Understanding al Qaeda’s Revival in Iraq

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As the New Year gets underway, the most recent spell of violence in Iraq shows little sign of abating. A steady barrage of assassinations and bombings has claimed nearly 6,000 lives since April 2013, and placed Iraq among the most violent nations in the Middle East― second only to war-torn Syria.[I] Claiming responsibility for much of the carnage is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: the head of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, as the Iraqi affiliate now dubs itself.[II] The fortunes of the once battered organization are evidently improving based on the increased presence of al Qaeda personnel and operations throughout the country.[III] At first glance it is tempting to attribute the jihadists’ revival to the United States’ departure at the end of 2011. However, a closer look at AQI’s history suggests that recent political developments in Iraq and the broader region may be more significant in accounting for their reemergence.

AQI’s success in infiltrating Iraqi society over the last decade has been uneven. Several early missteps by the Coalition Provisional Authority compromised Iraq’s security environment and provided al Qaeda with their initial opening.[IV] Between 2003 and 2006 they managed to entrench themselves in several Sunni regions to the point that they became the “dominant organization of influence.”[V] An intelligence assessment of Anbar province produced in August of 2006 lamented that all government institutions had been “thoroughly corrupted or infiltrated by al Qaeda.”[VI] But these gains proved short-lived. Careless and excessively violent tactics provoked a revolt against the jihadists led by Sunni tribesmen who resented their intrusion.[VII] The Awakening, as it came to be known, subsequently spread to other Sunni communities, which, along with waves of U.S. “Surge” forces, severely degraded AQI’s operability. The setback appeared to have crippled them for the duration of America’s deployment, and sustainable stability briefly seemed plausible for post-occupation Iraq.[VIII] But now, merely two years after the United States’ exit, AQI has reprised its role as one of the main proprietors of violence. Suicide bombings increased three-fold over the past summer, October of 2013 produced the highest monthly death toll in five years, and Anbar Province’s main cities of Ramadi and Fallujah are once again in danger of being overrun by al Qaeda.[IX]

As mentioned, an obvious explanation for the resurgence could be the absence of the U.S. military. However al Qaeda’s initial ascendance in Iraq came to pass during the deployment of over 100,000 coalition troops.[X] Therefore, some additional factors must account for their past and current success. Two of the strongest explanatory variables appear to be the rebirth of sectarian conflict, and the ongoing civil war in Syria.

Iraq’s religious fractionalization has proven to be one of al Qaeda’s most valuable assets. While Iraq’s Sunni community harbors no particular affinity for jihadism, they have repeatedly resorted to collaboration with extremists in the face of Shiite aggression. AQI’s original penetration of the Sunni populace coincided with the latter’s disenfranchisement amidst Shiite domination of national governance as well as the rise of the Jaysh al Mahdi and escalating sectarian warfare. Under such circumstances, collusion with the jihadists made tactical sense.[XI] However, the alliance quickly unraveled once Sunni vulnerabilities were addressed by the U.S. and the Iraqi government. The Americans’ introduction of counterinsurgency procedures offered Sunni citizens genuine protection as well as an alternative to al Qaeda, which, in turn, facilitated the Awakening movement.[XII] Additional developments including, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s suppression of the Madhi Army in 2008, and the success of the heavily-Sunni Iraqiya party in the 2010 elections further undermined al Qaeda’s position with the Sunnis.[XIII] Regrettably, much this progress was undone following the withdrawal, which laid the groundwork for AQI’s reentry.

Rather than manage balanced representation among Iraq’s religious sects, Maliki sought to marginalize Iraqiya and consolidate his own power. As the Americans vacated the country, the Prime Minister tightened his grip on the security services and subjected political opponents to intimidation and arrests, typically upon allegations of terrorism. Iraqiya member, and Vice President, Tareq al Hashemi fled to Turkey upon his indictment for murder the very day after coalition troops completed their extrication.[XIV] This political deterioration prompted Sunni protests, which Maliki imprudently subdued. A raid by federal forces on a camp of Sunni demonstrators in the town of Hawija killed 44 in April 2013.[XV] Meanwhile, crimes attributed to Shiite militias continue to go uninvestigated intensifying sectarian outrage and creating conditions similar to those that fueled AQI’s earlier advances.[XVI]

Al Qaeda has apparently recognized the opening to reestablish itself as evidenced by their attempts to capitalize on, and exacerbate, fractionalization following the Hawija crackdown. Among the jihadist’s newfound strongholds is the northern city of Mosul, where according to journalist Harith Hassan: “Al Qaeda has benefited from the growing sectarian tension and has adopted tactics to help it gain the trust of Mosul’s Sunni inhabitants…,” by “marketing itself as revenge against the mistreatment of Sunnis by the Shiite government.”[XVII] In addition to exploiting the latest strife, al Qaeda has endeavored to inflame it as well. Much of their recent activity has been directed at Shiite citizens with the aim of provoking retaliation against Sunnis thereby reinforcing the need for al AQI’s assistance. Unfortunately, it seems to have worked. Speaking on behalf of Hezbollah in Iraq, Secretary General Wathiq al-Battat announced the formation of the Muhktar Army in July in order to “avenge al Qaeda, takfiri groups, Baathists… and whoever sheds Shiite blood.”[XVIII] In Basra, a town traditionally known for the peaceful coexistence of religious factions, Sunnis are being forcefully displaced by Shiite militias in what resembles a campaign of ethnic cleansing.[XIX] If AQI’s progress it is to be curtailed, factionalism of this kind must be mitigated as it is undoubtedly one of their key advantages.

The other obvious variable abetting al Qaeda’s return is the ongoing civil war in Syria. Iraq’s embattled neighbor provides AQI with both a contiguous refuge and a conduit for foreign jihadists entering Iraq. Al Baghdadi is presumed to be directing al Qaeda operations in Iraq and Syria from his base within the latter, and thousands of militants throughout the Middle East that initially flocked to Syria have since migrated to Iraq. Upon the U.S. withdrawal, AQI’s diminished ranks only retained some 800 fighters. Current estimates now place the organization’s strength between three and five thousand men, many of which arrived from the neighboring warzone.[XX] As an Obama Administration official recounted to the New York Times, “They (AQI) are flush with jihadi recruits, which are coming into Syria, and we think they are sending a number of them into Iraq.”[XXI] Baghdadi’s operation is also receiving support from several Syrian jihadist groups. Omar al Shishani, the emir of Jaysh al Muhajirin wa al-Ansar, has sworn allegiance to Baghdadi, and the al-Nusra front in Syria has been characterized by the U.S. Department of State as little more than an alias for AQI.[XXII] Al-Nusra’s five to seven-thousand-man contingent is active in eleven of Syria’s fourteen provinces and is among the most effective rebel groups resisting Bashar al-Assad’s regime.[XXIII] Although al-Nusra’s commander, Abu Mohammed al-Julani, resisted Baghdadi’s attempt at a formal alliance, thousands of al-Nusra fighters have reportedly joined forces with AQI.[XXIV] From the jihadists’ perspective, the turmoil in Syria surely presents as beneficial of a development as the domestic unrest in Iraq.

Having identified a few of the factors underpinning al Qaeda’s resurrection in Iraq, some general conclusions can be drawn about how to contain it. Based on the variables identified above, Iraq clearly cannot afford to neglect the welfare of its Sunni residents or permit their marginalization in the political process. Doing so will only bolster al Qaeda’s image as their defender. In terms of Syria, an optimal end goal is one that sees a cessation of violence and the emergence of an inclusive government capable of stemming the flow of fighters into Iraq. The U.S. and the international community have a limited capacity to influence such outcomes, but al Qaeda’s revival has obvious, negative implications for the region and beyond, and needs to be addressed.[XXV]

Photo creditREUTERS/Yaser Al-Khodor


[I] Sinan Salaheddin, “In Iraq, Sunni Attacks Spark Shiite Call to Arms,” Associated Press, 31 Oct., 2013.

[II] The Levant region encompasses Syria and Lebanon and the rebranding of the organization reflects their expansion into Syria. In English the group is often abbreviated ISIS, for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. For simplicity sake they are referred to here as AQI.

[III] Suhaib Anjarni, “The Evolusion of ISIS,” As-Safir, 1 Nov., 2013.

[IV] The CPA’s decision to disband the Iraqi army and purge state services of all Baath party members significantly hindered the administration of post-Saddam Iraq and facilitated the country’s drift toward state failure. See: Thomas Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. (New York: Penguin Group, 2006) 158-166.

[V] Peter Devlin, “State of the Insurgency in al-Anbar MCFI/20310816,” 17 August, 2006. Anbar, Salah al Din and Diyala provinces are all predominately Sunni and proved highly vulnerable to al Qaeda incursions. Prior to the tribal Awakening, these three provinces along with Baghdad accounted for 80% of all insurgent attacks in Iraq. See: Brookings Institute, “Iraq Index: Tracking Reconstruction and Security in Post-Saddam Iraq,” (May 2006) 23.

[VI] Ibid.

[VII] Sean MacFarland and Neil Smith, “Anbar Awakens: The Tipping Point,” Military Review, (March-April 2008).

[VIII] Andrew Phillips, “How al Qaeda Lost Iraq,” Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 63, no. 1.

[IX] Michael R. Gordon, Tim Arongo, “Syrian War Fueling Attacks by al Qaeda in Iraq, Officials Say,” New York Times, 15 August, 2013. Reports of al Qaeda’s attempted takeover of Ramadi and Fallujah surfaced in early January 2014. The Iraqi government has since launched an offensive to dislodge the militants from Anbar province. See: Ali Mamouri, “Iraq’s Future Uncertain as Anbar Escalates,” Al Monitor, 8 January, 2014.

[X] Thomas Ricks, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, (New York: Penguin Group 2009) 47-48.

[XI] Fred Kagan, “Al Qaeda in Iraq—How to Understand It,” The Weekly Standard, vol. 12, no. 48 (Sept. 2007).

[XII] Dick Couch, The Sheriff of Ramadi. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010) 83-187.

[XIII] Emma Sky, “Iraq, From Surge to Sovereignty,” Foreign Affairs, (March-April 2011).

[XIV]“ Iraq Sentences Vice-President to Death,” Al Jazeera, 12 Sept., 2012.

[XV] Jason Ditz, “Iraq Sectarian Anger Soars After Bloody Crackdown on Hawija Protest,” antiwar.com, 23 April, 2013.

[XVI] Several locales in which Sunnis are being increasingly victimized remain largely devoid of federal security forces. See: Nidal al-Leithy, “Southern Iraq Swept by Sectarian Displacement,” Azzamm, 16 Sept., 2013. See also: “Al Qaeda Threat Rattles Iraq’s Volatile Anbar Province,” RUDAW, 24 Oct., 2013.

[XVII] Harith Hassan, “Al Qaeda Sinks Roots into Mosul,” Al Monitor, 24 Oct., 2013.

[XVIII] Mushreq Abbas, “Leader of Hezbollah in Iraq Threatens More Sectarian Violence,” Al Monitor, 21 July, 2013.

[XIX] Nidal al-Leithy, “Southern Iraq Swept by Sectarian Displacement,” Azzamm, 16 Sept., 2013.

[XX] “Syria Crisis: Guide to Armed and Political Opposition,” BBC, 17 Oct., 2013.

[XXI] “Gordon & Arango, “Syrian War Fueling Attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq, Officials Say.”

[XXII] Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Nusra Front Emerge as Rebranded, Single Entity,” The Long War Journal, 9 April, 2013.

[XXIII] “Syria Crisis: Guide to Armed and Political Opposition.”

[XXIV] Suhaib Anjarni, “The Evolution of ISIS.”

[XXV] Some actions available include the provision of security assistance to the Iraqi government, which Nouri al-Maliki has requested. However, caution should be exercised so that military supplies are not simply utilized by the administration to further repress domestic opposition. Concerns of this nature led the U.S. to resist Maliki’s request for Apache Helicopters in favor of drones and hellfire missiles. The U.S. and international community could also serve in a monitoring capacity for Iraq’s 2014 elections to encourage broader participation of minority sects.

About Author

Eric M. Tope

Eric M. Tope is contributor at the International Security Observer. Eric holds a B.A. in History and an M.A. in Political Science with a focus on International Relations from Arizona State University, where he completed his master’s thesis, “Collective Action in Counterinsurgency”. He primarily writes on Middle Eastern security affairs including: terrorism, counterinsurgency and American foreign policy in the region. His work has also appeared in Counterterrorist Trends, Analysis and Foreign Policy Journal, Small Wars Journal and Think South Asia. Eric is a native English speaker, but is conversational in Spanish and Classical Arabic.

2 Comments

  1. Eric,

    I just hope this war will end. I noticed its not getting slow its getting worst….
    Anyway I wondered if the war will stop the economy will rise up again in Iraq? Or Do you think there will be positive feedback regarding the news of dinar rv?

    Luke Holl

  2. from an article written by the commentator:

    [The U.S.] By forcing a type of democracy that has not evolved from the culture of the region, a weak government has arisen that may force it rely as a Neo-Colonialist State if it can remain as a unified or to devolve politically along its ethnic boundaries.

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