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Monday, April 23, 2007 

That scaremongering round-up in full.

The propaganda war against Iran seems to continue to heat up. Yesterday's Sunday Times was the latest to be slipped an "intelligence report" which is preaching doom about the almost undoubtedly improbable links between Iran and some of the insurgent groups in Iraq:

AL-QAEDA leaders in Iraq are planning the first “large-scale” terrorist attacks on Britain and other western targets with the help of supporters in Iran, according to a leaked intelligence report.

Spy chiefs warn that one operative had said he was planning an attack on “a par with Hiroshima and Nagasaki” in an attempt to “shake the Roman throne”, a reference to the West.

Another plot could be timed to coincide with Tony Blair stepping down as prime minister, an event described by Al-Qaeda planners as a “change in the head of the company”.

The report, produced earlier this month and seen by The Sunday Times, appears to provide evidence that Al-Qaeda is active in Iran and has ambitions far beyond the improvised attacks it has been waging against British and American soldiers in Iraq.


It's difficult to know where to begin with this assertion. Al-Qaida in Iraq has openly declared that it considers Shia Muslims kafir, in difference to al-Qaida itself, which for the moment wants to unite rather than divide and rule, which may come later. This was related by Zawahiri to Zarqawi before he was killed, rebuking him for the suicide bombings which targeted and continue to target Shias. Zarqawi and the subsequent leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq have ignored this advice, continuing to target innocent Shia while not personally claiming responsibility for outrages such as that which killed 150 in a Baghdad market last week. It does however openly claim responsibility for attacks on both the Badr organisation, which is openly backed by Iran as the militia or former militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and on the Mahdi army, which may be receiving some help from figures inside Iran, although nothing has been comprehensively proved.

The article predictably goes on:

There is no evidence of a formal relationship between Al-Qaeda, a Sunni group, and the Shi’ite regime of President Mah-moud Ahmadinejad, but experts suggest that Iran’s leaders may be turning a blind eye to the terrorist organisation’s activities.

This is the usual step of making you think that something is happening, then somewhat denying it without completely dispelling the notion. As it happens, this is almost certainly complete nonsense, for al-Qaida in Iraq does pose a threat to Iran, due entirely to the brutal attacks on the Shia. Iran is not a passive bystander in Iraq, as we all know. The last thing Iran wants is a fundamentalist "Islamic" state in northern Iraq, breeding hatred which could easily be transferred into suicide bombings in Iran itself. Al-Qaida in Iraq has already most likely carried out a bombing in Jordan, which backfired enormously, hopefully putting paid to any further attacks outside of Iraq for a while, but Iran is unlikely to be taking any such chances. There is of course the possibility that al-Qaida in Iraq supporters are in Iran and operating from there, as they are from other countries in the region, but the chances of there being any actual backing by the state is little short of ludicrous.

The intelligence report also makes it clear that senior Al-Qaeda figures in the region have been in recent contact with operatives in Britain.

It follows revelations last year that up to 150 Britons had travelled to Iraq to fight as part of Al-Qaeda’s “foreign legion”. A number are thought to have returned to the UK, after receiving terrorist training, to form sleeper cells.


Again, it's impossible to judge the veracity of these claims. It's likely that some jihadis have gone to fight in Iraq, and one who wanted to was placed under a control order, but how many is always going to be difficult to judge. Most of the foreign fighters in Iraq are from Algeria and Syria, a report from 2005 stated, and it's unlikely that the frequency has changed much since then, judging by al-Qaida's own recent parades of foreign "martyrs" (WMV), which mainly seem to feature Syrians, Saudis and Egyptians. It was always going to be likely that some from this country would go to fight, and indeed that some would return trained. The head of the "Islamic State" himself last week proclaimed that Iraq was becoming a "university for terrorism", and while self-aggrandisement plays a part, he's also probably right, as the intelligence agencies warned before the war.

“A member of this network is reportedly involved in an operation which he believes requires AQ Core authorisation. He claims the operation will be on ‘a par with Hiroshima and Naga-saki’ and will ‘shake the Roman throne’. We assess that this operation is most likely to be a large-scale, mass casualty attack against the West.”

The report says there is “no indication” this attack would specifically target Britain, “although we are aware that AQI . . . networks are active in the UK”.


So again, there's no evidence that this is even going to target Britain if it isn't indeed crying wolf to begin with, but you can never be too sure in letting these documents out to the Sunday Times just in case.

Despite aspiring to a nuclear capability, Al-Qaeda is not thought to have acquired weapons grade material. However, several plots involving “dirty bombs” - conventional explosive devices surrounded by radioactive material - have been foiled.

More rubbish. There have been no actual foiled plots which would have involved so-called "dirty bombs", unless you include Jose Padilla, where the charges were subsequently dropped, or the fantasist Dhiren Barot, who had no funding, no materials and only the laughable idea of setting fire to or exploding 10,000 smoke alarms. The truth, as the al-Qaida leadership no doubt itself knows, is that dirty bombs are almost entirely useless, likely to only increase the chances of developing cancer to the level of those who came in near contact with the polonium used to assassinate Litveninko, and even that's uncertain. Their use would be mainly for the extra fear effect, as the use of the chlorine in recent attacks in Iraq has illustrated.

There was further stretching of credulity at the weekend when the US claimed that it had intercepted a shipment of Iranian arms which had been destined for the Taliban. That the Iranians had long supported the Northern Alliance, and welcomed the downfall of the Taliban is quickly forgotten once the new enemy has emerged. As the NYT article itself stretches, the only possible gain Iran could get for arming the Taliban would be as a part of a region-wide attempt to further tie down American forces, and would suggest a complete change in policy. The US military instead seems to be pointing the finger and letting others place the blame, when the most likely explanation would be it was again a private shipment by supporters within Iran rather than anything associated with the regime.

Finally, we were also told that Prince Harry is going to be ruthlessly targeted by the evil insurgents, who in one case want to send him back to the Queen, minus his ears:

Together the testimonies suggest that Shia and Sunni paramilitary forces, traditionally sworn enemies, have joined forces to try to capture Harry, a deeply disquieting development for British senior officers.

Sigh. As again, see above. There are few Sunni paramilitary forces operating in the south for the obvious reason that there'd be quickly turned out by the Shia themselves, and as Juan Cole notes, the Observer has wrongly suggested that Thar Allah is Sunni when it's Shiite, and he can neither find any evidence that what the article refers to as the Malik Ibn Al Ashtar Brigade is even anything to do with the Mahdi army. As it is, it seems another load of scaremongering which does disservice to the other British troops whom are facing the real threat for no discernible reason, while Harry is likely to be permanently covered in any case.

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I don't disagree with most of what you've written but you are rather too blase about dirty bombs. While they don't kill (apart from the immediate explosion), the health risks could keep ordinary people out of an area for a long time. It doesn't take too much imagination to see that this could cause considerable disruption and have a very big psychological effect.

True, but I think even those after effects have been exaggerated. There's still nothing to suggest that they've been able, or will be able to get their hands on enough material to even cause that sort of disruption.

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