Al-Qaeda in Iraq Operations Suggest Rising Confidence Ahead of U.S. Military Withdrawal

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 36

Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)

On August 19, coordinated explosions rocked downtown Baghdad, resulting in over 120 deaths. Similarly, in the midst of heightened security measures, twin bombings on October 25 killed over 155 people in Baghdad, marking the deadliest attack since August 2007. Involving the participation of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the operations suggest militants’ effectiveness in carrying out coordinated and high-profile attacks on supposedly secured targets. With the gradual disengagement of the U.S. military and all combat forces by August 2010, AQI and like-minded insurgents appear to have a growing level of confidence in their operations.

Among the targets of the attacks were various government ministries, along with the Baghdad provincial headquarters. The bombings suggest an attempt to undermine Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s reelection bid in the 2010 parliamentary election by demonstrating the government’s failure to provide security. Al-Maliki is campaigning as the national leader who brought both security and sovereignty to Iraq, but insurgents are becoming increasingly aware that their high-profile operations are succeeding in undermining the population’s confidence.

At the moment, the goals for the insurgents are less territorially defined and more aimed at encouraging the anarchical conditions that support the survival and influence of their organizations. Today, several factors contribute to a growing operational space for insurgent activity by promoting discouragement and subverting reconciliation efforts:

• The U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq’s urban areas on June 30, in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), has left behind a less capable Iraqi Security Force (ISF) to carry on the mission of ensuring protection and confronting terrorists.

• The growing Arab-Kurdish divide over the ownership of “disputed territories,” especially in Ninawa province, has provided an effective venue for insurgents to exploit security disparities and ethnic divisions (see Terrorism Monitor, October 23).

• The continued reluctance of the Shi’a-dominated government to integrate Sunni fighters from the Awakening (Sahwa) Movement into the Iraqi security and civilian sectors has led to growing suspicions and uncertainty amongst some Sunnis over Baghdad’s long term intentions vis-à-vis their status and use.

Originating in 2006, the Awakening Movement was spearheaded by Sunni residents in the al-Azamiyah area of al-Anbar province who sought to protect and defend their neighborhoods from the brutal intimidation tactics practiced by AQI (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 29, 2007).  During this time, the AQI leadership waged a vicious campaign to claim leadership over the Iraqi insurgency while demanding the loyalty of other insurgent groups. The foreign jihadists attempted to dominate the economic interests of various indigenous Sunni Arab tribes through smuggling and kidnapping while forcing marriages to tribal women as a way of legitimizing their status within the Iraqi tribal structure.

With support and funding from the U.S. military, the Sunni-dominated Sahwa developed into a 100,000-member force across Iraq, consisting of various tribes and former armed insurgents who once fought against Coalition forces. The Shi’a government in Baghdad views the Sahwa with suspicion (i.e. Sunni-dominated, mainly former insurgents, reports of AQI infiltration). Falih Abdul Jabbar, a sociologist and director of Iraqi Studies Institute in Beirut claims, “There is kind of what we call “coup d’état syndrome” – you can see it clearly in the statements of so many Shi’a Islamic leaders who fear that the [Awakening] groups intend to get incorporated into the army in order to stage a coup d’état and to bring Ba’ath back to power…” (RFE/RL, April 7).

In October 2008, the control and payroll of the Sahwa fighters had been handed over by the U.S. military to the al-Maliki government. But Baghdad has promised only that 20% of the Sahwa would be integrated into the security forces, while the remainder would be financially supported until integration into the civilian and private sector. Yet the integration has been slow, allowing for suspicions to grow amongst Sunnis as the U.S. military gradually withdraws. Moreover, Baghdad has often delayed monthly payments, leading the Sunni fighters to protest in dissatisfaction (Awsat al-Iraq, October 6). In late July 2009, the U.S. Department of Defense reported that the al-Maliki government was unlikely to meet the objectives set for Sahwa integration before August 2010 (Reuters, July 31).  Strong evidence also suggests that al-Maliki’s government has exercised sectarian motives when favoring the placement of Sahwa fighters who are Shi’a, not Sunni.

AQI’s deadly harassment of the Awakening Movement has long been an effort to provide a strong incentive to disgruntled and fearful Sunnis to opt out of the fight against AQI or rejoin the insurgency. Recent operations against the Sahwa have contributed to growing concern about AQI’s reconstitution in Iraq. In a pre-dawn raid on November 16, gunmen disguised in Iraqi army uniforms apprehended 17 individuals, later killing them with execution-style gunshots to the head near Abu Ghraib district on the western outskirts of Baghdad (Awsat al-Iraq, November 18). The operation, reportedly carried out by AQI operatives, appears to have targeted Sunni members of the Awakening. Among those executed were three sons and four cousins of Attala Ouda al-Shuker, a well known anti-AQI Sahwa leader. A statement issued by the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) suggested the incident was a “worrisome indication that the situation might be deteriorating and it represents a revenge against the people who had helped stabilize the area” (CSM, November 17). The massacre came a month after coordinated bombings targeted a reconciliation meeting in al-Anbar involving the participation of Sunni tribal leaders, resulting in over 80 casualties.

While AQI has targeted Sahwa leaders in Salah ad-Din, al-Anbar, Baghdad, and other governorates, Diyala remains one of the most dangerous provinces for the former Sunni insurgents. Diyala’s Sahwa council has demonstrated serious dissatisfaction with al-Maliki and government security forces, and hence, may be susceptible to coercing by AQI. According to Major General Abdul Hussein al-Shammari, the Diyala chief of police, “Security investigations with Arab detainees who were recently arrested confirmed the intention of al-Qaeda to destabilize the security situation in the province” (, October 5). The statement comes after a September announcement by AQI of the reformation of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in Diyala, suggesting AQI intends to launch a new offensive.

AQI has recently opened a campaign of assassinations in Diyala. On November 17, AQI-associated operatives assassinated Hameed Khaleel al-Obeidi, the leader of the Sahwa council of the Bab al-Darb district of Baaquba, the capital city of Diyala province. The next day, AQI affiliates fired upon Shaykh Houssam Ulwan al-Majmaai, the commander of Sahwa forces for all of Diyala, after intercepting his vehicle on the major road leading to the Kanaan district (Awsat al-Iraq, November 18). Though the operation failed to kill al-Majmaai, it was the second assassination attempt on his life within a month. In late October, a bomb wounded the Sahwa leader in the Bahraz district, south of Baaquba (Awsat al-Iraq, October 22).  Only days earlier a suicide bomber killed the Bahraz Sahwa leader Leith Mashaan and other members of the Awakening movement. Mashaan was reported to have contributed to the arrests of numerous AQI leaders, including the individual the Iraqi government claims to be Abu Omar al-Baghdadi – the alleged commander of the ISI (Awsat al-Iraq, October 13).

There is evidence that AQI is confronting the challenges of a renewed offensive against the Iraqi state. The engagement of the Iraqi public in providing intelligence to Iraqi and U.S. forces resulted in a higher demand for secrecy for militants in avoiding exposure. This, coupled with limited resources (i.e. fewer safe houses, fighters), means AQI and other insurgent groups are likely to better utilize their force-multiplier advantages and existing assets, while adopting cautious assessments of their own operational capability.