(W)Archives: Is the Past Prologue for the Islamic State?

February 13, 2015

The Islamic State’s capture of large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria has reignited interest in what many had hoped was a closed chapter of U.S. military history in Iraq: the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). While AQI was defeated, it was not destroyed. In fact, as a timeline offered by the Brookings Institution suggests, the Islamic State’s emergence appears to be just another step in AQI’s regional evolution.

A challenge for the American objective of degrading and ultimately defeating IS is developing a clear understanding of how AQI failed. In addition, because the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, isn’t likely to publish a tell-all memoir any time soon, being able to see what the organization’s predecessors were learning in Iraq during AQI’s supposed demise would also help us understand IS’s growth. Finally, it would also be useful to examine what the Islamic State learned from AQI’s “defeat,” and how it is applying those lessons.

Notwithstanding its remarkable innovations in funding and information operations, the Islamic State has a lot in common with its AQI predecessors. It faces the same, if not more challenging, tasks of population control, internal and external power struggles, and security—especially from the rapid influx of unvetted foreign fighters. Unsuccessful execution of these tasks doomed past Salafist jihadist groups. Those familiar with Abu Musab al-Suri’s writings assessing failed jihads, especially in Syria, will recognize the jihadist movements’ miserable track record in moving past the recruit-fight-martyr stages of state-building.

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Students of these movements know a great deal about these problems thanks to the jihadists’ reliance on the Internet for everything from daily communication to recruiting. But there is another source of insights. Information about the tensions and challenges of al-Qaeda and its affiliates is also available in the form of high-level jihadist records captured during military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade. These records provide a rare window into the groups’ internal organizational dynamics and decision-making processes. They also enable the comparison of the public narratives about jihadist groups with their own self-perceptions in private discussions.

Such records are available through the United States Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. Another collection of them is also available at the less well-known Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) in Washington, DC. The CRRC has a digital collection that includes almost 6,000 pages of captured records from al-Qaeda’s early days in Afghanistan (pre-2003) and a growing collection of AQI records. In fact, the CRRC’s government sponsor, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, has charged the Center with focusing on growing its holdings of records that cover al-Qaeda–affiliated groups in Iraq.

Even a cursory examination of the documentary evidence available at these two venues underscores the idea that the past may be prologue for the Islamic State. One well-known example of this is a 2005 letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s then-second-in-command, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, AQI’s founder. The captured letter reveals serious disagreement within the movement over the role of violence. In this document, Zawahiri warns that, apart from some “zealous young men,” Muslims will “never find palatable…the scenes of slaughtering the hostages.”

If the Zawahiri letter indicated disapproval at the strategic level, correspondence at the operational level showed equal displeasure among the ranks of Islamist fighters. Another captured record, dated to early 2007, expressed the grievance of one allied jihadist group’s leader (likely the leader of Ansar al-Islam) with AQI’s relations with other militant groups fighting coalition forces in Iraq. Jihadist heavy-handedness was particularly noteworthy during the U.S. surge, when alienating AQI’s local allies could least be afforded. This appears to be a lesson lost on the Islamic State.

The 2007 letter’s author discussed disunity among the various groups and their causes; matters on which AQI—by then also known as the Islamic State in Iraq — has generally preferred to remain silent. He wrote, “You have been previously warned many times about the behavior of some of your affiliated members who greatly doubted our brothers and issued statements that are misleading, heretic[al], and doubting even the legitimacy of the Jihad action of those who dissent from you…” The concerned jihadist commander’s specific complaint centered on the killing of one of his fighters after his group failed to answer letters quickly enough to satisfy AQI. He warned the AQI commander, “Brothers…do not think that you are the only ones who are right; such bad thinking instills discord among Muslims, cuts all brotherly ties, tears the bonds of love, and plants animosity, hatred, and enmity.”

Events in Iraq and Syria remind us that extremism and authoritarianism remain a potent presence in Iraq and elsewhere. Captured AQI records offer the opportunity to understand the origins of the Islamic State as an adversary and to identify its vulnerabilities. The CRRC archive provides terrorism researchers a unique insight into those aspects of the region’s recent past that will shape its future.


Dr. Kevin Woods is a historian and defense analyst with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) and teaches in the MA in Global Security Studies program at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Advanced Academic Programs, Johns Hopkins University, in Washington. Jessica Huckabey is an analyst with IDA and co-author of The Terrorist Perspectives Project. The views are their own and not those of IDA or the Department of Defense.