These estimates ought to be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s the trend that’s important:
Last year, U.S. counterterrorism officials said the number of foreigners heading to Iraq had trickled from hundreds to “tens” in what they described as a severely weakened al-Qaida in Iraq.
But a Mideast counterterrorism official said an estimated 250 foreign fighters entered Iraq in October alone. He said they came through the Syrian city of Homs, a hub for Syrian Muslim fundamentalists that is run mostly by Tunisians and Algerians. Other fighters have come from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Yemen.
Immediate impressions: the foreign-fighter surge couldn’t happen without active and passive support from Iraqi Sunnis, making this worrisome and the composition of the Iraqi government, yet again, a flashing red light. At the risk of extrapolating from insufficient evidence, al-Qaeda doesn’t want to be perceived as “losing” Iraq, and any opportunity it has to restore ties with Sunni Iraqi extremists are valuable commodities for them.
Recent communications from bin Laden and Zawahiri haven’t emphasized Iraq — better not to call attention to their failures there — so it’s not like there’s been a major AQ Senior Leadership recruitment call for Iraq. But that may not be necessary: Michael Leiter of NCTC spoke last week about local grievances being major drivers of al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates. That should underscore the new D.C. consensus on U.S. military withdrawal and sustained political engagement.
Still, if you want to go around the world to fight for bin Ladenism, why Iraq and not Yemen? Local problems may have radicalized you. But why exfiltrate from Pakistan, Saudi or Yemen for Iraq? That would suggest, on the face of it, some leadership command decisions.