PARIS -- The conflict in Iraq is drawing fewer foreign fighters as Muslim extremists aspiring to battle the West turn their attention back to the symbolically important and increasingly violent turf of Afghanistan, European and US antiterrorism officials say.
The shift of jihadis to Afghanistan this year suggests that Al Qaeda and its allies, armed with new tactics honed in Iraq, are coming full circle five years after US-led forces ousted the Taliban mullahs.
Until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Afghanistan was the land of jihad: hallowed ground where fighters from across the Muslim world helped vanquish the Soviet Union in the 1980s, fought alongside the Taliban in the 1990s, and filled terror training camps overseen by Osama bin Laden. Loss of the Afghan sanctuary scattered the networks and sent bin Laden fleeing toward the Pakistani border region, where many antiterrorism officials believe he remains.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, jihadis from the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, and Europe flocked to confront the US-led coalition in Iraq. Although foreigners have been a minority in the Iraqi insurgency, militants such as Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi played a major role in large-scale suicide attacks and kidnap-murders.
But insurgent leaders in Iraq are now mainly interested in foreign recruits ready to die in suicide attacks, antiterrorism officials say. Moreover, the conflict is dominated by sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims. In contrast, an accelerating Afghan offensive by the resurgent Taliban offers a clearer battleground and a wealth of targets: US and other NATO troops, and the Western-backed government.
As Iraqis have solidified control of their insurgency, the movement of foreign jihadis to Iraq has "significantly declined in recent months," said Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, director of the
Simultaneously, Bousquet said, antiterrorism agents have detected a new flow of militants heading to Afghanistan, where more than 1,000 French soldiers are among approximately 40,000 foreign troops deployed.
Iraq attracted many Arabs, including Saudis, Yemenis, and Syrians, Bousquet said. Algerians, Tunisians, and other North Africans made up the second-largest group. About 100 fighters from Europe have gone to Iraq over a three-year period, he said.
"Today they return to the route of Afghanistan, or the tribal zones of Pakistan, where clearly they are thriving," Bousquet said. "Certainly there are some Europeans, but very few. In contrast, in Afghanistan there are certainly many Pakistanis and people from Arab countries and some from North Africa."
A leap in violence in Afghanistan this year has featured tactics such as suicide and roadside bombings that are trademarks of the insurgency in Iraq, according to Bousquet and other officials. Despite decades of warfare, suicide bombings were rare in Afghanistan. But the number of such attacks has soared from six in 2004 to at least 78 so far this year.
"Methods have been transposed in Afghanistan that did not exist during previous wars in Afghanistan -- like suicide attacks," Bousquet said. "And that's directly influenced by what's happening in the Middle East, in Iraq."
Jihadis from North Africa make the odyssey to Afghanistan through routes that converge in Pakistan, another French official said.
"There's a new route along which [North Africans] pass through Peshawar and down into Afghanistan to carry out operations," the senior antiterrorism official said. "And what's new is the suicide operations. That's not at all part of the Afghan mentality."
US special forces officers in Afghanistan learned last year that Arabs were being trained as suicide bombers in Iraq, then traveling through Iran to Pakistan, according to an intelligence document on a computer drive smuggled out of a US base in Afghanistan and sold at a bazaar in April. Extremists transported the aspiring bombers from the city of Quetta across the border into Afghanistan, according to the drive.