How much support do Iraqi terrorists actually have?

Is it possible to measure the support for Iraqi terrorism?

Dateline 26 September 2005

Islamic radicals and western leftists tend to argue that the demonstrable fact of terrorist attacks on the Iraqi government and its coalition allies shows that there is mass support for the “insurgency”. This is an argument based on anecdote and, in many cases, wishful thinking. That it is also nonsense should be obvious, but needs to be demonstrated.

It is certainly true that for terrorists to act effectively – not just in Iraq, but anywhere – they need logistical support. In addition to those actively engaged in violence there will be another pool of people who support the terrorists in other ways such as providing safe houses. This group is likely to be larger than the active terrorists. A third group – likely to be larger still – sympathises with the aims and methods of the terrorists and provides passive support by turning a blind eye. A still wider group is likely to support the aims of the terrorists while disagreeing with their methods. This group may choose not to actively oppose terrorist methods, or may be intimidated from doing so.

During the most active period of terrorism in Northern Ireland – roughly the 1970s and 80s – support for the aims of Sinn Fein/IRA, ie a united Ireland, stood at around 30% of Northern Ireland’s population. The best proxy for measuring those who sympathised with the IRA’s methods as well as its aims is the vote for Sinn Fein, which was always a minority of the nationalist population, and only around 10% of the province as a whole. This equates to 0.2% of the population of the UK. The number of active terrorists was only a few hundred.

So it is plainly possible, even in a developed western country, to maintain an active terrorist campaign with only a small minority of supporters. Plainly, it helps if the minority who support the campaign are concentrated in a single area, which is why Sinn Fein/IRA was able to maintain a campaign over decades while groups such as Germany’s Red Brigades and individuals like America’s Timothy McVeigh achieved only sporadic notoriety.

The existence of terrorism therefore proves almost nothing about the level of support the terrorists have. It is mere anecdote. It does not prove the terrorists are popular, but does not prove they are unpopular either.

To provide a scientific measure of the Iraqi terrorists’ support we have only the elections in January. This is, admittedly, a flawed tool. There must have been some who sympathised with the terrorist cause but believed it futile and therefore chose to ignore the boycott. There must have been others who opposed the terrorists but were intimidated from voting.

Larger than either group will be those who did not vote not because they supported the boycott, but because they did not care about the result, believed it would make little difference, or who simply had better things to do. We know from western experience that even the best organised elections with up to date voter rolls and in countries with excellent transport infrastructures experience abstention rates of 20-50%.

In Iraq the abstention rate was at the higher end of that spectrum, about on a par with the US Presidential election of 2000. But this was the first time in decades that Iraqis had had the opportunity to vote. Without a boycott and intimidation the turnout would surely have been higher. Indeed, in areas such the south and the north where most political groups supported the election, the turnout was much higher.

The evidence of western elections suggest that at least 20-30% of the electorate would have abstained anyway, for reasons unconnected with the boycott that was organised by some Sunni parties and by terrorist groups. Thus, we can divide the electorate into three groups: Participators (50%), Boycotters (25%) and Abstainers (25%).

Not all of the Boycotters can be said to be supporters of terrorism. Some Sunni groups had called for the elections to be postponed – and when denied this, called for a boycott – because they supported the constitutional process, not because they opposed it. Their fear was that a successful boycott would damage the prospects of constitutional progress, and incidentally disenfranchise Sunnis. It is impossible, however, to make an educated guess as to the size of this group, so let us be cautious and discount its existence.

The second division among Boycotters is between those who actively supported the boycott and those they intimidated. Again it is difficult to make proper estimates. So, again, let us be cautious. Let us assume that each active supporter of the boycott was able to intimidate only one other person. This means that active Participators outnumbered active Boycotters by four to one.

None of this is to argue that the constitutional process in Iraq has been, or will be, smooth. In Sunni areas turnout was much lower than the national average. Even when Abstainers are excluded, it is possible that Boycotters outnumbered Participators in some Sunni majority districts. Though it is important to remember that the areas with strongest active support for the boycott will also have had the most extensive intimidation.

The Iraqi government has a very difficult time ahead. The new constitution will be controversial and the first draft may not be accepted in the referendum. But those who claim there is mass support for the “insurgency” have nothing to back their case. The evidence shows that Iraqis prefer the constitutional to the terrorist route by big margins.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 26 September 2005

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