November 20, 2007

AQI: The Sopranos Of Iraq

As it turns out, those of us who watched The Sopranos may have better insight into al-Qaeda in Iraq than we knew. Major General Rick Lynch, commanding US forces in central Iraq, claims that the sixth season of the show reveals all there is to know about AQI -- that it is nothing more than a crime syndicate, and most of its Iraqi members little more than hired guns. Cutting off the money has helped cripple the terrorist organization (via Memeorandum):

Abu Nawall, a captured al-Qaeda in Iraq leader, said he didn't join the Sunni insurgent group here to kill Americans or to form a Muslim caliphate. He signed up for the cash.

"I was out of work and needed the money," said Abu Nawall, the nom de guerre of an unemployed metal worker who was paid as much as $1,300 a month as an insurgent. He spoke in a phone interview from an Iraqi military base where he is being detained. "How else could I support my family?"

U.S. military commanders say that insurgents across the country are increasingly motivated more by money than ideology and that a growing number of insurgent cells, struggling to pay recruits, are turning to gangster-style racketeering operations.

U.S. military officials have responded by launching a major campaign to disrupt al-Qaeda in Iraq's financial networks and spread propaganda that portrays its leaders as greedy thugs, an effort the officials describe as a key factor in their recent success beating down the insurgency.

Nawall will have trouble selling that explanation to Iraqis. Most of them found other ways to feed their families than blowing up members of other families. While the Iraqi government will consider a wide-ranging amnesty to native insurgents who did not commit murder, Nawall and others like him will most likely face execution as traitors -- people who sold out to foreign terrorists for cash.

His budget amounted to $6 million a year, a rather hefty sum to manage for just a $19,000 salary. Nawall says the money came mostly from Syria and from kidnappings. It also came from sources more familiar to long-time residents of New York and New Jersey. AQI had racketeering operations all over Mosul, involving a Pepsi plant, cement manufacturers, and cellphone companies. All of these play a vital role in re-establishing Iraqi commerce, and AQI taxed them to the tune of $200,000 per month.

That puts the US and Iraqi forces in a tough predicament. The Iraqis need cellphones and cement plants to remain in operation for rebuilding projects and return to normalcy. They have to break AQI's grip on these assets without breaking the assets themselves, or allowing AQI to destroy their capabilities in a dog-in-the-manger ploy.

Nawall assures his interviewers that he didn't want to join AQI, that he (almost) never conducted any violence himself, and that the authorities have exaggerated his role in the organization. He's just a working class family man struggling to make ends meet, Nawall insists. If you listen very carefully, you can pick out James Gandolfini's litany of excuses from The Sopranos in Nawall's exhortations. He's just another misunderstood Italian Iraqi in a corrupt society.


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