According to Phillips, the root of the problem for Al Qaeda was its world revolutionary outlook, and exclusionary vision of Islam. Al Qaeda mixes two popular jihadist beliefs. One is an idea that the Muslim world has become corrupt, and they are the only true believers, who need to renew the roots of the religion. Another is that the West is responsible for this decline. Some Islamists decided to respond to this perceived threat by struggling against their own governments that they saw as godless and pro-Western. Others felt that the United States was the root of the problem, and therefore needed to be confronted. Al Qaeda took the latter route, arguing the need to fight the U.S. in order to start the regeneration of their faith.
|Abu Musab al-Zarqawi|
When it became apparent that the United States would overthrow Saddam Hussein, Zarqawi began focusing upon Iraq. He went there in March 2002, and set up networks in Syria, Iran, Baghdad, the Sunni triangle, and allied with the Kurdish group, Ansar al-Islam. In March 2003 he also met with Al Qaeda’s military head, Muhammad Ibrahim Makawi, aka Saif al-Adel, in Iran. The two agreed to facilitate the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq to attack the Americans. When the insurgency started Zarqawi played a crucial role in providing money, men, and logistics, as well as carrying out the first mass casualty attacks such as the bombings of the United Nations headquarters and Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, and the headquarters of the Italian carabineri in Nasiriyah. His group also attracted the support of Iraqi jihadists, who had been growing in number since the Gulf War in 1991. Zarqawi thus established himself as a leader in the insurgency quickly. He later renamed his group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in 2004, and pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden. The U.S. invasion of Iraq thus turned out to be a boon for Zarqawi. He was able to become a world famous jihadist, expand the power and influence of his organization, and finally take the fight to the West. His name began to rival that of bin Laden, and the later alignment with him was another way to increase Zarqawi’s standing and tap into the foreign funding that Al Qaeda had available.
|Al Qaeda 2nd in Command Ayman Zawahiri|
Source: Long War Journal
From 2004-2007 Al Qaeda in Iraq and the country’s Sunnis split. Zarqawi wanted leadership of the insurgency, and used a variety of methods to achieve it. He killed tribal sheikhs and other militants to impose his will. He attempted to marry Al Qaeda fighters with Iraqi women to connect his organization with local communities. He tried to appropriate businesses, like the smuggling tribes in Anbar carried out, to monopolize the funding of the insurgency. Zarqawi tried to impose his form of Islam upon Iraqis. In 2005, many tribes and insurgents also decided to participate in the December vote for parliament to gain some kind of Sunni representation. Al Qaeda rejected any role in the new Iraq. Finally, in October 2006 Al Qaeda declared the Islamic State of Iraq in Anbar as an umbrella organization that was supposed to unite all the militant groups under its leadership. All of these tactics, along with Al Qaeda’s inability to protect Sunnis during the civil war, caused resentment amongst Iraqis, which eventually led them to break from the group. First the tribes in Anbar began fighting against Zarqawi in 2005. In 2006 they gained American support, and then in 2007 the U.S. began playing on the differences between Iraqis and Al Qaeda across northern and central Iraq, which led to the formation of the Sons of Iraq. Eventually, the majority of Sunnis rejected Al Qaeda’s ideas, and this has led to its current isolation and loss of support within the country.
By 2007 the U.S. exploited the divisions between Al Qaeda and insurgents to create the Sons of Iraq
Source: Al Jazeera
Source: Al Jazeera
At the heart of the matter was the fact that Al Qaeda’s ideology ended up alienating Iraqis. Zarqawi overestimated the appeal of jihadist ideas in Iraq, ignored local concerns, and believed that he could impose his will. He was fooled at first, by his initial success. Al Qaeda was able to humiliate the U.S. in Iraq, energized international support for the fight there, and did start a sectarian civil war. That was the apex of his vision however. There was no way he could create a caliphate in Iraq because the Baathists and nationalists within the insurgency always outnumbered the Islamists and foreign fighters. The latter were more concerned about bringing back Sunni or Baathist rule rather than putting Zarqawi in power. Attacking tribes and other insurgents, marrying into families, taking over local businesses, and starting a sectarian war all backfired, and pushed Iraqis away from Al Qaeda. This happened before in other situations, such as in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Kashmir. There, foreign jihadists were eventually rejected as well because they acted superior, ignored indigenous concerns, and used violence against those that refused to follow their lead. That points to the Islamist ideology as a root problem for their failures rather than local circumstances.
Al Qaeda was never going to succeed in Iraq. It was always a small group within the insurgency, but its spectacular attacks gave it a larger profile and more media attention than other militants. Its ideology failed to win over many converts, as few were willing to follow Zarqawi as an Islamist revolutionary vanguard. In fact its ideas led to tactics and strategies that ended up alienating many Sunnis, and that allowed the U.S. to exploit the differences in a divide and conquer strategy. Even after Zarqawi was killed in 2006, and replaced with Abu Ayub al-Masri who was more in line with Al Qaeda in Pakistan, the group failed to improve its situation. Masri was later killed in April 2010, and Al Qaeda in Iraq is now led by a third wave of leaders who are still committed to targeting Shiites, the government, and the Awakening/Sons of Iraq. That shows despite the change in leadership, the organization’s core ideas remain. On the other hand, Al Qaeda in Iraq is still operating, and will probably continue to do so for several more years. In fact, it may have gained more breathing space with the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the on-going political deadlock over forming a new government, and Baghdad’s unwillingness to fully integrate the Sons of Iraq. Al Qaeda can’t win in Iraq, but it also can only be defeated through a combined military and political strategy by the Iraqi government. Unfortunately Baghdad is so divided it doesn’t appear capable of doing that right now, which is giving the Islamists extra life.
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