Al-Qaeda’s Offensive Against Iraq’s Sahwa


Though it was largely considered a spent force at the time the U.S. withdrew from Iraq, al-Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) rebound is by now undeniable. This year has seen a proliferation of extremely bloody attacks that killed dozens of Iraqis at a time—often 100 or more in a single day—which has helped to make this Iraq’s most deadly year since 2008. As it regains strength, AQI is mounting an escalating campaign against a force that played an important role in marginalizing al-Qaeda in the 2007-2011 period: the Sahwa (Awakening).

The Sahwa was born in Anbar province, where an estimate by Colonel Peter Devlin found that AQI had become the “dominant organization of influence” by 2006. The reign of intimidation, torture, and killings that AQI imposed upon the population prompted local Sunni tribes to rebel against it. After some nascent attempts at an anti-AQI uprising in 2005—which resulted in the slaughter or pursuit of the sheikhs at the forefront of this movement—a number of Anbari sheikhs publicly announced their plan to fight al-Qaeda on September 9, 2006, and for the first time used the name “Sahwa.”

The Sahwa sheikhs and their men, who were willing to work with American forces, made a significant difference on the ground in Anbar, prompting the U.S. to expand the program beyond that province. At its height, more than a hundred thousand predominantly Sunni Iraqis took part in this program throughout Iraq. In September 2007 Senate testimony, General David Petraeus described Anbar as “a model of what happens when local leaders and citizens decide to oppose al-Qaeda and reject its Taliban-like ideology.”

But now Sahwa members find themselves cut off by their former ally, the United States, and hunted by AQI.

Though AQI has been targeting Sahwa members for years, its campaign has escalated in recent months. By our count, since the beginning of July, AQI’s attacks on the Sahwa have left at least 54 dead, including prominent leaders, with the bulk of the carnage inflicted in September.

July saw at least four attacks on Sahwa members. Assassinations were carried out on two separate days, one of which saw a large number of Sahwa fighters targeted and killed. On July 1, gunmen wearing military uniforms stormed the homes of eight former Sahwa fighters just before dawn in Mishahada, about 18 miles north of Baghdad. The gunmen shot all eight men execution-style, in the head and chest. On July 22, gunmen shot and killed a Sahwa member, along with one of his relatives, near the city of Baquba.

Sahwa members were also hit by bomb attacks in July. On July 13, a roadside bomb wounded two Sahwa fighters when it blasted apart their vehicle near the town of Hibhib, which is northeast of Baghdad. A week later, a car bomb claimed the lives of four other Sahwa members, including a local leader, in the al-Madain area southwest of Baghdad.

The violence continued in August. The month began with two separate attacks on Sahwa members. Gunmen ambushed and killed a Sahwa fighter and his brother in Samarra on August 1; later the same day, a raid against a Sahwa-run checkpoint killed one fighter and wounded another. On August 18, machinegun-wielding gunmen mowed down a Sahwa commander and two of his nephews while he was making a family visit in Kirkuk.

But the most prominent targeted killing of a Sahwa member in August occurred the following day, when al-Qaeda gunmen assassinated Sheikh Hazem Hajem al-Jawali. As a moving profile of al-Jawali notes, he “had supervised the recruitment of hundreds of young volunteers into the Sahwa forces in southern Kirkuk,” and played a critical role in establishing Sahwa in that area in 2008. Al-Jawali’s efforts had helped to weaken al-Qaeda, and the last operation he participated in was the August 7 arrest of al-Qaeda members who had been recruiting for Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra.

Shortly before al-Jawali’s assassination, he received a phone call from a man claiming to be an al-Qaeda leader, who threatened him if he refused to resign from Sahwa. But al-Jawali refused to be intimidated. On August 19, al-Jawali’s car was cut off by gunmen while he was driving to a souq in al-Rashad. His final act was trying to use his body to shield his three-year-old niece from the hail of bullets, but both were killed.

In the same month, gunmen wounded a Sahwa leader’s son when they riddled his house with bullets in Abu Ghraib; and militants ambushed and killed six Sahwa members at a checkpoint in Latifiya, south of Baghdad, on August 28.

September has seen the greatest bloodshed inflicted upon the Sahwa in any of the last three months. There were several successful and attempted assassinations. On September 2, Wisam al-Hardan, a prominent Sahwa leader, narrowly escaped death when two suicide bombers blew themselves up near his Baghdad home. Five of his bodyguards died in the attack and four others were wounded. A day later, militants invaded the home of another Sahwa leader, Sheikh Hassan al-Khanjar, in southern Baghdad. The bodies of al-Khanjar, along with his wife and three children, were later found, shot execution-style. On September 16, Sahwa leader Kamel Hamid in al-Madaen and four other family members, including his three children, were also executed by al-Qaeda gunmen. The gunmen even murdered his youngest daughter, a two-year-old baby girl, before setting fire to his home and fleeing.

Militants also launched a series of attacks against Sahwa checkpoints in September, on September 5 (Fallujah), 8 (Tikrit), 11 (al-Taji) and 13 (al-Shura). Eleven Sahwa fighters died in these attacks, and three were wounded.

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Last year, Anbari Sahwa leader Sheikh Ahmad Abu Risha complained to the Daily Beast that he felt “betrayed” by the United States. Though he had been promised regular visits from diplomats and other senior figures, Sheikh Ahmad said, “There is no contact right now. They don’t visit at all. Ever since the United States withdrew, we haven’t gotten anyone to visit.”

The U.S.’s apparent lack of concern about the fate of former key allies will be remembered as a betrayal, with clear moral costs—and perhaps also strategic implications for the signal that it sends to others who think about allying themselves with America.


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a regular War on the Rocks contributor. Bridget Moreng, a University of Colorado at Boulder graduate, is currently interning for Mr. Gartenstein-Ross at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where her work focuses on al-Qaeda and associated movements.