Is the Islamic State of Iraq Going Global?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 4

Iraq’s director-general for anti-terrorism and organized crime operations, Major General Diya Husayn Sahi, recently told al-Arabiya TV that Iraqi citizen Taimur Abd al-Wahhab al-Abdali was given explosives training in the Iraqi city of Mosul for three months before his failed suicide bombing in Sweden last December (al-Arabiya TV, January 7). A few days later, General Sahi told the Swedish newspaper Expressen that al-Abdali was part of a group trained to attack the United States, but which had targets in Western Europe, including Sweden, as alternatives in the event of failing to reach the United States. Sahi said local al-Qaeda leaders had told the Iraqi police that the group "received orders from al-Qaeda leaders for them to themselves select targets in Europe, if they failed to get to the USA." The general added that al-Qaeda wants to strike the United States on its home ground now that U.S. troops have begun to withdraw from Iraq (Expressen [Stockholm], January 9).

General Sahi’s allegations raise the issue of the increasing inclination of al-Qaeda in Iraq or the allied Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) to resort to attacks abroad. Indications of this trend were reinforced by suspicions that ISI is responsible for the New Year’s Day suicide bombings against the Coptic Church in Alexandria after making threats against Egyptian Copts (though Egyptian authorities blamed militants from Gaza).

Three major factors explain the transformation in the ISI’s behavior:

• The importance of Iraq from the Salafi-Jihadist or al-Qaeda perspective.

• Social support for the ISI inside Iraq.

• The recent change in the structure of the ISI, particularly the increasing role of the new "Minister of War," who is known by his nom de guerre "al-Nasr li Din Allah Abu Sulayman."

The importance of Iraq to the Salafi-Jihadists is seen in their ideologues’ literature, which regards the invasion of 2003 as a golden opportunity to wage jihad against American troops, as well as a chance to form a base to export jihad to neighboring countries, as seen in various incidents in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria between 2003 and 2007. [1]

However, the aim of al-Qaeda in Iraq to “export jihad” was linked to the strategy of the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and that was mostly limited to the Levant region. The approach of al-Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and the ISI minister of war, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (both killed in April 2010), was to focus on strengthening the alliance with core al-Qaeda in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region, as well as increasing efforts to regain the support of the locals inside Iraq after the 2007 creation of the Sahwah (Awakening) Councils led al-Qaeda to lose the support of the Arab Sunni community, the previous incubator for the movement. The ISI released a political document in January 2010 entitled, “A Strategic Plan to Improve the Political Position of the Islamic State of Iraq.” The document revealed that gaining local support was a priority for the movement (, February 20, 2010; see also Terrorism Monitor, April 23, 2010).

In such circumstances, al-Qaeda in Iraq sought to continue targeting the Rafidah (“Rejecters” – a Sunni pejorative term for Shiites) after the start of U.S. withdrawal, regarding them as representatives of the current political regime, which is dominated by Shiite political parties.
ISI has adopted parallel strategies towards the Sahwah councils:

1. Attract members through the exploitation of some individuals’ sense of injustice about the failure to implement government promises regarding demobilization.

2. Target the leaders of the councils for assassination and murder.
For instance, the ISI’s April 3, 2010, targeted attack on Sahwah members in al-Bu Saifi village south of Baghdad was a manifestation of this strategy.

With the partial withdrawal of U.S. troops, al-Qaeda in Iraq has lost an essential part of its reason for existence. The additional loss of local support may mean linking the ISI to the global agenda of al-Qaeda central could offer a means of perpetuating the movement.

The last factor that suggests a likely shift in the ISI’s agenda is associated with the nature of its current Shura Council and its key new member, Nasr li Din Allah Abu Sulayman. ISI announced the appointment of Nasr li Din in a May 14, 2010, statement which included a strong warning from the new minister of war that he would direct attacks against Shiite civilians and security targets in Iraq. [2]
Not much is known about Nasr li Din, though he is believed to be Moroccan-born and have Syrian citizenship (possibly through a fake identity). Most importantly, he is believed to have received training in Afghanistan from the senior aide to Osama bin Laden (al-Hayat, May 16, 2010).

Nasr li Din’s closeness to core al-Qaeda leaders seems to suggest a greater influence from the center on the behavior, strategies and tactics of ISI, leading the movement towards larger regional or global agendas. This suggests that the ISI could continue its pattern of attacks within Iraq while adopting new patterns of violence by turning Iraq into a launching pad for terrorist operations abroad.


1. See, Murad Batal al-Shishani, “Islamists in Iraq and the Sectarian factor: the Case of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, in Khaled Hroub (ed.), Political Islam: Ideology and Practice, (SOAS Middle East Issues), 2010, pp.105-126.
2. The statement can be viewed on the Ansar al-Mujahideen web forum: