Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Demise, But Not Death of Al Qaeda In Iraq

In 2007 Al Qaeda in Iraq was soundly defeated in its former strongholds of Anbar province and the Baghdad area. Today its forces have fled its last urban stronghold in the northern city of Mosul. Over the last three years, its indiscriminate use of violence especially against Iraqis, and its insistence that it lead the insurgency have turned most of the population against it. That is usually the turning point in a guerrilla war, and thus Al Qaeda in Iraq finds itself on the run in many provinces today. The fact that the surge is coming to a close however, means that there will always be safe havens for the group to hide in, and they will still be able to carry out attacks for the foreseeable future. 2007 thus saw the demise, but not death of Al Qaeda in Iraq.


Background

Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in life and death

Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded Al Qaeda in Iraq. Originally it was called Attawhid wal Jihad (Unity and Holy War) and carried out a number of high profile bombings soon after the U.S. invasion ended in 2003 such as the destruction of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. Zarqawi was a dogmatic and ruthless Islamist who saw the U.S. occupation of Iraq as a way to turn himself into a terrorist celebrity. It wasn’t until 2004 that Zarqawi pledged allegiance to bin Laden and his group became known as Al Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi wanted the brand name recognition Al Qaeda offered, and like a fast food restaurant started his own franchise. Despite the new name, Zarqawi was always highly independent and didn’t listen to advice and admonitions from Al Qaeda central. In several letters that were later published by the U.S. Al Qaeda leaders such as #2 man Ayman al-Zawhiri remonstrated Zarqawi for his attacks on Shiites, his refusal to work with fellow insurgents that didn’t follow his leadership, and his general dismissal of the Sunni population’s concerns in Iraq. Zarqawi never changed his policies and was killed in June 2006.

The Initial Split With Al Qaeda in Iraq

Just as Al Qaeda central warned, Zarqawi’s harsh tactics turned many people against his organization. That was a change because during the first few years of the insurgency, many Sunnis looking to fight the Americans turned towards Zarqawi and his followers for money, weapons and organization. By 2005 however many Iraqis had enough.

The first reports of a split occurred in mid-2005 in Anbar province. In May and June 2005 two tribes in Anbar and several insurgent groups began turning their guns on their former allies. The causes were many. For the tribes, Al Qaeda in Iraq had attempted to take over their smuggling and robbery trade in Anbar to finance their insurgency, angering sheikhs. The tribes also didn’t like Al Qaeda imposing its form of Islamic law upon their people, especially because the militants often killed those that didn’t follow their interpretation of the religion. Zarqawi’s followers also assassinated sheikhs that attempted to work with the government. For the insurgents, their complaints were three fold. First, they were tired of Al Qaeda trying to boss them around and killing their leaders and fighters if they didn’t obey. Second, Al Qaeda’s increasing use of car bombs that killed Sunnis and their sectarian attacks on Shiites that were aimed at provoking a sectarian civil war divided the insurgency over tactics and costs. Finally, the vast majority of Sunnis had boycotted the first round of elections in 2005 and felt left out of the political process. Many were determined to vote on the Constitution in December, even if many were against its passage. Zarqawi stated that his group would kill anyone who participated. Instead, many insurgent groups cut a deal with the U.S. in October 2005 to work together to ensure there would be no major violence during the polling.

The Tribal Awakening Movement

Sunni tribes in western Iraq were the first ones to really organize against Al Qaeda in Iraq. In the spring and summer of 2005 tribes began fighting with Al Qaeda in Iraq and reached out to the U.S. for help. At first the U.S. Marines were standoffish, but eventually agreed to help. By March 2006 the tribes had formed at least two different military organizations to fight the militants, leading to the deaths of six Al Qaeda in Iraq commanders. One group was destroyed, but in the fall of 2006 the sheikhs founded the Anbar Salvation Council that included 26 tribes in the province and 30,000 fighters, led by sheikh Sattar Rishawi.

The newly organized tribesmen were able to put the pressure on Al Qaeda in Iraq in the province during 2007. With their new alliance with the Americans, the tribes began providing recruits for the provincial police in cities like Ramadi where the number of police went from 35 in June 2006 to 1,300 by November. In turn, attacks in the city dropped by as much as 50% by the end of the year. The tribes also formed eight Provincial Security Forces of 10,000 fighters, eight Emergency Response Units, plus a small group of special forces that operated outside of Anbar tracking down and killing Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders. Together, these tribal units were able to force Al Qaeda in Iraq into northern and eastern Anbar.

The Council grew confident enough that they began sending out emissaries to other Iraqi tribes in Diyala, Ninewa, Salahaddin, Babil, and Baghdad to form their own Awakening movements. Even after Al Qaeda in Iraq was able to kill the Salvation Council’s head, Sheikh Sattar Rishawi, the group was able to expand their influence. By late 2007-early 2008 attacks in Anbar had dropped to the lowest point since the war, 23,000 tribesmen had joined the Anbar police force, and the Council was trying to transform itself into a political party to take part in the government.

Sheikh Sattar Rishawi who led the Anbar Salvation Council until his assassination by Al Qaeda in Iraq in September 2007

The Insurgency Turns On Al Qaeda In Iraq And the Birth Of the Concerned Local Citizens Movement

Many nationalist insurgent groups also began turning on Al Qaeda in 2005-2006. Two of the main ones were the Islamic Army of Iraq and the 1920 Revolution Brigades. Both were mostly former soldiers and Baathists that had become more Islamist as the insurgency wore on, but grew tired of Al Qaeda in Iraq. In 2005 there were repeated clashes between the insurgents and Al Qaeda in Iraq in Anbar over participation in the December 2005 elections and Zarqawi’s murdering of commanders of the Islamic Army and the 1920 Revolution Brigade that didn’t follow his leadership. In January 2006 Al Qaeda in Iraq also killed 70 Sunni police recruits in Ramadi, which led to a shoot out with the Islamic Army. The U.S. began to realize and exploit these divisions by opening negotiations with insurgents that were opposed to Zarqawi. They were helped by the death of the terrorist leader in June 2006.

Zarqawi’s successor Abu Ayyub al Masri attempted to patch up relations with Iraqis. He formed a number of umbrella organizations to try to unite the insurgency, such as the Mutayibeen Coalition, the Islamic Emirate of Iraq, the Mujahadeen Shura Council, and finally the Islamic State of Iraq. The problem was that Al Qaeda in Iraq always insisted that they be in the lead even though their leadership was not Iraqi, and Masri continued on with Zarqawi’s tradition of killing anyone that didn’t get into line behind him.

By early 2007 many elements of the insurgency were in open revolt against Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Islamic Army and 1920 Revolution Brigade had several clashes including the assassination of the latter’s leader by Al Qaeda in Iraq in March 2007. In May 2007 the Islamic Army and two other insurgent group formed their own coalition, the Reformation and Jihad Front to oppose Masri’s Islamic State. More importantly, some members of the 1920 Revolution Brigade formed the Adhamiya Awakening in Baghdad to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq. This was the first of many Concerned Local Citizen (CLC) groups that would pop up around Baghdad’s Sunni enclaves, and then to other regions in central and northern Iraq to fight the militants.

The Effects of the Surge

The main focus of the surge was in Baghdad and Anbar province, just where Sunnis were beginning to revolt against Al Qaeda in Iraq. When the extra troops began to arrive in early 2007 they were able to take advantage of this turn in events. In May 2007, 2nd in command Gen. Odierno outlined the new U.S. policy towards Sunnis. He said there were reconcilable and irreconcilable members of the insurgency. The reconcilable ones were open to negotiations and involvement in the nation’s future like the Sunni tribes in Anbar and the nationalist groups such as the Islamic Army and 1920 Revolution Brigade. The irreconcilable was Al Qaeda in Iraq that would never talk with the U.S. and only believed in their victory. The next month Gen. Petraeus and his advisor held a conference and decided that the Sunnis were ripe for negotiations and cooperation with the U.S. military against Al Qaeda in Iraq. They began negotiating with tribes and insurgent groups throughout central and northern Iraq.

The Sunni policy spread like wildfire. By February 2008 there were 71,000 CLC/Awakening fighters. 43,000 in Baghdad, 10,000 in Ninewah, Salahaddin, and Tamin, 6,000 in Babil, 4,000 in Diyala and 8,000 in Anbar provinces, plus another 54,000 members of the Anbar Salvation Council and Anbar provincial police that mostly came from the Council. The CLCs and tribal Awakening movements were able to clear and hold cities with the cooperation of U.S. forces, and deny Al Qaeda in Iraq new recruits. The Americans also launched repeated military operations in other regions where Al Qaeda in Iraq was fleeing to, to keep them off balance.

By early 2008 Al Qaeda in Iraq was on the run. Their headquarters had been pushed from Anbar to Diyala province to Mosul in Ninawa province. They were also still operating west of Kirkuk, in Tikrit and Samarra in Salahaddin, Baquba in Diyala, south Baghdad, north of Karbala and around Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar. This was a far cry from 2006 when Al Qaeda in Iraq announced the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq, had a parade through Ramadi in Anbar to celebrate it, and was able to fly its flags in a Sunni neighborhood in the center of Baghdad.

A U.S. military map showing in red the areas where Al Qaeda in Iraq is still active in December 2007. The insert map on the left hand corner is of Baghdad

Not The End of Al Qaeda In Iraq

Despite the shrinking area within which Al Qaeda in Iraq is able to operate in, the group is not defeated. U.S. officers are quick to point out that the situation in Iraq is still tenuous, and militants are still able to carry out deadly attacks. Al Qaeda in Iraq also appears to have finally learned from their mistakes and changed their tactics. In Mosul, they started warning civilians before attacks and didn’t impose Islamic law. They also changed their targets to blowing up pipelines and power stations, and attacking CLCs and Awakening groups. In May 2008 Prime Minister Maliki launched an operation to clear Mosul, but many insurgents fled the city months beforehand.

Conclusion

In 2006 the U.S. released a letter from Al Qaeda central leader Attyia al-Jaza’ri to Zarqawi. Al-Jaza’ri was a veteran of the Islamist insurgency in Algeria that was crushed by the government. Al-Jaza’ri, like an earlier letter by Al Qaeda second in command Zawahiri, warned that Zarqawi’s policies would lead his organization to ruin. Al-Jaza’ri wrote:

“[The] al mujadhidin are our brothers, the Sunni are our brothers and our friends, as long as they are Muslims, even if they are disobedient, or insolent; whether they come into the organization with us or not, for they are our brothers, our friends, and our loved ones. We should cooperate with them, help and support them, and work together. Besides, how do you know you won’t be humbled tomorrow, while they are strengthened? You may diminish while they increase! … Their [the Algerian Islamists] enemy did not defeat them, but rather they defeated themselves, were consumed and fell.”

His words proved prophetic in Iraq. Zarqawi and his successor Masri demanded that they be in the lead even though none of them were Iraqis, they did not have the same religious beliefs as Iraqis, and turned to killing and intimidation against anyone that stood in their way. The price for their stance was to lose the sympathies of most Iraqis, turn the country towards civil war with attacks on Shiites, and eventually lose their bases throughout the country. Unfortunately, just as the organization is on the ropes, the surge is ending. The pressure is still on Al Qaeda in Iraq, but with fewer U.S. troops there’s little hope they can actually be defeated anytime soon. The group is still alive and able to dish out death in Iraq.

SOURCES

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