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June 12th, 2008
12:54 PM ET

al Qaeda in Iraq: Leaderless jihad or well-organized insurgency?

360° sorts through one of the largest collections of al Qaeda documents to fall into civilian hands. They reveal the inner workings of al Qaeda in Iraq - providing insight few have ever seen.

360° sorts through one of the largest collections of al Qaeda documents to fall into civilian hands. They reveal the inner workings of al Qaeda in Iraq – providing insight few have ever seen.

Editor’s note: CNN has obtained what is believed to be one of the largest collections of internal al Qaeda documents to fall into civilian hands. The videos and documents give fascinating insight into the inner workings of the organization. Watch full report tonight, 10p ET

Peter Bergen
CNN National Security Analyst

In a great journalistic coup, Michael Ware and the CNN team in Iraq have unearthed the largest collection of al Qaeda in Iraq material outside the hands of the US military. What they found in this collection of videos and memos underlines a key aspect of the al Qaeda organization in Iraq; it is highly organized, and not simply a loosely-knit collection of jihadists.

A debate has recently erupted in the pages of Foreign Affairs, the leading American journal of international relations, between two scholars of terrorism. On one side is former CIA case officer, Marc Sageman, the author of Leaderless Jihad, who contends that the threat from al Qaeda as an organization is largely over and the new threat comes from “a multitude of informal groups trying to emulate their predecessors by conceiving and executing plans from the bottom up. These ‘homegrown' wannabes form a scattered global network, a leaderless jihad.” Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman, by contrast, argues that the al Qaeda organization, headquartered on the Afghan-Pakistan border, remains the most important threat to American national security.

The thousands of pages of documents and scores of videos obtained by CNN will help to move the Sageman-Hoffman debate forward. They show that al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has, in fact, for years been a highly bureaucratized top-down organization with an attention to detail suggestive of the IRS... AQI recorded detailed battle plans for attacks that would take place over the course of three months; its members filled out application forms; the organization maintained pay sheets for brigade-size units of hundreds of men; it recorded the detailed minutes of meetings, kept prisoner rosters, maintained death lists of enemies, and kept the records of vehicles in its motor pool. Most chillingly AQI’s Anbar province branch videotaped 80 executions, which were not used for propaganda purposes, but simply as a record of having done the job.

The AQI documents recovered by CNN are similar to documents discovered by the US military at Sinjar on the Iraqi/Syrian border in the fall of 2007 and subsequently released by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.

In the Sinjar documents, AQI’s "emirate” on the Iraqi/Syrian border required its non-Iraqi recruits to fill out forms that asked for their countries and cities of origin, real names, aliases, date of birth, who their jihadist ‘coordinator’ was, how they were referred to the al Qaeda in the first place, their occupation, how they entered from Syria, who in Syria had facilitated their travel, an assessment of how they had been treated in Syria, what cash and ID cards they had with them when they arrived in Iraq, any relevant knowledge– such as computer skills–they might have, and whether they were volunteering to be a fighters or suicide attackers. Of the 606 foreign fighters who filled out the documents found at Sinjar few filled out all of this information, but all filled out at least some of it.

The CNN and Sinjar documents together show that AQI is not a ‘leaderless jihad’, but rather an insurgent/terrorist organization that has prized order, discipline, and top-down direction.


Filed under: al Qaeda • Iraq • Peter Bergen • War on Terror
soundoff (65 Responses)
  1. Michelle K.

    This is all well an good. However, this disorganized group of thugs cannot hold a candle to the horror perpetrated by the Bush administration. Look at the recent story of supplies for victims of Katrina. The poor performance of the congress and president is the real enemy. This stuff is pure distraction.

    June 13, 2008 at 1:26 am |
  2. Ganesh

    Very interesting. Question – Remember when back in 2002 we got all excited about attacking Iraq based on partly declassified and leaked security information and later on we found out that the complete report painted a very different picture than the parts that media and politicians spoke about ? HOw do we know it is not 2002 all over again ? In 2004 so many terror alerts were raised before election but nothing after election... and now this before 2008 election... Maybe I am wrong but I still believe that destroying Al Qaeda in Afghanistan-Pak border would greatly weaken if not completely nullify Al Qaeda's threat to US. Also remember that Iran and Iraqi Govt are Shia muslims unlike Al Qaeda who are sunnis.

    June 12, 2008 at 10:36 pm |
  3. joe from austin

    Our presence let the al qaeda idea flourish in Iraq. If we left there would be bloodshed but I al qaeda wouldnt win the battle because they have nothing to offer society. We would more or a less see a self imposed partition of the country with an eventual decline in violence and it would start to appear more like a modern day lebabon, but only as long as international aid continued to come into the country. Just let the troops come home so the inevitable process can start.

    June 12, 2008 at 10:10 pm |
  4. Annie Kate

    I hope all these documents and videos help us in wiping out al Queda. That was quite a find and hopefully one that will help us defeat the terrorists so our troops can come home.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    June 12, 2008 at 10:00 pm |
  5. Brad

    If there so well organized... How did some reporters get their hands on thousands of documents and video tapes? Especially stuff they did for documentation purposes. It seems to me that would be something they'd want to hang on to. If anything this shows how they're become disorganized. Having to abandon important documentation?

    June 12, 2008 at 7:24 pm |
  6. David Menifee, Ca

    It's hard to say it's hard to get ther truth out of Iraq these days.

    June 12, 2008 at 7:08 pm |
  7. kent fitzsimmons,Kewanee, Illinois

    Listen.............there are terrorist groups all over the world. There are countries that wipe out entire groups of people in their country and no one does anything about it. Bush can pretend all he wants about WHY he invaded Iraq..........a country that WE declared war upon without provocation. Bush wasn't right about anything he is aware of.

    Bush hunted down and killed Saddam Hussein because his daddy didn't. Saddam put a hit out on little Bush's dad. When little Bush took office his first priority was to figure out how he could kill Saddam. That is the rest of the story.......................

    June 12, 2008 at 6:49 pm |
  8. Dom

    While they may be there now, AQI didn't exist until our president lied us into invading Iraq – anyone with even a little insight into the complex tribal nature of the region's people would know that Sadam and Osama were each other's enemies not allies. Our incompetent leadership simply ignored the facts – we may never know why but we already know it was a major error in judgment.

    Unfortunately for the 4080-Plus dead Americans, nearly 30,000 wounded and untold Iraqui casualties, our leaders didn't know or want to know that the enemy they took on was and continues to be a resourceful foe capable of adapting to the ever changing challenges of warfare. Our enemy does make mistakes, of course. They originally didn't think we were capable or willing to take casualties in a difficult fight and were surprised when Afghanistan fell so quickly. And experts say that we had the leadership of our enemy cornered in the Afghanistan hills with numerous allies at our side – poised to deliver a knock-out blow until the president blundered us into Iraq. Even more unfortunate, ever since the first days of teh invasion, he and his administration have mismanaged all aspects of the war.

    So this is my cop out – It will take greater minds than mine to tell what to do next in Iraq – the president drove the car over the cliff and as we are crashing down the slope he wants to hand off the wheel, expecting someone else to steer us out of disaster.

    I don't envy the job facing a president Obama or McCain. Bush has left the country in a horrible state.

    June 12, 2008 at 5:59 pm |
  9. Austin

    The part of this article that intrigues me the most is the passage that claims "...the CNN team in Iraq have unearthed the largest collection of al Qaeda in Iraq material outside the hands of the US military." How a group of journalists obtained all this information is beyond me, but I sincerely hope that they immediately turned it over to the military for exploitation by trained intelligence analysts. I'm all for journalists exposing the truth – it's their job, after all, and it keeps us in the military honest – but for them to sit on the information and not turn it in where it can be of the most use is nothing short of criminal. Regardless of the conclusion the information leads to, whether al-Qaeda is a structured organization or not, the intelligence could undoubtedly save American service members' lives. I truly hope that this intelligence found its way into the proper hands.

    June 12, 2008 at 5:52 pm |
  10. kathy

    Of course we have to stay and help the Iraqis get rid of them. Sooner or later the people who have been taught evil in their schools will realize all they are doing is killing themselves for nothing. Might take a generation. It is more than a one headed snake.
    Oh yes, there is a reason to belong there. Many reasons.
    Its too bad the media doesn't do more reporting from there. I guess the leftys want us to fail so bad they don't want us to know we are winning. And now Pelozi doesn't want the military to give any press conferences. She means shut them up so we don't learn the truth.
    We should hope now we get rid of the Iranian problem. If they take over the middle east we are really in a world of hurt. You can't wish a problem away or ignore it because you don't want to face it.

    June 12, 2008 at 5:42 pm |
  11. Andy

    Al Qaeda aren't in Iraq. The organisation 'Al Qaeda in Iraq' are completely separate and have nothing to do with Bin Laden. They're just cashing in on the incompetence that lead Al Qaeda to be revered, and our media is so incompetent that they've interpreted the name as meaning a Iraqi Al Qaeda cells.

    You see this is why I have no confidence in our government or the media. They can't even identify different terrorist groups correctly. By associating 'Al Qaeda in Iraq' with 'Al Qaeda', the media and our government are doing this group's PR for them.

    Why does this matter? If you don't even have the wit and intelligence to be able to identify a group, how on earth are you going to stop it?

    But to me the real incompetence comes from not setting the Shia against both terrorist groups. Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in Iraq are Sunni terrorists. Sunni terrorists hate Shiites even more than they hate Americans, and vice versa. A competent government would have charged our intelligence agencies with the task of setting these groups against each other, thus occupying them with killing each other instead of US troops. Instead they made our military a common enemy to both groups.

    June 12, 2008 at 5:07 pm |
  12. Robert59

    What's missing is detailed analysis. Now that we have the names of AQI members we need to find out their backgrounds. Are they really homegrown jihadists or are they Baathists who picked up the jihad flag after Saddam was deposed?

    What the Pentagon is doing is demonstrating AQI exists. What they're not telling you is who are its members? Time magazine did an excellent piece several years ago on foreigners recruited as suicide bombers. The recruits were motivated by God but their handlers were all former Baathist intelligence officers.

    If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck chances are it is a duck.
    In this case it is set up like a military orgranization and behaves like a military organization so chances are it's run by elements of Hussein's military.

    June 12, 2008 at 4:55 pm |
  13. B Hogan

    Mr. Cooper, or whoever wrote the headline and copy for this article, has joined the campaign of lies that got us into this war and keeps us there. AQI is not Al Qaeda; any number of reputable sources confirm, as a matter of fact and not opinion, that AQI, leaderless or not, was started in Iraq by Iraqis. It aspires to be a part of Al Qaeda, but that organization has not yet fully embraced them. Again, this can be easily confirmed. More lies, more death. For shame!

    June 12, 2008 at 4:52 pm |
  14. Nick

    What is this, a comment board for conspiracy theorist?
    Of course they are an organized group capable of waging a large scale war in a an urban setting. You are crazy not to believe it. Our government has made many mistakes in the past. (Rumsfield) But waging war on AQ is not one of them. They want to destroy "the west" we have seen it in every video posted by them. Conspiracy aside, do you really think we went to war with a group of people who have no interest in taking down America? We started off wrong by not sending in enought troops in the begining. Read a book!

    June 12, 2008 at 4:48 pm |
  15. SledP

    Was there anything in the documents indicating how these activities are being funded. I am curious as to where the money comes from.

    June 12, 2008 at 4:45 pm |
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