Dr. Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies recently testified to a joint committee of the United States House of Representatives that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) couldn’t help but overstep itself. During the early part of the Iraq War the Islamist organization tried to impose its foreign version of Islam upon Iraq, and intimidated and executed those that disagreed with it. It was actions such as those that eventually turned many Iraqis against it. Today, AQI is making a comeback establishing bases again within the country and carrying out a dizzying array of bombings. As the group looks to gain territory it is returning to its bad habits, which will eventually cost it sometime down the road.
As part of its Soldier’s Harvest campaign Al Qaeda is seeking to take and hold areas of Iraq. It has already established itself in regions of Anbar, Diyala, Salahaddin, and Babil provinces. There the group is not only setting up bases and training camps, but also once again trying to dictate its version of Islam upon the populace. Al-Shorfa recently interviewed several people from the village of Jura south of Samarra in Salahaddin governorate, which was temporarily under AQI control. During that period Al Qaeda began passing out flyers setting out rules on how it wanted people to act and behave. Those included not working for or cooperating with the security forces, all women had to wear the hijab, men could not wear western style clothes such as trousers, shirts, and neckties, parents should not buy PlayStations for their children, and schools had to separate boys and girls. A store that sold western clothing was bombed, and some residents were publicly whipped for breaking these strictures. These are the exact same tactics that Al Qaeda followed before that turned much of the population against them. In Anbar for example, many sheikhs complained about how the Islamists would kill anyone that disagreed with them. It murdered sheikhs, beheaded some and booby-trapped others with explosives. It dragged women and children out into the streets to discipline them and scared people into follow their orders. The Islamists went from allies of the Iraqis to their enemies. After a few years of this type of rule many locals turned against the organization. The same thing is likely to happen again as AQI moves into towns like Jura and attempts to impose its will over it.
Al Qaeda may be a successful terrorist organization, but it will never be a popular movement. Its form of Islam is too strict and foreign for Iraqis to ever accept. Its threats against men for wearing t-shirts and blowing up a store that sold them is just one example of how the group will over overstep its welcome. AQI is only just now attempting to gain territory in Iraq, and therefore has only been able to hand out its flyers in a few places. If it is able to spread its influence it will eventually anger the locals. It will then be up to the government to take advantage of the situation by reaching out to the people and offering them protection and safety from the extremists. Given Iraq’s intense divisions and the short-term thinking of its leaders it’s not clear that Baghdad is able to think in those terms. As Dr. Knights pointed out in that same Congressional hearing the security forces have purposely abandoned counterinsurgency tactics, because the central government did not want to work with the populace. If the security situation worsens it may be forced to otherwise the country will only descend further into violence, and it will be just as much the authorities fault as the insurgents.
Knights, Dr. Michael, testimony on “The Resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq” to Joint Subcommittee Hearing, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, 12/12/13
McWilliams, Chief Warrant Officer-4 Timothy, and Wheeler, Lieutenant Colonel Kurtis, ed., Al-Anbar Awakening Volume II, Iraqi Perspectives, From Insurgency to Counterinsurgency in Iraq, 2004-2009, Virginia: Marine Corps University, 2009
Al-Qaisi, Mohammed, “Al-Qaeda in Iraq dictates men’s clothing choices,” Al-Shorfa, 12/20/13