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Al-Qaeda in Iraq: Resurging or Splintering?

Author: Lionel Beehner
Updated: July 16, 2007

Introduction

Large-scale suicide attacks in Iraq are up in recent months, demonstrating that al-Qaeda in Iraq and its homegrown affiliates remain a potent force even as U.S. troops surge into central Iraq. News reports also suggest these groups have altered their tactics to include multi-bomb attacks and the use of chlorine-laden explosives. The escalation of al-Qaeda-led violence in Iraq comes amid reports that high-ranking U.S. officials negotiated directly with insurgent groups such as the Islamic Army of Iraq and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, both closely aligned with al-Qaeda. There are also indicators that by targeting Sunni civilians, al-Qaeda has created a backlash among local tribes and sparked political infighting. In Anbar, long a Sunni insurgent stronghold, local tribal leaders have recently banded together to assist U.S. forces and push out al-Qaeda’s presence in the province.

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What is the primary aim of al-Qaeda in Iraq?

According to a laptop seized by U.S. forces from a senior al-Qaeda operative in December 2006, the group’s primary mission remains sowing sectarian violence in Iraq. It aims to topple the Shiite-led government in Iraq by attacking Shiites, particularly those who have collaborated with the United States, whether they are civilians, army soldiers, or police officers, primarily in and around Baghdad. Al-Qaeda was responsible for the February 2006 attack against the Golden Mosque in Samarra, a sacred shrine for Shiites, which analysts say set off the latest wave of sectarian violence. Some of the more radical members of al-Qaeda favor the installment of a caliphate—or Islamic government—in Iraq. Short of that, they seek a safe haven from which al-Qaeda can recruit and train terrorists, according to information gleaned from jihadi websites going back to 2003.

How has the group evolved in recent years?

Al-Qaeda in Iraq has changed in several ways:

  • It has become more Iraqified. Although its nominal head is Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian, most of the organization’s fighters are Iraqis. “Al-Qaeda seems to get much of the younger [Iraqi] crowd and bring them in,” says Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director at the International Crisis Group. But about 90 percent of the suicide bombers in Iraq are foreigners, estimates David Satterfield, a top adviser on Iraq to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. According to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, most hail from Algeria, Yemen, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, though its numbers on recruits are dated (the most recent stats are from 2005). These fighters still stream into Iraq mainly from Syria, Satterfield says.
  • It has shifted its operations eastward. Because of a growing backlash from tribal sheikhs in Anbar province, and the surge of U.S. forces there and around Baghdad, experts say al-Qaeda has moved its center of gravity to Diyala province, northeast of the capital. Late last year, the province’s capital, Baqubah, reportedly came under al-Qaeda’s control.
  • Its tactics have grown more sophisticated. Jihadis are increasingly using weapons like chlorine-laden bombs, employing snipers, and targeting U.S. helicopters. But car bombs remain the group’s primary weapon of choice—the average number of car bombs jumped last year from seventy-one (January 2006 to April 2006) to eighty per month (May 2006 to September 2006), according to Brookings’ Iraq Index.
Is al-Qaeda in Iraq a united bloc?

Far from it, experts say. The organization remains highly decentralized and localized—a tangled web of tribal fronts, many with different means and ends. “Some experts described it as a rather loose organization that could be characterized more as school of thought than a defined group,” wrote Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in a September 2006 report. Recent press accounts suggest growing political divisions emerging between al-Qaeda and local Sunni tribes, particularly in places like Ramadi, over the targeting of Sunni civilians. “They hope that if they murder random groups of women and children, the tribes will fall back in line,” write Bing West and Owen West in the Wall Street Journal. “These tactics have locked AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] in a fight to the death against the tribal leaders. It reflects an enemy who has lost popular support for his jihad, clinging to fear alone.” This local backlash is what prompted Sunnis to disclose the whereabouts of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born former leader of the organization, who was killed last June by a U.S. air strike north of Baghdad.

What effect did Zarqawi’s death have on the movement?

Opinions vary. Some experts say with Zarqawi gone, al-Qaeda in Iraq has grown more disorganized. “It doesn’t have that distinct command-and-control structure it used to,” says Brian Fishman, senior associate at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. “Once you take away that figurehead, no one has been able to come in and wrangle all the pieces together.” There have also been reported fissures developing within al-Qaeda’s various strands. “But that is not to say al-Qaeda is on the run,” says Fishman. If anything, some terrorism analysts say the movement, while increasingly fragmented, has gained strength since last summer. Case in point: Suicide bombings by al-Qaeda militants in late March in Baghdad, Tal Afar, and Khalis left more than three hundred Iraqis killed and over six hundred wounded. At the end of the day, argues Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service, Zarqawi’s absence does not “affect the social base of the insurgency, which is that Sunnis feel humiliated.”

What are the movement’s main offshoots?

Al-Qaeda in Iraq is a decentralized movement with various cells, some of which work together and others which operate more independently. Among its main affiliates:

  • Islamic Army of Iraq. This Sunni-led group numbers around fifteen thousand members and, according to the Washington Post, carries out about three-quarters of its attacks against U.S. forces and foreign contractors. Its most recent operation was a March 27 rocket attack against the U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone. According to Ahmed Hashim of Harvard University, the group largely comprises Iraqi Salafists who admire Osama bin Laden but also includes former Baathists and Iraqi military officers. Their cells “are very compartmentalized and have a meticulous division of labor, with distinct cells for kidnapping, interrogation, guard duty, and executions,” Hashim writes in his book Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq. Recently the group has distanced itself from al-Qaeda because of its bombings against Sunni civilians and even collaborated with American forces in Anbar province.
  • 1920 Revolution Brigades. A Sunni extremist group, named for the post-World War I uprising against Britain’s colonial occupation in Iraq, its mission is to drive out U.S. forces and install an Islamic state. The Brigades, whose tactics mainly include roadside explosives as well as mortar-and-rocket attacks in the region west of Baghdad, have claimed responsibility for several high-profile attacks, including the October 2005 bombing of the al-Arabiya television headquarters. Recent reports suggest the group has split; half its members have renamed themselves Hamas Iraq and taken on a more nationalist character. They favor building a stronger political relationship with the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, an opposition Sunni group of religious elders and scholars. “The shakeout in the insurgency is a dispute over whether or not some of these groups want to be associated with the hardcore Zarqawi-ites but also with al-Qaeda’s global goals and occasionally exclusionist behavior,” says Fishman. Some members of the 1920 Revolution Brigades have aligned with U.S. forces against al-Qaeda in Diyala province.
  • Islamic State of Iraq. A relative newcomer to the insurgency club, the Islamic State of Iraq is an umbrella group formed in 2006 that comprises a number of Sunni insurgent outfits, including the Mujahadeen Shura Council (itself an umbrella organization that some terrorism experts suspect is a front, and operates mainly in Anbar Province. Its leader is the elusive Abu Hamza al-Baghdadi, a Sunni Iraqi whose reported arrest in March turned out to be untrue. An influential sheikh in Kuwait, Hamid al-Ali, recently questioned the validity of Baghdadi’s leadership, calling into question the ties of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq's to the Islamic Army of Iraq, writes Nibras Kazimi, a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute, in his blog Talismangate.
Where does al-Qaeda get its funding?

Most of the group’s funding for arms and training comes from sources and supporters in the region, including Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. It also gets financial support from Tehran (despite the fact that al-Qaeda is a Sunni organization), according to documents confiscated last December from Iranian Revolutionary Guards operatives in northern Iraq. But the bulk of al-Qaeda’s financing, says Fishman, comes from internal sources like smuggling and crime. As Bing West and Owen West write in the Wall Street Journal, al-Qaeda operatives shake down truck drivers and divert gasoline shipments to Jordan and Syria, which net them ten thousand dollars per shipment.

If Iraqi support for al-Qaeda is waning, why is it still able to carry out attacks?

“They have all the money,” says Hiltermann. Perhaps more important, however, al-Qaeda and its affiliates rely on intimidation to enforce allegiance among locals, not to mention compliance to their strict Islamic codes. For example, after briefly holding Fallujah in 2004, al-Qaeda militants reportedly whipped insubordinate youngsters, beat women who wore lipstick, and carried out beheadings against “collaborators” (i.e. truck drivers or shop owners). Or more recently, after an imam of a mosque in Habbaniyah, a town in central Iraq, criticized al-Qaeda in his Friday sermon in February 2006, a truck bomb exploded and killed over fifty Iraqis.

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