Global Policy Forum

Iraq May Be Prime Place for Training of Militants,


By Douglas Jehl

New York Times
June 22, 2005

A new classified assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency says Iraq may prove to be an even more effective training ground for Islamic extremists than Afghanistan was in Al Qaeda's early days, because it is serving as a real-world laboratory for urban combat. The assessment, completed last month and circulated among government agencies, was described in recent days by several Congressional and intelligence officials. The officials said it made clear that the war was likely to produce a dangerous legacy by dispersing to other countries Iraqi and foreign combatants more adept and better organized than they were before the conflict.

Congressional and intelligence officials who described the assessment called it a thorough examination that included extensive discussion of the areas that might be particularly prone to infiltration by combatants from Iraq, either Iraqis or foreigners. They said the assessment had argued that Iraq, since the American invasion of 2003, had in many ways assumed the role played by Afghanistan during the rise of Al Qaeda during the 1980's and 1990's, as a magnet and a proving ground for Islamic extremists from Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries.

The officials said the report spelled out how the urban nature of the war in Iraq was helping combatants learn how to carry out assassinations, kidnappings, car bombings and other kinds of attacks that were never a staple of the fighting in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet campaigns of the 1980's. It was during that conflict, primarily rural and conventional, that the United States provided arms to Osama bin Laden and other militants, who later formed Al Qaeda.

The assessment said the central role played by Iraq meant that, for now, most potential terrorists were likely to focus their energies on attacking American forces there, rather than carrying out attacks elsewhere, the officials said. But the officials said Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries would soon have to contend with militants who leave Iraq equipped with considerable experience and training.

Previous warnings of this kind have been less detailed, as when Porter J. Goss, the director of central intelligence, told Congress earlier in the year that jihadists who survive the continued fighting in Iraq would leave there "experienced in and focused on acts of urban terrorism," and form "a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups and networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries."

The officials who described the new assessment said they could not be identified by name because of the classified nature of the document. The officials came from three different government organizations, and all said they had read the document. The officials said the document did not address whether the anti-American insurgency in Iraq was indeed in the "last throes," as Vice President Dick Cheney said recently.

In an interview in the current issue of Time magazine, Mr. Goss is quoted as saying that he believed that the insurgents were "not quite in the last throes, but I think they are very close to it," though he did not say such a view was based on a formal intelligence assessment. "I think that every day that goes by in Iraq where they have their own government, and it's moving forward, reinforces just how radical these people are and how unwanted they are," Mr. Goss was quoted as saying of the insurgents. The interview was the first granted by Mr. Goss since he took over as C.I.A. chief last September.

The officials who described the new intelligence report would not say specifically which regions of the world were described as particularly vulnerable to a spillover from Iraq. But they noted that the combatants in Iraq, whether Iraqis or foreign fighters, have primarily been Arabs who would fit in most easily in other Arab societies. Many of the combatants from Afghanistan came from South Asia and Central Asia, and many went on to campaigns in the 1990's in Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and other locations.

In an interview last week, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, said he had been told by American officials during a recent trip to Iraq that a "disproportionate number" of the foreign fighters now active there came from Saudi Arabia. A former American intelligence official who visited Saudi Arabia recently said officials there had grown increasingly worried that young Saudis who were leaving to fight Americans in Iraq, traveling by way of Damascus, the Syrian capital, would pose an increased threat to Saudi stability if and when they returned home.

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