11:32 a.m. August 13, 2013

Yup, Abu Bakr's Moved to Syria Like I Said He Would

You might remember that on the same day another twig was added to the Royal Family tree, there was another, less important story in the news: 400 jihadis were sprung from Abu Ghraib Prison west of Baghdad in a brilliant operation carried out by Al Qaeda Iraq.

Well, the two stories have continued developing nonstop. Naturally, the press has chosen to focus on the big one--George, that is. You can't buy a bag of Doritos without seeing the George headlines letting you know that mother is fond of baby, and baby, in turn, fond of mum, and so on.

But let's spare a moment or two for the less vital news out of Iraq. I wrote about the big Abu Ghraib breakout at the time, asking the big question, "What do you do with 400 escaped jihadis?" Do you infiltrate them into Iraq and attack the Shia regime, or do you send them west into Syria where the jihadis have set up their own feifdoms?

My guess in that article was that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, leader of AQI/ISIS, would send the bulk of the 400 ex-POWs west to Syria, where they can tip the fight for power in his favor--not so much against Assad's troops but against other claimants for the emir-ship of the jihadi zone.

And that seems to be exactly what happened. First the State Department casually mentioned, in one of its bland routine condemnations of violence that "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu D'ua, is now based in Syria and has changed the name of AQI to the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS)."

The news networks did a double take and finally got the point a day later.

What this means is that Abu Bakr has openly defied the official head of KAOS, aka Al Qaeda, who said he didn't have franchise rights to Syria. According to Old Man Zawahiri, Syria was the official franchise of Jabhat al Nusra and a few other, smaller Islamist fronts. Abu Bakr wasn't having any of that and basically asked Stalin's question: "How many divisions has Zawahiri got?" Answer: None, at least none that'll give the old man of the mountains more than a distant, nostalgic respect as Osama's war buddy. What's going on now in eastern Syria is about boots on the ground, as DC wonks love to say. They're not the only ones who think that way. Abu Bakr, faced with the choice of putting his men into Iraq to be whittled down by vicious urban guerrilla warfare against a very good Shia security apparatus, or trucking them west, across the friendly territory of Sunni Anbar Province into Syria, where they can serve as his palace guard, decided that was an easy one. He tithed a few operatives to the struggle in Iraq (and they've been busy blowing things up ever since), but all the signs say he trucked the bulk of those 400 vets into Syria.

And not one of them is fighting Assad's men. Some are in the north, fighting the Kurds over the border-crossings and the big money to be made in smuggling there. The rest are the new garrison of Abu Bakr's statelet-in-the-making.

This doesn't mean he's a fake, or that he's deserted the struggle in Iraq. He and his lieutenants probably feel that the best way to liberate Iraq is to have a safe, liberated zone in eastern Syria first. There they can collect and train the men they need to liberate the Iraqi part of their caliphate--Anbar first, then Baghdad.

It's a good plan, and it may well work. But the best part is, even if the Iraq part fails, Abu Bakr still has his fiefdom in eastern Syria.

This is exactly what I thought he'd do. It's rational guerrilla decision-making. That's why the rock-headed stupidity of American moves in Iraq has always been so puzzling--because these guys are not crazy, not unpredictable. Their moves are straightforward and predictable if you're willing to put yourself in their place for a second. It's odd how people won't do that.