Report: Iraqi Insurgency Gaining Confidence

January 2006 Islamic Army magazine cover. Courtesy: International Crisis Group. i i

The January 2006 cover from a magazine published by an Iraqi insurgent group known as the Islamic Army. (Enlarge to see the full cover.) Courtesy: International Crisis Group hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy: International Crisis Group
January 2006 Islamic Army magazine cover. Courtesy: International Crisis Group.

The January 2006 cover from a magazine published by an Iraqi insurgent group known as the Islamic Army. (Enlarge to see the full cover.)

Courtesy: International Crisis Group

A review of Web sites, publications and videos associated with the Iraqi insurgency finds that the movement has gained cohesion and confidence, according to the International Crisis Group.

The ICG, a nonprofit organization focused on preventing and resolving deadly conflicts, came to its conclusions after a sweeping review of public communications from insurgent groups between mid-2003 and January 2006. The ICG looked only at communications from groups that claimed responsibility for attacks in Iraq.

The ICG report, titled "In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency," was released Wednesday.

Robert Malley, the ICG's Middle East and North Africa program director, talks with Steve Inskeep about his group's findings and recommendations.

Insurgency Video

This English-language video collected by the International Crisis Group is part of the insurgency's effort to sway public opinion in Iraq and abroad.

Warning: Video contains images some may find disturbing.

In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency

Excerpt of the Executive Summary:

In Iraq, the U.S. fights an enemy it hardly knows. Its descriptions have relied on gross approximations and crude categories (Saddamists, Islamo-fascists and the like) that bear only passing resemblance to reality. This report, based on close analysis of the insurgents' own discourse, reveals relatively few groups, less divided between nationalists and foreign jihadis than assumed, whose strategy and tactics have evolved (in response to U.S. actions and to maximise acceptance by Sunni Arabs), and whose confidence in defeating the occupation is rising. An anti-insurgency approach primarily focused on reducing the insurgents' perceived legitimacy — rather than achieving their military destruction, decapitation and dislocation — is far more likely to succeed.

Failure to sufficiently take into account what the insurgents are saying is puzzling and, from Washington's perspective, counter-productive. Abundant material — both undervalued and underutilised — is available from insurgent websites, internet chat, videos, tapes and leaflets. Over the past two years such communication has assumed more importance, both among insurgent groups and between groups and their networks of supporters or sympathizers. This report, the first exhaustive analysis of the organized armed opposition's discourse, seeks to fill the gap, and the lessons are sobering.

Textual analysis has its limitations. The information by definition sheds light only on those who choose to speak, and only about that which they discuss in public. Wartime communication is part information, part propaganda; insurgents highlight their nobleness, tactical exploits and ingenuity while downplaying brutality and setbacks. Without knowing more of the groups' inner-workings, it is hazardous to speculate on the reasons behind specific communications.

Still, the discourse offers a window into the insurgency. It tells us about themes insurgents consider best to mobilise activists or legitimise actions, and gives us information on internal debates and levels of coordination, and about shifts in tactics and strategy. This war, U.S. officials concede, will be won as much in the court of public opinion as on any battlefield. The U.S. administration faces an increasingly skeptical domestic audience; Iraq's authorities suffer from a serious credibility deficit at home; and insurgents must contend with accusations of sectarianism and barbaric violence. For the U.S. to ignore, or fail to fully take into account, the insurgents' discourse — at a time when they are paying close attention to what Washington is saying — is to wage the struggle with one hand tied behind its back.

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