As al-Qaeda grows more diffuse, its franchise operations in places like Iraq appear to be gaining in strength and numbers. Across the country, suicide attacks against civilians are up in recent months, according to a March study by the Gulf Research Center, a Middle East policy institute. The latest attacks, many of which were carried out by al-Qaeda’s foreign fighters, have been timed to undermine the U.S.-led surge of additional forces (AP) into central Iraq. The organization is also increasingly carrying out attacks using multiple bombs, the report finds. And groups linked to al-Qaeda like Islamic State of Iraq have kidnapped nearly twenty government employees (al-Jazeera) near Baghdad, undeterred by the U.S. troop presence in the capital. Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s ranks may have swelled to as many as 60,000 fighters, according to a January 2007 Center for Strategic and International Studies report. Frustratingly for U.S.-led stabilization efforts, al-Qaeda in Iraq appears to be both more fragmented and more effective, as this new Backgrounder points out.
Another disturbing trend: the growing use of chlorine-laden bombs (Counterterrorismblog.org). In late March, Iraqi police intercepted a truck shuttling five thousand gallons of chlorine and two tons of explosives headed for Ramadi. But on April 6, Ramadi fell victim to a massive chlorine truck explosion (AP) that killed nearly 30 people. As Army Major General Michael D. Barbero points out, these are the first poison gas attacks (U.S. Army News) on the Iraqi people since Saddam Hussein.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq faces opponents other than just U.S.-led forces. Zeyad Kasim, a U.S.-based Iraqi blogger, writes that a handful of local armed Sunni groups in Iraq may be severing their ties with al-Qaeda in Iraq, as Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi reportedly holds secret talks with insurgency leaders. There are also reports of locals and tribal leaders of Anbar Province feuding with foreign members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, as Sunni-versus-Sunni violence (MEMRI) continues to escalate.
Of course, rumors of al-Qaeda’s demise have been grossly exaggerated before. Indeed, its tensions with Sunni groups are nothing new and stretch back to December 2005, when al-Qaeda leaders threatened Sunnis against voting in parliamentary elections. Then again, after last summer’s death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, reports surfaced of the organization’s eventual downfall, as this Backgrounder notes. Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, has kept a lower profile. Yet all the while he has proven effective at encouraging not just sectarian violence, but also Sunni-versus-Sunni violence. “Al-Qaeda is attempting to destroy any resistance in the Sunni community to the Islamic State of Iraq,” writes Bill Roggio in the Weekly Standard.