Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How Long Can Al Qaeda In Iraq Last?

Abu Omar Baghdadi (L) and Abu Masri (R) Al Qaeda In Iraq’s Top Two Leaders Were Reported Killed In April 2010 Yet Their Organization Continues On

Every week brings more news of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s demise. Leaders are rounded up, fighters are killed, etc. Most recently Jabbar Zeidan who was in charge of Al Qaeda’s network in northern Baghdad and Zaid Hamed Ali, the group’s number 2 man in Diyala were both arrested. That’s a sign that the group has lost most of its popular support, and Iraqis, even Al Qaeda members, are willing to turn them in. Despite those losses however, the organization has shown great staying power. In June 2010 Paris-based researcher Myriam Benraad wrote a piece for West Point’s CTC Sentinel on why Al Qaeda in Iraq remains a threat to the country. The article was divided into three parts. The first dealt with Al Qaeda’s recent history, the next covered why the Islamists are still able to gain new recruits, and the final section made some suggestions for how the group may finally be defeated.

Since 2006 Al Qaeda in Iraq and its umbrella organization the Islamic State of Iraq have faced a steady diet of defeats. In June 2006 it lost its first leader, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In 2007 the Surge and the Sons of Iraq program deprived Al Qaeda of most its bases. By 2010 the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq the Egyptian Abu Masri, and the emir of the Islamic State Abu Omar Baghdadi were killed in Salahaddin. Afterward the U.S. commander in Iraq General Ray Odierno claimed that 90% of the group’s leadership had been killed or captured. These operations show the increased abilities of the American and Iraqi forces, and their understanding of the militants.

Despite these setbacks Benraad believes that Al Qaeda in Iraq will still be around for the foreseeable future. One reason is that the group is largely Iraqi now. At first, it was mostly made up of and led by foreigners like Zarqawi and Masri. Today it is almost all locals.  Another factor is that in June 2009 U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq’s cities. That gave more room for the Islamists to operate in. The Americans are due to drawdown to just 50,000 troops by August 31, 2010 as well, which could increase Al Qaeda’s opportunities to sow mayhem. The group also plays upon the lingering resentment amongst some Sunnis that the United States is an occupier. That wont end even when the U.S. withdraws as Al Qaeda has painted the new Iraqi government as American puppets and the new occupier. The United States has also been emptying its prisons as it pulls out. Some of these detainees came into contact with or were recruited by Al Qaeda while they were incarcerated. The American military claims that the recidivism rate amongst these former convicts is low, but the Iraqis claim otherwise. One notorious example was Manaf Abdul Rahim al-Rawi, Al Qaeda’s governor of Baghdad. Rawi joined the insurgency early on, and took part in the fighting in Fallujah where he met and was recruited by Zarqawi. In 2004 the Americans arrested him. While imprisoned he became friends with Haji Abdul Wahid, Baghdad’s emir. After Rawi was released, he went right back to operating with Al Qaeda, and eventually replaced Wahid as Al Qaeda’s governor of Baghdad. Before his arrest in 2010 he was the mastermind behind the bombings of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Finance Ministry, Justice Ministry, Planning Ministry, and provincial council buildings in Baghdad. Another factor is the Iraqi budget. In 2009 the government’s revenues collapsed when the world recession hit and oil prices dropped. The Iraqi budget took a large hit, and the security forces didn’t get as much funding as they needed. While the nation’s finances have rebounded this year, the appropriations for the Defense and Interior Ministry have not. Last, during the later years of Saddam Hussein’s rule Islamism spread amongst Sunnis in Iraq. Abu Omar Baghdadi for instance, the recently deceased emir of the Islamic State was a security officer in Haditha, Anbar when he joined a Salafist group in the 1990s. That led him to join violent jihadist groups when the United States invaded, and he eventually became a leader in Al Qaeda. All of these factors explain the organization’s staying power despite its losses. It can still draw on local ties, it has a new body of recruits and old members being released from prison, the American withdrawal presents it with more operating space, the Iraqi forces have not been able to expand recently because of budget restraints, and its anti-occupation and Islamist ideology all provide it with opportunities and resiliency.

It’s continued impact is shown by monthly headline grabbing attacks. It was blamed for the July 18 bombing of Sons of Iraq members in Baghdad who were waiting for their pay that killed at least 43. Earlier in that month it sent suicide bombers against Shiite pilgrims. In June it carried out a daring raid on the Iraqi Central Bank and bombed the Iraq Trade Bank, both in the capital. These show Al Qaeda’s new emphasis upon attacking the Iraqi government, security forces, and Shiites, which is what the group’s new leadership called for after the deaths of Masri and Baghdadi. It also highlights the Islamists determination to continue with their operations even after the U.S. leaves the country.

Benraad believes the only way that Al Qaeda can be countered is through a coordinated political and military strategy. U.S. and Iraqi forces need to continue their raids and intelligence gathering against the organization. That includes American training and support for the Iraqi police and military. Iraq’s prisons also need to be reformed so that they can keep track of and counter the spread of radicalism within them, and stop ex-cons from joining militant groups once they are released. Finally, Al Qaeda’s ideology needs to be countered by promoting moderate imams. Some of these proposals are now in affect, but others are unlikely to happen. Counterinsurgency operations are obviously still occurring as the continuous news about Al Qaeda’s leaders being killed and captured proves. The U.S. also plans to stay in Iraq until 2011 and beyond as Iraqi forces will still need their help. Many religious leaders, including Sunnis, have condemned Al Qaeda’s continued attacks upon Iraqis, but there is nothing organized to stop the spread of jihadist ideas. Finally, Iraqi prisons are infamous for being overcrowded, under funded, and being abusive. The transfer of detainees from American to Iraqi hands is going to worsen their conditions, which can only help with recruitment and re-enforce the militants’ claims that the Iraqi government is the new enemy. That offers hope and apprehension about the future. On the one hand, continued losses can be expected, but Al Qaeda can still adapt and survive. That means it will have to collapse of its own accord. That could eventually happen after the U.S. pulls out and if the Iraqi government becomes more affective. The problem is that could take years.


AK News, “Al-Qaeda wanted man arrested in Baghdad,” 7/15/10

Associated Press, “Al Qa’eda in Iraq vows attacks,” 5/14/10

Aswat al-Iraq, “AQI’s man no. 2 in Diala captured,” 7/17/10

Benraad, Myriam, “Assessing AQI’s Resilience After April’s Leadership Decapitations,” CTC Sentinel, June 2010

Chulov, Martin, “Iraq prison system blamed for big rise in al-Qaida violence,” Guardian, 5/23/10

Hazimeh, Mayssa, “Governor of Baghdad in Al-Qaeda organization reveals details about it,” Islam Times, 6/10/10

Peterson, Scott, “Sunni Awakening resolute in face of Iraq bombing,” Christian Science Monitor, 7/19/10

Williams, Timothy and al-Jawoshy, Omar, “Iraq Suicide Bombing Strikes Shiites,” New York Times, 7/7/10


Dolly said...

Iraqi Shiites are a weak-willed spineless people, they were silent under Saddam because that was the path of least resistance, then they collaborated with the Crusaders, because that was the path of least resistance, and after the occupation flees they will again break under whoever exercises force against them. Do not count on the ISF to stay intact.

Joel Wing said...

And Iraq's Sunnis have turned out to be weak and divided and still can't figure out how to deal with the new Iraq.

AndrewSshi said...

Joel, how much of the growth of Salafism in late Ba'ath Iraq was coming about as a result of the fraying of the state and a decreasing hold of the secular Ba'ath ideology going on at the time and how much was a result of Saddam trying to burnish his Islamist credentials? Or would you say that Hussein trying to appear more Islamist was related to the first two phenomena?

Joel Wing said...

The first. The Iraqi state was frail after years of sanctions and the government was trying all kinds of moves to keep its hold on the country. That included new patronage systems like the food ration cards, turning over security in regions to tribes, and eventually moving towards Islamic symbols. Islamism was also spreading on its own at the time through the region, and Iraq tried to co-opt some of that. In fact, Saddam added Allah Akbar to the Iraqi flag back in 91 right before the Gulf War to garner some support from Islamist groups.

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