Al Qaeda: Rockin’ the Levant like it’s 2006


After the Assad regime unleashed chemical weapons on civilians last week, the world’s attention is understandably fixed on Syria.  But just across the border in Iraq, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is back in the headlines, as a wave of violence cascades across Baghdad, Mosul, and elsewhere weeks after a cunningly executed, jail break at Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison.  The Iraqi government has turned back to the U.S. for help, seeking more intelligence cooperation and military equipment – including drones – to fight AQI.  But the dramatic headlines about al-Qaeda’s resurrection in Iraq are literally years too late. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, now calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), was never close to destroyed, despite the triumphal statements from U.S. officials and the U.S. media’s willing lack of focus on Iraq since the U.S. military withdrawal. And now, the Syrian civil war cannot be disaggregated from Iraq’s ongoing fight against Sunni militants.  As the United States mulls military options against Syria, it might find itself tangling with AQI again.

There is a tarnished silver lining to AQI’s renewed strength: the stronger it grows the more likely it will return to its traditional pattern of evils and alienate its newfound supporters. The atrocities committed by AQI that led to the backlash against it were not just a product of radical ideology; poor discipline in an organization was critical as well. The organization could not rein in its most aggressive members even when leadership had recognized, and was trying to rectify, the negative impact wanton murder was having on the group’s ability to maintain a broad coalition, which was necessary for strategic success.

Indeed, both the ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN), a Syria-based AQI affiliate, will face discipline problems as they grow (and are bolstered by various prison escapees). Sub-elements of both groups, empowered by a violent and exclusivist ideology, will favor ideological purity over political accommodation with potential partners, atrocities will be committed, and would-be allies will become enemies. JN and ISIL will be tremendously disruptive in Iraq and the Levant, but, like other jihadi organizations, they are more likely to serve as terribly destructive spoilers than to achieve their strategic goals.

Since its founding in October 2004, AQI has been the largest and most capable franchise of al-Qaeda, though it has not posed the same threat to the U.S. homeland as Al-Qaeda Central or Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Even after the operational defeats that led to reports of its strategic demise in 2007 and 2008, AQI had nearly 1000 members and launched attacks that killed hundreds of people every month.

The 2007 tribal uprising against AQI, known as The Awakening, undoubtedly damaged and constrained the group, but those defeats were not nearly as decisive as conventional wisdom holds. Rather than destroy AQI, pressure from U.S., Iraqi, and tribal forces pushed the group from Iraq’s Sunni heartland north to the contested northern city of Mosul, which was never pacified (nor covered by American media) like other areas of Iraq.

AQI’s operational model also changed in response to those setbacks. It reduced its numbers, stopped trying to control territory, increasingly relied on secretive, larger attacks rather than behaving as an open militia patrolling streets, and softened its approach toward Sunni leaders. From an American perspective, these shifts, which dramatically reduced the threat AQI posed to U.S. troops, looked like success, especially relative to AQI’s strength in 2006 and early 2007. Unfortunately, that standard was extremely low, and underestimated the disruptive role that AQI could continue to play in the Middle East.

AQI’s newly-reported resurrection actually happened in 2009 and 2010, before the Abu Ghraib prison break last week and before the Syrian civil war began and before the U.S. military completed its withdrawal from the country. The signs were there in the August 2009 attacks against the Iraqi Ministry of Finance that killed 95 people and in the dramatic upswing in attacks in Baghdad in late 2010, which represented AQI’s return to the Iraqi heartland from relative exile in Mosul.

One way to measure the dynamism of AQI’s operational model is through the tactics used in its numerous prison breaks. Take, for example, the March 2007 attack by dozens of al-Qaeda members at the Badoush prison in northern Iraq. The frontal assault freed up to 140 prisoners. Three years later, using stolen police uniforms, AQI freed 23 prisoners by burrowing under a wall at Mosul’s Ghazlani prison. The shift from frontal confrontation to covert infiltration reflected systemic operational shifts that in turn were driven by AQI’s increased isolation from the Sunni population in Iraq.

The recent Abu Ghraib attack turns those shifts on their head. Not only has AQI returned to larger-scale assaults, but they did so at Abu Ghraib—far from the relative safety of northern Iraq where AQI was able to operate in a largely covert mode during its weakest moments. The large-scale attack in Iraq’s heart suggests that AQI’s relationship with Iraq’s Sunni population has been resurrected from the immediate post-Awakening period.

But operational success often sows the seeds of strategic trouble for jihadi groups. Al-Qaeda’s ideological combination of takfirism and decentralized decision-making makes running a coherent organization at scale very difficult. Ideological purity is useful in a small, tight organization, but it becomes a burden for a group trying to impose political control over a wide area. Sure, the pre-9/11 al-Qaeda was a tight, bureaucratic organization, but it was also only a couple hundred people mostly concentrated in a couple of camps along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

AQI’s recent successes in Iraq and Syria, including prison breaks that will swell their ranks, will initiate a negative feedback mechanism. That is already clear in the conflict between JN and ISIL, two al-Qaeda affiliates that serve as the most dangerous of frenemies. It is clear in the combat between the ISIL and Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Al-Qaeda’s enterprise in the Levant will not scale without massive internal turmoil.

Unfortunately, however, the context of that fight favors al-Qaeda more today than it did in 2006 and 2007, the last time that an al-Qaeda affiliate was able to project power on the scale that ISIL and JN can today. First, the forces arrayed against them are not nearly as functional as U.S. troops. Second, the ISIL and JN maintain the operational and tactical offensive, unlike in 2006/2007 when U.S. Special Operations Forces harassed them incessantly. Third, training seems to be better, which is evidenced by less reliance on suicide attacks. Fourth, increased sectarianism in the region, but especially in Iraq and Syria, reduces the incentives for other Sunni groups to turn on al-Qaeda. Fifth, both ISIL and JN seem to be getting much more international support, including from U.S. allies, than previous jihadi endeavors.

AQI has not resolved the disciplinary weaknesses and ideological extremism that contributed to its setbacks in Iraq 5 years ago, but those weaknesses are unlikely to undermine the group so substantially in the near future. AQI, as represented in all of its affiliates, remains more internally discordant than the scope of its violence might suggest. But that institutional weakness is less important today because in Iraq and Syria, other institutions are failing even faster.

That means that the United States is not well positioned to strangle a resurgent AQI.  Ordinarily, a counterterrorism effort would aim to constrain foreign support, put JN and ISIL on the defensive to preclude strong training, encourage internal discord by disrupting communications, and sponsor a militant backlash by offering protection, weapons, and money. Though the U.S. can implement policies in the pursuit of these strategic aims, they are unlikely to be successful without putting troops back on the ground in the Middle East and overtly confronting the range of countries supporting Syrian rebels with insufficient regard to jihadi elements in their midst.

AQI has tried to learn the lessons of its missteps five years ago, but it has not shown that it can institutionalize those lessons. Unfortunately, that probably will not matter. AQI, once written off, and then too long ignored, is back.


Brian Fishman is a War on the Rocks Contributor and a Fellow at the New America Foundation. 


Photo credit: s1lang, Flickr