The reported death of the elusive leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and his al-Qaeda colleague, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, in a combined attack by U.S. and Iraqi government forces on April 20 raises important questions regarding the future of the ISI. The movement’s fortunes have been in steady decline for some time as a result of the cooperation between U.S. forces and anti-al-Qaeda tribal militias known as “Sahwa” (Awakening) councils. Despite their changing fortunes, ISI has still managed to carry out major operations, such as the bombing of the Egyptian, Iranian and German embassies in Baghdad on April 4 (al-Sumaria, April 10). These operations follow a major bout of self-criticism designed to create conditions favorable for the re-establishment of the “Islamic State” in Iraq.
Earlier this year, a new strategy for al-Qaeda in Iraq was issued under the title, "A Strategic Plan to Improve the Political Position of the Islamic State of Iraq" (Hanein.info, February 20). The document detailed a new strategy outlining various scenarios and priorities of al-Qaeda in Iraq as it determines targets and enemies. It revealed a new military strategy and a different approach in dealing with religious minorities and tribal leaders, aiming to attract a social base to support al-Qaeda’s attempts to impose its Islamic State.
The five-chapter document exposes the structural crises al-Qaeda faces on the Iraqi front, topped by the difficulty of unifying jihadist forces and the lack of a political symbol after the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006, with his successors Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir failing to enjoy al-Zarqawi’s charisma.
A quick look at the document’s contents reveals the movement’s efforts to redesign its campaign in Iraq:
• In the first chapter, "Serious Attempts for Unity," al-Qaeda calls for a process to unify the ranks of the jihadis under the flag of the ISI.
• The second chapter is titled "Balanced Military Planning" and includes a new military strategy emphasizing the necessity of targeting the Awakening councils first. It also calls for specific operations, not open war, against U.S. forces.
• In the third chapter, "Jihadist Awakening Councils," al-Qaeda calls for convincing tribal leaders who are resentful of the Awakenings councils’ leaders to form military units for “Jihadist Awakening councils” to replace what they term the "apostate Awakenings."
• The fourth chapter, "Taking Care of the Political Symbol," describes the crisis al-Qaeda in Iraq faced after the killing of al-Zarqawi, who enjoyed more support than his successors.
• The final chapter addresses the issue of "Reassuring Opponents." The new strategy calls for reassuring religious minorities, a reference to Christians whom the authors claim willingly paid jizya (a tributary tax paid by Christians and Jews in an Islamic state) to ISI (see also RFE/RL, April 17, 2008). The document, however, stopped short of mentioning Shiites among those opponents who could be “reassured,” which means al-Zarqawi’s advocacy of killing Shiites remains part of the organization’s policy.
The new document accuses the U.S. forces of launching a media war against al-Qaeda, whether through U.S.-made operations and atrocities blamed on al-Qaeda or by establishing a satellite channel that focuses on smearing the ISI. The most important element in the U.S. campaign, as per the document, is "ignoring the existence of a real state [i.e. the ISI]" and describing the ISI as a "virtual internet entity that a power failure can kill."
Al-Qaeda acknowledges the decline of the ISI, but is certain it can be regained with the near end of the Sahwa movement. "As the State has fallen after being functional in many areas, it will come back." It uses as proof the decrease in the number of Awakening troops, a number estimated by al-Qaeda to be roughly 100,000 fighters.
Al-Qaeda’s new strategy implies that it fears the success of the political process and sees the nationalist resistance as more dangerous than the Awakenings, as it has been co-opted by Americans who seek “an alternative that can be easily driven. These are the nationalists, technocrats and democrats.”
The document asserts "the need for an enhanced media operation… carefully tied to a coherent political strategy." Using political speeches and financial incentives, people’s support can be directed. Meanwhile, the Awakening councils will become less of a real threat to the ISI in the future. The document also calls for making use of past setbacks—especially the delay in fighting the Awakening councils previously in order to focus on fighting American troops—by demanding a reversal of this strategy and making it a priority to target the Awakening councils and the nationalist resistance.
Within the context of calling for unity among various military factions, al-Qaeda sees the Shi’a Iraqi Hizbullah movement as a danger to its jihadist project. The document also refers to the role it alleges was played by the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq in forming the Awakening councils and confirms it supported them in the beginning, thinking they were intended to target the occupation. The document asserts, furthermore, that unifying jihadists and regaining the fallen State will shatter the Hizbullah Brigades’ political ambition of dominating the Sunni areas.
The new military strategy is based on three key steps:
1) Focusing on liquidating the Awakening councils and political powers before dealing with the occupation. "90% of bullets must target apostates (the Awakening councils and politicians) and 10% target the Crusaders (U.S. forces).” Al-Qaeda asserts that war against its Iraqi foes is the most dangerous and the longest conflict, as per the lessons learned from the Afghan situation.
2) “Cleansing”: This means establishing al-Qaeda’s control of the infrastructure and bases of U.S. forces, whether it comes after withdrawal or as a result of targeting them with military action. If not controlled, these bases must be destroyed.
3) “Targeting”: The document emphasizes the necessity for specific operations targeting commanders and cadres by recruiting human bombs among guards and inside vital installations. The point is to carry out influential operations that target individuals and symbols, giving as an example the January 4 operation by Jordanian bomber Khamis al-Balawy that fatally targeted CIA operatives in Afghanistan’s Khost province (Asharq al-Awsat, January 6; Reuters, January 6).
The new strategic document also sees a possibility for creating "Jihadist Awakening councils," mimicking the U.S. engagement of the tribes to create broader popular support for the Islamic State. The most revealing element in this document is al-Qaeda’s acknowledgement of the collapse of its state in Iraq. It offers a number of scenarios for restoring it, especially after the U.S. withdrawal, which al-Qaeda sees as a dangerous stage that they need to prepare for, starting now.