Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Al Qaeda In Iraq On The Offensive


For at least the last four months, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has been carrying out its latest offensive. This has been marked by increased casualty figures, headline grabbing attacks, and a series of bombings in southern Iraq. The last is always a sign that the Islamist group is doing more than its normal set of operations, because it is veering outside of its normal bases, which requires extra planning, and time to develop. Overall, the militant group is trying to make a comeback after the U.S. military withdrawal.

One way to determine that Al Qaeda in Iraq has launched a new campaign is by following casualty figures. Since December 2012, they have been going up. Iraq Body Count went from 275 in December, to 357 in January, 358 in February, before hitting 407 in March, the highest since August 2012. Likewise, the United Nations reported 230 deaths in December, 319 in January, 418 in February, and 456 in March. The U.N. had not seen that high a death rate since August 2011. Similarly, Agence France Presse recorded 144 fatalities in December, 246 in January, 220 in February, and 271 in March, again the largest amount since August of last year. As usual, the official figures are going in the opposite direction. In December, Baghdad said there were 208 casualties, 177 in January, 136 in February, and 163 in March. With few exceptions, the Iraqi government’s counts are below the other organizations that keep track of violence. That’s because Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has tried to portray himself as having brought stability to Iraq since the civil war ended, and is artificially keeping the numbers down each month as a result. What the other groups show is an increase in deaths due to an uptick in militant operations. The last time casualties were this high was when insurgents launched their summer offensive, which lasted from June to September.


Deaths In Iraq 2011-2013
Month
Iraq Body Count
Iraqi Ministries
United Nations
Avg. Monthly Deaths
Avg. Daily Deaths
Agence France Presse
Jan. 2011
389
259
265
304
9.8
N/A
Feb.
252
167
267
228
8.1
N/A
Mar.
311
247
268
275
8.8
N/A
Apr.
289
211
279
259
8.6
N/A
May
381
177
319
292
9.4
N/A
Jun.
386
271
424
360
12.0
N/A
Jul.
308
259
381
316
10.1
N/A
Aug.
401
239
455
365
11.7
N/A
Sep.
397
185
405
329
10.9
N/A
Oct.
366
258
416
346
11.1
N/A
Nov.
279
187
264
243
8.1
N/A
Dec.
388
155
313
285
9.2
N/A
2011 Mo. Avg.
345
217
338
300
9.8
N/A
2011 Totals
4,147
2,615
4,056
-
-
-
Jan. 2012
524
151
500
391
12.6
N/A
Feb.
356
150
254
253
9.0
N/A
Mar.
377
112
294
261
8.4
N/A
Apr.
392
126
320
279
9.3
N/A
May
304
132
332
256
8.2
N/A
Jun.
529
131
401
353
11.7
282
Jul.
469
325
338
377
12.1
278
Aug.
422
164
292
292
9.4
278
Sep.
396
365
398
386
12.8
253
Oct.
290
144
189
207
6.6
136
Nov.
239
166
330
245
8.1
160
Dec.
275
208
230
237
7.6
144
2012 Mo. Avg.
381
181
323
294
9.6
218
(7 mo.)
2012 Totals
4,573
2,174
2.661
(8 mo.)
-
-
1,531
(7 mo.)
Jan. 2013
357
177
319
259
8.3
246
Feb.
358
136
418
242
8.6
220
Mar.
407
163
456
342
11.0
271

Every time Al Qaeda in Iraq has launched a major offensive they have carried out operations in the south like this car bombing in Basra in March (AFP)

Another sign that the Islamists are on the attack is where security incidents are taking place. Each time Al Qaeda in Iraq has started a new offensive it has targeted southern Iraq. Starting in December, a car bomb was found near the Imam Abbas shrine in Karbala, followed by two bombs going off north of Hillah, Babil targeting pilgrims heading to Karbala for Arbaeen. In January, a car bomb went off in Hillah, followed by one in the Musayib region of Babil that killed 13 pilgrims and wounded another 57, one at the entrance to the city of Karbala, and finally one north of Karbala that hit Afghan pilgrims going to the holy city. The next month saw two car bombs explode in southeastern Hillah leaving 15 dead, and 45 wounded, and one go off in Hindiya in Karbala province. Then in March, a suicide bomber got into Karbala wounding 14, while two car bombs detonated in Basra. In the middle of that month, Al Qaeda’s front group, the Islamic State of Iraq claimed it was responsible for the last several weeks’ operations. Finally, on April 15, amongst a wave of attacks across the country, a car bomb went off in central Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar, and another in central BabilThe last time southern Iraq saw such destruction was in September 2012 when a car bomb went off in Basra, and two explosions occurred in Nasiriyah on the same day. Those happened to coincide with the insurgents’ last major offensive. Carrying out attacks in the south requires advanced planning, intelligence collection, and the storing of supplies outside of Al Qaeda’s normal areas of operation. That again points to militants stepping up their game.

Attacks like this one upon the Justice Ministry in Baghdad in March help Al Qaeda in Iraq raise money (Telegraph)

Finally, Al Qaeda in Iraq depends upon media grabbing operations to fundraise, and those have recently occurred as well. In March, AQI ambushed a group of Syrian soldiers who had taken refuge in Iraq, leaving 42 Syrians and 14 Iraqis dead in their wake. That same month, five suicide bombers assaulted the Justice and Foreign Ministries, along with the Communications Institute in Baghdad killing 26, and wounding 63. Finally, in April, an oil tanker was driven into a police station in Tikrit, Salahaddin, while a suicide bomber blew himself up during a political rally in Baquba, Diyala, and then there were coordinated attacks cross seven provinces that left at least 55 killed on April 15. These types of dramatic attacks get into the international press. The Islamists can then point to them to try to raise money amongst donors around the world. This is an important activity, because AQI could not continue their pace of operations without large amounts of cash.

These all point to Al Qaeda attempting to make a comeback in Iraq. Iraqi officials have told the press that the number of fighters with the group went from around 700 at the end of 2011, to now around 2,500. One main reason for this was the release of thousands of prisoners from American detention facilities after the U.S. military withdrew. Many were radicalized during their stay or could not find work after they were let out. The result was that they went right back to the fight, and swelled the ranks of the Islamists. The war in Syria is also drawing in new militants and sources of money. AQI for example, recently announced that Jabhat al-Nusra was an official branch of the movement with the stated goal of creating an Islamic state across the Middle East. This has given it another lease on life. Finally, the Iraqi police and army are no longer carrying out counterinsurgency operations as they did while the Americans were in the country. Instead, they mostly man checkpoints and carry out mass arrests after major incidents. Its intelligence network is also weak. That means they are more of a reactive rather than a preventive force. Not only that, but their tactics cause resentment amongst certain sectors of the population, which makes them less likely to cooperate with the government when they see insurgents. Dr. Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, estimates that the number of attacks have gone up from less than 200 a month at the start of 2011 to up to 800 a month today. With an increase in personnel, a new cause in Syria, and ineffective tactics by the country’s security forces AQI is witnessing a revival. It is now attempting to portray itself as an opponent to Shiite rule in Iraq, and a defender of Sunnis as opposed to its past image of being against the West and the U.S. occupation.

Every year Al Qaeda in Iraq launches several campaigns. The country is currently in the middle of one. The number of deaths is up, and security incidents are spreading outside of the traditional provinces like Baghdad, Diyala, and Ninewa into the south. This is made possible by the increased manpower, and the inability of the army and police to stop them, along with the fighting in Syria that has given the organization a new front, and source of rallying support. At the same time, this round of operations has not led to the same amount of casualties seen during last summer. What it does mean is that the Islamists are far from done. Instead they can continue on for the foreseeable future, sowing their death and destruction.


SOURCES

Abbas, Mushreq, “Al-Qaeda Sees Opportunity In Iraq’s Sectarian Conflict,” Al-Monitor, 3/1/13

Agence France Presse, “Iraq casualties from violence (2013)”

AIN, “4 persons injured in central Babel bombing,” 4/15/13
- “Urgent … Casualties of Dhi-Qar bombing increase,” 4/15/13

Ali, Ahmed, and Wicken, Stephen, “2013 Iraq Weekly Update #11: Violence Threatens Electoral Campaign,” Institute for the Study of War, 3/15/13

Associated Press, “2 Car Bombs Kill 9 in Southern Iraq,” 3/17/13

Aswat al-Iraq, “2 car bombs leave 60 casualties in Babel,” 2/8/13
- “2 killed, 4 wounded by two explosions, one against French consulate in Nassiriya,” 9/9/12
- “14 wounded in Karbala explosion,” 3/3/13
- “17 casualties in Karbala explosion,” 1/17/13
- “Bombed car exploded in Karbala garage,” 12/18/12
- “Car bomb kills 2 Shiite visitors in Babel,” 1/2/13
- “Car bomb kills 13, wounds 57 in Babel,” 1/3/13
- “Casualties rise to 20 in Karbala bombing attack,” 2/8/13
- “Child killed, 15 wounded north Karbala,” 1/5/13
- “Shiite pilgrim killed, 2 wounded in Babel,” 12/29/12
- “Total Basra explosion 3 killed and 25 injured,” 9/9/12

Bunzel, Cole, “Introducing the “Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria,” Jihadica, 4/9/13

Freeman, Colin, “Violence in Iraq goes up despite US pull out, as freed prisoners rejoin militias,” Guardian, 3/16/13

Guardian, “Suicide attack in Iraqi city leaves at least 22 people dead,” 4/6/13

Iraq Body Count

Mourtada, Hania and Gladstone, Rick, “Qaeda Group in Iraq Says It Killed Syrian Soldiers,” New York Times, 3/11/13

Murphy, Dan, “Iraq attack shows coordination, planning, and numbers,” Christian Science Monitor, 3/14/13

Salaheddin, Sinan, “Al-Qaida in Iraq claims wave of attacks,” Associated Press, 3/20/13

Schreck, Adam, “Iraq Attacks Kill 55 Less Than a Week Before Vote,” Associated Press, 4/15/13

Tawfeeq, Mohammed, “Suicide attack kills at least 9 in Iraq, 3 die in shootings,” CNN, 4/1/13

United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, “Civilian Casualties”
- “UN Releases Civilian Casualty Figures for March,” 4/8/13

Wyer, Sam, “The Islamic State of Iraq And The “Destroying The Walls” Campaign,” Institute For The Study Of War, 9/21/12

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