On August 25, 2009 Al Qaeda in Iraq’s umbrella organization, the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the August 19, 2009 Baghdad bombings which killed at least 101 people. The story has not been confirmed, but it is the only group that has openly said that it is behind the attack. While the bombing caught headlines around the world, it actually belies the true strength of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Once considered the vanguard of the insurgency, the group has since fallen out of favor after the majority of the Sunni population abandoned it in 2006.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has its origins with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi was a Jordanian terrorist who after the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan first came to Baghdad, and then settled in with the Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam in Kurdistan in 2002. He ran his own organization that carried out some of the first mass casualty bombings after the 2003 invasion such as the attack on the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad and the assassination of Mohammed al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. Having established himself as a leading Islamist terrorist, he then pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden in 2004, and renamed his group Al Qaeda in Iraq. In 2006 Zarqawi was killed, and Al Qaeda central established more direct control. In October 2006 the Islamic State of Iraq was formed. The death of its leader and the formation of the Islamic State were the beginning of the downfall of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Zarqawi was succeeded by an Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri. He wasn’t half the leader that Zarqawi was, who was known for his hands on approach and ruthlessness. Masri and the Al Qaeda central leadership became worried in 2006 that the United States was about to withdraw from Iraq and leave a power vacuum. This led to the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq, where Al Qaeda attempted to not only claim leadership of the insurgency but the Sunni community in general. Under Zarqawi, Al Qaeda had successfully instigated the sectarian war with the Shiites. This new organization was to provide leadership and protection for the Sunnis in the civil war, but proved completely incapable. Rather than being the vanguard, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State began being blamed for the violence. Many tribes in Anbar province also resented Al Qaeda’s attempts to subvert the leadership of the sheikhs and take over their illegal businesses such as smuggling. Together this led to most of the Sunnis turning on Al Qaeda beginning in the very year that the Islamic State was announced. The Anbar Awakening and the Sons of Iraq were the results. They aligned themselves with the Americans because they now saw them as a lesser evil compared to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Today Al Qaeda is no longer a threat to the existence of the Iraqi state. They are not considered a leader in Iraqi insurgency either. They have lost most of their urban strongholds with the one exception of Mosul in Ninewa province. The terrorist attacks like the August 19 Baghdad bombings are about all they are currently capable of. They hope to make a return by continually attacking Shiites in the hopes of rekindling the sectarian war, but that has largely failed. The Baghdad bombings appear to be more for show than anything else. The group is attempting to show that they are still capable of going after Iraq’s institutions as well. Still, it is very unlikely that the group will ever attain the status it had in the period from 2003-2006 because of its ideology, rejection by the general populace, and inability to offer anything of real substance besides violence.
Fishman, Brian “Dysfunction and Decline: Lessons Learned From Inside Al-Qa’ida in Iraq,” Combating Terrorism Center, 3/16/09
Roggio, Bill, “al Qaeda’s Grand Coalition in Anbar,” Long War Journal.org, 10/12/06
“Divisions in al Qaeda in Iraq,” Long War Journal.org, 10/13/06
Rosen, Nir, “The Many Faces of Abu Musab al Zarqawi,” Truthdig.com, 6/9/06
Sly, Liz, “Al Qaeda-linked group claims two recent Baghdad bombings that killed 95,” Los Angeles Times, 8/26/09
Zenko, Micah, “Foregoing Limited Force: The George W. Bush Administration’s Decision Not to Attack Ansar Al-Islam,” Journal of Strategic Studies, August 2009
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