Persuading the Uncertain and Punishing the Recalcitrant: Al-Qaeda Seeks to Absorb Iraq’s Awakening Councils

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 21

There are indications that al-Qaeda’s struggle with Iraq’s U.S.-sponsored tribal Awakening Councils is far from over. An attack on the Baquba home of Awakening Council militia leader Shaykh Abdul Karim Hassan al-Dahlaji on October 29 left three family members dead and 14 others injured. A police source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the raid was likely to have been carried out by al-Qaeda (Awsat al-Iraq, October 30; Press TV, October 29). Four days later, a roadside bomb killed Shaykh Abbas al-Tami and his family near Baquba, the capital of Diyala province. The shaykh was the head of the Majmaa tribe and a prominent Awakening council leader (AFP, November 2).
These incidents appear to be part of a strategy imposed by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in their fight with the Majalis al-Sahwat (Awakening Councils). AQI’s announcement of the establishment of a so-called “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI) in the Sunni areas of the country reflected the latest stage of disengagement between the organization and its incubator, the Sunni tribes, as al-Qaeda tries to impose its own understanding of Islam by targeting civilians (including Sunni Muslims) and “hijacking the national Iraqi resistance,” as their opponents put it.. This approach inflamed the Sunni tribes, leading them to organize themselves, with American support, into armed groups based on geographical and tribal distribution.

Dismantling the Awakening Movement

The Awakening Councils were founded in the predominantly Sunni al-Anbar province in January 2006 by Shaykh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha with the aim of confronting al-Qaeda. After their success in forcing al-Qaeda from al-Anbar, other Sunni provinces and areas started to form their own councils, often incorporating former Iraqi insurgents. Although Abu Risha was assassinated by a suicide bomber in September 2007, one can safely conclude that Awakening Councils were the major factor behind the reduced threat posed by al-Qaeda in Iraq, as indicated by the decrease in its attacks over the past two years.  

In September, a new situation was created by the U.S. announcement that responsibility for 54,000 of the roughly 100,000 members of the Awakening Councils would be handed over to the Iraqi government. The government has pledged to absorb 20 percent of these members into the police and armed forces, paying them $250 in monthly salaries rather than the $300 they now receive. The remaining 80 percent are to be recruited to civilian government posts (al-Hayat, October 19).

As the Iraqi government has done little to support the Awakening Councils from the beginning, the movement’s leaders have concerns about the government’s will to commit to its pledges. They are also rejecting the deal to incorporate only 20 percent of movement members into the security forces, arguing that the government should assimilate all members of the Awakening Councils into the police and armed forces, as they are unable to pursue any careers not related to security work. In this context, Shaykh Shoja’a al-A’azami, leader of the Ghazaliyah Awakening, and Shaykh Hamid al-Hayis, leader of al-Anbar Awakening, have both cautioned the government about the consequences of not absorbing the gunmen of the Awakening Councils, arguing that 20 percent is not enough. Al-A’azami warned that “terrorist groups could use this situation to present tempting offers [to the 80 percent without security work]” (Radio Sawa, October 4). Al-A’azami also warned that if Awakening Councils are not absorbed into the security bodies there is a “possibility that they will stage a coup and turn into anti-American, anti-government armed groups, or will be polarized by al-Qaeda” (al-Hayat, October 19). The current situation has encouraged al-Qaeda in Iraq to find ways to punish Awakening leaders and alienate Awakening fighters from the government in the hope they will join al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda’s Strategy

Since Awakening Councils control most Sunni areas, al-Qaeda’s strategy has been based on assassinating the movement’s leaders. The most significant of these was the assassination of Shaykh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, one of the Awakening founders, in September 2007. On September 11, jihadist internet forums posted a list of more than 40 assassinated Awakening Council leaders. Other leaders and Awakening Council affiliates were also threatened. [1]

The recent attacks on Shaykh al-Dahlaji and Shaykh al-Tami, as mentioned above, show that this strategy continues. However, at the same time, it is obvious that al-Qaeda in Iraq realizes the changing situation of the Awakening Councils and aims to benefit from it.

On October 24, jihadi web forums circulated an audio interview with the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (also War Minister of the ISI), conducted by “Al-Furqan Institute for Media Production.” The interviewer asked al-Muhajir whether al-Qaeda would accept the “repentance of al-Sahwat members.” Al-Muhajir replied:

Sure, the door to repentance is open, and the Amir of the Believers [Abu Omar al-Baghdadi] stated that many times, but this repentance should be according to the known sharia regulations that govern the repentance of militant groups who abandoned the Islamic sharia …Again I advise al-Sahwha soldiers to repent to Allah, to be remorseful and return to righteousness. I am telling them, “Hey drunk [man], you will live sadly as a spy and you will die as an infidel, an apostate, and your son will inherit nothing but shame and disgrace. Tell me, by God, if you still remember him, who will marry your daughter? What will your children say about you? What will your grandchildren say about you? Be careful nobody points to them and says; ‘Hey, children of a traitor.’ And be careful that your son might spit on your grave when he experiences the humiliation that survives you. By God, we are certainly going to kill you, God willing, if you do not return to God. Therefore, you, the miserable, repent! Be careful of the fatwas issued by imams of misguidance!” [2]

It is obvious here that al-Muhajir is combining threats with an appeal to the tribal and religious pride of Awakening members with his questions, suggesting they transfer their allegiance to al-Qaeda.

Despite continued strikes against Awakening leaders, a recent newspaper report claims secret orders to halt most attacks on Awakening Council members have been distributed by al-Qaeda to its fighters (al-Hayat, October 19). Security sources in Baghdad confirm there is a considerable decrease in al-Qaeda attacks against Awakening Councils in the last couple of weeks, whereas Awakening members had previously been the target in 70 percent of al-Qaeda’s total attacks.

Although al-Qaeda aims to attract Awakening Council members, which will probably play a major role in any resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq, there are still some constraints in accepting them into their organization. Abu Omar al-Kurdi, a regular contributor to jihadist forums, posted a warning about “repented al-Sahwat,” suggesting that the U.S. aim in handing over responsibility to the Iraqi government is to use them to spy on jihadi factions. Al-Kurdi suggests that these “repented” members form a special faction and wage attacks on American troops to prove the sincerity of their “repentance” (Haneen Network Forum, October 17).

The Problems Faced by the Awakening Councils

Given al-Qaeda’s eagerness to attract Awakening Council members, there are two factors which could create a fertile environment for pushing Awakening Councils members into the arms of al-Qaeda or other Iraqi insurgent factions. Both factors relate to integrating the Awakening fighters into the Iraqi state.

Firstly, regarding their integration into security bodies, al-Sahwat members think that the Iraqi government is reluctant to accept them because of the influence of Shiite militants on the security bodies (al-Hayat, October 7). The Sunnis’ feelings of marginalization have been used by al-Qaeda in Iraq in the past to recruit young men.

Secondly, while the leaders of the Awakening movement intend to play a political role in the new Iraqi state, divisions among them have accelerated since emerging several months ago (see Terrorism Monitor, March 11). There are now two major and newly created political blocs among the Sunni tribes – the “Iraq Awakening Movement,” led by Ahmad Abu Risha (brother of the late Abdul Sattar Abu Risha), and the “Anbar Salvation Council,” led by Hamid al-Hayis, who accused Abu Risha of creating alliances with the Iraqi Islamic Party against the interests of Awakening council members (al-Hayat, October 19; Radio Sawa, October 18). It is worth mentioning that the division between al-Hayis and Abu Risha is not based solely on political disagreements, but personal conflict as well (see Terrorism Monitor, March 11).

With many Awakening leaders attempting to create personal fiefdoms in Sunni areas, the present situation is creating frustration among Awakening Council members and may leave them without leaders to defend their demands. These frustrated young fighters will be the focus of al-Qaeda recruitment efforts.

While Awakening Council forces have played a major role in decreasing al-Qaeda’s activities in Iraq, it is possible that the same forces will play a role in re-activating al-Qaeda unless their demands are considered by the U.S. and Iraqi governments. For this to be achieved, it seems essential to emphasize the importance of an Iraqi secular state based on re-establishing a national identity which has been beset by sectarian violence over the past four years. This is a long term project, which can be launched by integrating Awakening Councils members into the Iraqi state and finding ways to fund this procedure, as it will serve to promote the overall integration of Sunnis, a process essential to the survival of the new Iraqi state.


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