Monday, November 25, 2013

The Rebirth Of Al Qaeda In Iraq, An Interview With Jessica Lewis Of The Institute For The Study Of War

Al Qaeda in Iraq has gone through a resurgence this year. It wasn’t long ago that the group was on the decline with much of its leadership arrested or killed, and many of its cells broken up. Now it is responsible for more and more mass casualty bombings, it has re-established its presence in the provinces, and is operating in Syria that has allowed it access to new funds, personnel, and material. To help explain the rebirth of Al Qaeda in Iraq is Jessica Lewis the research director at the Institute for the Study of War and author of several recent reports on the Islamist group.

1. After 2009 it seemed like the Iraqi insurgency as a whole was on the decline with the number of deaths and attacks at the lowest level since 2003. When was the first hint that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was making a comeback?

In 2010, Gen. Ray Odierno remarked that AQI was still present in northern Iraq and unyielding in its ultimate purpose. At the time, their lethal capacity was estimated to be low. High yield explosive attacks resumed in Iraq in late 2011, prior to the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The first undeniable sign that AQI was reconstituting as a military force came in January 2012, when large-scale explosive attacks occurred against Shi’a civilians in holy cities like Karbala, Nasiriyah, and Kadhimiyah during Arbae’en. February 2012 also saw a rise in Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED) activity in Iraq, which corresponds with the first documented VBIEDS in Syria. On June 4, 2012, AQI attacked the Shi’a Endowment in Bab al-Maotham in Baghdad. With this attack, AQI’s potential to reignite sectarian war in Iraq became clear. The first massive demonstration of AQI’s organizational depth came the following month, with the announcement of the “Breaking the Walls” campaign and the launch of many VBIED waves, the first comprised of 27 VBIEDS on July 22-23, 2012.

2. It seems like AQI has been able to rebuild its manpower through several different means including prisoner releases after the U.S. withdrawal, prison breaks, and Syria. Can you explain how these have filled the group’s ranks?

At this time, I do not see that AQI’s activities in Iraq are geared toward garnering popular support. We have seen them try to represent themselves as a source of benevolent governance in Syria, which is a departure. However, in both countries, I believe their manpower still comes from two primary sources: prison breaks in Iraq and foreign fighters, the majority of whom are flowing first into Syria.

3. Al Qaeda launched two recent campaigns. You mentioned the first one called Breaking The Walls, which started in July 2012. What were its goals, and was it successful or not?

The “Breaking the Walls” campaign involved two main objectives: to reconstitute the veteran AQI network behind bars by executing prison breaks; and to target Shi’a populations to stoke sectarian war. AQI was successful at both. Of the eight prison attacks recorded during the July 2012 – July 2013 period, two resulted in the release of many prisoners: 100 prisoners escaped from Tikrit Tasfirat prison in September 2012, and over 500 prisoners escaped from Abu Ghraib in July 2013. The campaign of successive VBIED waves oriented on Shi’a neighborhoods in Baghdad by February 2013, and by May 2013, there were indications in Baghdad of Shi’a militia remobilization.

Abu Ghraib Prison was the site of a major jailbreak by AQI in July 2013 (Getty)

4. The newest campaign started in July 2013 and is called The Soldiers’ Harvest. What is AQI trying to achieve with that?

The “Soldiers’ Harvest” campaign involves two new objectives: to target the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF); and to establish control of terrain in Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi Security Forces have been targeted for several months through an intimidation campaign involving house-borne Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Now they are being targeted through complex ground assaults upon security compounds, especially in Anbar and northern Babel province. There have also been attacks against ISF facilities in Mosul and Iraqi Kurdistan. I believe AQI’s second objective to establish control of parts of Iraq and Syria is much more significant than simply securing a rear support area for further military operations. I think we should take Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seriously when he says he wants to establish an Islamic emirate in Iraq and Sham. Right now, I estimate AQI is attempting to establish control in southern Ninewa province, northern Diyala Province, and northern Babel province, along with multiple locations in Syria, including the northern border downs and areas of Aleppo province.

5. One of the trademarks of both of these operations has not just been the use of suicide and car bombings but coordinated attacks across several different cities on the same day with increasing regularity. Can you provide some general figures to show how these types of attacks have increased over the last few years, and also what that says about AQI’s capabilities?

The first waves of VBIEDS resumed in July 2012. At this time, the pattern involved 20+ VBIEDS detonating across a wide geographic area in Iraq on the same day. A wave this size only occurred once every two months, the next large wave occurring on September 9, 2012. The large waves dropped off at this point for several months, I believe because AQI was working internally to reorganize, which aligns with the absorption of 100 prisoners from Tikrit Tasfirat prison in late September 2012. Small clusters of attacks still occurred during this period, but the large waves resumed in February 2013. This time, the waves were concentrated uniformly on Shi’a neighborhoods in Baghdad, indicating not only that their VBIED construction and supply capabilities had been established in close proximity to the capital, but also that the organization had a clear intent to synchronize operations to meet a specific campaign goal. Beginning in May 2012, these attacks began to occur once a week. This tells me that AQI has become strong not only in terms of their lethal capacity, but also in terms of their military organization.

6. Al Qaeda has shown some more sophistication with some of its attacks this year as well coordinating them with political events. Can you provide some examples of that?

A synchronized wave of VBIEDS detonating on the same day, across Iraq or tightly formed in Baghdad, is a very sophisticated operation. There have now been over 20 such waves, which means the organization has a repeatable supply chain. This year, we have also seen combined arms attacks against hardened facilities, such as Abu Ghraib prison, involving VBIEDS, Suicide Vests (SVESTS), mortars, and small arms fire. I am particularly concerned about attacks involving armed gunmen assaulting a fixed position, which has lately begun to occur in Anbar province. In terms of political events, the rate of VBIEDS in Mosul did increase ahead of provincial elections in 2013, and there have been assassinations targeting political leaders, but there have also been assassination campaigns targeting protest leaders. The latter concerns me greatly, because it appears that AQI wants to deter constructive engagement between the disenfranchised Arab Sunni population in Iraq and Maliki’s government.

7. Can these attacks provide some intelligence on where in Iraq Al Qaeda might have cells located?

Yes, I think we can learn a great deal about AQI’s physical disposition by studying the attacks they perpetrate. In 2012-2013, I primarily studied the VBIED campaign, and as of October 2013 I estimated there were between 5-7 VBIED cells operating in Iraq. I think three of these cells are operating in the vicinity of the Baghdad belts. VBIED cells are tethered to terrain, because VBIED re-supply and construction are fixed site operations that likely require auto repair shop facilities in industrial areas. I am working to understand what terrain insights can be gleaned from AQI’s recent ground assaults by other parts of AQI’s military organization in Anbar. Right now, I hypothesize that AQI exercises a degree of control in Jurf al-Sukhar, northern Babel, in the upper Diyala river valley, and north of Salah ad Din in the Za’ab Triangle.

This map shows AQI’s supply lines stretching from northern and western Iraq into Syria and down into the center of the country. (Institute for the Study of War)

8. As Al Qaeda’s operations have taken off the government has responded with one security crackdown after another. What have been the tactics of the Iraqi forces and why have they failed to stem the violence?

Countering AQI at its present strength is going to be very difficult for the ISF. However, I see three primary weaknesses in their current strategy that can be overcome: first, they are deploying into the deserts when they should first protect major urban centers. It does not serve to expend resources in remote areas while Baghdad is exposed. Second, the ISF should target zones of AQI control, not support zones like the Jazeera desert. AQI will evade contact in a support zone and live to fight another day. AQI will defend terrain it means to control. We are seeing these behaviors in northern Diyala and northern Babel. After Iraq’s cities are protected, the campaign to counter AQI should focus on control zones. Third, I maintain that the ISF could achieve a quick and vital win if they were to defeat AQI’s VBIED capability first. Not only is it oriented primarily upon Baghdad, but it is also operating apart from the rest of AQI’s military, and it should be regarded as AQI’s primary and most sophisticated weapon system, without which they will be significantly less effective. It may be disrupted by clearing auto repair shops in the Baghdad belts.

The ISF has been targeting Sunni populations with mass arrests, which is dangerous and counter-productive. While this has no affect upon AQI’s military, it further enhances their cause by driving a wedge between the Iraqi government and Iraq’s Arab Sunnis that could result in a violent uprising.

9. Despite the increased activity by AQI this year does it appear that the organization has been able to garner any kind of popular support in Iraq?

I still think this is unlikely. AQI is targeting Sahwa, Sunni protest leaders, Sunni politicians, the ISF, Shi’a neighborhoods, minorities, and now the Kurds. I do not see them recruiting anyone. Prisons, on the other hand, are prime environments for radicalization, and I do see this as a strategic opportunity for AQI. It is important to acknowledge, however, that AQI has recently begun to operate in the midst of the protest movement in Ramadi, as reported by Ahmed Ali, our Iraq Team Lead at ISW. My first thought about this is that the population in Ramadi is falling under AQI’s coercive control. But if communities within Iraq turn to violent uprising as a means of addressing longstanding grievances against Maliki’s government, a degree of interest alignment and tolerance of AQI could result. I think it is more likely that these grievances will push Iraq’s Arab Sunni population towards Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshibandi (JRTN), which has a stronger connection to a Sunni nationalist argument.


Lewis, Jessica, “Al-Qaeda In Iraq Resurgent, The Breaking The Walls Campaign, Part I,” Institute for the Study of War, September 2013
- “Al-Qaeda In Iraq Resurgent, Part II,” October 2013
- “AQI’s “Soldiers’ Harvest” Campaign,” 10/9/13

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