Al-Qaeda in Iraq Resurgent
Al-Qaeda in Iraq is resurgent. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) reached its apex of territorial control and destructive capability in late 2006 and early 2007, before the Surge and the Awakening removed the organization from its safe havens in and around Baghdad.1 Subsequent operations pursued AQI northward through Diyala, Salah ad-Din, and Mosul, degrading the organization over the course of 2007-2008 such that only a fraction of its leaders, functional cells, and terroristic capabilities remained and were concentrated in Mosul.2 As of August 2013, AQI has regrouped, regained capabilities, and expanded into areas from which it was expelled during the Surge.
AQI in 2013 is an extremely vigorous, resilient, and capable organization that can operate from Basra to coastal Syria. This paper traces AQI’s revival in Iraq since July 2012, when the organization launched a year-long operation they named the “Breaking the Walls” campaign. This campaign consisted of a series of 24 major vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks and eight prison breaks that demonstrate the evolution of AQI’s military capability over that time (See Part 2 of this report, which describes these attacks in detail). VBIEDs had been the signature attack type of AQI from 2006-2008.3 Since May 2013, AQI has consistently exceeded the number of VBIED attacks per month that it conducted in June 2007, while sustaining operations in Syria as well.
The “Breaking the Walls” campaign ended on July 21, 2013, when al-Qaeda in Iraq successfully breached the prison at Abu Ghraib, leading to the escape of 500 or more prisoners,4 the majority of whom were detained during the Iraq War for terrorist activities.5 The United States has reacted by reaffirming the $10 million bounty placed on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of AQI, whom officials said was based in Syria in August 2013.6 Targeting AQI’s leader, however, will not be effective in halting the organization’s growth. AQI is no longer a small cadre based around a single leader, but rather an effective reconstituted military organization operating in Iraq and Syria.
The United States has also agreed to provide counter-terrorism support to the government of Iraq. As a senior State Department official said, the United States wants Iraq to “have the information to be able to map the network, to get at its financing, and to be very precise in its targeting, because Iraqi forces are under threat and they’re liable to make mistakes such as going at the threat in a symmetrical way, rounding up too many people, targeting the wrong person, which makes the whole problem worse.”7 Yet the AQI network has grown robust over the past fourteen months, and mapping the network and its finances may not suffice to halt its expansion.
A senior U.S. administration official noted the unexpected growth of AQI’s suicide bombing campaign. Briefing on August 15, 2013, he stated that “Over the last two years, we’ve had an average of about 5 to 10 suicide bombers a month, in 2011 and 2012.... We’ve seen over the last 90 days the suicide bomber numbers approach about 30 a month, and we still suspect most of those are coming in from Syria.”8
AQI’s path to war was not abrupt, however. Violence began to escalate in June 2012 just before the start of the “Breaking the Walls” campaign. Casualty levels in Iraq have risen significantly over 2012-2013, caused primarily by AQI’s VBIED attacks. The overall violence level in Iraq in July 2013 was commensurate with wartime levels last observed in Iraq in April 2008. Total monthly fatalities at the end of July 2013 exceeded 1,000 for the first time since that date, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission – Iraq (UNAMI).9
AQI has been able to grow not only because of its safe-havens and recruiting grounds in Syria, but also because it has replenished its veteran manpower through prison breaks inside of Iraq. The “Breaking the Walls” campaign involved a total of eight complex attacks upon Iraqi prisons, two of which successfully freed hard-core veterans who had likely participated in AQI’s signature VBIED network during the period 2006-2007.10 This study will focus upon AQI’s use of VBIEDs throughout the “Breaking the Walls” campaign as the principal indicator of AQI’s growing organizational and operational capacity inside Iraq, even if suicide bombers flow into the country from Syria.
A study of the success of the “Breaking the Walls” campaign elucidates the renewed capability of AQI’s military organization. VBIEDs require an extensive planning and logistical structure, and the VBIED waves witnessed in 2012-2013 showcase the development of a force-level planning effort within AQI’s military organization to orchestrate simultaneous attacks involving many cells. It is critical to estimate AQI’s combat power in order to assess the level of threat AQI represents to the Iraqi state and further to U.S. interests.
The “Breaking the Walls” campaign supported AQI’s expressed operational objectives to retake territory that it had formerly controlled and to establish governance in parts of Iraq and Syria. VBIEDs enhanced AQI’s overall operations by overwhelming Iraqi Security Forces and degrading popular confidence in their ability to protect the population. AQI accomplished its 2012-2013 goals sufficiently and announced a new 2013-2014 campaign named “The Soldiers’ Harvest,” on July 30, 2013.11
Iraq Security Forces (ISF) and Shi‘a militant groups have mobilized in response to AQI’s attacks.12 ISF has also mobilized on several occasions to address the predominantly Arab Sunni anti-government protest movement that has been active since December 2012.13 The ISF launched new operations into western Anbar, northern Diyala, and other provinces in May 2013 in pursuit of AQI. This operation, as well as the ISF’s “Revenge of the Martyrs” campaign in August 2013, may widen the gap between the Maliki government and Iraqi Sunni Arabs.14 The “Revenge of the Martyrs” campaign in particular also resulted in mass arrests.
The addition of alternate security measures in Baghdad, including the deployment of plain-clothed intelligence personnel and increased security patrols, likewise runs the risk of being counter-productive for Iraq’s security, should marginal security gains in Baghdad come at the price of insurgency outside the capital. These operations, furthermore, have limited potential to counter AQI because the ISF is not effectively pursuing the organization throughout its depth inside Iraq. For example, AQI in August 2013 projected VBIED operations from the southern Baghdad belts as effectively as from the northern belts, but only the former are contested by ISF.
The threat of insurgency has also increased because of the growing regional sectarian dynamic emanating from Syria; the longstanding political and economic grievances of Iraqi Sunni Arabs; the instances of violent confrontation between ISF and protesters in 2013; and the mobilization of Shi‘a militias. These conditions have provided AQI with ample opportunity to exploit a principal vulnerability of the Maliki government, namely the perceived exclusion of the Sunni from the political process. Even though most Iraqi Sunni Arabs still vehemently reject AQI, the terrorist organization may be able to drive a wedge between the population and the state. They will succeed if they are able to counter Maliki’s majoritarian political strategy by producing new cleavages in the national government ahead of elections in 2014 and shatter popular confidence in the ISF, upon which Maliki has relied for his strong-man image since the Basra campaign in 2008.
General Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. Forces-Iraq described AQI’s goals in June 2010, when its capabilities were minimal. He noted, “al-Qaeda in Iraq… hasn’t changed. They want complete failure of the government in Iraq. They want to establish a caliphate in Iraq.”15 He continued, “Now, that’s a tall task for them now, as compared to maybe it was in 2005 or ‘06. But they still sustain that thought process. And it has nothing to do with the United States. You know, they continue to look around the world for safe havens and sanctuaries. And what they look for is ungoverned territories. And so what they want… is to form an ungoverned territory or at least pieces of ungoverned territory, inside of Iraq, that they can take advantage of.”16
Control of territory in Iraq remains one of AQI’s goals in 2013, but AQI also seeks to govern in Syria as well.17 AQI declared itself the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in April 2013, an expansion of its historical political identity now to include Syria. At a teaching tent in Aleppo, Syria during its Ramadan fair, ISIS displayed a map of its emirate with no border between Iraq and Syria as part of a wider al-Qaeda caliphate stretching from North Africa to the eastern frontier adjoining Iran.18
AQI has been instrumental in the Syrian conflict. By studying known instances of SVBIED attacks in Syria, one sees AQI has operated there alongside the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra since at least December 2011.19 AQI had initially supported Jabhat al-Nusra by reversing the flow of fighters and resources that once streamed into Iraq from Syria.20
The growth of the two franchises created competition. AQI declared in April 2013 that Jabhat al-Nusra was subordinate to the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham. Jabhat al-Nusra rejected AQI’s leadership, declaring fealty to al-Qaeda core directly.21 Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri directed that the two affiliates operate in their separate geographic zones and put both organizations on probation as franchises.22 Al-Baghdadi at first flatly rejected this instruction and reinforced his single-organization vision. Since June 2013,23 the two organizations have apparently overcome their differences and often choose to cooperate tactically inside Syria. AQI’s military, governance, and social investment in Syria has increased since this time, most recently through a combined arms attack upon Minnakh airbase north of Aleppo,24 through an offensive in northern Latakia,25 and the sponsorship of a Ramadan social outreach program in Aleppo in August 2013.26
AQI also drastically increased VBIED attacks in Iraq in 2013. As of August 2013, AQI’s new operation, “the Soldiers’ Harvest,” has increased the frequency and volume of VBIED waves and also incorporated spectacular attacks upon critical infrastructure, such as the Um Qasr port at Basra.27 AQI will also likely continue to target hardened ISF facilities with complex attacks involving VBIEDs now that it has tested its greatest complex operational ability. AQI’s success in Iraq at the expense of the ISF will add relative strength to the organization in Syria. AQI would then prosper in a deteriorating security environment that transcends state boundaries.28