One of the favorite media “gotcha” questions concerns official estimates of the size of the foreign terrorist presence in Iraq. Some, like the Associated Press’ Jim Krane, the New York Times’ Douglas Jehl, or Reuters’ Fiona O’Brien, have consistently downplayed the size of this contingent. On February 9, for example, Krane quoted a Council of Foreign Relations expert as saying that al Qaeda presence in Iraq has been consistently exaggerated. An O’Brien Reuters article was entitled “Foreign fighters still a small minority,” but further down she reported that the “numbers have increased significantly.”
Reporters like to quote U.S. commanders, like Brigadier General Martin Dempsey, or Major General Charles Swannack. Swannack told reporters that his troops had captured only about 20 foreign fighters in his area, while Dempsey said his troopers had captured about 35 in Baghdad. The Times’ Joel Brinkley wrote, “that suggests only modest foreign terrorist incursions into Iraq, in contrast to estimates by the Bush administration.”
General Dempsey recently told reporters that less than 150 of the estimated 12,000 detainees in Iraq are foreigners. That estimate is not out of sync with one reportedly given by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld last December. According to Robert Fisk, writing in the UK daily The Independent, Rumsfeld put the numbers of foreign terrorists in Iraq to be “between 200 and 300, mostly from Lebanon and Syria.”
In the same article, Fisk reported that Palestinians from a refugee camp in Lebanon had recently departed for Iraq. He was told that more than 100 were en route to Iraq, but local Palestinians told him that the numbers were probably “only in the dozens.” He said a number had heeded Saddam Hussein’s pre-war call for Arab fighters to come to the aid of Iraq. At least ten from the camp were killed during fighting in Baghdad.
Last September, Fox News reported that a “senior administration official” estimated that there were “at least 1,000 to as high as 3,000” foreign fighters in Iraq. Jonathan Schanzer, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told NPR that there were at least 1,000 foreign fighters in Iraq. These are supported by a core group of 250-400 members of Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist group reported to have ties to al Qaeda.
In a letter intercepted and published by coalition officials in March, Jordanian-born terrorist Musab Abu Al-Zarqawi admitted that the number of foreign jihadists in Iraq was still small “as compared to the enormity of the expected battle.” And after the March attacks on Shiite holy sites, coalition officials promised to step up patrols along Iraq’s borders with Iran and Syria to further choke off entry points for foreign terrorists. But the foreign jihadists are in Iraq, media skeptics to the contrary, and inflicting significant damage on so-called “soft targets,” like the Shi’a or Iraqi police forces.