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How to Attack a National Identity

The Link Between Security and Identity in Iraq

By Guest Contributor, Adrian Martin | January 30, 2008

One of America's core interests in Iraq is "An Iraq that is peaceful, united, stable, democratic, and secure." Essential to the achievement of American goals in Iraq is the maintenance of an Iraqi national identity that includes both the Sunni and Shi'a communities. This goal is in direct opposition to the goals of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which seeks an Sunni Islamic Caliphate that rules Iraq and beyond. That goal requires the destruction of the Iraqi nationalist identity and its replacement with a (Sunni) Islamic identity. This analysis will explore some of the rationale behind AQI's strategy and tactics. We will take the goal of AQI, that of an Islamic Caliphate to replace states in the Middle East and therefore the creation of an Islamic identity, as a given. Also, for our purposes al-Qaeda in Iraq is defined as the broad umbrella of loosely cooperating insurgent and terrorist groups that share al-Qaeda's worldview, rather than the specific organization of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's legacy.

Strategy and Tactics

To achieve its goal of eliminating the Iraqi nationalist identity, AQI needs to create a self-sustaining cycle of violence between Sunni and Shi'a communities, and needs to eliminate the state's monopoly on legitimate violence and the provisioning of social services. AQI can accomplish the first objective in three ways. First, they can launch information campaigns portraying local personal violence in political terms. Second, they can also attack 'linking nodes' between Sunni and Shi'a communities, such as mixed marriages and mixed neighborhoods. Increasing the social distance between Sunni and Shi'a individuals increases their costs in overcoming AQI propaganda. Third, they can attack systempunkts – targets that have the ability to cause cascading social collapse (the Al-Askari bombing is an example).

To eliminate the state's monopoly on violence and social services, AQI would need to perpetuate regular acts of violence, often targeting the state's social services. This would make it more dangerous for state employees and consumers of their services. Likewise, it would fuel the retaliatory violence and add to the belief that external providers for security and social services are required, thus creating a market for security. Using the model employed in the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Indonesia and beyond, AQI and its proxies would then seek to fill the void in providing security and social services. The existing tribal and sectarian militias would be, often unwittingly, allies to AQI's strategic objective by filling the need for such services. The result of Iraqis receiving security and social services from these non-state groups is an increased likelihood of their identification being with tribe and faith, as opposed to nationality.

Identity – Sectarian or Tribal?

Many Iraqis will have a choice in turning to tribal structures or sectarian neighborhood militias for security. It is likely that Iraqis will fall back to tribal security forces where possible instead of sectarian militias due to lower entry costs. Many Iraqis already have a tribal identity, while most Iraqis are not already part of sectarian militias and why pay for something (by paying or joining a militia) when you can get it for free? In addition to an in-place identity, tribal infrastructure already exists for most Iraqis, with social connections and security relationships either latent or already active. In contrast, sectarian militias have to start from scratch in many neighborhoods, or change structures originally designed for Saddam-era politics.

There are areas in which tribal power has already been crushed, whether by Saddam, al-Qaeda, the Coalition, or others. In these areas where tribes can not leverage their pre-existing structures, sectarian militias will have the upper hand. Because sectarian membership is more voluntary than tribal membership, sectarian militias will not be forced to extend benefits based on kinship, thus mitigating a free rider problem of tribes.

From AQI's point of view, it is preferable that the population fall back on sectarian militias. Tribes provide an alternative political organization to the Caliphate, and also cut across sectarian identities, with many tribes incorporating both Sunni and Shi'a branches. Also, the high entry costs of sectarian militias are likely to lead to two favorable outcomes from AQI's point of view – religious radicalization and deepening of sectarian identities. In order to push people towards sectarian militias rather than tribes, AQI can simply devalue the goods that tribes provide. By attacking and weakening tribes, AQI can attempt to convince Iraqis that tribal security forces would be unable to provide them security, and that they are better off making the necessary sacrifices to gain protection from sectarian militias than risking throwing their lot in with a losing side.

The Price of Security

Sectarian militias will charge high entry costs in order to combat the "free rider" problem. As mentioned earlier, tribes have the problem of involuntary membership, meaning a greater free rider problem and a decreased ability to charge high membership fees (as members are entitled to benefits based on kinship). This means that tribal security forces, in order to maintain their credibility as protectors of the tribe, will be forced to extend protection to all members of the tribe whether those members contribute to the power of the tribe or not. In contrast, a Shi'a sectarian militia would only need to protect those households that pay protection money, or that actively participate in militia activity, thus increasing their own power.

Groups providing security and social services will be able to charge prices at a level inverse to the degree of state failure (assuming weak or non-existent tribes, Iraqis will be forced to choose between sectarian militias and the state). As the official state falls further into collapse and is less able to provide security and social services, those public goods become more valuable and private providers such as sectarian militias are thus able to charge higher prices for them. The higher prices come in the form of more extreme religious policies – bans on smoking and alcohol, modest dress for women, etc. Higher entry prices will also lead to a greater degree of identification with the sect at the expense of the national identity.

Religious Radicalization

This religious radicalization works for AQI no matter what sect engages in it. As Sunnis radicalize, they become ideologically closer to AQI. When Shi'a groups radicalize, due to the cycle of violence between Sunni and Shi'a, they will form extremist identities in opposition to Sunni groups and will thus be easier to exclude from al-Qaeda's Islamic Caliphate identity. They will also polarize identity politics. And most importantly, Sunnis becoming more radical and militant causes Shi'a to pay higher prices for security, thus causing them to further radicalize and become more militant, and vice versa, creating a cycle of radicalization and violence.

If Iraqis fall back to tribal structures for security and social services instead of creating sectarian militias (as they have in many areas, most notably Anbar), this will present an opportunity to US forces. Tribal forces are apparently amenable to tactical alliances with coalition forces and also cut across sectarian identity. They are therefore theoretically compatible with a broader Iraqi national identity, which would be concurrent with America's strategic goals in Iraq.

Thus, if AQI or some other organization is successful in attacking the national identity of Iraq, the US should attempt to deflect reliance for security and social services away from sectarian groups and onto tribes instead. We can do this by devaluing the goods of sectarian militias by providing those goods for free, and by attacking their security forces and leadership, the reverse of what AQI attempted to do. In this effort, we have been aided because AQI and allied sectarian groups like the Islamic State in Iraq, apparently miscalculated and charged entry prices that were too high and that Iraqis were unwilling to pay. One of the "prices" was "do not smoke cigarettes or we will cut off your fingers", and another was "give me your daughters" (detailed by Dr. Kilcullen in Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt). Iraqis decided they'd rather go with tribes and the rest, as they say, is history (or so we hope).

With AQI's current state of weakness, they have two options. First, is that their strategy of polarization backfired, as native Iraqi Sunnis came to fear “Persians” (i.e. Shi'a Iraqis) more than the Americans, thus AQI should logically either beef up the American threat with propaganda or provocation, or land crushing blows against Shi'a militias. AQI's other option is to wait. Given the national-level political deadlock, soon Sunni tribes will feel that they are getting nothing in return for their alliance with the US.


In conclusion, we can see that it is possible for al-Qaeda in Iraq to successfully attack the Iraqi national identity through violent acts. By compromising the ability of the Iraqi state to provide security, they create a market for security in which sectarian and tribal security forces will compete. Tribal security forces might have the advantage in many parts of Iraq, but al-Qaeda can tip the balance in favor of militias by attacking the tribal security forces. This would help radicalize much of the Iraqi population and greatly harm the U.S.'s goal of a single Iraqi (functional) state. Thus American policy should focus in the short term of building up groups such as the Concerned Local Citizens groups and other tribal based security forces as the only short-term alternative to sectarian militias, while in the long term should focus on building up Iraqi state capacity to end the need for alternative security options.