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 U.S. anti-terrorism officials say.
The shift of militants 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 U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban mullahs.
Until Sept. 11, 2001, Afghanistan was the land of jihad: hallowed ground where fighters from across the Muslim world helped vanquish the Soviet Union in 1980s, fought alongside the Taliban in the 1990s and filled training camps overseen by Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Loss of the Afghan sanctuary scattered the networks and sent Bin Laden fleeing toward the Pakistani border region, where many anti-terrorism officials believe he remains.
After the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003, Muslim extremists from the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and Europe flocked to confront the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Although foreigners have been a minority in the Iraqi insurgency, militants such as Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi played a major role in suicide attacks and kidnap-killings.
But insurgent leaders in Iraq are now mainly interested in foreign recruits ready to die in suicide attacks, anti-terrorism officials say. Moreover, the conflict is dominated by violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. In contrast, an accelerating Afghan offensive by the resurgent Taliban offers a clearer battleground and a wealth of targets: U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops, and the Western-backed government.
As Iraqis have solidified control of their insurgency, the movement of foreign fighters to Iraq has "significantly declined in recent months," said Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, director of the DST, France's lead counter-terrorism agency.
"There is less need for them in Iraq, because there's a need above all for kamikazes and there are not an infinite number of volunteers," Bousquet, whose agency works closely with U.S., European and Arab counterparts, said in a recent interview. "The Iraqi insurgency is now very well organized around Iraqis.... Those who want to fight, but not necessarily to die as martyrs, go elsewhere."
Simultaneously, Bousquet said, anti-terrorism agents have detected a new flow of militants heading to Afghanistan, where more than 1,000 French soldiers are among the 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 has shot up from six in 2004 to at least 78 so far this year.
"Clearly, methods have been transposed in Afghanistan that did not exist during previous wars in Afghanistan," Bousquet said. "Like suicide attacks. And that's directly influenced by what's happening in the Middle East, in Iraq."
Muslim extremists from North Africa make the odyssey to Afghanistan through routes that converge in Pakistan, another senior French anti-terrorism official said.
"There's a new route along which [North Africans] pass through Peshawar and down into Afghanistan to carry out operations," the senior anti-terrorism official said. "And what's new is the suicide operations. That's not at all part of the Afghan mentality."
North Africans have been detected traveling to Koranic schools in Quetta and Peshawar, said Louis Caprioli, who retired as chief of the DST's anti-terrorism division in 2004. The fighters use the schools as covers for their presence in Pakistan and as staging areas to cross into Taliban-dominated areas of Afghanistan, Caprioli said.
Foreign fighters are predominantly Sunni. They increasingly prefer fighting alongside the Taliban to getting embroiled in the Sunni-versus-Shiite bloodshed in Iraq, said Caprioli, who works closely with the intelligence community at the Paris-based GEOS security firm.
"There are a certain number of foreign jihadis who aren't interested in massacring Shiites," Caprioli said. "In Afghanistan, you have NATO troops to fight as well as Americans, all the 'crusaders.' "
In addition, veterans of combat in Iraq have made their way to Afghanistan, officials said.