January 31, 2005,
Sunday was a great day for freedom in Iraq and a bad day for the terrorists. They had big plans for Sunday. They were going to make it their day. Terror attacks intensified during the lead-up to the election as a prelude to something spectacular. Surely the terrorists wanted to accommodate they had been talking about it for weeks, threatening voters with beheadings and other grisly consequences. They promised victory or martyrdom to their followers. Now it seems they have achieved neither.
Election day saw dozens of acts of random violence, but the terrorists had promised hundreds of attacks. Over 40 people were killed during the day, an unfortunate total but not an extraordinary one. Of the attacks that were executed, none were of particular notoriety. If any large-scale incident had been planned aimed at a symbolic target or vital center, it was either broken up by the excellent security system or the attackers failed to carry it out.
The voters turned out in force, which should not have been a surprise. Both terrorists and many pre-election analysts assumed that the Iraqi people were fundamentally skittish. Opinion polling going back months consistently said the opposite, that people would go to the polls in large numbers regardless of the danger. The polls turned out to be accurate; the people were not cowed. There was no reason to expect them to be. Iraqis have been hardened to war. They have had to live with it in one form or another for decades. They were not likely to be scared off by mere threats and, as experience showed, not even by attacks. In one instance a voting site was bombed, the people there dispersed, and a few hours later they all came back and voted. Makes sense what are the odds there were two attacks planned for that location? In another, a gunman shot a man in the face as he was going to the polls. Security forces rushed him to a hospital, where he was patched up. He voted too. In another town, terrorists fired a few random mortar rounds, killing a young woman. It stopped no one from casting a ballot except the unfortunate victim. It was a very poor showing for the enemies of freedom; absent persistent, widespread, disruptive attacks it is hard to see what the terrorists thought they could accomplish.
Poor operational planning and coordination is typical of the insurgents in Iraq. They may know some tactical tricks, but their attacks do not seem to add up to much. In fact, insurgency is a poor word for describing what is going on inside Iraq. A true insurgency is better organized, its attacks are more coherent and better directed, and it has a long-term strategy, strong ideological foundations and a mass base. Few of the dozens of insurgent/terrorist groups in Iraq meet those requirements. Al Qaeda best meets the test, except for the fact that the group is largely comprised of foreigners and it does not enjoy mass support (there, or anywhere else in the world).
There is growing resentment for these foreign interlopers in Iraq, even among the other insurgent groups. An interesting cleavage opened during the election violence. Al Qaeda made disrupting the election a primary first quarter goal. Osama bin Laden and Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi made numerous lengthy statements laying out al Qaeda's ideological opposition to democracy and justifying violence against Muslims taking part in the elections. They shifted targeting to polling places, elections workers, politicians and police. During election day, al Qaeda carried out at least four attacks, but in published communiqués claimed many more, blaming a media blackout for hiding the truth. Yet, clearly, the impact fell short of what they had expected. Nevertheless, Zarqawi was unfazed. "We have more in store for you," he threatened.
Meanwhile the Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance (JAMI), a homegrown terrorist coalition that has publicly clashed with Zarqawi (in print anyway), took a different approach. They released a statement on election eve acknowledging the anticipation with which Iraqis were awaiting the vote. They stated that they thought the whole exercise was a sham and that the results were rigged, but they did not believe that violence was a proper response. "We in JAMI believe that we should not involve the resources of jihad and the resistance in a battle against the sons of our country in an arena that is not the right arena of the required battle," they wrote. "In clearer terms it is not our policy to provoke sedition that will allow the blood of our citizens to be shed by attacking the polling stations and shedding the blood of innocent Iraqis." They stated in advance that they should not be held responsible for any violence conducted by "compatriots [who] have failed to understand the reality of this issue."
JAMI was wise to take this position. Those terrorists who made violence the centerpiece of their election-day strategy turned the event into a test of civic bravery. Going to the polls became a collective act of defiance by the Iraqi people. Any groups that claimed public credit for election-day attacks will never be able to build a mass base of support because they took an objective stand against the people and their aspirations. As the new government forms, the constitution is written, and the people take further ownership of their political system, al Qaeda's anti-democratic ideology will seem more onerous, and the presence of the foreign fighters more disruptive. This is how insurgencies are defeated, when they become alienated from the popular base, gradually losing the good will of or in this case being unable to intimidate the people whose freedom they claim to be fighting for. It will not take long to end the violence once the masses actively turn against the terrorists. The Iraqi people have demonstrated to themselves, the terrorists, and the world that they are not afraid. Freedom is a more compelling motive than fear. And if the terrorists cannot generate terror, they are on a quick path to oblivion.
James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.