Iraq: the homeland security front line

Iraq has become the homeland security front line on two counts. Firstly, there is some evidence that suggests that the battle initiated by Al-Qaeda against the US - and by association the modern world and those countries working toward modernity -is now being fought by their proxies in Iraq. Secondly, Iraq represents the model of a country that has been subjected to a catastrophic event from which it seeks to recover. In considering these aspects, there are important homeland security lessons to be learned.

There is a dearth of credible information to support the contention that there was any formal linkage between Al-Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein before Operation 'Iraqi Freedom'. That representatives of the Iraqi government may have met members of Al-Qaeda does not constitute operational co-operation any more than the fact that members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) have met members of the US Senate. In fact, as has been observed by a number of commentators, Saddam Hussein's secular nationalism was at the opposite end of the spectrum to Osama bin Laden's extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic fundamentalism certainly represented the one religious dimension of which there was little evidence in pre-war Iraq. The Iraqi regime expended a great deal of time and effort suppressing the rise of Iranian-inspired Shia fundamentalism. Nor did the extreme Wahabbi form of Sunni Islam exported by Saudi Arabian interests find a fertile breeding ground amongst the more secular Iraqi Sunni elite. As history frequently demonstrates, however, there is nothing like a common enemy (in this case the US and its allies) to unite natural protagonists for a common cause. This is what we may have witnessed in the aftermath of war.

It is of course convenient - and even more important in the absence of the discovery of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - to label those who are attacking the coalition forces as terrorists, and thereby underpin the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime as a continuation of the 'War on Terror'. The problem, though, is that while there is no internationally agreed definition of terrorism it is widely accepted that the engagement of purely military targets does not categorise the attackers as terrorists. The situation was changed by the deliberate targeting of the Jordanian Embassy and the UN headquarters in Baghdad, transforming the attackers from putative guerrillas and insurgents - even anarchists or perhaps freedom fighters - into confirmed terrorists.

It would be inaccurate to suggest that all the groups that have the potential for violent opposition to the Coalition presence in Iraq are terrorists, or indeed have as an ultimate objective the destruction of the US or more than a national interest. Inevitably and understandably, in countering the threat the US will group its opponents under a generic title. These groups are likely to include committed Baathists; Arabs and Muslims who are opposed to a Western/'infidel' presence; representatives of the different religious and ethnic groupings seeking to consolidate their positions; and the intelligence agencies of at least some of Iraq's neighbours.

Also among their number will probably be criminals of both traditional and opportunist persuasion, those Iraqis who are dissatisfied with the lack of Coalition progress in the restoration of 'normality' and those who, while not supporters of the old regime, do not welcome the continued occupation of their country. This cocktail of coalition opposition may well contain members of Al-Qaeda or like-minded individuals and groups.

Assuming the existence of an international terrorist dimension inside Iraq that has as an objective the defeat of the US, they are well positioned to effect a substantial level of attrition, relative to what might be deemed acceptable by the US public. Their initiatives could also result in a turn around of US foreign policy, particularly in relationship to the Middle East but with a collateral impact elsewhere in the world. As the world's only 'hyperpower', the US is militarily and economically indefatigable but its very sophistication makes it susceptible to terrorist attack and its population psychologically vulnerable. The more that individuals or a population have to lose in terms of quality of life and material possessions, the less they wish to be exposed to that possibility.

To function effectively, any terrorist organisation requires a safe haven, support, resources, time, space and a target array. Al-Qaeda is unexceptional in this regard. With its currently poor level of security, porous borders, neighbours hostile to the US, weaponry, source of volunteers and cause, Iraq meets all the essential requirements. Confronting the US in Iraq, therefore, makes good sense for Al-Qaeda but it makes equally good sense for the US to confront and, if possible, destroy the greatest current threat to its homeland security abroad. In military terminology, this may be termed 'defending the homeland in depth'.

Engaging terrorism in a mixed rural and urban environment requires particular skills. Some of these are transferable from high-intensity warfighting, while others must be either adapted or conceived to counter specific threats. UK forces have some advantage over their US allies in possessing a well developed corporate knowledge from centuries of colonial policing, and more recently 30 years of counter-terrorist operations in Northern Ireland.

It is naïve, though, to suggest that other countries could not develop an equivalent expertise, particularly with UK support and advice, but critical to such development is acceptance of the role, something not often evident in US military pronouncements. To date, the US military's stance in Iraq does not always appear to have embraced the need for change and to understand the modus operandi of a new enemy.

The key to defeating terrorism in Iraq will be operational intelligence and the security of the country's citizens. Neither are new requirements, but both depend on engagement with rather than alienation of the population. One of the many ironies in post-Saddam Iraq is that in a country where the intelligence and security apparatus was used to deprive its citizens of free will, they are now essential to ensuring it. Every patrol needs to work on developing a rapport with the local population: to be seen as their protectors rather than oppressors. An important by-product of such an approach is a wealth of low-level information that, when combined, provides a coherent tactical picture.

A rapport is dependent on achieving a non-threatening profile - when operationally appropriate - by minimising the use of personal and collective protection systems and by maximising professionalism. It has been suggested that discarding armoured vehicles, helmets and body armour in favour of soft-skinned vehicles and berets increases the risk. However, the adoption of advanced patrolling techniques and mutually supporting multiple patrols may in practice aid force protection by winning the confidence of the local population.

Not all intelligence requirements will be met from low-level contact; technical intelligence, signals intelligence and intelligence from well-positioned human sources all have a part to play. Effective security, too, requires more than patrolling: surveillance; search of persons, vehicles, property and areas; bomb disposal; the clearance of battlefield debris; perimeter security; and access control are all essential components.

Homeland security is not only concerned with countering the threat from terrorism but also encompasses the recovery from the impact of catastrophic events. Few events are more catastrophic than war, and in the aftermath of 'Gulf War II' Iraq was left without a seat of government, security or a critical national infrastructure. The health and emergency services, the food supply and the distribution and transport system were all severely depleted. To add to the challenges, the residue of warfighting - in the form of unstable structures, battlefield debris, toxic industrial hazards, unexploded munitions, landmines and weapons - were also present.

At the strategic level, an effective response to recovery from a catastrophic event requires willingness from those with the responsibility for recovery; executive focus and clarity of intent, command and control; appropriate supporting legislation; standardisation of requirements, equipment and performance; sufficient financial, equipment and personnel resources; integration of effort; co-operation from all parties involved; and the engagement of the population. Living up to expectations by restoring normality, however, is what ultimately underpins success and ensures continuing public support. Any intervention force, whether military, emergency agency or humanitarian, has a 'window of opportunity' during which it must be seen to be mitigating the threat and improving people's lives. A failure to deliver will ultimately result in even the most avid supporters turning against the intervention force.

The security situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate. As a consequence, the restoration of critical infrastructure has slowed down: for example, electricity output remains at 25% below its pre-war level. Dissatisfaction is leading to dissent, and ethnic and religious tensions are exacerbated.

The situation is likely to deteriorate before it stabilises and, in a country with at least the residue of a WMD programme, we may yet witness terrorist attacks with chemical or radiological weapons. This is a lesson the Coalition does not want to learn from practical experience.

Garth Whitty is head of RUSI's Homeland Security and Resilience Programme


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