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What we saw, but failed to understand, about the Iraqi insurgency in 2003-2005

By Richard Buchanan Best Defense library of Iraq war memoirs   Jasim Muhammad ‘Abd Salih Al-Mashhadani — who was this person and why was he of importance to the Sunni insurgency in Diyala 2005? Al-Mashhadani was not your everyday Iraqi name, known in 2003 to anyone in MNF-I. To a group of fellow Iraqis of ...


By Richard Buchanan

Best Defense library of Iraq war memoirs  

Jasim Muhammad ‘Abd Salih Al-Mashhadani — who was this person and why was he of importance to the Sunni insurgency in Diyala 2005?

Al-Mashhadani was not your everyday Iraqi name, known in 2003 to anyone in MNF-I. To a group of fellow Iraqis of similar beliefs, both religiously and politically, he was a "true believer." MNF-I would painfully learn of his power as the attacks by the "Islamic Army in Iraq" (IAI) started gaining strength in Baghdad by early to mid 2004.

Al-Mashhadani  and his initial core group or "ecosystem" began meeting immediately after the arrival of U.S. forces in Baghdad in April 2003. The meetings, which were interspaced with their daily prayers (both the early morning and final late night prayers), focused on the structuring of "companies" — the Arabic term company does not reflect military units or business units. Al-Mashhaddani used the term to initially mean "businesses," as a cover term if outsiders picked up on the use of the word. This might have been an indicator that Masshhadani had been a former Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) officer before the U.S. entered Iraq in 2003.

A study of the initial core members would verify what Dr. David Kilcullen mentioned in his 2004 article "Countering Global Insurgency" (on page 10): "Thus friendships, webs of acquaintance and networks of mutual obligation stretch worldwide between and among groups. Similarly, within jihad theatres, groups cooperate and develop bonds of shared experience and mutual obligation.)" The group surrounding Mashhadani was linked via personal friendships, common prayer sessions together in a number of key Baghdad Sunni mosques, family ties, financial and business ties, and more importantly, Mashhadani’s ties to the IIS and former military officers.

Family relationships, business and financial links, propaganda, and operational and planning linkages are critical aspects of an insurgent ecosystem that express themselves via links, nodes, and boundaries.

Here is an example of a "normal" day in the life of the Mashhadani core group in Baghdad. Meetings like this occurred almost everyday in some form or fashion, starting approximately one week after the arrival of U.S. forces in Baghdad.

"Abu-‘Ali and Abu-al-Darwa came before the evening prayer, then Abu Athir came after the evening prayer from another mosque. Abu-Mustafa (Abu-‘Abdallah), Abu-Ibrahim, Abu-Fahad and Abu Hasan also came. We discussed several issues related to the "company’s affairs." Abu Ahmad came by with a friend. They had discussions with the others and left with a CD. We worked late with the computer and agreed to take it to Abu Ahmad tomorrow." It is an urban myth that the Sunni insurgent groups did not talk to each other. Cross talk among fellow prayer members, family members, other relationships, and even other insurgent groups/communities was an ever ongoing daily event especially with the widened effect of the use of prepaid cellphones by 2005. [Side note: In this single meeting you have an example of every critical process that a living breathing insurgent organism needs to do in order to survive and Mashhadani did it daily.]

In the first few months after the arrival of U.S. forces in Baghdad, Mashhadani and the core group were heavily involved in structuring the "companies," i.e. forming units, finding houses (once they were searching for up to 30 locations), legally importing vehicles out of the UAE for the use by the various "companies," and at the same time still attending prayers together on a regular basis.

At the same time they were internally structuring the companies, Mashhadani started focusing on the creation and distribution of media products, including CDs, video films, printed materials and even for a short time, a one on one interview with a Finnish reporter (reported to have occurred sometime in mid 2004). All the while, Mashhadani maintained a tight connection to the Internet via Internet cafes and satellite cellphones. There were some indications that Mashhadani maintained a wide ranging travel — between Basra to as far north as Mosul — up through and into 2006.

I never did understand the connection between Mashhadani and Basra until a meeting with the G2 of the Ministry of Interior Special Police (SP) Division who had approached the 3/4ID in January 2006 for UAV assistance in monitoring a "major meeting with a number of high level people coming from Basra" near the town of Khan bani Sa’ad that was to occur in February 2006. Response by the S2 of the BCT was "He will not support the fucking Iraqis." The Iraqi G2 never did mention as to why the individuals were coming from Basra. He was killed in 2009 leading a SP BN into Sadr City in the fight against JAM.

By late 2003 or early 2004, Mashhadani began designing and testing Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) circuit boards using the standard equipment seen in the early stages of the IED offensive — wash machine timers, remote control door openers, and TV circuit boards. He also did some initial development work on remote controlled detonators. The interesting thing is that as he was supplying the IED materials to his "companies," other Sunni insurgent groups were contacting him and asking for support. He initially named them the Islamic Iraqi League. The innovation was there, but the first series of IEDs proved to be failures. His RC IED devices showed as early as 2003 a certain sophistication in their construction. OSINT now available confirms U.S. capture of one of his 2003 devices and has a comment concerning the device’s abilities, which in 2003 was exceptionally advanced in design.

Mashhadani demanded that the groups using them report back to him as to what exactly had happened in their use and subsequent failures, using the groups as sort of a feedback mechanism on exactly how the devices had been implemented and why the members of the groups thought the devices had failed. Actually a very aggressive use of lessons learned, adaptation, and evolution based on a quick turnaround. Masahhadani also required the companies take videos of the attacks which were then posted to the Internet or placed on training CDs that were sent to other Sunni groups.

Mashhadani’s work is a great example of what John Robb refers to as "innovations, from tactics to weapons, [that] should be released as soon and as often as practicable. Perfectionism, sclerotic planning processes, excessive secrecy, risk aversion, and other plagues found in hierarchical organizations are the enemy of success. The rule is :…release early and often…" (From John Robb’s Standing Orders 10 written in 2010 on his blog site "Global Guerrillas.")

After working through 2004 in Baghdad, why was Mashhadani later to become important to the Sunni insurgent groups located in Diyala in 2004 and 2005?

After the initial buildout of the Baghdad "companies," Mashhadani began moving trusted core members with their "companies" into other towns surrounding Baghdad. The first one went to Baqubah in mid to late 2004, which linked into an Ansar al Sunnah group led by a 26 year-old veterinarian who had moved there in late 2003/early 2004. This veterinarian was highly respected by Mashhadani as being a devote Muslim, a great group leader, a very focused organizer, and Kurdish.

Other "companies" were being established in provinces at about the same time as Diyala. This was in fact a kind of "self replication" of what had worked in Baghdad being modified to fit the new operational environments. The first groups established outside Baghdad all had a single characteristic — they were established along the central lines of communication in and out of Baghdad.

By mid 2004, the Baghdad based "companies" were in full swing, collecting/buying IED materials, building/distributing IEDs and using the IEDs against U.S. convoys. With this phase complete, Mashhadani turned to weapons and other related equipment and began buying weapons, night vision goggles, radios from other suppliers or groups and then distributing them out to the various companies located in Baghdad and later to Baqubah. Once the weapons phase was completed the next phase was the purchasing of computers and other materials needed for active "media production elements." That process was also replicated and pushed out of Baghdad, again first to Baqubah, and then on to other Iraqi towns.

In late 2005, the soon to be renamed Iraq National Guard (later the 5th IA Division) had located with assistance from the 3 HBCT, 3ID a large weapons cache in a palm groove near Baqubah containing a large amount of weapons similar to those that had been purchased and smuggled to Baqubah by Mashhadani. Both the IA and the 3/3 totally overlooked and did not fully "understand" was the extensive amount of computer equipment, cell phones, IED materials that was also found in the cache. None of the equipment made it back to Baghdad for analysis — the IA basically told the BCT they had destroyed it when in fact the officers of the IA took it home with them, especially the cell phones and computer equipment.

The core question that has never been fully answered until today is just how was it possible that within say three to six months MNF-I was starting to face a full phase two guerrilla war when Mao took years to reach the same stage? My answer was and still is we did not "understand" the operational environment we were "seeing," meaning we failed to realize that with excellently trained IIS intel types, who were devoted Muslim nationalists, who had a military background, who had connections into the UAE and other Arab countries and who could roam from Basra to Mosel, we were facing the "perfect storm," and we were responsible for unknowingly creating that perfect storm.

Why again is Mashhadani so important and why did he get our fullest attention by 2005 in Diyala?

Mashhadani was the founder, spiritual leader, and combat leader of the Islamic Army in Iraq (the IAI). To this day he has never been captured or killed — although there is some indication that the U.S. Army arrested him and held him in 2006 in Abu Ghraib, he was later released. The IAI is still very active in Iraq and still has an active web presence in both English and Arabic.

What I hope to have described in this short overview is a description of an ever adapting, ever evolving living insurgent ecosystem that we simply did not "understand" — even when we were "seeing" it daily in 2005.

Richard Buchanan is a Special Forces veteran (Det A- Berlin Bde, 5th SFGA Viet Nam, Company A 10th SFGA, and then again in 1986 with the CBTI, 10th SFGA). He was Senior Strategic Debriefer at the Joint Allied Refugee Center Berlin (JAROC) Berlin Bde, Berlin Germany. All told, he has over 30 years of intelligence experience as an intelligence analyst, a strategic debriefer, and an interrogation technician. He deployed to Iraq as a defense contractor (interrogator) from January 2005 through April 2006, where he first was assigned to the Joint Interrogator Debriefing Center (JIDC) Abu Ghraib, Iraq, and later worked as the first-ever defense contractor interrogator assigned to a combat brigade in Iraq, the 3 HBCT, 3ID, located at FOB Warhorse, Baqubah. He recently wrote a related article for Small Wars Journal

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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