected to. The Artist Currently Known as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi started out with that kind of name: Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, “Ibrahim, son of Awward, son of Ibrahim, son of Ali,” then switched to a religious alias, “Abu Dua”—“Dua” meaning “supplication,” and “Abu” just meaning “person” in colloquial Arabic (in my faculty in Najran there was a guy with a huge mustache; the students called him “Abu Mustache”). But the anonymity and holiness of that fake name weren’t enough; the man who was once “Ibrahim, son of Awwad, son of Ibrahim” became “Abu Bakr al Baghdadi,” with both parts of the name screaming “Sunni sectarian!” He chose “Abu Bakr” because the original Abu Bakr, a first-generation convert who married one of his daughters to Mohammed and claimed the Caliphate when the Prophet died, is Public Enemy #1 to Shi’ites. According to the Shi’a version of the hopelessly confused, gory mess that followed Mohammed’s death, Abu Bakr was a classic schmoozer, a coward in battle who sleazed his way to power over the bodies of Mohammed’s grandson Ali, the rightful Caliph. Even Sunni aren’t generally thrilled with Abu Bakr, whose caliphate only lasted a couple of years and whose descendants were lousy rulers. So choosing this very, very Sunni but otherwise unappealing name is a way of shouting “Fuck y’all” to every Shi’ite in Iraq.

It may seem a little weird that choosing a 7th-century alias has that much meaning in 21st century Iraq, but like I’ve said before, most Muslims—not all, but most—take this stuff very seriously. It’s not history, it’s doctrine, and doctrine doesn’t age; that’s why they call it doctrine. That goes for Shia as well as Sunni; just remember Khomeini’s magnificent line, “Every day is Ashura and every place is Karbala.” The battle of Karbala (where Hussein, the rightful Caliph by Shia rules, was killed by Yazid I, an unpopular Caliph who links up to Abu Bakr’s daughter Aisha, the femme fatale of the story according to the Shi’ites) took place in 680 a.d.—or right now, today, if you take this stuff seriously.

Dates, like names, get real fluid when history turns into doctrine. That’s why every communique from Abu Bakr al Baghdadi refers to the current Shia hegemony over Iraq as “The Safavid government.” The Safavids, of course, went out of business in the 18th century, but since they were Shi’ite heretics, and heresy is timeless, a dull, tie-wearing 21st-century political hack like al Maliki becomes a 17th century Persian, and some dude named Ibrahim becomes a 7th-century Sunni Caliph. Time, in other words, doesn’t march on, it fights the same battle forever. History and doctrine are two clean different ways of seeing the world, and they don’t mix. If you believe in history, then doctrine is just mashed-up, ignorant history; if you believe in doctrine, history is just a bureaucratic jumble obscuring the key, timeless truths. And nearly everybody in Iraq goes for doctrine. For a classic example of how this looks, check out glossy hi-tech websites like this, “Anbar Spring,” promoting Al-Baghdadi worship with streaming ads for jihad.

Doctrine, though, leaves tactics wide open, and what to do with these newly-liberated AQI men is a tactical question. Do you infiltrate them into Baghdad, or do you truck ’em to Syria? The indications are that Al Baghdadi would have preferred to shift the center of his operations due west, to the parts of Syria controlled by hardcore jihadist groups like Jabhat al Nusra. We know this because Al Baghdadi made a classic middle-management mistake in April 2013. He announced that the hardcore Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al Nusra was now part of the Islamic State of Iraq, aka Al Qaeda Iraq. This was news to the leadership of JaN, who announced publicly they damn well weren’t part of Al Baghdadi’s group at all. Then Ayman al-Zawahiri himself, Osama’s second-in-command, reprimanded Al Baghdadi and said JaN didn’t have to answer to AQI. It was like a damn Twitter fight, with these dueling acronyms all mixed up with archaic Arabic til you wanna SHID.

The real shocker came when Al Baghdadi, now going full rogue, sent a taped message saying Al-Zawahiri had no say in the matter, and Jabhat was now part of AQI whether they liked it or not. That was one of about a million signs that Al Qaeda, an organization that never made sense in guerrilla terms, as I argued years ago, has become such a joke that its own regional commanders are openly dissing the man who’s officially in command of every tentacle of this imaginary worldwide terror-octopus.

The feud between JaN and AQI means that the 400-odd men sprung from Abu Ghraib are likely to end up fighting fellow jihadis, if they make it to Syria at all, rather than joining the front lines against Assad. That would be par for the course for AQI, which has been a net loss to the Sunni jihad ever since Zarqawi was running it. AQI has always specialized in counterproductive operations, mostly against civilians, and did so much to piss off ordinary Iraqis and Syrians that a lot of people in both countries argue it’s gotta be run by Assad provocateurs. Unfortunately, theories like that don’t really account for the fact that between the behavior patterns you’d expect from clever provocateurs and sincere, bloodthirsty, dumb-as-rocks sectarians, there’s not a lot of difference.

The real choice about where to place your newly liberated jihadist employees comes down to effectiveness. And in those terms, the best decision is to send them to eastern Syria—Raqqah or Deir Ezzor. Those are chunks of territory already held by jihadists, unlikely to be overrun by the Alawite army. In a place like that, 400 well-trained men can make a difference—not against the Shia enemy but against other jihadist militias like JaN. If there’s one pattern you can see clearly in Al Baghdadi’s past, it’s ambition, wanting to run his own show in the Sunni desert that stretches from Anbar Province in Iraq to the coastal hills of Syria.

If he infiltrates his 400 returned men into Iraq proper, uses them in the fight against the Iraqi Shia, they won’t last long, and won’t even make a big difference. Now that might sound like a weird thing to say, because if you know anything about urban guerrilla warfare you know that 400 disciplined men is a big, in fact huge, force. But the power of a force like that depends on a lot of factors, including one that you might call the “ambient level of violence.” Loose a group like that in Europe of the US and there’d be utter terror; set them to work in Iraq and there’s very little they can do to scare people who’ve been hearing explosions every day, losing extended family every week or month, for as long as they can remember.

It wouldn’t pay, as a management decision. The supply of jihadis is finite—a lot more finite than I would’ve guessed a decade ago, given the huge size of the Sunni world population and the supply of surplus young males in that population. Surprisingly few guys from that pool are ready to die—and if they were thrown into the fight with the scarily effective Shia security forces in Iraq, they would die, all of them, and in a year at the most. A waste of resources, especially against a war-hardened population that doesn’t even flinch any more when they hear a bomb go off.

Whereas, if Al Baghdadi can move his 400 men across Anbar, into Eastern Syria, he can give the real enemy—the Syrian jihadists who are resisting his power-drive—all kinds of trouble. The fiefdoms that are evolving in Syria east of the coastal range are strange, godawful places, very feudal. With at least 1,200 different militias operating in the country, most of them very small, a man who can shore up his little kingdom with 400 ex-prisoners who think they owe him their lives, not to mention their eyes and fingernails, has real power. And in time, a man like that could hope to get his little Game of Thrones gig extended east, back into Iraq via alliances with the Anbar tribes.

So my guess is, those 400 men (minus the few who’ve been picked up and killed by Iraqi security) are either in Anbar or already across the border, ready to make life even worse for the poor locals. That wasn’t Al Baghdadi’s first plan, of course. What he must’ve had in mind as Plan A was to pull off a prison break so dramatic, so big, that the world would have fallen at his feet and made him the new, undisputed king of the Sunni.

It was a reasonable plan, too. He made only one mistake: He forgot to kidnap Kate’s obstetrician and give the bastard the Marathon Man treatment until the doc coughed up an exact time for George’s camera-hogging arrival.